Cooking Technique : Tatemar : “Chef, you realise you’re burning that?”*

*Quote from Podcast interview with Aaron Sanchez : Cooking in Mexican From A to Z : A Culinary Journey to the Soul of Mexican Cuisine. Episode 13 (March 17 2021) : Mole Through the Generations. A (non-Mexican) chef was commenting on a (Mexican) chefs preparation of ingredients for a mole negro.

Cover Image is from a supermercado in Matamoros that “tatemars” your chiles for you. Matamoros, officially known as Heroica Matamoros, is a city in the north-eastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. It is on the southern bank of the Rio Grande, directly across the border from Brownsville, Texas, in the United States.

….and…..across the border….in Tejas

Typically, the height of cuisine is taken to be that of classical French cooking (1). Terms regarding everything from food preparation, cooking techniques and even menu layout/design (2) are labelled with the French language. This was how I did my apprenticeship. All recipes named in French, all techniques named in French and all measurements in French (3). This type of teaching focuses you in one direction and tends to ignore the knowledge of other (non-European) cultures (4) and ultimately limits the knowledge (and growth) of the cook. We, as curious minds, need to examine the science of the cuisines of other cultures and, the cuisines of México have many unique techniques that the World can benefit from (5).

  1. There is an element of malinchismo attached to this in México. See Post : Malinche for a little more on the history of the term. Essentially malinchismo boils down to favouring another culture at the expense of your own. Although the French do not have a huge amount of history in México they certainly had an impact. The first printed Mexican cookbook (El Cocinero Mexicano 1831) was heavily influenced by French cookery. Porfiro Diaz, the generally despised President of México, who ruled with a dictatorial iron fist for more than 30 years was enamoured of the French. Below these notes I have included a copy of a menu that was served (ironically enough) to celebrate México’s Independence.
  2. Even the word “menu” is French and means “detailed list” – a small example of culinary terms à la française : A la carte : Au gratin : Au jus : Au poivre : Au sec : Bain Marie : Beurre blanc : Brunoise : Chiffonade : Concasse : Consommé : Coulis : Croquette : Effiler : Flambe : Galantine : Galette : Julienne : Jus lie : Liaison : Mignonette : Mise en place : Nappe : Oeuf : Oignon brule : Pâté : Paupiette : Persillade : Quadriller : Quatre-epices : Quenelle : Remouillage : Rondeau : Sauté : Tourner : Velouté : Vol-au-Vent. Some of these terms will be familiar and some will appear as gobbledygook. Que puis-je dire ?
  3. For all my American readers – if you think millilitres are a pain in the arse then try your hand at decilitres and centilitres. Merde.
  4. Doing my apprenticeship in Australia came with the added bonus of an intensive study of the cuisines of Asia (simply due to the proximity of Asia to Australia). This also occurred when I studied herbal medicine. Once again, due to our proximity to Asia, we studied Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic herbs. This is somewhat unusual when studying herbal medicine as you tend only to study the one philosophy/tradition/pharmacopoeia/modality.
  5. Not the least of which is the process of nixtamalisation. I have gone into this in detail in an earlier Post : Nixtamal. Check it out.

One of these techniques vital to the character of Mexican cookery is that of “tatemar”.

The etymology of the word tatemar has pre-Hispanic roots originating from the Nahuatl language and its most basic translation means “to put on (the) fire”. This technique consists of cooking an ingredient directly over an open flame or on a comal so that it is roasted to the point of burning the skin.

whose action is tatemar : Alternative forms : tlatemar
(Mexico) to roast, to grill : to place the food on the coals or embers, or on a griddle/grill so that they are partially roasted or cooked and the skin is charred.
Etymology : From Classical Nahuatl tlatemati “to burn”; “put to the fire” – tlatla : to get burned, to be on fire, to burn

  • (Synonym: chamuscar) to scorch, to singe
  • (Synonym : quemada) burn, burned, burnt, charred, to scald/scorch (the Caribbean colloquial spelling of quemado, quemao, is the burnt bit at the edge of a pot of beans)
  • (Synonym: asar) is equivalent to soasar (lightly roast) a food : Prepare some food, such as meat or vegetables, putting it directly on the fire or on a grill, comal, with very little or no fat

Asar also leads into two other techniques – tostar y soasar.
When roasting (tostar) you do not want to burn the food; you apply gradual heat to the ingredient until the temperature is high enough for it to release its essential oils; this is important when toasting chiles (and why you are usually warned to be careful not to burn the chile as this would create bitter flavours)
When searing (soasar), the minimum amount of heat needed should be applied so that the ingredient gradually cooks inside and changes its colour. It is advisable to constantly move the food so that there are no burnt areas. In this case we are keeping it a few steps short of tatemar. We are cooking without charring.

This technique has several purposes.

The first is a preparation technique, the second is to enhance flavour and a third (closely related) reason is to add or amalgamate flavours. Once treated via tatemar the ingredient (or dish) becomes tatemado/tatemada.

Tatemar is used not only to make/complete a finished dish, but also to make some ingredients suitable for consumption; for instance – the burning of chile skin and its removal adds flavour to the chile, par cooks the chile and makes the chile nicer to eat. The chile itself (is said to) become/s more digestible after this thin layer of skin is removed (1).

  1. I have read this in many places but have yet to find any definitive proof of it or found any nutritional study that goes into it in any detail. Various dieticians bring it up and the main theory is that the skin seems to pass through the digestive tract largely unmolested (corn does a similar thing when eaten fresh) and as such, if this skin was removed then the capsicum (chile) must be more (easily) digestible. The skin of the capsicum/chile is often described as “fibrous” but this seems a misnomer to me. Celery is fibrous, nopales can be fibrous when very old, this is not how the skin of a chile is. The skin of the chile is more akin to the skin of the maguey penca (leaves) that can be carefully peeled off and used to wrap food, like baking paper or aluminium foil (or banana leaf), prior to being cooked (although I have never seen a capsicum be peeled in the same manner). The skin (of the maguey penca) and the cooked dish are known as mixiotes. (See Post : The Agave, Barbacoa and Mixiotes). It is also often mentioned that the skin (of the chile) may also cause stomach pain (on account of the skin being found in the stool). This possibly involves the bacteria in the large intestine/colon working on sugars present in the skin of the vegetable which then creates gas (a metabolic waste by-product of the bacteria) which can then cause intestinal bloating, cramping and/or pain.
Mixiote being peeled from an agave penca (leaf).
This gives you some idea of the nature of the skin of the chile.
Less of a fibre and more of a membrane/skin.
Poblano chiles ready to be peeled.
Note the wrinkled and blackened skin.
The wrinkles loosen the skin from the flesh of the chile,
the charred areas break up the skin so it can be easily removed.

See Post : Rajas. Poblanos (por supuesto)

This technique of charring, peeling, and carefully cutting the chile down one side, is utilised in that quintessential of Mexican dishes, Chiles en nogada

Charring your ingredients can add flavour in a number of ways. The first is directly. The ingredients in the image below have been cooked on a comal. You would peel the skin from the chile and (maybe) the jitomate (red tomato) but not the tomate verde (tomatillos), onion or garlic. These ingredients would then be ground into a salsa using your molcajete (or blender). If you were making a mole then you probably wouldn’t peel anything. The ingredients would be ground into a paste (with many other ingredients) and run through a strainer/sieve to remove the “bits” and create a smooth(er) sauce. Many moles are thickened with ground nuts and don’t really reach the level of smoothness that say a béchamel or velouté (1) would. Charring chiles in this manner can also temper the heat of the chile. I find that charring a chile reduces its fire and, of course, removing the seeds and veins reduces the heat of the chile as the heat causing element, capsaicin, is concentrated primarily in the veins of the chile (2). Roasting the chile in this manner also breaks down the cell walls of the vegetable. This releases certain flavours and sugars. The sugars concentrate (due to the removal of water) and some will caramelise on the surface of the chile adding sweetness. Some nutrients are also made more bioavailable (although this is attributed to primarily to the carotenoids which are found in yellow/orange/red vegetables).(Clevidence etal 2000)

  1. béchamel “white sauce.” is a very basic technique in French cooking which begins with a roux, a cooked mixture of flour and butter, into which hot, seasoned milk (bay leaf, onion, cloves) is whisked creating an unctuous creamy white sauce. The word béchamel comes from the name of a servant of King Louis XIV of France, Louis de Béchamel, who is said to have invented it in the 17th century. Béchamel is one of the “mother sauces” of French cuisine. Velouté differs from béchamel in that it requires a clear or white stock instead of milk. The white stock is traditionally veal, but some recipes or dietary restrictions might require the use of chicken, fish or vegetable stock.
  2. There are others who say that roasting a chile actually increases its heat (by breaking down cell walls and releasing capsaicin) and that the overall heat of the dish is increased by this as the capsaicin is then “spread all over the dish”. There is some merit in this line of thought. In the podcast mentioned at the start of this Post, the chef is making mole negro. One of the steps in the recipe is to dry roast (to the point of blackness) the seeds of the chiles used in the recipe. This cooking releases the oil in the seeds and increases the heat of the overall dish. You balance this heat out by washing the cooked seeds (three times) before adding them in the next step of the dish.

The second way it can add flavour is indirectly. This can be done through the use of smoke. Smoking food as a culinary technique is as old as cooking it over a fire.

Instead of smoking we can wrap the food in something and cook it directly over the fire. This can be done over open flame or on the grill/comal. The wrapping of the dish protects it as it cooks and during the process the wrapper chars (or may even catch fire) and this adds an aspect of smoke/fire to the flavour of the dish. A perfect example of this is the tlapique (or mextlapique).

Tlapiques (See Post : Xochimilco and the Axolotl)

Mextlapique – from Nahuatl “michin” – fish, and “tlapictli” – wrapped in corn husks. Kind of a tamale without dough, stuffed with small-sized fish such as mextlapiques (which give it its name), charales, white fish, chucumites or other products such as frog legs, renacuajos (tadpoles) mixed with chili slices, nopales, onion and some herb or seasoning such as epazote. The tamale is wrapped in corn husks and then placed on the grill (preferable over hot coals), turning it constantly so that it cooks completely; then the filling sweats and begins to drip: when this dripping stops, the tamale is cooked. The outer leaves are often burned or at least badly scorched. The mextlapiques are typical rural tamales of the lacustrine zone of the valleys of Mexico and Toluca; They can be found in the popular markets of the cities of Mexico, Toluca and surrounding areas. (

Charales from Lake Chapala.
Whitebait would make a good substitute.
By Hinojosaz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Huachinango (Snapper) is often recommended as a substitute

We can also say that tlapique is not only a dish, but a cooking technique (another technique to add to your repertoire).

The addition of smoke or smoky flavours can be achieved in other ways. The first (and most obvious) is to cook the food using a smoker.

This is the smoking unit I have at home. It is a hot smoker (as opposed to a cold smoker) and cooks the food at the same time it smokes. I use it for fish and fish fillets are cooked (and smoked of course) within about 10 – 15 minutes

Smoke can also be added to the food at the diners table. As part of their theatre of dining some restaurants will cover a dish with a smoke filled cloche and remove it at the time of serving. This will add a small amount of smoke flavour to the dish but realistically it is pure theatre.

The Mexican chef Enrique Olvera runs the haute cuisine restaurant Pujol in Mexico City. One of his signature dishes (picture below) is a smoked baby corn dish which is served at the table in a smoke filled jicara gourd.

Another way smoke is added to a dish is through the use of ashes. The ashes add a smoky, bitter flavour profile to the dish. The ash can be made from nearly anything. Tortillas, corn husk (totomoxtle), corn silk, corn cobs, onion, sage, juniper berries, cedar leaves are all used to create edible culinary ashes.

The use of ashes in Mexican cuisine is nothing new. For the original nixtamalization process, ocote ash was used to create the alkaline liquid necessary to remove the pericarp of the corn kernel and make that quintessential of Mexican ingredients, masa. Various ashes also have medicinal usage. I will dedicate a Post on Medicinal Ash in the future.

Cuanesle. The nxtamalisation of maize using ash. See Post : Nixtamal


  • Clevidence, Beverly & Paetau, Inke & Jr, J.C.. (2000). Bioavailability of Carotenoids from Vegetables. HortScience. 35. 585-588. 10.21273/HORTSCI.35.4.585.
  • Herrera, Fermin. (2004) Hippocrene Concise Dictionary : Nahuatl – English : English – Nahuatl (Aztec). ISBN 0-7818-1011-6



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