¡Come chúcata! Literally. An Hermosillo ice cream shop serves new takes on traditional flavors
On a recent Sunday, Denise Durazo and her family walked out of a little ice cream shop inside an old house-turned market on Hermosillo’s main street, Boulevard Hidalgo.
Their cups and cones were loaded up with flavors like queso fresco and coyota — a sugar-filled Sonoran pastry.
“Regional flavors for sure, because I’ve never imagined an ice cream could have queso fresco,” Durazo said. “But it’s delicious. Something totally different but great.”
The ice cream is delicious and unique, he said. Typical Sonoran flavors repackaged in a surprising new way. Her favorite: a creamy base swirled with caramel and spiked with the Sonoran agave spirit bacanora.
“It has a little taste of Sonora. Of tradition,” she said.
That's the mission behind Nevería del Noroeste, started by long-time friends Luis Franco and Andrés Hernández late last year to revive once-common regional flavors.
“So much of what’s around us is edible,” Franco said. “Sometimes we don’t realize that, and we’re missing out.”
Preparing fresh marmalade for a mint, chocolate and orange flavored ice cream, he says the goal of this business is for people to learn something new while eating something delicious.
“We want them to come to the ice cream shop not just to eat ice cream, but also to come away with something new about the state.”
The shop counter is covered with examples of ingredients — like choales — a leafy green Sonoran plant, or quelite, used in one of the shop’s rotating seasonal flavors. On one wall an image of the desert is surrounded by the names and definitions for traditional foods or food-related items, like the chiviri, a long stick typically used to collect pitaya, the deep rosy colored fruit that grows atop organ pipe cactus.
Franco and Hernández started experimenting with ice cream flavors a decade ago just for family and friends. They used traditional ingredients like mesquite flour, called péchita, and chúcata, the name for mesquite sap and the ingredient behind the restaurant’s catch phrase: Come chúcata, or eat sap.
“It’s a beautiful phrase in the Sonoran language,” Franco said with a laugh, explaining that it’s a common phrase meaning something like “take a hike.” He said it stems from the sap’s long history in Sonoran cuisine.
Pieces of dried sap clank against a bowl where they are on display for customers to sample.
“We undoubtedly always get a smile when we say ‘come chúcata,’” Hernández said, because they’ve turned the meaning on its head, making it an invitation rather than a brush off.
They want Nevería del Noroeste to be an inviting place.
“Really, it’s a place where people feel a sense of nostalgia,” Franco said. “They come in and read the words on the wall or the ice cream flavors and say, ‘Oh, that reminds me of something my mom used to say,’ or ‘I used to eat that when I was little.’”
Visiting for the first time, Demetrio Sotelo immediately told Franco and Hernández that one ice cream brought back memories of eating tortillas with a soft cheese called requesón and honey in Sonora’s small towns as a child.
“Those are Sonoran crepes,” he said with a chuckle.
It’s a good memory.
Connecting to Sonoran roots
The third member of the Nevería del Noroeste team, Karen Sauceda, says the flavors have connected her to her roots.
“I was really green when I got here,” she said.
Most of the ingredients in the ice creams were unfamiliar to her, despite growing up in Hermosillo. Over time, she’s started to learn what they mean and feels confident answering customers' questions — of which there are always many.
Then one day she was telling her mom about her favorite ice cream flavor — pinole de flor con naranja — made with a base of pinole, a finely ground corn often used to make a thick, warm drink, or atole.
“And my mom said, ‘Karen, that’s what your grandfather had for breakfast,’” she said. “And I didn’t know it. I had no idea.”
Her generation, especially those who grew up in the city, have lost touch with those once-staple regional foods, she said. But at least for her, the ice cream shop is reestablishing those connections.
The politics of food
Projects like this one speak to the richness of the Sonoran Desert, where people have used native plants in their cooking for centuries, said Dulce Espinosa, a researcher who studies food sustainability and a professor of political and social sciences at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
It’s a positive step for people to learn more about the traditional food sources in the regions where they live, she said. But it can also be complicated.
“Food is political,” she said. “And sometimes these movements, they appropriate these ingredients,” she said.
Efforts to make traditional foods popular can end up causing negative impacts on the environment and local communities as supply struggles to keep up with growing demand. That’s happened with mezcal, she said.
“It’s important that people understand where these foods come from and the people who have historically used them and who use them now,” she said. “Those people should be part of the story, and they should also benefit.”
She said not all foods can be widely available to the public, both for environmental reasons and because of important traditional and sacred uses of those plants. But when they do reach the market, consumers and chefs have a responsibility to source them responsibly.
She said what she likes about Neveria del Noroeste’s model is Franco and Hernández’s close links to local producers.
“The producers are critical for us,” said Hernández. “In this business we can’t grow alone.”
Their goal is to see these traditional foods become a more common part of people’s kitchens in Hermosillo, he said, and they hope that might provide additional income for small local producers.
“We want to work with them every step of the way,” Franco said.
Some of the foods they use aren’t even produced formally, like the mesquite sap, chúcata, which they buy from people in small towns who usually collect it just for themselves and their neighbors.
The duo has spent years getting to know the communities where those practices are still alive and learning their stories
“And there is a story behind every ice cream flavor,” said Franco. “Everything we know comes from the people we’ve met who have shared this knowledge with us.”
“What’s been surprising is the number of young people who come here,” Franco added. “We kind of laugh that we’re Neveria del Noroeste, neveria para older folks.”
Instead, younger people have been fascinated and excited to try foods that might be new to them, or that they’ve heard older family members talk about or eaten in a small town visiting relatives.
“They come in with friends and they start explaining to them what things mean, either from coming to the ice cream shop before or from what we share on our social media. And they’re super enthusiastic about it,” he said.
“Even their accents start to change,” he said with a laugh.
Customers take on a more distinctive Sonoran sound when they’re talking about péchita and pinole, he said. And it’s exactly what he and Hernández like to see.
"¡Que todos comen chúcata!" Hernández said. For everyone to eat sap.
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