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From Mexico City to Charleston, a tamale master with humble beginnings

From Mexico City to Charleston, a tamale master with humble beginnings
November 2019
PHOTOGRAPHER: 

Abuela, the matriarch and heart of downtown taqueria El Pincho Taco





One of Abuela’s cherished family recipes is caldo Tlalpeño (above), a spicy chicken and chipotle soup from Tlalpan—a borough of Mexico City; (inset) “Abuela says in life, you must be strong and brave,” shares Sandra. “Fuerte y valiente.”

Beside the 17 off-ramp, cars zip past a rough patch of Meeting Street concrete where a huddle of no-frills restaurants worth your pause reside. Among them is the Mexican-owned and -run El Pincho Taco. Though Sandra Aguirre helms the restaurant, her grandmother (abuela in Spanish), embodies the spirit of this establishment; the food served here is delicious, yes, but most importantly driven—and deepened—by lineage. As Sandra puts it, “Abuela is the reason for all of this.”

Born Rufina Bautista Pérez in Guadalupe Relinas, Abuela began cooking as a little girl nearly 70 years ago. She recalls walking to the town molino (corn grinder) before school to prepare masa for fresh, breakfast tortillas—one of her many tasks as the eldest of nine siblings. “My parents would go away all day to work in the fields harvesting beans or corn, and I’d make tamales for my brothers and sisters,” Abuela recalls. “We usually didn’t have any meat; just masa wrapped in a husk.” Soon her repertoire expanded: fried eggs or nopales in salsa, soup and frijoles.

Who taught her to cook? “Mi abuela,” she says with a smile. As with many techniques and recipes passed down through generations, there were no written instructions. Instead, she learned to let her senses guide her. “My grandmother told me everything needed to be seasoned right, even something simple like Mexican rice,” she says. “When the pot starts to chillando (a crying noise), it’s telling me the arroz is ready. When you hear that sizzling, and the grains have turned an almond color, it’s time to add salt, blended tomatoes, and spices.” She has since taught her 10 children and 19 grandkids the same lesson: to cook is to listen.

Abuela continues to survive on the skills she learned as a child. For the past 40 years, she has been selling hundreds of tamales on weekends out of her house in Mexico City. Preparation is a laborious, all-day affair that begins on Fridays, softening husks in water. For the dough, she blends her own special mix: “I make a broth out of boiled tomatillo skins and fennel and add that to the masa,” she divulges. “That’s one of my secrets.” Next, the fillings: a rotation of sweet and savory, including piña, chicken mole, rajas (poblano peppers), or tres quesos (manchego, canasta, and Oaxaca cheese) with salsa verde—“Not too spicy,” Abuela adds, “but you need a little kick, because we like spicy in Mexico.” Then, on Saturday and Sunday mornings, she sweeps and mops her patio and is open for business from 8:30 a.m. until she sells out.

On November 27, she brings her talents stateside to El Pincho Taco, where patrons can purchase her turkey and tomatillo tamales ($4/each, $45/dozen). She also plans to return in 2020 to cook family favorites at the restaurant for a third Abuela Kitchen Takeover. These days, she’s cut back the tamale business at home and will soon retire. “She wants us to keep her recipes alive,” Sandra says. So, in Charleston, her family is listening to the rice pot cry and seasoning things just right, to assure Abuela’s legacy lives on.

Caldo Tlalpeño recipe

 

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Photograph of Abuela by Aleece Sophia