Mixmole – Fish in Red (or Green) Sauce

Click here to go to printable recipe: Mixmole – Fish in Red or Green Sauce

In 1519, when Spanish conquerors arrived to the Valley of Central Mexico, they found the Mexica (Aztec) empire, with its great city of Tenochtitlan (current downtown Mexico City) situated on an island; the area was composed by a system of five lakes (map from Wikipedia Commons):

449px-Basin_of_Mexico_1519_map-es.svg

 In addition to the Mexica (Aztec) empire, the Southern freshwater lakes were home to the Xochimilco, Cuitláhuac, and Mixquic groups, of which the latter two were also established on islands. The Northern part of the valley featured high salinity in its soil, which caused the lakes of Zumpango and Xaltocan to be partially salty (brackish), while the largest lake, Texcoco, presented higher salinity.  The southern lakes of Xochimilco and Chalco were freshwater, and featured many gardens and farming parcels called chinampas, from the Nahuatl words chinamitl – reed mat, and pa – on; seemingly floating, chinampas were actually built by pressing sediments and vegetation onto framed reeds, placed on shallow areas of the lakes.   The chinampas provided hefty harvests of corn, beans, vegetables, fruit, and many native potherbs generically known as quelites, including purslane, epazote, and several species of the Amaranth family, such as huauzontle, Suaeda spp for romeritos, and, as shown in the photo below, quintoniles, also known as Mexican pigweed, or green amaranth (Amaranthus hybridus), valued equally for its seed-loaded acicula and its greenery:

The lakes also had plenty of resources; for example, in his Florentine Codex (General history of the things of New Spain, Book 10, chapters 22-24), Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún describes how native merchants processed and dealt with local salt, several types of waterfowl and fish (including eggs), crustaceans, edible bugs, amphibians, reptiles, and algae.  Interconnected by canals, these merchants navigated the lakes in small boats that the Spaniards called chalupas, bringing goods to the markets, and transporting tools to shovel and cultivate the soil, pottery, and other agricultural and kitchen products back to the chinampas.

Unfortunately, for the following three hundred years, the lakes were systematically drained during Spanish colonial times, and further swallowed by Mexico city’s urbanization.  Currently, there are only canals and small remains of bodies of water, but chalupas are still used to some extent, carrying produce and flowers, serving as water taxis, or as floating stands for vendors offering grilled or fried snacks (antojitos) to tourists, and even used to transport the occasional mariachi band for hire.   Xochimilco and  (Cui)Tláhuac have become boroughs within the city limits, with their head towns still having access to systems of canals, while Mixquic only has a few left, and has lost the last vestige of its lake shore, as seen in my schematic diagram below:

001 map Valley of Central Mexico then and now copyright My Slice of Mexico

In spite of its current, mostly dry-land nature, the town of Mixquic has preserved many features of its aquatic culture, and one of the dishes that has survived since pre-Hispanic times is mixmole, prepared originally with local fauna, such as frogs, fish, and ajolote (Ambystoma mexicanum, axolotl, a salamander).   King frogs and ajolotes still exist in lake Xochimilco, but are considered critically endangered, especially after failed projects to utilise non-native aquatic mammals (manatees, river otters) to clear the canals, or when carp and tilapia were introduced in the 1970s, causing devastation amongst all native species.  Nowadays, mixmole is prepared with a variety of small fish, similar to charales or smelt, and any kind of freshwater fish, such as white fish, or catfish.  In the photo below, the fish I found at the supermarket for my mixmole, clockwise from top: pickerel, basa (catfish), and smelt:

Local produce such as nopales (paddle cactus), epazote, quintoniles and chicosle peppers (for red sauce) are also important components of this emblematic dish.   

In a previous post, I explained how I preserve epazote from my backyard in the summer, by rolling fresh leaves into logs, then wrapping in foil before freezing (photo below, left).  When needed, I simply unwrap the packet, and slice a piece of frozen herb (photo below, right), then I wrap and return the packet to the freezer:

Epazote is not very fragrant when dried, but since it is an important ingredient in this dish, it may be used if fresh/frozen herb is not available.  As a last resort, use some fresh cilantro, or just omit.

Quintoniles are one of many species of the common weed known as pigweed; all pigweed plants are edible, but are not available this time of year in my region to be foraged, so I used baby spinach (other people use Swiss chard.) 

Although pre-Hispanic cuisine did not resort to frying as a technique, it is known that seed oils, such as amaranth or pumpkin, were readily available for seasoning; modern mixmole recipes often call for lard, but I used sunflower oil, to adhere more closely to pre-Hispanic ingredients.  As mentioned before, salt was known and appreciated as a condiment.

In the photo below, clockwise from top, left, epazote, salt, sunflower oil, cooked paddle cactus strips, and baby spinach:

Finally, nixtamalized corn dough (masa, photo below, left) has been used for centuries as a thickener in Mexican stews and soups; if not available, nixtamalized corn flour works well in this recipe (two examples in the photos below, centre and right):

nixtamalized corn dough (masa)
Maseca™ nixtamalized corn flour
Bob’s Red Mill™ nixtamalized corn flour

For red mixmole, fresh tomatoes and dry red peppers are included.  Chilcosle is a type of dry red pepper that is grown locally in Mixquic, but if not available, guajillo peppers (photo below, right end), may be used:

I had only a couple of chicosle peppers left from my order of specialty peppers (previously posted here), so I supplemented with guajillo; please note that guajillo peppers are milder than chicosle, so they can be used to regulate the hotness level, as well.

And for green mixmole, tomatillos and raw jalapeño peppers are used:

I prepared one whole batch of each the red and the green versions, so I ended up with eight portions total; the following recipe lists ingredients for four portions, with a choice of sauce.

Fish in Red (or Green) Sauce – Mixmole rojo (o verde)

Printable recipe: Mixmole – Fish in Red or Green Sauce 

Ingredients (for four portions)

1 ¾ lb (800g) freshwater fish filets, such as basa (catfish), pickerel, etc.
6-8 small fish, such as fresh charal, smelt, etc.
4 cups quintonil (Mexican pigweed leaves), or baby spinach
1 cup nopales (paddle cactus); cooked strips (click here for homemade, or from jar)
¼ cup fresh epazote leaves; washed and coarsely chopped; or ¼ cup dry epazote, or fresh cilantro, chopped, or omit
4-6 tbsp sunflower oil, or lard
½ cup masa (corn tortilla dough), or ½ cup nixtamalized corn flour, such as Maseca™ or Bob’s Red Mill™
Water, as needed
Salt, to taste
For red sauce:
8 dry red peppers, such as chicosle, guajillo, or a mix; wiped clean, stems and seed removed
3 tomatoes; washed, and stem spots removed
Or, for green sauce:
1 lb (454g) tomatillos; papery shell removed, and washed
3-4 jalapeño peppers

Note: if preparing the two sauces, either double the first nine ingredients, to make four portions of each, or use half the quantities listed for red peppers, tomatoes, jalapeños, and tomatillos, to make two portions of each.

Mix enough water with masa (corn dough) or nixtamalized corn flour to obtain a thick slurry (similar to pancake batter):

Reserve.

This step is optional; pan fry the small fish in two tablespoons of oil over medium heat, to add flavour, and prevent them from breaking later on, when added to the sauce:

After cooking on both sides, remove to a plate and reserve.


For red sauce option:  place cleaned red peppers in a pot with boiling water over high heat:

Cook for about five minutes, until peppers are fully hydrated and soft.  Remove from heat and allow to cool down.

Place peppers with about half a cup of liquid from the pot in a blender jar; slice tomatoes into large chunks, and add to the jar (photo below, left).  Process long enough to obtain a very smooth sauce (photo below, right):

Warm up two tablespoons of oil in a large pot over medium heat, then pour the sauce in (photo below, left);  add about one cup of water to the blender jar, to gather any leftover sauce, then pour into the pot (photo below, right):

Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, and cook for fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add reserved corn slurry, stirring to incorporate (photo below, left); continue cooking and stirring, until the sauce starts to thicken, then add reserved small fish (photo below, right):

Add epazote and cooked cactus strips (photo below left); finally, add greens (photo below, right):

Season with salt, to taste, stirring gently to incorporate everything, and allow to simmer until greens have wilted.  Keep warm until serving time.


For green sauce option:  Cook tomatillos and jalapeño peppers in a pot with boiling water over high heat, just until tomatillos change to a lighter shade of green:

Remove from heat, and drain.  Remove stems and seeds for peppers, and place in a blender jar; add tomatillos (photo below, left).  Process until smooth (photo below, right):

Follow the same steps as for the red sauce:  warm up two tablespoons of oil in a large pot over medium heat, then pour the sauce in (photo below, left);  add about one cup of water to the blender jar, to gather any leftover sauce, then pour into the pot (photo below, right):

Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, and cook for fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add reserved corn slurry, stirring to incorporate (photo below, left); continue cooking and stirring, until the sauce starts to thicken, then add reserved small fish (photo below, right):

Add epazote and cooked cactus strips (photo below left); finally, add greens (photo below, right):

Season with salt, to taste, stirring gently to incorporate everything, and allow to simmer until greens have wilted.  Keep warm until serving time.


Right before serving, warm up two tablespoons of oil in a large frying pan over medium heat.  Arrange fish filets (if skin on, skin side down), in a single layer, and cook for a few minutes, until flesh turns opaque (photo below, left).  Flip fish and cook second side for a couple more minutes (photo below, right):

Place one portion of fish in a bowl or plate, then scoop a generous portion of sauce, trying to include a little of each ingredient.  In the photos below, red mixmole (left) and green mixmole (right) served in clay bowls:  

Mixmole is one of the traditional dishes prepared in Mixquic all year round, but especially during the celebrations of the Day of the Dead (as I posted a few days ago); platers of mixmole are often part of the items displayed in offerings, along with fresh fruit, candles, sugar skulls, and flowers, as well as other symbolic elements to honour and remember the dearly departed:

When it is time to enjoy the meal, serve mixmole with warm corn tortillas:


For your convenience, click on the images below for products available on Amazon™.  DISCLAIMER: Any reviews included in this post are my own, for items I have purchased, not provided by any company; as an Amazon Associates Program affiliate, I might receive a commission for any purchases originated from the links below, at no extra cost to you (thank you to readers who have bought other products starting with a click from my links!):


This is an approximate nutrition analysis for one portion of mixmole with red sauce, but the green version would be very similar, calorie wise:


I am sharing my post at Thursday Favourite Things #515, with Bev @ Eclectic Red BarnPam @ An Artful MomKatherine @ Katherine’s CornerAmber @ Follow the Yellow Brick HomeTheresa @ Shoestring Elegance and Linda @ Crafts a la Mode.   


I am bringing my recipe to Full Plate Thursday #562 with Miz Helen @ Miz Helen’s Country Cottage.


I am joining FIesta Friday #406 with Angie @ Fiesta Friday, this week co-hosting with Diann @ Of Goats and Greens.


I am also sharing my recipe at What’s for Dinner? Sunday Link-Up #341 with Helen @ The Lazy Gastronome.

3 thoughts on “Mixmole – Fish in Red (or Green) Sauce

    1. In this recipe, cooked canned tomatillos would work fine, and also, people at home would usually make one sauce at a time. Best of luck with your ingredient hunting, and I hope you like mixmole, Stefan!

      Liked by 2 people

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