Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mexican Pasta - Everything Done Wrong

To be clear right from the beginning, I love Mexican food.  95% of it has amazing flavor, and I guess about 50% of it is at least somewhat healthy.  (The other 50% is definitely not healthy, but is really, really good.)

There are, however, a few gripes I have about Mexican cooking.  On a day to day basis, in homes and in standard Mexican restaurants there is one thing which Mexicans have a knack for doing entirely wrong: Pasta.

Do you now any rules about cooking pasta? If you do, most Mexicans will probably break all of them, and the consequence is not good.  Step by step, I'll explain how Mexican's cook pasta, and how that contrasts to what I imagine is right.

1.  Fry the dry pasta with onions.  Not conventional but so far, nothing horribly wrong.  The only problem is that Mexicans don't know how to use a low flame on the stove; they will always have the heat on the highest flame possible, and then wonder why the food burns in the 30 seconds that they're not watching.  Needless to say, too often the pasta comes out burnt around the edges.  If they would keep the flame low and stir it enough, this step may not be the worst thing in the world.

2. Boil the pasta in water.  Normally, this part is OK, but several times I've seen people put the pasta into cold water, and boil it from that point, making the pasta mushy (the general negative outcome of Mexican pasta.)

3. Add raw vegetables to the water.  This is where everything begins to go really down hill. The vegetables could include garlic, carrots, zucchini and chayote.   The problem is that these vegetables take much longer to cook than pasta, especially considering the fact that Mexicans like to overcook food - a point which works well with tacos, and other typically Mexican dishes, but not with pasta or vegetables.

4. Add tomato paste to the water/vegetable broth. Of course, tomato paste on pasta works well, but not when you add it to the same water that you boiled the pasta in.  Seasonings such as coriander (cilantro) and salt also get added.

5. Boil until everything becomes mushy.  Because of the love for for over-cooking, everything - veggies and pasta alike - get cooked much longer than the 7-10 minutes that are sufficient to cook pasta.  By the time the carrots are soft and mushy the way they like them (20 minutes or more), if you used macaroni, it would be the size of your thumb, and completely textureless.

The result is a watery, tomato-y mush full of soft vegetables and way over-cooked pasta, which is usually falling a part.   If there are left overs, it turns into a big lump in the fridge, or the pasta just falls apart completely.

Mexicans like to call this soup ("sopa.")  In fact, the word "sopa" generally refers to what we call "pasta;" for example, if they go to the grocery store and buy a package of macaroni, they will say they are buying "sopa."  It can also refer to really thick stews.  What we call "soup," they would call "broth" ("caldo.")  Even though I have no right to try to change Mexican Spanish, this is one point where I refuse to give in and use their terminology.  I believe that the use of the word is directly linked to this cooking monstrosity.  So, I resist, and emphatically tell people that I am buying or cooking "pasta", "spaghetti" or "macaroni" but I NEVER call it "sopa," hoping that this will reflect my intentions not to boil it into a mush.

To be fair, if done carefully, and the vegetables are left out, it can be OK, only when served immediately after cooking.  But I've only seen this happen two or three times.  This is also not isolated; I've had this kind of pasta-soup in homes and in restaurants in different parts of the country; it's a wide-spread problem.  Of course, if you go to a specialized restaurant, the pasta will be done correctly, and it can even be really good!

The frustrating part for me is that with the exact same ingredients, you could make a delicious pasta dish with a vegetarian sauce.  My chances of winning this battle are slim, since I'm resisting decades of habits for 100 million people.  But I won't give up, for the sake of Pasta and all those who love it.


  1. Dear Jacob,
    It is true that some people do not know how to make soup (because they do not know how to cook at all), but most of us can, and do not make the horrible and terrible mistakes you wrote on your blog.
    I also may add to my comment, (..."for the sake of Pasta and all those who love it") that soup for us, is not "Pasta"; and even though we use "pasta" in our soup; soup is a typical MEXICAN dish made out of that ingredient.
    What mexican people really call "Pasta", is when referring to spaghetti, canelones, macaroni, etc. (And here is where I can tell you that most of mexican people commonly make mistakes when fixing this type of dish, but not when cooking soup).
    It is also very wrong to say that you can find good and tasty soup only in specialized restaurants, one of the reasons that this is not true is because "pasta" for soup, is very cheap here in mexico and it is fixed in most of the poor to middle class homes before the main dish.
    One of the things I love the most, are the exquisite types of soup prepared with many different ingredients other than tomato and vegetables. I also love how my aunts, mother and grandma cook soup for the family, specially the one who cooks the maid for me.

    With all my respect, I believe you have tried soup at your home or in other wrong places where they do not prepare it the correct way, or maybe you just might not like it at all.

    With all my respect,

  2. I forgot to add, maybe I am one of the 100 million people who are not willing to kick out the bad habit of cooking pasta as soup.
    Angie, again.

  3. Angie, your second last comment is probably closest to the truth; "maybe you just might not like it at all ..."

    I think for me it's just the whole thing about putting pasta in soup.

  4. Well... I love sopa de pasta...

  5. Hi Jacob, You don´t know how much I laughed, as my boyfriend is german and we have the same argument any other day; I call sopa anything that has liquid in it, and he just hates it. Nevertheless one of his ever favorites is the macaroni "sopita" I make, is just delicious! Regards.

  6. as my daughter will say " yucky!" .. Well I follow the instructions in the pack :).. LOL

  7. wa ha ha ! I am canadian living in Mexico and I laughed the whole way through your post. My husband is mexican and makes that "soup". Now, I don't fight him anymore, haha, that's NOT pasta, that really is a soup. He never put the vegetables but he does put the tomato paste with the water ( it really drives me crazy)