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The Seafood of Veracruz

Behond the pescado Veracruzana that Southern Californians know so well. The fish soups, hashes and tortas of Mexico's tropical coast.

October 21, 1998|ZARELA MARTINEZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For the first 12 years of my life, the only fish I ever ate were frozen haddock filets at Luby's Cafeteria in El Paso, Texas. They were fried in a thick crust and I ate them with a quarter cup of tartar sauce to disguise whatever fish flavor they might have. We lived across the border in Chihuahua state, Mexico, on a cattle ranch far from the ocean. The only fresh fish we knew were the catfish that flourished in the nearby dams. They were so ugly we never thought to eat them. I could cry now to think of all the years I missed the joys of fresh fish.

The first Mexican fish dish I ever had was pescado a la Veracruzana. No wonder, since it's probably the second-best-known Mexican dish, right after mole poblano. And like mole, it has suffered for its popularity: It's one of the most abused and ill-interpreted recipes in the Mexican culinary repertoire. I've even heard of cooks making it with canned peas and black olives.

Originating from Veracruz, the coastal state where the Spaniards first landed, it preserves the Spanish heritage, as shown by the use of (green) olives, capers and Old World herbs: bay leaves, thyme and marjoram. It also has the New World addition of tomatoes and chiles--usually pickled banana peppers--that make it an inspired mestizo dish.

It has become a classic sauce throughout Mexico, especially for red snapper (huachinango) and other fish. But it goes well with many foods. My mother serves it with braised tongue, pork chops and chicken, and at my restaurant, Zarela, in New York, it makes a piquant complement to fried calamari. It's a delicious sauce for pasta, too.

But salsa a la veracruzana is only one little frame in the Veracruz seafood picture. Veracruz state is a long, skinny strip of green tropical lowland running northwest to southeast along the Gulf of Mexico. Its coastline is about as long as the Atlantic coast of Florida, and its waters teem with red and other snappers, pompano, snook, grouper and mojarra (a prized local fish with no English name), not to mention a profusion of oysters, shrimp and crab. In addition, the state is fed by more than 40 rivers and has countless lakes, so it also has access to plenty of freshwater fish and shellfish.

The way these foods are prepared mirrors the particular ethnic mix of Veracruz. The first inhabitants, the Olmecs and Mayas, created a sophisticated cuisine that drew on all this bounty, often incorporating other local products like corn, chiles and native herbs. The Spanish added Old World ingredients and their own cooking techniques. They also brought slaves to work the cane fields, and a strong African element often mingles with the Indian and Spanish traditions. Nowhere is this fusion of cuisines more evident than in Veracruzan seafood cookery.

Though seafood was not a part of my growing up, over the years I've become known for red snapper hash (salpicon de huachinango), the most popular appetizer in my restaurant. When I was starting my culinary career in El Paso in the late '70s, my mother discovered this fabulous dish at a bar near the Laguna de Paniagua, a lake in the northern part of Veracruz, at the border of Tampico state, and I immediately appropriated it. I was captivated by the unexpected mixture of flavors--the fish is seasoned with canela (Ceylon cinnamon), cumin and cloves.

Now that I've traveled throughout the state, I know that almost every coastal town makes salpicon differently; the only constant is shredded seafood. This regional character is evidenced in the rich and varied Veracruzan seafood preparations.

Though I heartily recommend a trip through this wonderful and largely unknown state, you do not have to go the entire length of Veracruz to sample all this wealth. Go to the bustling port of Veracruz city and take a short cab ride to the small town of Boca del Rio. I venture to say there are more seafood restaurants to the inch there than anywhere else in Mexico, and most are very good. (Though I must voice a complaint. The seafood is often overcooked, reflecting the tastes of the mostly Mexican tourists who visit the area.)

Here I tasted arroz a la tumbada, a rice dish--not quite a paella, a risotto or a soup--full of fish, octopus and shellfish and flavored with chiles and epazote. It hails from the nearby port of Alvarado.

Another classic that lends itself to many interpretations is torta de mariscos. This particular kind of "torte" is a patty of fish and shellfish bound with beaten eggs (and possibly dipped in eggs as well) and fried. The tortas range in size from 3 to 10 inches and can be like crisp, firm crab cakes, thin frittatas or fluffy omelets. On a recent trip to Veracruz, I had torta de mariscos made in every possible way, but the omelet style is my favorite. Because the beaten egg is folded into the seafood, it yields a moist and tender delicacy and I often serve this as a first course with a spicy sauce on the side.

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