It’s the time of year when folks celebrate Cinco de Mayo, that popular holiday where much Mexican food is washed down with cerveza and tequila. But even though the day commemorates a Mexican victory, it has become more of a North-of-the-border fiesta with not as much attention paid to it in its native land.
Cinco de Mayo is often mistaken as Mexican Independence Day, but that happens later in the calendar on September 16. Instead, this event marks the Mexicans’ incredible triumph (lead by the Texas-born Commanding General Ignacio Seguin Zaragoza) over the French in The Battle of Puebla (where the Mexicans were outnumbered almost two to one) on, of course, May 5, 1862.
While the French continued their attempt to take over Mexico for a few more years, this accomplishment not only boosted the Mexicans’ morale but was also a key factor in thwarting Napoleon III’s attempt to aid the Confederate states in the American Civil War. In the early 1900’s, Mexican immigrants to the United States brought the celebration with them and in the 1960’s it grew in popularity as a day to honor ethnic pride. And for good reason, as the day has long symbolized the strength of the Mexican spirit.
Today, however, much of that original sentiment is lost behind the marketing. Sadly, it’s been demoted to just an excuse to sell more beer, tequila, and tortilla chips. You don’t even have to be of Mexican descent to join in the hype. In my neighborhood, for instance, the Irish pubs are also touting the day with signs and specials, and I noticed that even a French restaurant is having a Cinco de Mayo celebration. (Clearly, they either have an excellent sense of humor or have no idea what the day really means.)
You’ll hear of people traveling to, say, San Antonio for Cinco de Mayo festivities, but rarely do you hear of anyone going to Mexico to celebrate the day. Why is this? Probably because in most of the country, they’re about as excited about Cinco de Mayo as we are about President’s Day. It’s not even a federal holiday there. My friends in Mexico City shrug at the mention of it; it’s just no big deal.
While most of Mexico takes little notice of Cinco de Mayo, at least the people in Puebla put on a proper celebration with people dancing and eating and drinking in the streets. And for good reason, the battle was, after all, fought and won in their state. So considering the holiday’s origin, if you’re having a Cinco de Mayo celebration why not serve a Pueblan dish? Two hours south of Mexico City, Puebla is a place teeming with colorful markets, exquisite architecture and fabulous food, a cuisine so wonderful that it’s been championed as the gastronomic capital of Mexico.
Unfortunately, I haven’t traveled there yet, but I have had the pleasure of sampling some traditional Pueblan dishes. There’s mole poblano, the rich and complex sauce made of chiles, nuts, dried fruit and chocolate. Or cemitas—the Pueblan’s version of a torta—a mountain of meat, avocado, cheese and chiles all sandwiched between a sweet, sesame-seed bun. But one of my favorite Pueblan delights is tinga, a lively, tangy stew made up of pork, chorizo, tomatoes, and chipotle chiles.
Tinga is a perfect party dish because it can feed many and be made a day or so ahead of time. Traditionally it’s served on crisp tostadas but it can also be wrapped in warm tortillas, piled on tortilla chips, or even eaten with a spoon out of a bowl. Some may make it with chicken or veal, but my favorite style is tinga de puerco.
Pork shoulder and tangy chorizo sausage are slowly cooked in a tomato chipotle sauce, which makes for a smoky, piquant tangle of tender meat and hearty sauce. And when you add some crumbly cotija cheese, cilantro, avocado, and a squirt of lime, you’ve not only created a delectable dish, but you’ve also paid homage to the colors of the Mexican flag.
Whether or not you celebrate Cinco de Mayo, if you like the marriage of succulent meat with spicy chipotles, you should try tinga. While I never need an excuse to eat Mexican food, I do think that serving this spirited, soulful Pueblan treat on Cinco de Mayo seems like a proper way to honor the day.
Originally published in 2007, both the recipe and photos were updated in 2016
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes
3 chipotle chile peppers in adobo
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 pound Mexican chorizo, removed from its casing
1 1/2 pounds pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups water
1/2 cup chopped cilantro, plus more for serving
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
Warm corn tortillas, for serving
1 avocado, peeled, pitted, and thinly sliced, for serving
Cotija cheese, for serving
1 lime cut into wedges, for serving
Preheat the oven to 300°F.
In a Dutch oven, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil on medium-low heat. Add the onion and garlic and while occasionally stirring, cook until fragrant and softened, about 4 minutes. Scrape the onion and garlic into a blender and add the tomatoes, chipotle chiles, oregano, and thyme. Blend until smooth.
Meanwhile, wipe out the Dutch oven and then add the remaining oil and the chorizo removed from its casing. On medium heat, while occasionally stirring cook for 10 minutes or until the meat has darkened.
Turn off the heat and add to the Dutch oven the pork shoulder, bay leaf, salt, chipotle tomato salsa from the blender, and water. Gently stir to combine everything, cover the pot, and then bake for 2- 2 1/2 hours or until the sauce has reduced and the pork is fork tender and can be easily shredded.
If you prefer, instead of using the oven you can place the chipotle tomato salsa, cooked chorizo, and pork in a slow cooker and cook on low for 6 hours.
Once the pork is tender, with two forks, shred the pork and then stir in the chopped cilantro and lime juice. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve warm with corn tortillas with more cilantro, avocado, Cotija cheese, and lime wedges, on the side.