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Three Mexican Puzzles:Are Chinese Immigrants the Answer?

by Rachel Laudan

Chinese Food in Central and South America

Spring Volume: 1998 Issue: 5(1) page(s): 19

So often doing culinary history, it is the little things that turn out to offer clues to what is going on. Prompted by Janet Long's fascinating account of Chinese food in Mexico, I want to follow up with three small puzzles I have encountered. There is no doubt that the first has a Chinese solution. Perhaps the second and third do, too.

The first is an issue that I have already mentioned in the pages of this journal, the Mexican saladitos (little salted things), or what would be called crack seed in Hawaii. I first encountered them in a filling station run by Mexicans in the Southwest of the United States. But they turned out to be more common than I thought. Go into any Sanbourns (a Mexican institution dating from the early years of this century), an American-inspired restaurant-cum-bookstore-cum-expensive import store now often used as an anchor in the malls that are becoming standard across the country, and the chances are that on the ends of the aisles near the chocolate counter will be tall glass jars filled with strips of dried mango and plum.

Identical to the jars in which crack seed is merchandised in Hawaii, these are salty-sweet-anisey derivatives of the Cantonese snack food that Hawaiians call crack seed. In these same malls, often as not, there are stalls selling traditional Mexican sweets. Among the peanut marzipan, the amaranth brittle and the wafers filled with cajeta, a kind of condensed milk, are little plastic packets filled with salty dried plums. They are labelled chamoy. I looked up the word 'chamoy' in several dictionaries and asked Mexican friends what it meant, but to no avail. Then it dawned on me. 'Chamoy' is none other than the Mexican rendering of the Cantonese words see mui, the original term for crack seed. Whether crack seed came with the Acapulco Galleon, as E. N. Anderson has suggested, or with later Cantonese workers, it is now firmly ensconced as a traditional Mexican snack with its own hybrid name.

The second puzzle concerns ginger. Fresh ginger is to be found in all supermarkets. At first, I thought this was evidence of new trends in Mexican cooking but now I am not so sure. I asked one friend about it and he told me that his grandmother had taught him to add ginger to certain salsas to add a special piquancy quite different from that of the chilies. His grandmother had certainly not had access to shiny new supermarkets. She had obtained it, he said, from the herbalist in the market. I can only assume that the herbalists had learned of it from Chinese immigrants because it is clearly not of Mexican origin.

The third puzzle is why Maggi sauce is ubiquitous in Mexico. It can be found not only in the supermarkets but in the humblest tienda (mom and pop store) in small towns. It is used as a marinade for grilled meats, to shake into soups, and as an all-purpose seasoning for anything that seems to need a dash of something salty. Again, this could be one of the marvels of modern marketing. But again perhaps it, too, reflects Chinese influence. In a article in Jessica Kuper's The Anthropologists' Cookbook (1977), Stephen and Roxane Gudeman point out that in Panama, soy sauce is a common flavoring thanks to the Chinese and the Panama Canal. Maggi sauce, according to William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi in The Book of Miso: Food for Mankind (1976) was a Swiss attempt to imitate soy sauce. Is it to far fetched to suggest that perhaps the Mexicans acquired a taste for soy sauce from the Chinese and thus, when Maggi was marketed in the country, they were prepared and willing customers?

Any there other solutions to these puzzles?
Rachel Lauden has moved from Hawaii to Mexico. She now explores foods there and will, perhaps write a Mexican version of her award-winning book: The Food of Paradise. If you have any answers to these or any other Chinese-Mexican puzzles, do advise and we'll forward them for her consideration.

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