At the Table
As the sun comes up in Chacala Bay, Nayarit, Mexico, the fishermen are already out seeking the catch of the day. Such bounty in the sea: prawns, octopus, lobster, red snapper, oysters and a myriad of other fish caught in abundance.
At the end of the bay is the wharf where the fishermen return with their catch and the local people gather to buy their daily fish direct from the fishermen's crates or from the small factory just below the cliff face.
This gorgeous bay on the Pacific Coast, about an hour north of Puerto Vallerta, is a true Mexican scene, a far cry from the international tourist centres that dot both coastlines of this vast country.
Mexican families of multiple generations come here in droves on the weekends to sit under the palapas and frolic in the limpid sea. Huge coconut palms line the beach and tropical vegetation covers the hillsides at each end of the bay. The water is silky smooth and warm and, at night, phosphorescence turns the water electric blue.
Each night at dusk, at this time of the year just before the rainy season, hundreds of land crabs come out of the sand and scurry sideways along the beach. They make a fine soup, apparently, although I haven't sampled any. Each day the oyster man arrives on the beach and sets up his stall, patiently opening oysters for his customers and delivering them to tables along the beach. My partner Robert, a great lover of oysters, has declared the local variety to be the best he has ever tasted.
We have been here for over a week now and each day we have sampled some different seafood delight from the menu of Las Brisas Hotel and Restaurant. Located right on the beach with tables in the sand; this is the home of Brisa, for those of you who know Sean and Brisa and their Mexican food cart at the Nelson market.
Brisa's mother, Piedad, has owned and operated this boutique hotel and restaurant for more than 20 years. On the roof of her hotel she flies a New Zealand flag in honour of her half Kiwi, half Mexican grandson, Ali Salvatore, also my grandson.
The beach is lined with restaurants under palapas made from palm fronds and the wood of the avilla tree. Musicians and artisans ply their trade at the beachside tables, selling hammocks, silver jewellery and wood carvings or offering you a traditional song to accompany your food.
A local specialty that we tried on our first night here is pargo zarandeado – a whole red snapper barbecued over mangle wood. The mangle tree grows in the local estuaries and imparts a distinctive flavour to barbecued fish that is highly valued by the local people.
A Las Brisas specialty is pescado frito huachinango, fried red snapper, succulent, slightly spicy and served with a delicious salsa of tomatoes, chilli and coriander. Another local specialty of Nayarit is red snapper chicharron, flavoured with paprika, lime and salt and crispy fried.
Camarones (shrimps) or lobster, usually grilled, can be sampled in spicy red salsa or with garlic and butter. Empanadas de camarones uses masa (a maize flour) to make a dough that is stuffed with shrimp and herbs then fried and served with a hot green salsa.
Perhaps best of all is the local ceviche made with shrimp and octopus. The local octopus are extremely tasty and tender. In the heat of the day, a dish of ceviche satisfies the appetite and the crispness of the cucumber, onion and tomato with an intense lime hit alongside the marinated fish is a dish that can easily be prepared in New Zealand.
The recipes that follow have come from Karla, Brisa's sister. Check out Las Brisas on lasbrisaschacala.com.
CEVICHE DE CAMARON Y PULPO
Serves 4 people as an appetiser
A quarter red onion finely chopped
1 tomato finely chopped
half small cucumber, peeled and deseeded and finely chopped
3-4 Tbsp chopped coriander
1 small clove of garlic finely chopped
1 serrano chilli finely chopped
half tsp salt
half tsp black pepper
a few drops soy sauce
200ml lime juice
250g raw shrimp cut into small cubes
150g cubed chopped pre-cooked octopus.
Prepare the octopus by cooking with the base of a pineapple cut in a thick slice, with a head of garlic and a whole lime. Cover with water.
Add a little salt at the end of the cooking process. Cook for about 45 minutes per kilo. Do not overcook. Poke the octopus with a fork and when it yields easily, it is ready.
Combine the shrimp, garlic and soy sauce with the lime juice for about 10 minutes. Add the onion first to cure it slightly then add the rest of the ingredients.
RED SNAPPER CHICHARRON
Use 1kg of red snapper fillets or fish steaks. You can substitute another fish or shrimp.
Rub into the fish
Salt and pepper to taste
1 clove of garlic
crushed juice of 2 -3 limes
Mix together a cup of flour with 2 Tbsp of paprika mix. Roll the fish in the mixture.
Either deep fry or shallow fry in very hot oil until just cooked – 3-4 minutes.
SERVE WITH AGUA CHILLI
10 serrano chillis
half cucumber peeled and seeded
2 Tbsp chopped coriander
quarter cup of water
Blend in a food processor.