No. 10 – The Cemita: Spanish for Big Mac? – “This sandwich, from the Mexican state of Puebla, joins the banh mi, cubano, and panino as part of our lunchtime canon”. (— A.K. Bon Apetite Magazine Jan 2013, What to Eat, Drink & Cook in 2013).
The Cemita (also known, as ‘Cemita Poblana’ is a sandwich originally from Puebla, located in East-Central Mexico. It is related to the torta, particularly popular in Mexico City and the Pambazo, which is of French origin and popular in several areas in central Mexico. In Puebla, there are shops specializing in cemitas, restaurants that treat their sandwich-assembling as efficiently as a Subway.
The word (Cemita) refers to a sandwich typically served on a bread roll covered with sesame seeds. The bread is made with egg, and resembles brioche. Additional ingredients usually are restricted to sliced avocado, meat, white cheese, onions and red sauce (Salsa Roja).
The sandwich has its origin with two kinds of bread, which were brought over from Spain during the colonial period; one of which was called “Bizcocho de Sal,” – a long and hard, hollow cracker. Both breads were developed for long storage and eventually were made in Puebla with grain from the Atlixco area. These two breads eventually fused into a unique type that became softer by the mid 19th century.
The name is derived from Jewish unleavened bread called Semita,”which was brought over by Sephardi Jews to New Spain. These were also produced in Puebla state.
The Cemitas were prepared at home and filled with potatoes, beans and nopal cactus and eaten by the lower classes.
Later, an establishment in the Mercado Victoria market began to sell them to the public filled with meat from bull’s feet with vinaigrette, herbs, onions and chilli peppers. This new filling was a hit and eventually this and other variations became a staple in many markets and popular eateries.
Today, a large number of varieties exist but all are prepared using the same type of bread.
The popularity of the Cemita has led to its many variations, particularly in the US. The most popular meat in a traditional Cemita is beef ‘Milanesa’, a thinly pounded and deep-fried piece of beef, however these days, other meats such as chicken, lamb, and veal is used to make the sandwich, or a combination there of.
Some American restaurants also substitute the Panela and the Quesillo for Mozzarella, as the Italian cheese is more widely available in stores. Some restaurants would even take short cuts and use regular sesame seed buns instead of the authentic egg rolls.
Regional street/market food has had a significant impact on haute cuisine in Mexico, with casual and high-end restaurants serving many of the same foods as in the streets.
With over 100 years of Mexican-style street food history, cities such as Los Angeles and London are known for its street food lunch trucks, serving Tacos, Tortas, Quesadillas, Burritos and more; The University of California, Los Angeles held a conference on Mexican street food, where it was distinguished from typical fast food by culture considerations.
Chefs and foodies alike are going to Mexico to investigate regional cuisines and local cultures even further, whilst observing the rise and popularity of Mexican food and culture in general – This includes street foods and small counter service restaurants.
With National Sandwich Week upon us 12th – 18th May, this is my tribute to the 4th Earl of Sandwich. It is thought that the humble sandwich was ‘invented’ by the 4th Earl of Sandwich. He was a keen gambler and didn’t like to leave the gaming table – so rather than breaking for dinner while the game was in full swing, he asked that he was brought some meat between two slices of bread – and this was the birth of a great fast food which became known as a sandwich.
There are no set rules with regards to what components go into making your Cemita, this robust sandwich is a great way to use up leftovers from a roast joint, whilst being flexible and easy to put together.
A Cemita starts with a sturdy, slightly sweet, sesame-seed-studded roll. A slip of meat is added: Fried cutlets of beef or chicken are common; Pata – jellied pigs’ feet, Headcheese, or Carnitas are a bit more adventurous. Avocado, Chipotle Peppers, bouncy Panela cheese, Oaxacan string cheese, rings of white onion, and a splash of red chilli sauce follow.
Most importantly is the addition of Papalo – a green herb with scalloped leaves and a soapy smell. Papalo, which comes from the Nahuatl word “papalotl,” for butterfly, is as pretty as it is pungent, with a sharp citrusy flavour that slices through the fatty layers of the sandwich. Any proper Cemita should have a couple of leaves, though, as a hard-to-find ingredient, it is usually the most frequently omitted.