By José C. Marmolejo
Have you eaten a tortilla reheated on coals, ashes included? That is one of my favorite food experiences. There are two versions of this pleasure: number one is burnt on the edges but soft in the middle, it can be folded and stuffed with carne asada. The second version is toasted all the way, burnt on the edges and some parts in the middle, hard all around, to effortlessly hold guacamole. The smell, taste, and texture brings me back memories of my childhood around a camping fire where it all was about open air, nature, fire, and happiness was to calm the cold and hunger with warm soul food.
Blackened Fish is a great example of burnt cuisine and a personal favorite of mine. It did not exist in my childhood, it arrived later after some travel helped me discover new foods. It was in the U.S.A. where I had my first blackened fish. I thought it was daring, one of those things you should try the first time with your eyes closed, but it was a surprising and delightful experience. The mixture of the right burnt herbs and spices was great but the best was inside. The burnt crust kept the hot juices inside, cooking the flesh. Must I say, the best was the combination of the burnt crust and the juicy, lightly cooked fish inside? What a technique!
Another extraordinary example of burnt food is Recado Negro or Chilmole, a black paste made from burnt tortillas, herbs, spices, and chiles. The purpose of this paste is for use with meats. It’s very easy to prepare (see recipe below) but most people prefer to purchase it rather than to prepare it at home because the burning of the chiles can be a torture. It’s documented that the Aztecs used to punish their misbehaved children by forcing them to breath burning chiles! Chilmole is sold in the open markets of the Yucatan peninsula, but If you must prepare it, my advice is to do all the burning in the backyard while watching the wind direction. It’s better to get a complaint from the neighbors than experiencing severe nasal and eye irritation.
In some taquerías in Mexico City you may find costras. They are nothing but burnt cheese. Literally costras mean “crusts” and are the result of laying in a hot griddle a slice of Chihuahua cheese—the equivalent in the USA would be Monterey Jack—but it would work with any cheese that melts. After melting, the cheese will darken and harden; it will need a meticulously scraping off from the griddle before you can use it as a tostada. You’ll find my home spicy version for costras recipe below.
Burnt food is not limited to salty and fiery foods, we have all had crème brûlée or flan or cajeta. All are variations of burnt milk and sugar. In sugarcane producing areas, the abundance of sugar and the creativity of its inhabitants will produce marvelous combinations. The cuisine of Trinidad and Tobago for example, has many dishes flavored with sugar and burnt sugar. A real sweet variety! While we don’t promote excess consumption of anything, we do encourage you to try the recipes below. Bon burnt food appétit!