by David Cecelski
In this sweltering heat wave, my family and I have been seeking cool treats in the city streets. We’ve become connoisseurs of our local sno-cone stands, frozen yoghurt shops, and ice cream trucks, including one that my neighbors call the “Sad Ice Cream Truck” for the curiously mournful airs, played in a minor key, that resound from its loudspeaker. But nothing has refreshed us more on a 104 degree day like today than the cocteles de frutas—fruit cocktails—that a Mexican couple sells out of the back of their minivan in our neighborhood.
These wonderful fruit salads are a popular summer street food in much of Mexico, including Veracruz, the ancient city on the Gulf of Mexico, where the couple comes from.
They’re made with 5 or 6-inch long wedges of fresh, tropical fruits, and often vegetables, too. The most common ingredients I’ve seen in them are mango, papaya, pineapple, watermelon, cantaloupe, cucumber, and jicama, the last being a root vegetable popular in Mexico—its flavor and texture remind me a little of a hard pear, a little of a potato or a turnip.
Sometimes vendors serve the dish with just one kind of fruit, so you’ll get a whole cup of watermelon or cucumber slices. Other times they’re served in a mixed bouquet of fruits—and they do look like a bouquet. The vendors arrange the long wedges of fruit vertically in a tall plastic cup, and the wedges are so long that many, like the cantaloupe or mango, have some curve to them, so the fruits look like a vase of wild tropical flowers.
After you order your fruit, the gentleman or lady making the fruit cocktail will squeeze half of a fresh lime over the fruit. Then they sprinkle a little salt on top, and finally they dust the fruit with a special chile powder. It’s often a brand of dried chile seasoning called Tapin that comes in little plastic bottles that you can find at all the Mexican groceries and produce stands here in town.
The vendors usually ask you, at least if you’re as un-Mexican looking as I am, how much of the chile seasoning you’d like on your fruit cocktail, or if you’d like any at all, because it can be pretty hot. I always want some, but not too much.
The combination of tastes is unusual for me, but I have discovered them again and again in traditional Mexican cookery. It’s a beguiling and deliriously good combination of sweetness balanced by salt, citrus, and/or spicy heat that I have come to think of as quintessentially Mexican.
I’ve enjoyed fruta con chile y limón at street fairs, flea markets, and ball games across our state, but the couple from Veracruz make the best ones I’ve ever had. The woman, who is the one in the couple that puts them together, arranges the fruits very artistically.
She’s really a master artisan. After arranging the myriad of fresh fruit wedges around the cup—she used jicama, cocoanut, cucumber, watermelon, papaya, and cantaloupe slices when I visited her today—she puts a wooden skewer in the middle of them, holding several grapes, a green apple wedge, an orange slice (arranged up and down, not flat, so it reminded me of the rising sun), and, lastly, a strawberry on top. Sprinkled with the brick red chile seasoning, the colors are glorious, the whole thing whimsical and lovely.