July 8, 2011

Cemita the Great/ La Gran Cemita

Whew. Seems now to me that one can not simply eat a cemita (seh-mee-tah). A cemita must be conquered. This mountainous sandwich, specifically a cemita poblana, is a creation unique to the city of Puebla. Those of you familiar with the Mexican torta may wonder what the difference is– I for one had thought that the word "torta" referred to any sandwich whereby two sides of a breadroll flank whatever combination of ingredients you like. But, in fact, the first difference is in the foundation. A cemita calls for a fluffy sesame-seeded egg roll–actually, this is the cemita–whereas the torta's bolillo is more like a French roll. And the cemita's ingredients are more specific, and restricted to sliced avocado, meat, white cheese, onions and red sauce (salsa roja) and a pungent citrus-y herb called papalo. And, while the torta does tend to be a rather multi-layered affair, cemitas, or at least in my limited experience, take the sandwich to a whole new level. And I mean height-wise. 

I am kind of a sandwich person. That is, by nature. I love making them as much as eating them and freely and artfully combine my ingredients, loving that it all ends up as a nicely contained package. However, a few years ago I determined I should avoid eating wheat as much as possible (which is why the other eat-out-of-hand food in Mexico, the tortilla, suits me just fine) but I do make exceptions. And if the first thing Rick Bayless told me I should do when I got to Puebla was have a cemita, then dammit, I was having a cemita!

So I followed my map (and my homing instinct) to the Mercado del Carmen, the central market in Puebla. First, let me just say that Puebla has to be my favourite city in Mexico. The lavishly tiled colonial buildings in crayon colours pop into view like nothing I know from my native Canada. Culturally it is lively and modern; I stumbled upon Museo Amparo where I caught some modern art and sculpture–a nice switch from all the pyramid ruins I had explored in the days before in Oaxaca, and at the Casa de la Cultura, a show of Lomography. But first–and it really WAS the first thing I did– a visit to the mercado for a cemita. Tengo hambre! (and it's a good thing...)

Inside the mercado, there were dozens of stalls serving cemitas. And of course, that napkin Rick Bayless had scrawled a name on... where the heck was it? Between all the pockets, bag, shopping bag, backpack... oh never mind–I have pretty good instincts of my own. I wandered around a bit, checking out the various stalls, puzzling over what that tray of slightly translucent off-white, remotely gelatinous looking stuff could be.

Eventually, I settled on "El As de Oros." There were several by this name actually, but one in particular was busier than the others, always what I look for when trying out street or market food. Not only that, it seemed not all the others had barbacoa. No way was I going for Milanesa if barbacoa was waiting to be had.
I ordered with confidence. "Por favor, una cemita de barbacoa y una Coca"(Yeah, going all the way with the Mexican Coke)"...si, por favor, con todos." With everything. She reached for the cemita bread roll and laying its two sides in front of her on the counter, began to stack the elements. First, what must have been a full cup of the shredded Barbacoa meat bathed in salsa roja. Atop that, a pile of pulled-apart strings of Oaxacan cheese. Then, avocado, onion, chipotles, and as she reached for the flat rounded leaves of the special herbal ingredient, she paused: "Papalo?" "Si! Si!" I replied. I was familiar with papalo from a market stall I frequent in San Miguel. I'd nibbled a leaf of it, and would describe it as a combination of the slightly acrid citrus of cilantro, with petrol overtones. Powerful stuff,  but I wanted to taste it in its element. Before topping it all off with the breadroll lid, from a squeeze bottle she gave it a generous sprinkling of a vinaigrette.

Then, there it was in front of me, my cemita with barbacoa, challenging me to tackle it. Truly it was as tall as it was wide, the layers of ingredients clearly marking the cross-section.  With care not to topple the mountain, I slid my thumbs under the corners of one half and scooped it up with both hands. Before it reached my mouth, I caught a whiff of the pungent papalo and it made me, well, kind of salivate. Somehow, I felt like I'd been waiting forever for this sandwich. And, man-oh-man, it did not disappoint. From the game-y, chile-warmed succulence of the barbacoa, the creaminess of the avocado, and that papalo– bringing a sharp acidity along with that dash of vinaigrette–this sandwich brought me damn near to ecstasy.

And yes. I ate the whole thing. Could barely stand up afterwards, but I just couldn't leave aside one single bite. And those trays of vaguely gelatinous-looking white stuff? I found out later, when I was offered this on a tostada: pata. Think: "pitter-pata of little feet" –pickled cow foot. And it too was delicious. And I ate the whole thing.

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