The other day my mother-in-law Carmelita came over on her way home from the market and handed me a couple of clear plastic packets of something that looked a bit like the old Kellogs Sugar Corn Pops from my youth (“knock, knock sugar pops are tops!”). They appeared to be little balls covered with sugar syrup and they were about double the size of sugar pops. They had a crunchy texture when I tried them and they reminded me of eating “Cracker Jacks”. I asked her what they were and she said “muéganos” (MWAY-gah-nohs). She said that they are an old traditional sweet snack that she doesn't see much anymore in Irapuato. She bought them for me so that I would know what “muéganos” are. She told me that they are made by mixing a little bit of flour and tiny bit of salt with some water and forming the dough into little balls. The little balls are then fried in hot oil which makes them sort of hollow and crunchy. After that they are coated with syrup made from piloncillo (raw sugar) and separated to cool. The next day I happened to come across another type that were square and that came from the relatively nearby town of Celaya. I was intrigued by the name “muéganos” and even more intrigued when I couldn't find the word in any dictionary. I did what I always do when I encounter a word like this and I start tugging at little threads of information until I get the whole story.
The reason that I couldn't find the word “muéganos” is that it is a New World version of the Old World “nuégados” which means “nougat” or in other words, a mixture of ground roasted almonds or other nuts mixed into a paste made from egg whites and honey or sugar. The conquistadors from the Extremadura Region of Spain brought the nuégados idea with them when the came to Mexico. In Spain, they would mix sugar and ground almonds or other nuts into a paste and then mix the paste with “cañamones” which are seeds from the hemp plant and make them into little bars or biscuits. They were the original of what we call a “candy bar” today. The hemp seeds were Cannabis sativa L. which is industrial cannabis and not the kind you might be thinking about. Hemp has been cultivated around the world for centuries. It is still being cultivated just about everywhere except the United States even though George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both cultivated hemp on their farms and the Declaration of Independence was drafted on paper made from hemp fibers. Industrial hemp is an important fiber resource that I am sure that we will soon be hearing more about. Don't worry. You don't smoke this variety.
Okay, so now we are over here in the New World so how did the name get changed from “nuégados” to “muéganos”. Well, nobody seems to know but there is a consensus that it happened in the Mexican States of Puebla, Tlaxcala, Hidalgo, and México. The four states are each famous for their own type of muéganos. In Tlaxcala, in the municipality of Huamantla, the muéganos are called “Muéganos Huamantlecos”. In Hidalgo the town of Huasca is famous for “Muéganos de Huasca”, and in the State of México the municipality of Teotihuacán is famous for “Muéganos El Águila” which is also a well known brand name. The City of Puebla is famous for all types of sweets and in Puebla you will find muéganos like “Muéganos Poblanos” and “Muéganos de Vino” and the recipes for some of these can be quite exotic. It is my understanding that a lot of the development regarding muéganos in this region was done by convent nuns. These muéganos are generally of the true nougat type and come in many forms and some of them, like the Muéganos El Águila look like fairly large candy bars. The muéganos are often sandwiched in between a top and bottom layer of what is called “wafer paper” or “rice paper”. It is not actually paper but it is thin and white and edible. It is made from white rice flour, tapioca flour, salt, and water or from potato starch, water, and vegetable oil. In Spain there is something similar to the Muégano El Águila called a “turrón” which comes in various shapes and styles and is traditionally eaten during the Christmas season. The muéganos in the Bajío region of Mexico where I live seem to be more like “poor man's muéganos” and are made with just flour, salt, pilloncillo, and perhaps a bit of canela (cinnamon). They really have nothing to do with nougat.
Now that we have the basics covered there is something else that I should mention about the word “muéganos”. You may sometime hear the phrase “familia muéganos” and this refers to a family including mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, and grandchildren, etcetera, that is very united and stuck together just like the flour ball and syrup type múeganos stick together. This can be a good thing but it can also be detrimental because a family like this is not open to change or compromise. It thinks, moves, feels, and reacts as a unit and to move or influence one member you have to move them all and this can only happen very slowly. Some Mexican anthropologists and sociologists have likened the whole country to muéganos in that the people are subject to strong family ties, political alliances, patronage, nepotism, religious traditions and many other things that are so entwined that it makes governing through laws difficult because for several hundred years all of these things took precedence over the law.
So, am I done with muéganos? I don't think so. There are still some loose ends that I need to tie up. I would still like to know how the word “nuégados” changed to “muéganos” or if it even did. Perhaps the word “muéganos” actually came from somewhere else. Not only that but in El Salvador and Guatemala they have a dish called “chilate con nuégados”. The “chilate” is a simple corn beverage, slightly spicy due to the peppercorns and ginger used to prepare it. The “nuégados” are made of yucca, toasted cornmeal or plantain in syrup and don't have anything to do with nougat either. In any case, for now at least, if anyone mentions the words “méganos” or “nuégados” you will have a pretty fair idea of what they might be talking about. If I learn anything more I will give you an update.
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