Memories of Places and Tastes
My first trip to Hermosillo in 17 years begun with my head hanging down, not out of shame of any kind, but as a means to keep from scraping the ceiling of the tiny Embraer ERJ 135 jet with the AeroMexico logo adorning its tail. This wasn’t the typical flight to a Mexican tourist destination, no college kids with beach party plans or suburban couples looking for cheap tee times and Mayan-inspired spa services. The 35-seat jet was only a quarter full, occupied mostly by Mexican businessmen chatting quickly yet quietly in the softly accented Spanish of Hermosillo. I grew up with that same neutral accent that earns me the response “Wait, you’re Mexican? You don’t sound Mexican …’’ far more frequently than I care to admit.
The soft voices and the crunchy, spiced Japanese peanuts the red-lipsticked flight attendant dropped off were a comfort in a way that only the things you grew up, the things that make up the place you call home can be. The entire city of Hermosillo is a familiar comfort, while also strange and unfamiliar. Driving in a place where I had mostly known by moving around on foot, covering distances that seemed far away and at the other end of the city were now flashing by in minutes, and the short drives were made strange by the vanishing of landmarks and places that I had known all my childhood and had only lightly committed to memory as the only downside of a contented childhood is the feeling that everything will always be the same. The canal we used to walk along to afternoon classes in art and dance at the city’s cultural center was gone, filled in and covered by a six-lane boulevard flanked on each side with American big-box stores. Other roads were dotted with fast food burger chains, though thankfully no Taco Bell, looking all too sparkling in the bright sunlight, and far more exotic than its American cousin, especially considering that in Hermosillo at least, Burger King offers home delivery.
Fortunately, the cross-border homogenization of Hermosillo stopped at the city limits. The short drive west to Bahia de Kino, the small beach town I visted often with my family, was very much the same. Shadeless sunlight flooding a two-lane highway crossing a less-than-picturesque stretch of the Sonoran desert, a quiet drive made occasionally interesting by a slower vehicle moving to the wide shoulder, a disembodied arm waving madly to indicate I should pass, despite my own slow, sleepy pace.
For miles the only thing to break the bright sandy monotony are the beer shacks, scattered on both sides of the road, marked with a black T against a red background for Tecate, or a frothy mug of lager within a white circle for Modelo. Owned and operated by the breweries, there’s no one-stop shop for picky beer drinkers on this road. You have to pick your beer team. Twenty minutes or so outside of Kino the road finally takes a turn for the picturesque. Vineyards, orange groves and fields of melons add green to the sandy ground, and pick up trucks with a mountain of heavy watermelons filling their beds replace the beer shacks on the roadside. I remember seeing such watermelons in my parent’s house, taking a cooling bath in a five-gallon bucket of icy cold water, as such a monster of a melon would never have fit into an already overflowing fridge.
That hour-long drive ends with a fork on the road. Going straight leads to Kino Nuevo, the new part of town, with shining vacation homes, a few hotels, and sandier beaches. It was in the calm and warm waters here that my Mom would laugh at my manic intolerance for sand stuck to my feet, something that hasn’t changed to this day. But the far more interesting drive is to head left, to Kino Viejo, the old part of town, where fishermen sell their catch, cleaning and cutting local scallops, seasoning them with a squeeze of lime juice. The small town is full of open air eateries where friendly women cook butterflied local fish, lisa, over wood grills, smeared with chile, turning them into flaky mouthfuls of smoke and sea, and bringing back a nearly 20-year-old taste.
Charcoal Grilled Mullet with Chile Colorado
Lisa, known as mullet in the United States can be easily found at Asian and Mexican grocery stores with a sizable fish counter. If mullet is not available, ask for a non-oily white fish as a substitute. The flavor of this Kino Viejo classic comes from the fish being cooked whole, head, spine and tail, and from being as much smoked as grilled over a low wood fire. While the grill women of Kino use mangrove wood, mesquite charcoal makes a fine and smoky substitute. Since mullet are not large, use one whole fish per person, asking to have them scaled, gutted and butterflied at the fish counter.
For the Chile Colorado:
10 dried chile California
2 cups chicken stock
¼ of a medium white onion
2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
Clean the chiles by removing the stem and seeds. Rinse lightly with cold water and place in a saucepot and add the chicken stock. Bring to a boil, and simmer for 10 minutes, or until the chiles are soft. Place the chiles, half the soaking liquid and remaining ingredients in a blender jar, and puree on high speed until very smooth. Add remaining liquid as necessary to keep blender blades moving. Pass the chile through a fine mesh strainer to obtain a smoother sauce, if desired, but it is not necessary.
Prepare a charcoal grill with plenty of time. Smear the fish on all sides with the red chile paste, and season well with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Clean and lubricate the grill grates with canola oil. Place mullet, flesh side down, cooking over low heat, allowing for caramelization of the flesh and chile paste to occur. Turn the fish, and continue to cook, skin side down, until the flesh begins to flake easily.
Take advantage of the smoky grill, and serve the fish with a side of grilled corn, and other seasonal vegetables, adding steamed rice if desired.