I’m one of those old-school people who like to bring a small gift when I’m invited to someone’s home; a hostess gift, if you will. A bottle of nice wine or flowers are standard, and while those are always appreciated, because we’re in Mexico we’ve got other—more unique—options for tasty holiday gifts in Mexico.
Case in point: This morning I got sucked into the big bustling central mercado here in Mazatlán; I hadn’t meant to, but suddenly there was a primo parking space right out front that I couldn’t resist. Today was a cruise ship day, too, so it was more crowded than usual, with groups of people surging through the always-crowded aisles. Thinking about this story, I wandered around with new eyes: What would make a fun gift?
What jumped out at me right away were the many colors, styles and sizes of the classic Mexican net market bags. In and of themselves they’re a welcome present, especially in this age of bring-your-own-bag to just about every store. So yes, a stash of a few of these in various colors might be a wise thing to have on hand. And they can be filled with so many fun things, many of which can also be found in the mercado.
Start by finding a dulcería (candy shop), easily located by the bevy of colorful and fun piñatas hanging (and/or piled) at the entrance. Don’t know what’s inside those candy and snack packages, many of which aren’t labeled or are in Spanish slang? No worries—chances are no one else will either, and half the fun is in the tasting and discovery. Some of the most popular include cocadas, fresh coconut candy in bars, rolls and assorted other shapes, sometimes dyed hot pink; De La Rosa Mazipan, a sweet ground peanut confection; rebanaditas, lollipops coated in chili powder; all kinds of spicy, sweet and salty tamarind candies; cajeta lollipops, bars and candies (see obleas below); “Pelon Pelo Rico,” tamarind pulp in a small, silly bright green squeeze bottle; Paleta Payaso, a chocolate-covered marshmallow on a stick with a colorful clown face; and dulce de alegría, amaranth candy in a variety of shapes. Fill a pretty bag, basket or ceramic Talavera bowl with a selection of these and you’ve got a welcome gift for just about anyone.
Cajeta, a traditional Mexican sweet, is caramel made by slowly cooking goat’s milk and sugar. Depending on how long it’s been cooked down, cajeta will either be thin enough to drizzle over pancakes, yogurt, fruit, cereal, ice cream, etc. or thick enough to be eaten as a delicious melt-in-your-mouth candy, molded into different shapes. You’ll also find obleas, round, paper-thin, wheat flour wafers, often dyed in pastel colors, with cajeta sandwiched between the wafers. Oblea literally means communion wafers and that’s what these are. Many people (myself included) like to just eat a spoonful of cajeta right out of the jar! Cajeta is also one of the ingredients in the fabled Tres Leches cake. Cajeta that’s thick enough to eat like caramel is often sold in tiny oblong balsa-wood boxes tied with red string; grocery stores and tiendas will have jars of the sauce. Read the label to be sure you’re getting actual cajeta and not some overly processed imitation.
Speaking of piñatas, they make adorable and memorable gifts too, filled or not. Once I bought six small reindeer piñatas—about 10 inches tall—and an equally miniature Santa Claus and set them outside a friend’s front door on Christmas morning. At the other end of the spectrum are the really big piñatas, Christmas themed or not: four-foot-tall unicorns that stand on their own, Pacifico bottles as big as an eight-year-old, three-dimensional, seven-pointed stars representing the seven deadly sins. These are guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of everyone from age three to 93.
At this time of year, you’ll find more piñatas than ever; they’re the traditional entertainment at posadas, parties or gatherings held during the nine nights preceding Christmas, December 16-24. Symbolizing and honoring Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and their search for a safe place to birth the Baby Jesus, nowadays the word “posada” is often applied to any holiday gathering in December. The hosts supply food and drink for the “wanderers,” who walk from house-to-house in their neighborhood (or just come to yours) singing the traditional “Las Posadas” song. Refreshments traditionally served include tamales, pozole, ponche navideña, atole and buñuelos,
Speaking of buñuelos (boon-WELL-ohs), these sweet fried dough fritters are a welcome, appropriate and delicious gift during the Christmas season—or anytime, really, if you can find them! The leavened dough is rolled into flat circles of different sizes, deep-fried and then drizzled or bathed in a thick sugar syrup or sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. Much like the tradition in the American south of eating black-eyes peas on New Year’s Day for good luck, buñuelos are believed to bring good luck to those who eat them during the holidays. I can’t think of anything similar in American cuisine, and I still remember that the first time I saw them—gigantic 18-inch circles of the crispy, golden bubbly fried dough being sold on a crowded street in Tlaquepaque—I wanted them immediately! They’re a traditional Mexican holiday dessert and a few of them, with the accompanying sugar syrup, would always be a welcome and appropriate gift. Simpler would be a selection of pan dulce, pastries and “sweet bread,” or Mexican-style Danish. Cochinitos (pig-shaped spice cookies), polverones (sugar cookies) and conchas (shell-shaped pastries) are just a few of the classic pan dulce you’ll find. Find them in your local mercado or at a Christmas Fair, if you’re fortunate enough to have one in your area.
This year I’m flying to the States for Christmas and need to bring some generic gifts to have on hand for random people that may come my way. I’ve packed a couple of 1-lb. bags of locally roasted coffee beans—from Oaxaca and Chiapas—that cost me less than half what they would in the U.S. I’ve also packed three half-pound bags of dried mangoes to bring too. Again, they cost so much less here and are always appreciated, especially by kids. I’ve learned to pack dense items like this on the top of my carry-on, as they are almost always flagged for closer inspection at the airports. If you’re checking a bag, consider bringing a selection of hot sauces—they’ll be appreciated and most likely at least one will be too-hot-for-comfort, eliciting laughs and tears at the same time.
Candied nuts, or nueces garapiñadas, are a favorite in Mexico during the holidays. Peanuts, walnuts and pecans are the most common; sometimes you can also find almonds. Most dulcerías make these on the spot, cooking down a thick, vanilla-flavored sugar syrup in a flat copper pot, then stirring in the nuts until they’re covered. More than a little irresistible, it’s good to keep a bag or two of these on hand for unexpected gifts or attacks of the munchies. Garapiñadas are also wonderful to bring to friends and family up north, as they travel well and are universally loved.
Enjoy this wonderful season in Mexico and Feliz Navidad everyone!