Monday, 13 July 2009

oniony beginnings: my Aguascalientes muse

I fell in love with onions many years ago in the very hot, very dusty, very loud Mexican city of Aguascalientes. I was on a road trip through northern and central Mexico together with two other travelers; three tall people cramped into a small Mazda pickup: Chihuahua, Durango, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, San Miguel, Leon. Across the northern desert and through the Sierra Madres we drove. We arrived in Aguascalientes at dusk one evening, hot and cramped from having been bent double in our small truck all day. We were hungry, tired and in a strange city so we took the first rooms that presented themselves. The hotel we booked into that night must have been on the busiest street of Aguascalientes. Convencion Avenue is a major thoroughfare and there was no end to the roaring traffic as the night wore on. We also made the mistake of booking into a hotel that was adjacent to the bus depot; not that our guide book hadn't warned us! Buses revved all night under our window as they pushed to merge into the stream of traffic carrying passengers bound for Leon, Guadalajara or God knows where. If the noise didn't keep us awake that night, the heat certainly did. No air conditioned comfort for us, not even a fan. In desperation we raided our cooler for the bits of ice that still remained and touched them to our hot skin. Throwing security caution to the wind, we propped the door open into the hall with a shoe in order to catch just a hint of air. But before ever our sleepless sweltering night of tossing and turning began we went in search of something to eat. The only way to get to the food stalls on the other side of Convencion Avenue was to cross a massive and very high pedestrian bridge that spanned the many lanes of roaring traffic underneath us. Walking along Convencion Avenue it was obvious that our choices for dinner that evening were going to be rotisseried chicken or rotisseried chicken. (Not that this was in any way a disappointing set of options.) Chicken was everywhere to be had along that street but what we discovered as we walked from stall to stall was that for every chicken-laden rotisserie skewer there was a pile of sweet luscious onions being served alongside the chicken, small golden orbs dripping in the oil they had been fried in. Actually, we only bought onions that evening because I insisted that we have at least some vegetable in our diet; given that we were too tired and hungry to go anywhere but across the street in search of food, it was onion or nothing. We carried them back to our hotel room tied up in small plastic bags, along with our chicken and warm tortillas. Sure, I had had the odd bowl of French onion soup to date but up until this point I had no idea that onions were good for anything except flavoring a pot of stew or a pasta sauce. But that evening as I pulled off bits of succulent chicken with my tortilla and dipped into the plastic bag to add some onion, ahh ...

My visit to Aguascalientes was a long time ago. In my rhapsodic memory those onions may be sweeter, tastier, more delectable than the ones we actually ate. After all, we were so hungry and tired we might have found a Big Mac mouthwatering that evening. Or perhaps the city we found ourselves in seemed so bleak, the night so daunting, the heat so repressive, the noise so deafening that we needed anything, even a small mound of onions, to create a moment of palate-magic whereby we could redeem Aguascalientes. But whether real or imagined, whether ambrosial or merely ordinary, the onions I ate in Aguascalientes have become my culinary muse. With Mneme at my side, "onion" has bunched into scallion, shallot, Vidalia, leek, spring onion, garlic, pearl, Walla Walla and I have braised, slivered, caramelized, baked, chopped, sauteed, stuffed and pickled my Aguascalientes wonder.