Here in Mexico, food is an essential part of everyday life.
(how’s that for an explosive opening, eh? ..grabs your attention by the neck and rattles it into a quivering stupor, I imagine)
Yes, it’s a fact as true and compelling as the wetness of water: Mexicans eat. Also, here in Mexico, the sun is so bright that it’s just plain harmful for your eyes to stare at it for too long.
Sorry about this. No forgiveness needed, but do please bear with this initial floundering.. it took over a week to sap just the above from my prematurely withered literary soul. So what’s the matter? Why start with whiny drama and tragedy? Bueno, I fell once again into one of those stupid black holes that all inexperienced writers like yours truly are prone to do: I picked a topic and stuck with it to the bloody end, like some slap-happily abused spouse. I thought there was something special between us, but.. no. There really isn’t.
What you’re reading is in fact going to showcase, worry not, the “torta ahogada” (ah/ohGAda), a distinctly Mexican delicacy that I take pleasure in chewing on every now and then. It’s a post that ought to have been slopped together in less than an hour, given the subject matter that virtually speaks for itself. Tortas ahogadas, like tacos, are an indelible fact of life here, supremely edible as they are. But nowhere in Mexico is this truer than right here in Guadalajara. The unlikely mass of pork, bread, beans and hot sauce has become over the years a glowing emblem throughout Mexico of this charming and tranquil yellow splotch on the map….
Right here is the spot where I got sideswiped by the formidable.. “So?”
I’ve no business in this territory. Paint a large, blackened and monolithic zero.. and there you’ll see portrayed, in vivid non-color, this writer’s passion for any culinary related discussion. Dinner time for me comes at the mercy of a convenience based discretion that scarcely ever cedes solely to a watering mouth. Indeed, there have been occasions when I went to bed hungry for nothing more than a lack of imagination as to what the hell I wanted to eat.
And let’s add a teaspoon of irony to this, with just a sprinkling of frustration, shall we? For mine is the kind of disposition, odd as it truly is, that in fact confirms one of the many stereotypes that Mexicans hold toward their upstairs neighbors. Few are the Mexicanos who don’t believe they absolutely own us gringos when it comes to the wonderments of the kitchen. And who am I to stand firmly in defense, incognizant and clutching my bag of Cheetos?
But whatever.. let’s just do this…
All over Mexico one can find an ample variety of tortas. Tortas are sandwiches more the style of a sub than those with sliced bread. Every region is blessed with its own tortaticular tendency. Fortunately for you the reader, but more importantly myself, we’re not embarking on some kiddie-coaster ride through “Mexicans love to eat” land, where some monotonous listing of assorted torta recipes would bore us average blog perusers to the last teardrop (if you’re not with me on this, just be nice and pretend..). I wouldn’t have the slightest idea anyway.
The term ‘ahogada’ means ‘drowned’. And drowned they are, in a heated sweet tomato sauce or fiery hot sauce, or both. Sound a bit messy? That may be understating it a bit. Under the deluge of several ladles of sauces, what would be a simple chopped pork sandwich moistened only by a slathering of cold watery beans in the interior becomes a sloggedly mound of irresistible gastronomic devastation. Well… irresistible for most. As already mentioned, convenience plays a big role in my appetite, and this image doesn’t meet the criteria. How exactly in fact one approaches and goes about devouring these things is a genuine testament to the power of the human imagination. Miraculously, it never gets to a point where you might as well slurp up the bread slush through a straw. It actually holds firm.. almost as though there were something magic about it.
No magic. Look at this bread above, here.. It’s called a birote (beeROte). Supposedly it’s made only in the Guadalajara region, because here is the only climate in the world in which it can be baked this way.. or some crap like that. It’s like a rock you might regret stepping on while walking in the shallow reaches of a lake.. but if you can manage to bite through to its softer, leathery inside without scraping up your tongue or tender roof of your mouth, then, like all bread, it’s quite satisfying. I like bread. They say it’s a sour bread. They also say it’s a salty bread. I’ve no input to offer there. Let’s suppose they’re right. To me it’s just a tough piece of.. sustenence.
The little knobby things on the ends make for a perfect grip to swing it around and bang things up with. It could likely crack the window of a car, but because it’s so light, it wouldn’t be able to break all the way through the glass. For scolding a snotty kid, however, say with a slap on his stringy rat claw for a wrist, or a harmless lump on the noggin, nothing compares.
A couple of doors down from where I used to live was a one roomed could-be house converted into a giant fire brick oven where these birotes were baked throughout the late night and wee hours of the morning. Sometimes, upon arriving home at these hours, I’d drop into the makeshift inferno where there were four or five guys feverishly working, and buy three or four of them, still blistering from the oven, for a peso each. Good stuff. There was one other cool thing about the place. I knew that in the event I ever wound up without a home and had nowhere to sleep on a cold wintery night, that the sidewalk right up against the wall of this birote mansion would be prime derelict real estate.
So you can get tortas with beans and pork and a spit puddle of sauce anywhere. But the brazen if not succulent slop of the torta ahogada simply has no match.. and it’s the birote that makes the it a viable dining possibility. Guadalajara would of course still be here if the torta ahogada never existed. But the image of this fine city would be altered a bit in the minds of Mexicans throughout the Republic. If a restaurant in nearby Puerto Vallarta wishes to sell them, the birotes must be carefully packed in ice and flown in daily from Guadalajara. That’s the true story I’ve been told. No carefully guarded secrets. No injunctions. It simply doesn’t work to try to produce them anywhere else.
Beyond just eating one of these inundated works of art, there are really no clear instructions as to what to do, should you ever consider trying one. Everyone’s left to their own devices. And don’t be shy. Just cram it any damn way you want to. Some people actually pick it up with their hands and eat like any other sandwich. More power to ‘em. Their smeared shirt sleeves and stray sauce crusting up on their ears and neck are not my problem. Many use a spoon or a fork. I eat it with my hands, but request it dry, and liberally dip every bite into a bowl of hot sauce on the side. Not truly ‘ahogada’. You think I care? Even gnarlier yet, lots of people like to put the torta, the sauce and everything together in a plastic bag and eat it straight from the bloated packet (see photos below)… they look like they’re trying to suck out some poor bastard’s kidney.
To each his own slobbering appetite.
But a pity it will be to one day visit us and not experience, one way or another, a real live torta ahogada.