Mexican food is more than hot chilies

The Mexican omelet served on Republic's breakfast flight to Guadalajara was delicious, with a delightfully seasoned tomato sauce - but since it was not spicy, was it really Mexican?

Some say real Mexican food should be hot enough to make your eyes water. This certainly didn't come close.

Now after a week of sampling the fare in Guadalajara and conducting my own casual surveys, it's apparent that much good Mexican food is not hot at all. There are some Mexicans who don't seem to like chilies.

In fact, on the way to Tlaqueplaque, a nearby artisan village, my taxi driver admitted that he had never even tasted a chili until he got married at the age of 19.

''My family never ate them,'' he said, ''but my wife is crazy about hot food, and now I like chilies too.''

A trip to any market in Guadalajara proves that chilies are an important part of Mexican culinary vocabulary. There is a bewildering variety of them, both fresh and dried. But many of the dozen or so most common types can be rather mild.

For example, the greenish poblano chili, which looks rather like a bell pepper as El Greco might have painted it - elongated and tapered at the bottom - is often as mild as the sweet bell pepper. Like the bell, it is suitable for stuffing.

When dried, the poblano's color turns deep red, its name changes to chile ancho, and it lends an earthy flavor to many sauces in the Jalisco region of west-central Mexico, where Guadalajara is located.

In the fondas, the small fast-food counters that abound in Mexican markets to satisfy the passion for snacking, you will also find nopales and scrambled eggs.

Upstairs at the huge, central market, Mercado Libertad, other popular dishes are prepared by women behind individual tile-topped counters over gas flames in large ceramic pots.

There, among many dishes, you can choose menudo, tripe soup; chiles rellenos, chilies stuffed with cheese or diced pork; or adobo, which is boiled and fried pork with a sauce of garlic, pureed tomatoes, ground chocolate, sugar, and chile ancho.

Mexicans have quite a sweet tooth, and the bakeries along the elegant section of Avenida Vallarta in downtown Guadalajara show case after case of fancy pastries.

There are eclairs and Napoleons among other French pastries, all legacies of the brief but sophisticated Continental-style reign of Maximilian and Carlota ( 1864-67).

Empanadas,m the South American version of turnovers, are filled with every type of fruit preserve imaginable: guava, pineapple, strawberry, and papaya, to name but a few. Semasm are large, round, puffy cookies made of wheat flour, while conchas are small, shell-shaped cakes. Bolillos,m the little, round, golden-crusted white rolls, are traditional, but long baguettes of bread have become more popular in recent years.

The following simple and delicious recipe, with its slight bite of chilies, is a specialty of La Hacienda restaurant in the Fiesta Americana Hotel. There, peering over the charming painted tiles into the open kitchen, you can watch it being prepared.

Chef Huerta advises serving it with Mexican Rice and sliced sauteed zucchini. Chicken Hacienda (Pollo Hacienda) 1 cup Mexican thick cream (see note) 6 small chicken breasts Salt and freshly ground pepper 3 tablespoons peanut or corn oil 3 tablespoons butter 1 medium onion, thinly sliced 1 6-ounce can peeled chiles poblanos or green chilies, preferably fire roasted 1 cup cooked corn

The day before you plan to cook Pollo Hacienda, prepare Mexican thick cream. See note.

Season chicken well with salt and peper. Heat oil and butter in a large, shallow saucepan with cover. Fry chicken breasts until golden on both sides. Remove from pan.

Add onions separated into rings, and cook until soft. Drain and rinse chilies and add. Cook over moderate heat about 3 minutes, uncovered, stirring occasionally. Add cooked corn and thick cream.

Add chicken, spooning sauce over it. Cover and cook over low heat, but do not boil, until chicken is tender, about 20 minutes. Check seasoning before serving. Serves 6.

Note: In ''The Cuisines of Mexico,'' Diana Kennedy suggests a substitute for Mexican-style cream by combining 1 cup of heavy cream and 2 tablespoons of buttermilk in a glass jar.

Cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place about 6 hours, or until mixture is set. A pilot-lighted oven is too warm. Refrigerate overnight for it to become more solid.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.