Sampling Michoacan’s Soul Food in Patzcuaro

Patzcuaro streetsWhen I told friends in the U.S. and Mexico that I was going to Michoacán I got one of two responses: A warning or concern with the state’s reputation for narco activity, or “mmmm… que rico” which is Spanish for get ready to get your grub on. There’s a richness here in artesanía, agriculture, and cooking traditions— and just like Oaxaca or the Yucatan— a strong indigenous culture. But because of drug war violence in certain parts of the state Michoacán remains somewhat of a mystery to Americans. Most tourists just quickly pass through its capital city, Morelia— gorgeous, historic and buzzing with college students—on their way to a beach destination with watered-down margaritas.

Talk to anyone in Michoacán about their cuisine, and they’ll remind you that in 2010, when UNESCO designated “traditional Mexican cuisine” as an intangible cultural heritage, in other words, a cultural treasure worth preserving, it was Michoacán and in particular the Purepucha community, that was cited for maintaining the country’s culinary heritage. It’s even called the Michoacán Paradigm.

Michoacán has Pacific coast, hot valleys and mountains, creating a diversity of agricultural bounty. Here you can see pine trees next to mango trees. Avocado orchards hug highways, mezcal is more accessible than ever, and the fresh corn— blue, red, and yellow— always makes it to the table. In Patzcuaro, a Pueblo Magico about 7,000 feet above sea level on the southern edge of a silver lake, I got to sample some of the state’s classic dishes. Here are some of my favorites.

Corundas and Atole at La Basilica
Corundas Patzcuaro

Basilica Patzcuaro

Just when I thought I was sick of tamales, Michoacán proves me wrong. Corundas are pyramid shaped tamales wrapped in corn leaves (not the husks), stuffed with different things or sometimes not at all. At the first stand when approaching the Basilica de Nuestra Soledad de Salud, they’re made with rajas and a spongy cheese, covered in a salsa verde and crema. Atole is a warm corn-based drink that’s super filling, and here they have it with flavors of cinnamon, chocolate, and my favorite, guava. My parents have been coming to Angela’s stand for years, and while she’s still doing most of the prepping, her daughter Clara was working most days I was there. From sitting at the Christmas-themed oilcloth covered table you can see the lake, the air has a morning chill, and the food is warming.

Cuisine from the Tierra Caliente at La Tradición

Patzcuaro food 3

Come here to sample maestra cocinera (master cook) Victoria Gonzalez Chavez’s hearty food from Michoacán’s Tierra Caliente. I went for comida, but they do breakfast as well. More on her and the restaurant here. Calle Arciga 18, across from the Basilica. 

Sopa Tarasca and Enchiladas Placeras at La Surtidora

Sopa TarascaMy usual rule in Mexico is to avoid eating at the restaurants on the plaza, as they are usually meant for tourists and are overpriced. But Patzcuaro’s plazas are meant for the people who live here, and this old restaurant on the plaza feels lived in— in a good way. Tequilas, chocolates, cigars and dark candles line the walls on cracked wood shelves. Like most of Patzcuaro, there’s a classic, dark, woody, maybe this used to be a convent kinda-feel with high ceilings and sepia lighting. Young people and families come here for a meal. This is a great place to try some regional classics like sopa tarasca. Sometimes made with beans and sometimes not, the creamy soup is made with tomatoes and Oaxacan cheese, crunchy tortilla strips, and pops of lightly fried chile pasilla. Learn more about it here. Enchiladas placeras, a local version of enchiladas with potatoes, carrots and queso fresco on top are also good here.

Pollos Asado al Pastor Maurilio

I know you love al pastor tacos, but do you love pollo al pastor? How about costillas, chorizo or lamb al pastor? A humble staple of the area, here whole chickens and ribs are scarecrowed on wood sticks that surround a bed of charcoal.

The meats cook slowly, with a team of guys moving the sticks around until they’re done on all sides, then cut up and covered with the juice of a freshly cut orange and sprinkled with salt.

The sides make the meal complete, with three salsas (including an interesting sour orange and diced onion salsa), soupy pinto beans, and fresh tortillas. Towards the muelle, on the inside corner at the end of Lazaro Cardenas where it turns into the Morelia highway, directly across from the Pemex. 

Mezcal at El Carajo
Mezcal michoacan 3

Mezcal michoacan

Green Christmas lights, only five tables, knickknacks on the walls, a kind bartender, and a guitarist singing La Llorona are pretty much all the things I want in a mezcal bar. At Patzcuaro’s only mezcaleria  two kinds of fruit covered in chile and lime arrive at your table with mezcal. There’s no menu, so just ask for a recommendation. My first night the smell of the guava filled the air as Omar, the bartender brought over different shots from Guerrero and Michoacán. When we spilled a cup he scooped it up with his hands and rubbed his shaved head and beard with it. “Good for the hair.” Luis, the guitarist used to be a photographer until people stopped using film, and he fell behind technology. You’ll make interesting friends here.

Nieve at Plaza Grande

Nieve Patzcuaro 2

Nieve Patzcuaro 3

Patzcuaro is known for its nieve (ice cream), made here in the same style for over a century. Head to the plaza grande to sample from the outside ice cream stands. Pasta is the traditional flavor made with almonds, dried fruit and different milks, but I liked the cajeta, coffee and mango the best. You’ll see the stands at the Plaza Vasco de Quiroga, in front of La Surtidora.

Everything at the Market

I always get the same feeling arriving to a new market in Mexico: a little anxious, my guard creeping up ready to face a crowd, and my stomach suddenly signaling hunger with the smell of street food. The Patzcuaro market is mostly a maze of narrow alleys covered with tarps. Inside are non-food goods: clothes, huaraches, wood spoons, woven baskets and a bright pink barber shop. This was the beginning of the rainy season so outside passion fruit and small criollo mangos were on their way out, big bright squash blossoms, shiny light green squash, and bags of fluffy white mushrooms recently arrived.

Patcuaro market 1On Tuesdays and Fridays outside in the basketball court there’s an actual swap meet, where people come from the surrounding areas to trade anything from used shoes to houseplants. Also on those days is when you can find Señora Clara, an elderly woman who brings fruit tamales from her hometown. On that day we bought three wild blackberry tamales for 10 pesos. Her kids gather the blackberries for her, and she makes the masa, which is so soft it’s like spooning out pudding from a stained-purple tamale husk.

Note: My last day in Patzcuaro I went to the new Centro de Interpretación, the coolest museum I’ve ever visited, and the best introduction to any place a museum could offer. As an example, we took a seat at a dinner table where several projectors showed different regional dishes, and by pressing arrows we got the recipe, a guide to ingredients, and sorting even further, a map and directory of the Cocineras Tradicionales (designated traditional cooks). Had I done this my first day I would have gone down the list for the rest of the trip, so make this your first stop.