Sunday, August 22, 2010

North and South, and the Geography of Fajitas

Scarfing down a plate of fajitas in a Mexican restaurant this evening, I got to thinking about north and south.

Consider China.  I never grasped the point until I saw the place, but there is all the difference in the world between North China and South China. North is spare and austere, in some places virtually a steppe culture.  South is damp and sticky, with swine flu.

It carries over into food.  In America, we look for noodles and rice on the same menu.  A moment's reflection in China will tell you that rice is south and noodles are north.

Or consider Russia the former Soviet Union. I don't know if there is a food issue here but anyone who knows the first thing about the Eurasian landmass knows the difference between the forest and the steppe. Specifically, Genghis Kahn and the boys can ride roughshod over the steppe. Anyone so foolish as to try to farm out there is always vulnerable to a stranger on horseback.  In the forest, you may freeze your patootie, and there is a pretty good chance your long house will burn down.  But you are far less vulnerable to the depradations of strangers.

Or India.  Here the fault line is linguistic: northerners speak mostly Sanskrit-based languages.  The southern languages are Dravidian, which is about as different from Sanskrit as Hungarian is from Latin..

A particularly striking case (considering that it is so tiny) is Israel.  "Biblical Israel"--in particular, Galilee, i.e., the north, can look verdant and fertile.  Up in the corner at Dan, you find babbling brooks.  The south--Judah--is spare and austere, plus the Dead Sea.

Which brings me back to the fajitas.  I'm really inexcusably ignorant of Mexico, including its geography.  Many years ago I did read Jack Womack's superbly readable biography of Zapata  I got the sense Zapata's southern Mexico as a culture of small-holding farmers, in contrast to the cowboy culture of Pancho Villa's north.

Which brings me back to the fajitas: carcass singed on a piece of hot iron.  Sure sounds like cowboy food to me.   Good, though.  But it makes me wonder: are fajitas specifically northern?  And are there other parts of Mexican cuisine that are specifically southern.  And is it part of our cultural chauvinism that we mash them all together on the same plate?

Update:  A nanosecond after I posted this, I got this link from Joel, which probably answers my question.  Also this,which also appears to be on topic.


elrojo said...

i don't like mexican food i don't think but aint it refried pinto beans, not pinto refried beans?

New York Crank said...

Having visited Oaxaca which is the "culinary capital" of Mexico, the Crank's Beautiful Girlfriend and I discovered what we were told was a regional cuisine.

It's high point is mole, (pronounced, if I got it right, Mo-lay), a sauce usually containing chocolate, poured over meat. It's better than it sounds, but not yummy. Given a choice, I'll take Thai. Given an even wider choice, make mine French.

Another local favorite in Oaxaca was fried insects. I chose to pass.

Yours very crankily,
The New York Crank