Making Tepache: How Did They Figure that Out?

At the end of the trip, I asked a friend about whether I could buy some. He pointed to a table by the side of the road with filled plastic bottles, recycled for this purpose. “There’s some. Want me to stop?,” he asked. Uh, no.

I often ask myself how humans ever came up with some of the food we eat. Like bread. What happened there, with the yeast and the grinding up a grain that didn’t really seem like food for people? Who thought, I’m gonna mash this stuff up and let it sit around and then put it over the fire? Or noodles. Who thought boiling up a paste pulled into thin strips might be a good idea? We are inventive, we humans!

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I made pasta recently. Isn’t that dough lovely?

And then there’s alcohol. Did people just let things hang around long enough and then think, I’m gonna drink this anyway, even though it smells a bit off? I am fascinated by the human propensity to try out.

One of the great things about traveling is that you are going to try out quite a bit. The willingness to try really enhances one’s experience of a place. When I take students with me, they are often a bit reluctant to try the more unfamiliar tastes. In Oaxaca, one is truly compelled to eat insects, for example. Eating chapulines, a little grasshopper commonly cooked and seasoned, guarantees your return to the state, and once there, you will want to return.

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Ready to sprinkle on a taco.     Photo: Lora Adams

Most people at least try it. I heartily encouraged my students to do so. My husband, though, embraced this culinary pleasure with vigor and we bought several varieties.

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We got the garlic and the chile flavors. So many to try!

One of my unexpected pleasures while in Oaxaca was tepache. I was served a glass at a lunch on one trip. They told us that it was mildly alcoholic and made on the premises of the restaurant. Well, I admit that this statement struck a little fear into my heart. Like, what does “mildly” mean? And I’ve got a full day ahead of me and it’s a bit hot. And homemade alcohol is kind of a thing I’ve been warned about, and I’m avoiding raw vegetables and ice in Mexico, so this drink does not fall into my cautious eating plan.

But this is how it looked.

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Chile on the rim. So pretty.     Photo: Lora Adams

So you know I had to drink it. Oh, so refreshing. A bit sweet. Where had this drink been all my life?

Over the course of that trip, I was served a glass occasionally, but I never saw it on a menu. At the end of the trip, I asked a friend about whether I could buy some. He pointed to a table by the side of the road with filled plastic bottles, recycled for this purpose. “There’s some. Want me to stop?,” he asked. Uh, no.

After I returned home, I researched it a bit and found that it really is something that people brew for themselves. And it turns out that tepache also makes me wonder how anyone figured this out. It is made from the rinds of pineapple. The rinds. Of pineapple. Which have naturally occurring yeast on them. What?! People talk about tepache a bit like they do about kombucha. You ferment it on the counter. I am not 100% certain that it actually is alcoholic. More about this later.

I gathered up my courage and attempted it myself. It came out delicious, and about a week has passed and I have suffered no ill consequences. I feel safe passing it along to you.

My Recipe for Tepache

Start by getting a pineapple, a nice ripe one. Rinse it well. Cut off the leaves and discard. Cut off the rind and put in a large bowl. Cut out the tough core and throw that in the bowl too. Now cut up that tasty pineapple to eat later and put it in the fridge.

Now, most recipes have you just cover the rinds with water and stir in some sugar, but I didn’t do that. I don’t know what got sprayed on that pineapple coming to my store. And a lot of fruit goes through a quick heating and cooling process when it comes into this country (like mangos and avocados). So I figured my natural yeast might have been cooked already.

I brought 8 cups of water to a boil with 1 cup of turbinado sugar and one cup of brown sugar. It’s what I had on hand, but most recipes call for piloncillo, a hard, dark sugar chunk you can buy in Mexican groceries. Add 2 sticks of cinnamon and a few whole cloves. Let boil for just one minute to dissolve the sugar. Throw in the pineapple rinds and core and turn off the heat.

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It’s not fancy at my house.

It will already smell great in your house. You can transfer to a glass pitcher, but I just left mine in the pot. Once it cools, I sprinkled a little yeast on top. Just a little. Just in case that other yeast was cooked. I covered it for 2-3 days. It gets a white foam on top. This is the yeast going to work. Do not freak out. This is what needs to happen. After about two days, strain it into a pitcher, discarding everything but the liquid. Store in the refrigerator to stop the fermentation.

A note on alcoholic content: I have no idea. I drank about an 8-ounce glass that first day after fermentation, over ice, and I loved it. I really didn’t notice any alcoholic effects. Then I made a wonderful cocktail of my own invention with it the next day, and it didn’t impact me at all. A couple days later, I made the same cocktail and I felt it. I don’t know if I was a little dehydrated or if the alcohol had gotten stronger.

Tepache Solstice (or just a Solstice at our house)

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Drink up the flavor of summer.

Fill a rocks glass with ice. Add one shot of dark rum and three drops of Angostura bitters. Top up with tepache and a slice of lemon. Finish by marveling at how some human figured all this flavor out.

 

A Cocktail to Make You Weep

Did your mind jump to mezcal? Of course it did!

When my daughter was about two years old, we visited some good friends in Phoenix. She was sitting on their low garden wall, entranced by their elusive (to her) cat. She reached out for him and toppled backwards, right onto a small cactus. It wasn’t until we pulled her up that we saw the cut under her eye, sliced ever so neatly by the spine of a nearby agave. She cried bitterly as we pulled the cactus spines out of her back. Fortunately, her pain drew that little cat to her; he wove around her legs and let her pet him, finally, which stopped the tears. She still has a thin scar under her eye all these years later. She has had a thousand cuts and scrapes over the years. None of the others left a permanent mark.

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Anyone who has spent any time in the Sonoran Desert knows the agave plant, though hopefully not in such a bloody manner. In fact, their range extends much farther than the Sonoran Desert, reaching north into Utah, throughout Mexico, and even down into parts of South America. Though I lived in Arizona for years, it wasn’t until I spent some time in Oaxaca, Mexico that I fully came to appreciate agave and all it has to offer.

Did your mind jump to mezcal? Of course it did! Before you leave this post already, let me reassure you that I was not a big drinker of mezcal before going to Oaxaca. My prior exposure to mezcal and tequila always seemed to be hearing about people wanting to get drunk quickly and then regretting that decision rather fervently. That is not what this post is about, I promise!

Agave flavors everything in Oaxaca in some sense. It has been cultivated for thousands of years across its growing region. People decorated pottery with agave designs. They stored it in caves. They used different varieties for needles, cloth, thatched roofs, paper, food, and for both alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks. Recently, archaeologists Paul and Suzanne Fish of the University of Arizona (and others) have argued that agave wasn’t merely planted widely in the ancient U.S. Southwest, it was domesticated. That means that they see evidence of techniques used to make these plants more beneficial for those farming it. Indeed, we may need to speak of a fourth “sister” crop, complementing corn, beans, and squash, when considering its importance to indigenous people.

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Agave field in Oaxaca       Photo: Lora Adams

While I was in Oaxaca, I saw fields of multiple varieties of agave. I was also delighted to sample pickled agave flower buds. I might have eaten more than my share of those little honeys.

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Blooming agave with saguaros in Arizona

I was fortunate enough to meet with a shaman, or traditional healer, on one visit. A group of students and I participated in a temazcal. A temazcal is a kind of sweat lodge, and we used several plants during the sweat – coffee, mango, bouquets of basil, and definitely mezcal. Before the temazcal itself, the healer worked on two or three members of our group. Mezcal was used as a substance to purify both healer and the person in need of healing. At one point, our host filled his mouth with it and sprayed it vigorously all over the patient. It was offered many times throughout our visit, and he explained repeatedly that it was very pure. It could not give you a hangover, he said, because it was nothing but agave. The intention was never to get someone drunk, but to cure.

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Shaman’s Tools      Photo: Lora Adams

Our group was still shy about mezcal at this point. The idea of drinking early in the day, and right before sweating profusely, didn’t entice us.

Later in this trip, we visited a mezcal producer. Now, if you visit Oaxaca, you can take many tours of palenques for mezcal. They are made for tourists and export, and have numerous flavors and types available. That wasn’t where we went. On our way to Juchitán, a community on the coast, our wonderful guide took us by his favorite producer of mezcal. No one was around that day, and we were intimidated (okay, I was intimidated) by the family of turkeys roaming the site protectively.

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They are bigger than you think.

Happily, we returned in a few days to find Telésforo Martinez and his sons available to show us their excellent mezcal. They produced every aspect of the spirit. They harvested the plants, keeping different varieties separate; they roasted the piñas, or hearts of the plants; and they distilled the alcohol.

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Piñas ready for roasting

To give us samples, they put a rubber tube into a cask and sucked until it began to flow into a small dried gourd. We then passed around gourd after gourd of mezcal, trying each type. This one is small and grown in the wild, this one is aged for so long, this one is the most popular. To take some with you, you simply paid for the amount you wanted and transferred it into a bottle that you brought with you.

Our kind and encouraging guide assured me that we would have no trouble getting them through U.S. customs. I just couldn’t believe him, so I bought labels at a store in town and decorated them to fool the agents.

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Don’t laugh. That is totally convincing. Also, they didn’t stop any of us or question it at all.

One night in the city of Oaxaca, we ate at a wonderful restaurant called Zandunga. I had their fantastic red mole, but the highlight was truly my cocktail, La Llorona (The Weeping  Woman), made with local mezcal. People in Mexico and the United States tell many versions of the story of La Llorona. Always, she drowns her children and is doomed to cry for them forever. In some places, the tale contains elements of class inequality (she was poor but her love was a wealthy man who scorned her after she bore him children), in other places she is a warning to women (she was a neglectful mother who prefers the attention of men to caring for her young children). Some of you may know the gorgeous Mexican folk song of the same name, which originates in Oaxaca. Check out Lila Downs’ version if you are feeling weepy. (When the song came on as I watched the movie Coco with my daughter, I totally burst into tears.)

I approximated my own version of the cocktail when I got home. I swear I get a little teary with nostalgia for Oaxaca when I drink it.

La Llorona

You have to begin by making jamaica, a sweet drink from hibiscus flowers. You can find the flowers in any Mexican grocery.

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Lovely jamaica flowers

Bring 6 cups of water to a boil and then add 2 cups of dried jamaica flowers and 3/4 cup sugar. Boil for one minute. If you are using a non-corrosive pot, leave it there to steep for about 2 hours, or transfer to another container you can’t stain. After it has steeped, pour the liquid through a sieve over a pitcher to strain out the flowers. Push out all that liquid! Check for intensity. Sometimes I need to dilute the strength with cold water.

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It gets pretty strong.

Enjoy over ice and keep in the fridge for a refreshing drink on its own.

For the cocktail, fill a tall glass with ice. Combine 2 shots of pineapple juice, 1/2 shot simple syrup, and 1 shot of mezcal. Top with jamaica. Add some freshly grated ginger to taste. I also sometimes throw in some Penzey’s crystallized ginger for extra fun. Stir and enjoy! I make this without alcohol as a special treat for my daughter.

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Isn’t it beautiful?

If you aren’t listening to Lila Downs right now, I need to know the reason why. And before you ask, it is NOT just as good with tequila.