(Please note: A recipe for Pan Fried Carnitas will be published in my next post.)
Throughout his four voyages to the New World (1492-1504), Christopher Columbus first landed, explored and started the colonization process in Cuba and other Caribbean islands, later on exploring the coast of today’s Venezuela, and parts of Central America. In 1511, Diego Velázquez led a new expedition to Cuba, and Hernán Cortés was a soldier under his command. A few years later, Velázquez had become Governor of Cuba, where gunpowder and other supplies, farm animals (prominently pigs), and some crops brought from Spain were well established, as well. He organized the exploration of the coasts of the Yucatan Peninsula and the Gulf of Mexico, and in 1518, he appointed Cortés as the leader of a new expedition to conquer the mainland of today’s Mexico. Velázquez had second thoughts about Cortés and ordered him back to Cuba, but Cortés abandoned his docile obedience, and continued without permission in 1519.
Cortés first arrived at the Yucatan peninsula, where he met a Spanish Franciscan priest named Gerónimo de Aguilar, who had escaped captivity from the Maya. Cortés proceeded to the West, reaching the Chontal Maya region (today, the Mexican state of Tabasco); Aguilar had learned the language during his captivity, and served as interpreter for Cortés. The Spaniards met with resistance, but won the battle against the natives; amongst the tribute from the defeated chief, Cortés received twenty young indigenous women, and he converted them all to Christianity, including La Malinche, or Doña Marina. This young woman had been sold to the Chontal by her native Mexica family, so she spoke both the Nahuatl and Chontal Mayan languages; in combination with Aguilar, she served as a second interpreter for Cortés. La Malinche also had a son with Cortés, probably one of the first inter-racial babies (his name was Martin, but was often called, el mestizo). Doña Marina learned Spanish later on, and directly facilitated alliances between the Spanish conqueror and some groups opposing the Aztec Empire (in today’s Mexico City). After a dramatic defeat, named “La Noche Triste” (“The Sorrowful Night”) by early historians, and “La Noche Alegre” (“The Joyful Night”) by some Mexican revisionists, Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire, and finally prevailed, marking the beginning of a 300-year journey of vigorous racial and cultural intermixing, known as El Mestizaje.
And what could have been on the menu of the Spaniards’ victory feast after the fall of Tenochtitlan? As translated from “La Historia de la Gatronomía en la Ciudad de México” (“The Gastronomic History of Mexico City”, by Salvador Novo; 1967): Pigs had arrived from Cuba; likewise, lard had its own triumphant and chirriante (screeching) entrance, in a land where no fried food stuffs were known before. Mexicans were marvelled observers of that strange and chubby animal, that seemed to be in a coma, always asleep (cochi in Nahuatl.) That is how the Spanish pig received its new Mexican name cochino – the one that sleeps. The name chicharrón – for fried pork rinds or cracklings – sounds like the Nahuatl verb chichina – to burn. So Cortés and his army ate pork meat in tacos, with hot tortillas; it was the food of the conquerors, although helped by the native staple, which was also prevailing at that moment.
It is somewhat shocking to learn that at any point in History, food in Mexico did not include frying as a technique, but fat as a cooking medium was not known amongst pre-Hispanic groups. Lard from pigs, followed by tallow and butter from bovine and ovine herds, and vegetable oils (such as olive), were introduced to the New World, and that is when the mestizaje of the Spanish and Mexican cuisines embraced frying with a passion: corn dough, for crispy chilaquiles and garnachas (generic name for fried corn dough preparations); refried beans; chiles rellenos capeados (battered stuffed peppers); and of course, Carnitas (crispy pork, literally “little meats”).
A traditional Carnitas recipe from the state of Michoacan would include only four ingredients: fresh pork (meat, organs, skin, any part!); lard, an amount equal to the pork, by weight; salt; and water. The lard is melted in a large pot preferably made of copper (more like a wide cauldron), until very hot but not smoking. The pork, cut into large pieces, is added, and cooked until browned all around. The salt must be dissolved in the water, then poured in the pot, and cooking is completed when the pork is tender all the way to the centre.
The copper cauldron is usually reserved exclusively for cooking Carnitas, so the lard may be kept there and reused, since the fat is kept below smoking point, working as sort of a dedicated Carnitas deep fryer. In some instances, a whole pig may be prepared, for old fashioned weddings or special occasions. Some families have scaled down the recipe to a few pounds of pork, with a smaller cauldron, but still using at least enough lard to cover the pieces of pork. There are many internet videos on how to prepare Carnitas; some recipes from different regions in Mexico use additional ingredients to aid in the browning stage, or to infuse flavour: herbs and spices, orange juice, milk, etc. And there are more recent variations with beer, Coca-Cola or even condensed milk (sorry, but in my humble opinion, they do not belong.) A traditional Carnitas cooking session in Michoacan (tub-sized copper cauldron and wooden stirring ore included) may be seen in this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAajuxJ9Ilc
The final product of crispy, golden brown chunks of pork, with juicy and tender flesh inside, is best enjoyed chopped (not shredded), nested in soft corn tortillas. Toppings such as chopped onions and cilantro, salsa, guacamole and a sprinkle of lime juice are popular. And instead of pouring beer or Coca-Cola in the cauldron, I would suggest to serve them on the side, and make a toast to the great Mexican culinary mestizaje!
Since most people, including myself, probably lack a copper cauldron filled with lard dedicated to deep-frying Carnitas, I will be sharing a recipe for Pan Fried Carnitas in my next post.