08 March 2009

The Essence of Chicharrón

To put it in a nutshell the essence of chicharrón is food made from pig skin. However, that certainly isn't the end of the story. Since the skin of the pig is undoubtedly one of the best parts and there are so many different ways to prepare it for eating, the word “chicharrón” is merely a name for what in Mexico is almost a major food group. There are regional differences in how people eat chicharrón and what they call it and so my comments are limited to what I have experienced here in Central Mexico in the town of Irapuato. I will attempt to explain it as best I can but in no particular order of importance. I guess the best place to start is the outside of the pig and work in. There are two forms of the very top layer of pig skin or “epidermis”and they are both called “cueritos”. One form is “cueritos en escabeche” which is very thin strips of blanched pig skin pickled in vinegar. I won't be talking about that form today. I will save that and pickled pigs feet, one of my favorites, for another time.

There is another form of “cueritos” that is thin pieces of pig skin that come from the process of making “carnitas” where the whole pig is cooked in its own lard along with orange juice and beer and various “secret” ingredients. This type of skin would come under the general heading of “chicharrón” even though it isn't specifically called by that name. Actually there are several types of pig skin that come out of the carnitas cooking process that fall under the category “chicharrón” depending on what part of the animal they come from. In some places the subcutaneous fat (fat under the skin) is very thin and thus the “cueritos” are mostly thin pieces of skin. In other places however, the layer of fat under the skin is very thick such as on the back and the belly. This fat clings very stubbornly to the skin and the two are very hard to separate. This is also where much of the lard comes from that is rendered out during the making of carnitas. This type of chicharrón is often used to make “chicharrón con chile” by cooking it with serrano chiles and tomatoes. It is soft and gelatinous and a bit spicy but served with arroz mexicana (rice with tomato, garlic, carrot, and onion), it is a delicious and popular dish among country folk. There is another form called “lonja de cerdo” (or “fatback” in English) which is small squares of skin with fat about one half inch thick that come from the back of the pig. These are fried in a pan until the lard is rendered out and they turn brown and crispy. They are very tasty.

There is a form of chicarrón that I call “chicharrón crudo” but no doubt it is called by many other names. I first had this type when I lived for the first year in the Mexican State of Nuevo Leon with two parish priests. My good friend Padre Humberto just loved chicharrón that he would bring home in a paper sack that was so soaked with grease that it was almost transparent. This type of chicharrón is not skin but mostly fat with little pieces of meat attached. I am sure that it is not very good for you but it sure does taste good. If I could, I would go back in time and space this very instant and share some chicharrón crudo with Padre Humberto.

Now we come to the forms of chicharrón where the lard has been mostly rendered out and they are in a firm or “dry” state. The first of these is called “cuero duro” meaning “hard skin” and often just called “duro”. This is made from pieces of skin from which most of the subcutaneous fat and hair has been removed by scraping. The pieces of skin are then boiled in water and hung up to dry for about twenty-four hours. Then they are placed in vats of very hot vegetable oil until the skin “puffs up” and becomes thick and light like a piece of foam. The skin is drained and left to cool and harden into sheets. Below you can see some photos that I took of a small town “durería” or “place where duro is made”. These photos were taken on a Sunday afternoon and they were getting ready to close. In the foreground of the second picture you can see pig skins waiting to be deep fried. In the third photo you can see bags of “papas dorados” (potato chips) and “tacos dorados” (tortillas folded over and deep fried). The fourth photo shows the finished “cuero duro” ready for sale. The pieces shown here cost between twenty and forty pesos depending upon the weight at sixty pesos per kilo. Duro can be used in several different ways. It is often used as an “antojito” or “botana” (appetizer or snack) served in hand sized pieces with salsa mexicana (salsa de bandera) or a salsa picante like salsa Valentina or salsa San Luis. I just love this stuff!

Another form of chicharrón is called “chicharrón delgado” (thin chicharrón) which is similar to duro but isn't boiled first and is deep fried in “manteca” (lard) instead of vegetable oil. In contrast, “Chicharrón grueso” (thick chicharrón) is also pig skin deep fried in manteca but it has pieces of meat attached. Both types type of chicharrón are broken into pieces and cooked with jitomate (red tomato), chile serrano or chile guajillo, and tomatillo (something like a green tomato but it isn't a tomato) which here in Irapuato the people called “tomate de hoja” or just plain “tomate”. They add a little water to these ingredients and it makes a nice “guisado” (sauce or gravy). Now we come to “chicharrón prensado” which is made from small bits of meat that are left in the manteca after the carnitas or chicharrón processes and are put in a press and pressed into a semi solid block. This block is then cut into pieces and prepared similar to chicharrón grueso.

In addition to the actual forms of chicharrón there are dishes in which chicharrón is used. Two of my favorites are made with cuero duro. The first is a signature dish of the the city of León, Guanajuato. It is a sandwhich called a “guacamaya” (sometimes spelled “huacamaya”). The word “guacamaya” is the Spanish name for the parrot that in English we call a “macaw”. I don't know why they call the sandwhich “guacamaya” other than the sandwich, like the bird, is very colorful. To make a guacamaya they take a bread roll called a “bolillo” and split it open with a knife. Then they remove much of the non-crust portion of the bolillo which is called the “migajón”. In place of the migajón they put little broken pieces of cuero duro along with salsa mexicana made with tomato, onion, and chile serrano. Another dish that I like is a thick bean soup made with “frijoles de olla” (slow cooked beans) which is added to broken pieces of cuero duro. It is heavenly.

I am sure that I probably left out a bunch of information and maybe I even left out more than I put in. In fact, it would probably take a whole chapter of a book to fully explore all the ways that pig skin is prepared for eating in Mexico. For those of you think I left out something important I welcome your comments. For those who didn't know that the subject of chicharrón could be so complicated, at least you have a start. In any case, to each and everyone of you I say...

¡ Buen provecho !

(click on photos to enlarge)




10 comments:

Chiva Congelado said...

You made me seriously hungry. One of the things I miss the most from Mexico is chicharrón. I even found that they sell a microwave version of it in Mexico City supermarkets (like microwave popcorn).

YayaOrchid said...

My youngest Son had me try a bag of microwaved 'chicharrones' with chile, and they were pretty good cracklins. I'm sure the different dishes using chiles and vegetables make for an excellent meal. You've seriously made me hungry, Mr. Bob!

Anonymous said...

Bob, I love pickled pig's feet too...in fact I make them....they are not hard to make...the only difficult part is getting the pickling spices so I bring them in bulk when I make trips to the US. Kathe

Anonymous said...

I forgot to say thanks for the very detailed explanation of chicharrones...I had no idea...it is sort of analagous to all the ways they can fix a food dish here using masa/tortillas and call it by lots of different names... salbutes, tostadas, panuchos, huaraches, empanadas, tacos, tacos dorados, enchiladas, sopes, chilaquiles...
Kathe

nick said...

That was quite informative Mr. Bob, thank you!

srjordan said...

Oh the irony. I swore I would never eat chicarrones and yet I've had (what people around here refer to as) 'duros'... which I didn't realize that it was fried pig skin! They are mighty tasty with some cabbage, tomato, onion, cilantro, lime, and valentina though!

Steve said...

Really enjoying your blog, so much to read and so much Spanish to learn. I love the dialogs. I wish I had found your blog 5 years ago.

I live in León, and the legend goes that one can not say they are from León until you have been baptised, by having your first guacamaya a specially prepared "baptismo".

Muy picante!!!! Ice cream for two days! The two most infamous stands are next to Tech de Monterrey and across from the Superama by the CFE just off Avenida Insurgentes.

Don Cuevas said...

I lke chicharrón on occasion. The crunchy, snacking kind, not the slimy stuff cooked in salsa.

Yesterday, I had a plate of patitas de puerco en vinaigre. It had been a while. Not much flavor itself, just interesting textures and a vehicle for salsa. It was refreshing in an odd way.

I thought about blogging about that, but there's not much to say about a plte of pickled pig's skin and cartilaginous bones, is there?

Saludos,
Don Cuevas

Bob Mrotek said...

Go for it Don Cuevas! There are times when nothing satisfies like pickled pigs feet. When you want to munch on something but you don't know exactly what and you are bored with everything else some pig's trotters steeped in vinegar and chiles just can't be beat :)

Lady Prism said...

We have "chicharon" in my country too! Exactly the way you have it there. :p

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.