If you're not ordering soups and stews at Mexican restaurants, you're missing out!
by Bao Nguyen
October 8, 2018
For most of us in the U.S., soups and stews aren’t things we think of when it comes to Mexican food. On the contrary, if all we knew were the popular dishes from our southern neighbor – tacos, burritos, grilled meats, rice and beans, etc. – the whole cuisine would seem rather dry, especially in comparison to other cuisines where soups and noodle soups are plentiful.
But of course, cooking things in broth is common to all cuisines and Mexico is no different. Unsurprisingly, there are several soups and stews traditional to Mexico and today we’re focusing on one called birria, a hearty, spicy, flavorful stew that has its roots from the colonial era.
The birthplace of birria is in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, where mariachi music and tequila are also reported to have originated. Big shoes to fill indeed. Birria started life as a goat stew simply out of a need to get rid of these invasive animals brought to the continent by Spanish conquistadors. The goats, as they are known to do, multiplied quickly and ate everything including valuable crops and seeds. Local natives, suffering from famine, turned to these goats as a source of food.
There’s a reason goat isn’t widely eaten like other meats. It is very gamey with a strong smell and taste that can be off-putting. To make this meat more palatable, lots of herbs and spices were used and it was cooked for a long time in order to soften and become fragrant. Thus birria was born.
Over time, the recipe spread across Mexico and each region adapted it for themselves but there’s no question Jalisco is where this stew came from. Nowadays, birria is made with any kind of meat, but the cooking method hasn’t changed much. The meat is marinated using a chile paste often made from several types of chiles and coated in a dry drub consisting of salt, pepper, garlic, cloves, oregano, cumin, and cinnamon (for example). It is then slow cooked or baked in liquid for several hours before being served as a stew or the meat used as taco stuffing along with typical toppings.
Birria is mostly eaten as a breakfast item, probably because it is considered to be a cure for hangovers, probably from consuming a little too much tequila the night before, probably because you were at a birthday party or, better yet, a wedding. The heat, earthy flavors, and chunks of tender meat will set anyone straight after a night of festivities.
In Mexico, restaurants or street carts selling birrias, called birrierias, are easily found, especially on weekends. Here in Seattle, birrias are often tucked away in the back of the menu at Mexican restaurants but we’ve found a few you can visit and try for yourself.