The first time I saw it, I didn’t believe it. The second time I saw it, I tried to deny it—but the cart really did say “Pig Cheese.”
Actually, it said Salchicha Ejuteca y Queso de Puerco.
I assumed Ejuteca referred to one of Oaxaca’s many outlying communities. I hadn’t known there was a town famed for its sausage-making chops, but it seemed plausible enough.
After all, Tlacolula is famous for its Sunday market, Mitla for the quality of its textiles, San Bartolo for its black pottery.
I could go on. But the idea of a town with superb sausage skills was well within the realm of reason.
Pig cheese, on the other hand, sounded like an abomination.
The result? My faith in the genius of Mexican food in all its regional splendor was shaken.
Walking my faith
My faith boils down to a simple rule: if I don’t know what something is, I try it.
Many times I have sampled something I’d never heard of or that sounded bizarre or disgusting to my ignorant ears and found it was absolutely divine.
A few examples:
Tepache? I’d never heard of it. Turns out it’s made of fermented pineapple peels and is delicious.
Fried beef guts in a taco (tacos de tripas)? I balked before trying these, but, man am I glad I did. They’re super tasty. Especially if the the guts are fried nice and crispy and seasoned with lots of garlic.
Chicharrón? Growing up I thought the only use of pigskin was for making (North American) footballs. I never thought I’d be scarfing it down, but, man alive, pigskin is tasty.
Just the other day I had chicharron on my memela--a memla is more or less a Oaxacan version of a tostada—and was sad when the lady told me she didn’t have any left.
That I lamented a lack of pigskin exemplifies the transformative power of Mexican food.
I must admit that my faith waivered when I tried tacos de buche. Buche is pig stomach.
There was nothing wrong with the flavor, but the texture was a deal breaker.
The inside of the stomach is soft, the outside hard and rubbery.
I’m reaching for an analogy here, but it was like biting through calamari and then an orange peel. I wasn’t a fan.
This moment of doubt caused quite a bit of soul searching. I’d grown accustomed to trying and liking everything. Trying something and not liking it, that was new and confusing.
Eventually I was able to chalk tacos de buche up to “mysterious ways” and move on with my faith intact.
Or so I thought, until I came across pig cheese.
Allow me a minute to be a bit cheesy
Cheese of any type is a bit of a weird deal if you think about it. It is a solid made by partially digesting milk—a fatty emulsion intended to feed the infants of another species—with bacterial enzymes, resulting in the formation of chunks, called curds, and then squeezing the curds together to form a solid mass. The solid mass is then allowed to age for a period of time—years, in some cases.
Sometimes mold is introduced to give the cheese added flavor.
That’s a weird deal.
Where I am grew up, most cheese is made from cow’s milk. I have tried, though I do not particularly like, cheese made from the milk of sheep and goats.
Standing there in the street looking at the Etla Sausage and Pig Cheese cart, I couldn’t imagine pig cheese being any better than goat cheese.
I was pretty sure it would be worse.
Twin Moral Failures
At this point, I must confess that I did not sample the pig cheese. I was hot and tired and had my heart set on tacos al pastor. So I turned my back on my rule of trying things and ate five beautiful tacos for dinner.
That night, lying in bed, as I ruminated on my failure to try pig cheese, another failure reared its ugly head: tacos de cabeza.
Usually, but not always a cow’s head, and all of the head: snout, ears, cheeks, eye balls, brains, tongue and even the soft palate.
One online source I consulted included nervio, which I thought meant nerve, but maybe in context it’s spinal column? Brain stem? Dunno. Either way…yeesh.
I have eaten tacos de lengua. I like them. Cooked right, tongue is extremely tender and rich. I believe cheeks could be tasty. I would try beef cheeks without hesitation.
However, I have so far not been able to make myself eat tacos de cabeza. I have been shying away from this particular dish for years now.
Because our fears pursue us until we face them, a taco cart specializing in tacos de cabeza sets up very near my apartment almost every day.
I walk by it at least 3 times a week. And even though it smells good, I just can’t.
The filling—I can’t call it meat—looks like scrambled eggs, but of a nondescript beige color.
Like I said, it smells good, but I know brains and eyes are in there, and I just can’t.
I have tried to tell myself I am avoiding tacos de cabeza because of the risk of Mad Cow disease, but that’s not true. I might as well say I don’t want to compete ecologically with bovine zombies by not eating cow brains, but that’s just BS.
I admitted the inescapable truth around midnight: I am failing to live my faith.
I am also a moron
Before going to sleep, I vowed that the next time I encountered pig-cheese, I would try it. And the special sausage, no matter what was in it.
The next morning, to see what I’d committed myself to, I googled salchicha ejuteca.
Ejutla is 35 miles from Oaxaca and the only place this specific type of sausage is made. The recipe is closely guarded and is based on a European-style sausage that has been modified by Mexican tastes and ingredients.
Salchica ejuteca is cooked over a wood fire, and it is traditional to take it out of the casing and eat it atop a tostada.
Sounds, good. I can’t wait to try it.
When I googled queso de puerco, I discovered that I am a moron. Queso de puerco is not a dairy product made by laboriously milking pigs. It’s what is called in the US head cheese.
I have never eaten head cheese, which is made by boiling the head--minus the brains and eyes—in a pot of water. The feet are often added for the gelatin. After boiling, the whole mass is pressed together and allowed to set.
The act of pressing a mass of ingredients together was known as cheesing, and is the reason why head cheese—as well as dairy cheese—are both called cheeses.
For me, the fact head cheese does not include the brain, eyes, or ears of the animal was revelatory. It was as if I had been blind and could now see. It was suddenly clear to me that pig cheese was a messenger sent to broaden my palate and deepen my faith in Mexican food.
In the light of this revealed wisdom, queso de puerco was the sword that would allow me to slay the dragon that was tacos de cabeza. It made perfect sense. My faith surged back, stronger than ever.
I regretted I hadn’t seen it that way at first, but in all honestly, I just needed a minute to wrap my head around the concept of pig cheese.
I’d never heard of tepache when the lady at the taquería asked if I’d like a glass of it.
I said yes.
I said yes because I have a rule: When I’m in Mexico, I say yes to any food or drink I haven’t heard of before.
That is my secret way of finding new things to love.
It felt natural to follow the rule in this case, because everything else in the taquería was perfect.
Sunshine and a sea breeze from Santiago Bay danced through the open doors and windows.
The tacos in front of me looked heavenly. The aroma of fresh corn tortillas and perfectly seasoned carne asada were making my mouth water.
I could tell just by looking at the salsa that it was loaded with the perfect combination of spice and flavor.
In addition to all that, the table was laden with freshly diced onions, chopped cilantro, and a couple of bright green limes, precisely sliced and ready to squeeze.
Like I said, everything was perfect.
And even though experience has taught me that trusting in Mexican food to taste delicious never let me down, I wondered.
Had I just made my life better, or would ordering tepache prove to be a decision I would regret?
What am I about to drink?
As I watched the señora ladle the light brown, slightly murky beverage into a cup, I grabbed my phone and prayed Google knew what I was about to drink.
A hungry couple entered the taquería just then, giving me a few extra seconds. Here’s what I learned:
Tepache is a traditional drink that predates the arrival of the Spanish.
The name comes from the Nahuatl ‘tepiatli’, which means “drink made with maize,” as tepache was originally prepared from crushed and fermented corn.
In the 16th century, fruit juices such as guava, apple, orange, or—most popularly—pineapple began to be used.
The flavor is likened to a sweet beer due to the slight fermentation and the use of piloncillo (unrefined brown sugar).
That was as far as I got before my tepache arrived. But it was enough that I was very much looking forward to tasting it.
A Tepache Taste Test
I sipped gingerly and was rewarded greatly. The tepache was crisp and refreshing, which made it extremely welcome in the heat and humidity of Manzanillo in July.
It tasted a bit like a lager, which I found surprising as I’d expected it to taste more like an apple cider.
There was a hint of the tangy bitterness of unflavored kombucha, but this was offset nicely by the light sweetness coming from the piloncillo.
Eating my tacos and drinking my tepache—a heavenly combination, I must say—I read that tepache typically contains 0.5 to 1.0% alcohol, and is commonly enjoyed by children as well as adults on hot days.
In the past, tepache was considered a sacred drink and was fermented to a higher percentage of alcohol than is common now. These days, when a higher-octane brew is desired, tepache is mixed with beer or distilled spirits.
As I washed down the last bite of my taco, I read that to this day, versions of tepache still made from corn exist.
The first of these, tejuino, is popular in the north and is often mixed with fruit juice or lemon ice.
Pozol, on the other hand, is common in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas.
Tepache Home Brew
I enjoyed my first tepache so much I decided to have another right away. The lady who ran the taqueria was pleased I liked it so well.
We introduced ourselves and got to talking.
Tirsa told me she makes the tepache sold in her taquería sells herself. “Every family has their own recipe,” she said. “It’s very common to make it at home.”
She added, “It’s a drink we make to celebrate life’s triumphs. In the past, it was used to celebrate victories in battle.” She laughed, “These days, people are more impressed that tepache is totally natural and contains many probiotics.”
While I sipped on my second glass, I looked up how to make it tepache. After looking at a few recipes, I felt like I had a grasp on the basic process.
Mexican recipes suggest fermenting tepache in a wooden vessel if possible.
This recipe has lots of helpful pictures.
4-1/2 cups of water
1/2 cup of piloncillo (or brown sugar)
1 fresh pineapple
1 cinnamon stick
3 or 4 cloves
A pot or pitcher big enough to hold all that
1. Dissolve the piloncillo (or brown sugar) in the water. If using piloncillo, you might need to break it up with the spoon to dissolve it quickly.
2. Wash the pineapple with water and peel it. Save the fruit for another time. Use the peels and the diced core for tepache.
3. Combine the peels, core, clove and cinnamon in the vessel you will ferment the tepache in.
4. Add the water with the piloncillo or brown sugar dissolved in it. Stir.
5. Cover with a cheese cloth or towel that will allow the air to reach the tepache.
6. Let it sit at room temperature for 24 to 36 hours. White, frothy foam indicates the mixture is fermenting. You can drink it now or let it ferment longer—it’s a matter of taste. Fermentation time depends on temperature, how ripe the pineapple was, and so on.
7. When your tepache is as fermented as you want it to be, strain the solids, transfer the liquid to a clean pitcher and refrigerate.
8. Enjoy as it is, with fruit, mixed with spirits, or however you like.
Takeaways--tepache to go
Always be willing to try something new. You never know when and where you are going to find the next great thing in your life.
In my case, being open to a drink I’d never heard oiled me to discover tepache, which instantly became one of my favorite drinks.
In addition to being delicious, tepache is easy to make at home and contains beneficial probiotics.
But being open to novelty is about more than ferreting out tasty food and beverages. It’s how we add wonder to our lives.
It is how we move from surviving to thriving.