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Cooking lessons in Mexico: Spice

In many places that I travel, I find myself failing to fit in as a fair-featured and free-spirited foreigner. Mexico was no exception to this rule. In the country’s central city of Torreón, I stood out to say the least. I may have been the sole blondie in town and the only person under its fiery sun to indulge in morning jogs. These runs were completed within gated market warehouses with two travel companions serving as body guards at either end of the 800-meter perimeter to make locals gaze at me questioningly, as if I were a hamster running nowhere in circles on my wheel (but mostly for safety’s sake).

Tamales cooking lesson in Mexico.

I also made waves with my language skills… or lack thereof despite my incessant attempts to respond to questions by chiming in with French words where my memory for Spanish failed. I did pick up new vocabulary, but the greatest lesson learned is that I am miles from fluency, as obvious from my gracious hosts’ endearing mocking of my many miscomprehensions (They would ask, “Do you think she’s ugly?” Or, “Do you think he smells?” I would nod and smiles with a “Si” until realizing the meaning of their words and refuting myself with, “No, no no!”).

Moreover, my vegetarian food preferences were an oddity in an area where puerco, pollo, y bistec (pork, chicken, and beef) are essential and sometimes unapparent ingredients in celebratory feasts. For example, when I learned that the batter of the hyped-up homemade tamales contained hidden pig lard, I teared up in devastation for my craving to share this edible family tradition that then soured to aversion to try a taste. Moments later, I beamed with joy to learn my crafty hosts would accommodate with an animal-free version that they warned wouldn’t be as tasty, but which turned out to be in my mind a delicious delicacy.

Notwithstanding my many eccentricities in appearance, communication, and taste preferences, I had one saving grace that made me just as Mexican inside as any true-bred: my unfailing love of all things spicy. From my first taste of fine Indian street food while living in London 3 years ago, I fell hard for spice. Their colorful array of names – coriander, cardamom, cloves, cumin, ginger, garam masala, mustard seed, mint, mango powder, fennel, fenugreek, saffron star anise, tamarind, turmeric… – sang like poetry in my tantalized ears. I devoured the fiery pop of burning brilliance on my tongue with each bite. I found love in the aftertaste that felt as though a cheeky symphony had been played with in full force on my pleased palate. My masochistic craving for heat only heightened after my first trip to India – 3 weeks of vegetarian heaven that burned out my tastebuds so beautifully that I resorted to dousing cayenne powder on even my oatmeal to make it edible upon my return. And my sizzling love affair with spice became even hotter after my last summer spent in Myanmar and Thailand, where red chili flakes appear in liberal and inviting portions at each restaurant table.

Tamales cooking lesson in Mexico.

Our love story began a new chapter this time in Mexico. While some who partook in our New Year’s festivities sheepishly shied away from spicy heat, I embraced it with hunger, topping my tortillas with extra helpings of jalapeño salsas and habanero sauce. Despite my snow-white skin, I jumped unabashedly bare into the fire. The familiar tingle on the tip of my tongue made me feel perfectly at home, regardless of my foreign environment. Through spice, I found solstice in a shared edible connection. Through spice, I was Mexican at heart.

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