Sunday, May 24, 2009

Myths & Tips: Keeping Your Stomach Happy in México

-by La Huerita

In México the word "salchicha" (sometimes spelled "salchica") on a restaurant menu is usually translated into English as "sausage". I well remember the first time I ordered it for breakfast, fully expecting to get a nice sausage patty or a couple of links with my eggs. Imagine my surprise when my breakfast arrived and instead of American-type sausages full of fat, sage and succulence, a couple of pale wieners stared wanly back at me from my plate, sliced down the middle and fried.

I know what my face looked like at that moment, because in ensuing years I took a certain vicious pleasure in not warning newbie American diners in México about it just so I could watch their faces when their breakfasts arrived. It was all part of allowing others the fun of discovery for themselves, doncha know. (That's my story and I'm sticking to it.)

In México (and throughout Latin America) "salchichas" means "wieners", period; they are as ubiquitous as Spam is in Hawaii. You will even find them chopped up in spaghetti sauce (Mmmm, que sabroso...). And all that is just by way of introducing you to the notion that not all food-related issues in México are also health related.

Real Méxican food is often quite different from the dishes served in most Méxican/Tex-Mex restaurants in other countries, so if you think you've had "Méxican" food in the USA or Canada, you might be surprised to discover that you haven't. If you have a taste for adventure you’ll be well rewarded in México; if not, stick to a few simple and traditional dishes that are almost always very good (and not necessarily spicy).

Tacos come to mind, of course, but they won't be anything like what you get at the Taco Bell kind of places. Also likely to be familiar are guacamole, enchiladas, tamales, chile rellenos, meatballs (albondigas) and of course rice and beans. You can branch out from there.

As for the health part of the equation, México offers some magnificently rich and/or spicy dishes, but it's a good idea to take it easy for the first few days until your stomach has grown accustomed to its new environment. Upset stomachs and "turista" are commonly associated with unpurified water used in ice and to wash salads and fruit, but it can also be caused by the stress of traveling, foods that are new to you, too much too soon, or simply bacteria different to those at home. (See OMG Don't Drink the Water!)

Some good advice (that's hard to follow): Start off slow, then begin trying new things a bit at a time-- and don't try to eat and drink everything in sight on your first day. Once your system has settled down, though, do try some of the regional specialties. It’s all part of experiencing a new country, and for many people the food is one of the main attractions of their vacation. In Puerto Penasco some regional foods might include Sonoran-style Grilled Chicken (Pollo Asado al Carbon), Cheese Soup (Caldo de Queso), or freshly made Chorizo.

And do not pass up the gelatinas just because you think it's only Jello. I assure you it is NOT. Handmade, sometimes too beautiful to eat, you will find flavors and colors that do not exist within the world of Jello boxes. A perfect light end to any meal, especially during the hot summmer months.

TIPS for eating out in Mexico:
The flora and fauna living in your stomach and intestines are not used to the water and food in Mexico. It can take a while to acclimate. Also, the ingredients and methods of cooking may be very different from what you are used to. Not inferior, just different. Your stomach will let you know when you've gone too far.

Restaurants: In most restaurants catering to tourists, you are usually safe to eat whatever you want. The last thing they want is for a customer to get sick, so they use fresh food and cook/wash fruits and vegetables with purified water. A general rule of thumb: if it is freshly cooked it's safe to eat. Until you are acclimated, avoid uncooked vegetables like salads. The issue of water and ice has already been covered here.

Street Vendors: Most taco stands are perfectly safe, but if you are not yet acclimated be careful about ordering food from them. Just because you see a bunch of gringos eating in front of one doesn't necessarily mean anything. They might live in the area or be frequent visitors whose systems are used to the food and any microbes that your system isn't used to yet. So by all means explore the possibilities of the often wonderful food offered at street-side stands, but use some common sense. Does it look clean? Is the food prepared in front of you (fresh)? Does the person preparing it wash his/her hands?

Oh-oh, Trouble! It is estimated that 40% of foreign traveler vacations in Mexico are disrupted by "turista", aka "Montezuma's Revenge", which is usually caused by a bacterial infection
. Most cases are mild and resolve in a few days with no treatment. Severe or extended cases, however, may require medical intervention. IF in spite of your precautions you are unfortunate enough to suffer intestinal distress, the following website gives very good information about the subject of "Montezuma's Revenge", along with advice on what to
do about it:

Oh, one more thing about those wieners: They're usually of the Vienna type, pale in color and not particularly rich in flavor. In fact, they may be the only food served in México that isn't rich in flavor. By far the most popular brand is called FUD (pronounced 'food'). Unless you love those weenies, go with chorizo (which is REAL Méxican sausage) or machaca for breakfast instead. You can thank me later.

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