If you happen to be in Mexico during the last weeks of August and first half of September you will most likely stumble into one of the most baroque, intricate, visually appealing, patriotic and delicious Mexican dishes: Chiles en Nogada
There are many stories and legends about the origin but the most accepted version says the dish first appeared in Puebla around 1821, when the Clarissa nuns of the Santa Monica convent had to prepare a feast to welcome San Agustín de Iturbide, as he prepared to sign the Declaration of Independence.
The nuns then, had to put all their culinary skills into use to prepare, only with the ingredients they had laying around, a dish that would eventually become a nationalistic icon.
Another, more romantic theory says that the famous recipe was invented by 3 very much in love girls who commend themselves to San Pascual Bailón – Patron of cooks – to come up with a dish to celebrate the return of their 3 boyfriends from the Independence war. A delicious love story!
Ingredients and Preparation
One of the reasons why Chiles en Nogada are such a special treat is because they are prepared with fresh key ingredients that happen to be seasonal and are only available right at the end of summer such as panochera apples, milk pears, criollo peaches and more importantly fresh walnuts and pomegranate.
To prepare the very time-consuming stuffing you’d need to finely chop and fry ingredients like onion and garlic, ground meat, tomatoes, fruits, raisins, almonds, pine nuts, plantain and a very specially controversial component: Acitrón, which is a candied cactus called Biznaga that not only is it endangered, but it also takes more than 50 years to grow into a decent size and its consumption is illegal in Mexican territory (although you’d find it in most markets).
Once the stuffing is ready, it’s time to prepare the poblano peppers. First, they are carefully roasted directly over the flames, then chucked inside a plastic bag to “sweat” . These technique also precooks the peppers and gives them a slightly smoky flavor, as well as a softer textures easier to handle.
After the chillies have cooled down, they have to be peeled manually and the seeds have to be removed, this will make it less spicy and easier to eat.
Were you a strict follower of Puebla’s original recipe, after stuffing the chiles they would need to be covered in beaten eggs and then fried over a pan. Nowadays most chefs and restaurants would skip this step maybe to cut down preparation times, or maybe to have a somewhat lighter dish (maybe both).
Another factor that would split opinions is the temperature of the dish, while some people swear by a warm and comforting dish, other would prefer to cut down the heaviness of the dish by serving it chilled or at room temperature. (In my case I like them to be warm, not too hot, so right in between).</p)
The Nogada or walnut sauce
Nogada refers to the white-ish, creamy, fresh walnut sauce the Chiles en Nogada are coated with. This is a very important (if not the most important) element of the dish.
The fresh walnut has to be peeled by hand (yes, it also takes forever to get this done, but you would find it ready-to-use in most traditional markets when in season) and soaked in milk before using, then it’s blended with a little bit of heavy cream, a special kind of goat cheese, a few drops of sherry, salt and a tiny pinch of sugar.
This is also a component that could make or break the dish, you don’t want a sauce that’s too salty, nor too sweet, same as a runny nor too thick, so it has to be a very delicate balance that would make the dish shine and leaves you reaching for an extra scoop.
Pomegranate seeds and parsley are the last key ingredients to give the dish its characteristic tri-color, patriotic appeal, both the texture and flavor they add are the last touches that make of this sweet and savory concoction one of the heartiest and most delicious dishes of Mexico.
Where to get Chiles en Nogada
Recipes may vary from one cook to another as with every other Mexican Traditional recipe, which makes people in the country want to jump from restaurant to restaurant in the search for the best one each year.
Prices will range from $180 up to $550 which will depend mainly on the quality and quantity of the ingredients as well as the reputation of the place and chef.
Here is a short list of some of the places where you are able to dig into some real good Chiles en Nogada in 2020.
Tierra Adentro Cocina
This is one of my favorite casual restaurants in the city and just made it to my list of Favorite Spots in 2020. It’s locates in a very low key neighborhood (Portales) and they get most of their ingredients from small local producers. Their chiles en Nogada are prepared with ingredients brought from Puebla specially for them. The portion is very filling and price-wise you could not get any better.
Nogada is not to sweet and they are not battered which is completely up my alley. You can pre order via Instagram and facebook and get them delivered or por pickup.
Nevado 112, Col. Portales Sur.
Alba Cocina Local
Located in the beautiful Juárez neighborhood, home of some of the most creative cuisine happening in the city right now, Alex Cabral brings us a different version of Chiles en Nogada each year.
Whether he offers a chile with duck meat or a vegetarian version of it, it will be without a doubt one of the most interesting versions around. So stay tuned and follow them on Instagram to find out when can you start placing your order.
Marsella 80 , Col. Juárez
A proper Mexico City institution, Nico’s under the notorious head chef Gerardo Vázquez Lugo has been pleasing even the most demanding palates for over 63 years.
Their Chiles en Nogada are always at the top of every publication’s list and it’s all due to the very high quality of their ingredients as well as the size of their portions.
The meat is chopped by hand (!!!) and you can choose whether you want a battered chile or a “naked” one. The Nogada sauce is not to sweet and it’s perfect to pair with a good Rosé wine (yes, please).
Available for takeout or you can book here a socially distanced table if preferred. Follow them in Instagram or order directly at their sister brand’s Instagram Maizajo.
Av. Cuitláhuac 3102, Col. Claveria
The restaurant Azul prides itself of having one of the most prolific Mexican Gastronomy investigators as Head Chef, Ricardo Muñoz Zurita. Who literally wrote the Enciclopedic book about Mexican Gastronomy and has been studying chiles and indigenous ingredients from around the Mexican territory.
They’re the ones with more options for the Chile en Nogada. You can choose the style of meat for the filling whether you want it chopped by hand, shredded, ground or even skip it completely to have a vegetarian option.
You can also customize your Nogada sauce, you can opt for a sweet version, a savory one or go for half & half. All chiles are dressed with a beautiful ribbon bow and served cold as they think of it as a fresh summer dish and can be perfectly paired with champagne.
Av Nuevo León 68, Col. Hipódromo
Price: $380 – $410
From the heart of the Historic Center of Mexico City comes this amazing hidden gem: Roldán. Their speciality are all types of stuffed chillies so it doesn’t come as a surprise that their Chile en Nogada is astounding.
There is no batter coating the Chiles and they’re served warm with a very generous amount of Nogada that’s on the sweet side and with a nice hint of sherry.
Getting to this restaurant can be a daunting task as it is in the not-so-touristy part of the Centro, but the ambiance and service of the place will make it worth your time.
Roldán 37 , Col. Centro
Nunnery Las Clarisas
This is the only Chile en Nogada not in Mexico City but in the state of Puebla. The chili was covered with a fluffy egg batter, the sauce was heavy on the sherry and a little bit sweet but it was my absolute favorite Filling: the amount of perfectly chopped fruit was the same as the amount of meat in it, making it way more different and interesting than any other chili I’ve ever tried (In fact, my recipe post is based on this proportion).
This is an enclosed nunnery, meaning only the mother superior is able to have contact with customers outside and they can only take requests on weekends. Get there early as they run out of chiles every day before 11am.