Mexican Christmas Punch (Ponche Navideño)
According to historians, the recipe for ponche found it’s way to Mexico via Spain. The vast Moorish empire was a conduit for many culinary staples that are now seen as Spanish and/or Mexican cuisine. Among these are rice, olives and almonds, as well as sugar cane and dried apricots. It is thought that “ponche” has it’s origins in far-away Persia, where they used to consume a very similar drink they called “panch,” made with water, lemon, herbs, sugar and rum. As the Moors were Muslim, and did not drink alcohol, the Spanish adaptation, which acquired the name “punch”, seems to have been modified, with the rum omitted. In Mexico, it is common to add a splash of rum, cane spirit (aguardiente), or brandy.
Tejocotes: Contraband Fruit
Some ingredients used to make ponche are more seasonal and even exotic. Depending upon where you live, you may be able to locate fresh tejocotes, known to the Aztecs as Texocotli (stone fruit). The fruit of the hawthorn tree, these resemble crab apples, have a sweet-sour flavor and an orange to golden yellow color. Although abundant in the Mexican highlands, tejocote could not be imported to this country because of its potential to harbor exotic insects. Mexicans are all about authentic ingredients for their special family recipes, so devotees had to resort to illegal enterprise to obtain the tejocotes. In 2009, the LA Times reported that “Nationwide, tejocote was the fruit most seized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Smuggling, Interdiction and Trade Compliance program from 2002 to 2006.”
Demand and seizures gave birth to a lucrative new industry, the report continued, [after] “a market vendor named Doña Maria [ a USDA smuggling control officer] how to obtain legal supplies, and he suggested that farmers grow tejocotes domestically”. And so, a successful exotic fruit farmer in Pauma Valley, San Diego County’s Valley Center added tejocotes to his crop. In 1999, Jaime Serrato, who was familiar with tejocotes from his childhood in Michoacán, started grafting trees from bud wood in his orchard and today has 35 acres of trees. Today, tejocotes can be widely found jarred or canned, and fresh during the holidays in regional Latino markets.
In San Francisco, you’ll find them fresh this time of year at Casa Lucas on 24th at Florida St. and in jars in many of the markets in the Mission disctrict.
Mexican Christmas Fruit Punch/Ponche de Navidad
1 gallon boiling water
15 tejocotes, cut in half
2 small pears, cut bite-sized
1 cup raisins
1 cup prunes
8 tamarind pods, peeled and seeded, or 6 tablespoons tamarind paste
3½ oz. dry hibiscus
6 pieces sugar cane, cut in quarters lengthwise (available in Latino markets including Casa Lucas)
one cone piloncillo or dark brown sugar (optional, for a sweeter ponche)
4 small yellow apples, chopped bite-sized
6 guavas, peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces
6 cinnamon sticks
2 whole cloves
1 star anise
2 oranges, sliced and cut in half
Wash all fruits and cut as required. In a large pot, boil water and add tamarind, hibiscus, star anise, cloves, piloncilli (if using) and cinnamon sticks. Boil on high for 10-15 minutes (if using piloncillo, boil until it is almost completely dissoolved), strain mixture to remove any remain of flowers, spices or tamarind. Once strained, add all cut fruits, cook 5 minutes and add dry fruits, and sugar cane. Cook for additional 20 minutes. Serve in a mug or a clay cup, garnished with a sugar cane stick intended to be used as a spoon, and for eating the fruits.
Serve warm. Decorate with a half a slice of orange. Optional: add a splash of rum, cane spirit (aguardiente), brandy or event tequila!
The consistency can be controlled by the amount of water you use and cooking time. Less water+longer cooking time= somewhat thicker ponche. If you prefer a thinner beverage, add more water. When reheating ponche, you may want to thin with a little water. Keep refrigerated in an air-tight container, will last for at least a week. I like to boil down my leftover ponche until it forms a syrup and serve (with fruit and all) cold spooned over Greek yogurt!