We like to think we are pretty conscientious eaters. We read labels and try to keep our carbs and proteins balanced. But in Mexico, sometimes we throw caution to the wind and try new things. Not just because we’re adventurous, but because of what’s available (or unavailable) to us in stores.
We love “Mexican food,” in its broadest sense, and thoroughly embrace Yucatecan dishes, but it’s the packaged savory snack foods that sometimes throw us.
Life isn’t always like the B roll on House Hunters International. We don’t always encounter charming food stalls where freshly prepared marquesitas await. We aren’t always flagging down a man on a bike selling elotes. Sometimes, snack time is a banal affair, like during long work meetings, when someone is dispatched to bring back some munchies for the table, and back comes a bag of processed factory food (Lupimix, anyone?). Which is what real Yucatecans really eat, so it does technically count as part of the local flavor.
So if you want to experience authentic life in Yucatán, sometimes you have to stop pretending you’re starring in a TV travelogue and get Walmart real. Rip open a bag of seasoned nuts and corn- of flour-based somethings.
I haven’t formed an attachment to much of it. But then there are those lovely cacahuates japones.
I don’t know how japones ended up in our shopping cart, but we are happy they did. At once, they taste very natural and weirdly fake, like a dried berry fruit from another planet. I was almost willing to believe japones grew naturally on trees. And we ate them for quite a while before we found out what they really were.
So I finally went online to investigate what it was we had been eating. I wasn’t wrong to think they weren’t entirely factory made. I mean, well, I guess they are entirely factory made. But, but … its main component is real.
Japones, according to Wikipedia, are Japanese peanuts, which we knew was the literal translation. But we suspected the word “peanut” may have been used loosely. Some chemical pod meant to represent a peanut? Turns out, no, they are real peanuts, encased in a hard, crunchy wheat-flour shell flavored variously but always with a hint of soy sauce. They are sold under different brand names, but all originate from a 1940s Mexican invention by a Japanese immigrant named Yoshigei Nakatani, working in La Merced Market in Mexico City. (Japanese immigration to Mexico began in the Porfirio era.) By 1970, Nakatani’s son started industrial production, and other manufacturers started making their own versions. But even today, young Nakatani’s Nipon brand is the market leader.
And at a time when snack food, once locally made, has become dominated by global brands, cacahuates japones have maintained their popularity. It’s easy to see why. They’re a satisfying snack, and not such a bad thing to fill a bowl with if guests unexpectedly arrive.
Thank you Señor Nakatani! We love that your soy-flour-shelled peanuts are so yummy and actually an authentic part of Mexican life.