World of Mouth: La Noche de Rábanos

The column that brings you food festivals from around the world; this week, why they are building sculptures out of radishes down in Mexico?

Night of the Radishes (photo credit: Drew Leavy)
Night of the Radishes
(photo credit: Drew Leavy)
Johanna Bailey is a blogger, freelance writer and student at the Hofmann Culinary School in Barcelona, Spain.
On the night of December 23, the main plaza in the Mexican town of Oaxaca was filled with sculpted rock bands, animals, mythological creatures, bullfighters and elaborate historical scenes. What was unusual about these pieces of artwork was the material with which they were made- radishes! This is La Noche de Rábanos (The Night of Radishes) and since it began over a century ago, it has become one of the largest folk art festivals in Mexico.
No one is exactly sure how the tradition began, but rumor has it that it was essentially a marketing scheme devised by two Dominican monks. Radishes were brought to Mexico from Spain in the 16th century and it is said that the monks encouraged the local farmers who grew them, to carve the radishes into decorative forms in order to attract buyers.
Nowadays the annual radish carving attracts thousands of tourists and there is substantial prize money for the winners. These radishes are not the cute little red, white and green bunches you may see at your local market. Rather, they are hugely bulbous with contorted shapes and multiple appendages. In order to reach these sizes (weighing an average of 7 lbs), the radishes are heavily fertilized and therefore not fit for consumption.
So what do people eat at La Noche de Rábanos if not radishes? The food of the fiesta is buñuelos, deep fried pastries drenched in pinocillo (Mexican unrefined brown sugar) syrup and cinnamon. Afterward it is considered good luck to break the clay dish it was served in by hurling it to the ground.
In this video you can see the buñuelos being stretched into thin circles of floury dough which are then fried in a huge vat of bubbling oil. The cook uses two long sticks to poke them into place as the dough rises and bubbles to the top.
Along with buñuelos, people often drink ponche (a hot drink made from fruits such as apples, sugar cane, cinnamon, raisins and prunes) or atole, a warm porridge-like drink made thick with corn starch.
Although radishes are not actually eaten at the festival, they are a component in many Mexican dishes. In particular they are often included in salads or paired with tacos or pozoles where their fresh peppery flavor and crunchy texture helps to cut through the rich grease and heat.
A pozole is a traditional Mexican stew containing meat and hominy and then topped with condiments such as shredded cabbage, diced avocado, lime wedges, cilantro and of course, radishes! Try this delicious chicken pozole recipe from Sabrina Modelle of the San Francisco food blog The Tomato Tart.
Pozole Verdé con Pollo
Ingredients ·         1 cup hominy ·         3 quarts homemade chicken stock ·         3 chicken legs with thighs ·         1.5 lb tomatillos ·         4 large pasilla chilies ·         1 link chorizo—casings removed (I used beef chorizo) ·         1 large onion ·         4 chiles de arbol or serrano ·         epazote* ·         cilantro ·         salt ·         pepper
Topping Options: sliced radishes, lime wedges, diced avocado, roughly chopped cilantro, finely minced chilies, shredded cabbage, Requeson (available at good Latino markets although queso fresco or strained ricotta would also work well.)
DirectionsSoak dried hominy overnight according to package instructions.
Coat tomatillo, pasillas, 2 of the spicy chilies, and the sliced onion in olive oil and roast in 450 degree oven for 30 minutes  Put pasilla chiles into paper bag for 20 minutes and allow to sweat for easy skin removal
In a large stockpot, brown the chicken legs on all sides over medium high heat. For a richer flavor and slightly thicker broth, you can chop the chicken bones into pieces to add marrow flavor to the soup (I always do this when making chicken stock)
Peel, seed, and slice pasillas into strips. Add the chorizo and continue browning for another 5-10 minutes. Add chicken stock, tomatillos, 2 roasted chilies de arbol (seeded & minced), & roasted onion, & bring to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes
Remove chicken legs – allow to cool for a few minutes and shred chicken from bones then add meat back to simmering soup. SAVE BONES and freeze for later use in future stocks
Add epazote, cilantro, salt, & pepper, to taste. Cook for 10 + more minutes to desired thickness. Shred cabbage, thinly slice radishes, chop chilies, dice avocado, crumble requeson, pull cilantro leaves from stems, cut lime into wedges and place each in a pretty bowl so each person can garnish as they please. Ladle soup into big steamy bowls and serve with thick corn tortillas if you like.
Eat it up, YUM
*epazote is a Mexican herb that is fairly easy to find in it’s dried form in any Latino market and can also be found fresh. If you can’t find it- no worries. It can also be an acquired smell & taste. I love it, and feel it adds a beautiful dimension to Latino Foods- it smells stronger than it tastes. Don’t be intimidated by it if it smells weird in the store.
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