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The Lost City of Aguachile

A Mexico City seafood chef travels home to Sinaloa in search of the “original original” version of the state’s signature shrimp dish.


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Aguachile in a bowl

It’s Saturday morning and a crowd of 30 people has already clogged the narrow central aisle of Mexico City’s Mercado de San Juan, the gourmet food market in the historic center. Bottles of Pacifico pass from hand to hand as waiting customers dance to banda music blaring from a precariously placed loudspeaker over chef Luis Valle’s cramped, chaotic kitchen. Flames leap as Valle throws a whole octopus onto the charcoal grill. Plates of crab tostadas, raw scallops as wide as beer bottles, and grilled tacos stuffed with smoked marlin pass over the counter by the dozen.

The dish that made Valle and his eight-seat stall, Don Vergas, famous within months of its opening in February 2018 is aguachile, the unofficial state dish of his native Sinaloa. The backs of six small shrimp crest a shallow pool of lime juice, their tails cozy under a tangle of red onion, cucumber, and cilantro criollo. Valle crumbles a pair of tiny, spherical chiltepín, a wild chile from Sinaloa’s eastern foothills, between his thumb and forefinger, showering the plate in a red flurry of capsaicin. The shrimp, still uncured by the lime (as they would be in ceviche), are slick and sweet and snap like cucumber.

The dish tastes like the sea and the dry inland forest, as bright and dazzling as Valle himself, cracking jokes to customers who, in the span of just a few minutes, have become his new best friends. Among his favorite subjects was the origin story of the dish itself, its beginnings as an indigenous preparation that had drifted out of Sinaloa’s eastern hills and west toward the Pacific, a version of the dish that he’d never actually tasted himself.

In the last several years, aguachile — defined by the Larousse culinary encyclopedia as “Ceviche of raw shrimp mixed with lime juice, red onion, pepper, cucumber, chile piquín or chopped green chile (serrano or jalapeño)” — has emerged as one of Mexico’s most popular restaurant dishes. Today, practically every marisquería in Mexico serves some version of the dish, often just an ordinary ceviche, the shrimp cured into tough, tasteless oblivion, and revved up with liquefied serrano.

Luis Valle commanding his stall at Mercado de San Juan

Aguachile at Don Vergas

In Mexico City, the beloved seafood institution Contramar serves an aguachile of thinly sliced scallops. At Salón Ríos, a high-end cantina, they serve a “black” aguachile stained with soy, an ingredient popularized in Sinaloa with the arrival of Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s. The menu at Masala y Maíz, which explores the intersections of Indian, East African, and Mexican cuisines, includes an aguachile with pretty pink florets of red snapper peppered with nasturtium blossoms, peeking out from beneath a broken poppadam. In the United States, aguachile has become a recent fixture of fine dining Mexican menus, first at Carlos Salgado’s beloved Taco María in Orange County and later at places like Empellón in New York.

Yet aguachile as we know it today, and its position as the emblematic dish of Sinaloan cooking, is likely a recent invention. A cookbook by the late Sinaloan chef Patricia Quintana, published in 1994, did not include aguachile, although it did contain a recipe for ceviche. Gustavo Arellano, author and journalist for the Los Angeles Times (and an Eater contributor), told me via email that aguachile first started appearing in LA in the 1990s or early 2000s, and, since then, has remained “a dish of extremes — either served in working-class Mexican restaurants, or high-end eateries.”

According to Google Trends, which tracks searches as far back as 2004, the word aguachile barely appeared as a search term in Mexico until 2008, and in the United States until 2011 (in LA, interest started cropping up in 2009). Even in Sinaloa, aguachile’s purported homeland, people didn’t start searching for the dish with any regularity until 2008. In every one of these regions, aguachile’s popularity has risen with each passing summer.

As the dish has grown more common, however, what constitutes aguachile has become less, not more, clear. In Sinaloa, you’ll meet people who define aguachile by the type (blue) and size (small) of the shrimp. Some people will tell you that what matters is the wild heat of foraged chiltepín, while others will say the best aguachile comes from the port city of Mazatlán, where it’s usually prepared with serrano. One person told me aguachile has to be served in a molcajete (the volcanic-stone mortar and pestle essential to the Mexican kitchen) because, “it’s like whiskey: you can’t just have it out of any old thing.”

Really, aguachile is a roadmap to Sinaloa, a state whose name is often tied to the drug war and the larger-than-life dons who have become its bombastic, public face. Aguachile, Valle explained to me on my first visit to Don Vergas, began in the hills, where chiltepín still grows wild between plantations of poppy and cannabis, then drifted west toward the sea. Along the way, it touched Sinaloa’s disappearing indigenous traditions, centuries of mestizaje, cultural and economic ties to the United States, and two of the major industries — shrimp and agriculture — that drive the Sinaloan economy.

On my first visit to Don Vergas, in April 2018, Valle told me that if I wanted to try the “original-original” aguachile, we could go look for it together in Sinaloa — on what he would later call our “super mega mission.” I told him I would love to go, only half expecting it to happen, as he slid a plate of aguachile across the counter. Crystals of Maldon salt cracked between my molars. The chiltepín blazed a trail of heat across my tongue. I’d eaten plenty of aguachile before, I told him, but nothing quite like this.

Verga,” he exhaled with a Cheshire smile, using the word that gives his restaurant its name. Translated literally, it means “mast” (as in a boat). In this context, it meant something more like “dude” or “no way”’ Sometimes, it means “cool” or “good;” sometimes it means “shitty.” Mostly, though, verga means “dick.”

“That’s because you’ve never been to Sinaloa.”

The first aguachile, in all likelihood, had nothing to do with seafood.

For centuries before the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, indigenous communities would carry dried meat from the rugged, inland hills that form modern-day Sinaloa’s eastern border down to the Pacific coast, where they would trade for salt with the civilizations established there. They mixed that salt with chiles plucked wild from the forests and with water from the 11 rivers and countless streams that connected the hills to the seafood-rich coastal lagoons and irrigated the fertile central valleys along the way. Taken together, says food practices investigator Idolina Velázquez, who, like Valle, is Sinaloan, these ingredients constituted “a type of pre-Hispanic salsa.” That dish would later be named for its two primary ingredients, agua and chile: the “original-original” that Valle and I hoped to find.

Chiltepín for sale in Los Mochis

When the Spanish arrived in Sinaloa in 1531, they described a land populated by civilizations that ranged from the highly organized to the nomadic. They encountered at least one village populated exclusively by women, which led to rumors that they’d stumbled upon the kingdom of the Amazons. They wrote of valleys rich with fruits and vegetables, plus coastal lagoons dense with fish, shrimp, and oysters. One chronicler of that first expedition, likely a mid-level soldier not important enough to sign his work, described Sinaloa as “the most populous [province] we’ve seen on this ocean, and abundantly supplied with corn and beans and chilies and fish.” From the moment it entered the colonial imagination, Sinaloa, named for a fruiting cactus native to its hills and valleys, meant bounty.

In the first decades of the colony, disease wiped out the coastal civilizations, along with their languages and customs. Farther north, the Cahita tribes who resided in the hills resisted conquest for another 50 years, driving back every attempt at invasion until a final, violent push by Spanish forces in 1584. That same year, the Spanish explorer and historian Baltasar de Obregón, who wrote of his travels in Sinaloa, described “a notable thicket of chiltecpín interwoven with wild fruiting cacti and thorny trees.” It was the first written record of wild chile in Mexico’s northwest.

By then the small globular chile, Capsicum annuum glabriusculum, had already appeared in early colonial texts. The Codex Mendoza of 1542, an ethnographic tract written by the Spanish on the peoples of the New World, mentions a town called “Chiltecpintlan,” whose people paid tribute to their Aztec overlords with precious wild chile. In the Florentine Codex, completed in 1585, the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún notes various recipes for simple moles made from a base of chiltepín, which he describes as “a chile that burns a lot.”

According to Velázquez, the original aguachile was used principally by inland communities to season and soften sun-dried meats like venison and wild boar. Ranchers in rural Sinaloa, many of them descendants of Spaniards who migrated into the hills, still carry that aguachile with them into the fields, eaten with tortillas or tamales as a bracing midday snack. For Velázquez, “confusing aguachile with the shrimp is a way of erasing the indigenous cultures and the whole story of mestizaje that created it.”

But while the dish consisting literally of agua and chile has existed longer than the historical record, Jaime Felix, a food historian and member of the Conservatory for Sinaloan Gastronomy, says the emergence of the word “aguachile” is virtually impossible to pin down. “As a Sinaloa-ism,” he says, “it first meant a person from the mountains, a ranchero, and it was a bit pejorative — someone who ate water and chile in the woods.”

Small fishing boats docked at the Port of Altata

Wild-caught shrimp for sale in Los Mochis

No one quite knows when aguachile became a shrimp dish. Felix, 73, grew up in the Sinaloan capital of Culiacán eating seafood at street carts, but he doesn’t remember eating his first raw seafood until the 1970s, when Sinaloa’s fishing industry took off. One possibility, he says, is that middle-class people took note of Japanese migrants, who arrived in the early 20th century and ate raw seafood, then decided to put a Mexican spin on it. Another is that fishermen themselves, relatively isolated from the cities and the booming central valleys, had eaten aguachile this way for years without anyone in Sinaloa’s urban centers realizing.

Fernando Covarrubias, a close friend of Valle’s and owner of a catering company in Los Mochis, told me that as recently as 20 years ago, the dish we call aguachile went by another name — camarones ahogados, or drowned shrimp. In 2013, the Culiacán-based cook Miguel Taniyama, of mixed Mexican-Japanese descent, started an annual aguachile festival, preparing literal tons of the dish and distributing it for cheap. “Ceviche is Peruvian, coctel is from Guerrero,” he says. “We decided it was time to position aguachile as our state dish.”

This, however, was not the dish that Valle and I had come to find. We wanted the aguachile that Larousse didn’t know about, the one that predated its own name, the one that Valle’s mother, Rosa, a clinical psychologist, grew up eating on the family ranch outside of town. Born and raised in Los Mochis, Rosa told me she didn’t remember seeing aguachile on menus at marisquerías until maybe a decade ago, but she did remember the version her aunt used to make. “People who didn’t have much would kill a cow or a deer and salt it and hang it up to dry,” she said. “And then everything else they had — chiltepín, salt, sometimes onion and a tiny bit of cilantro, and water — that was aguachile. And it was delicious.”

Peering into the pitch-black sky over Los Mochis, Valle watched his drone, blinking green and red, rise over the scattered yellow lights of his hometown, dispersed in a perfect grid across the valley below. Fifteen minutes before, Valle had given his new toy a couple short test runs from the wide concrete platform built into the side of the Cerro de la Memoria, or hill of memory, that rises from the middle of town. Now, he was flying it out over the Mexican pro-league baseball stadium half a mile away, still under construction and bleached with flood lights. Valle, as it turns out, flies a drone the same way he cooks: with giddy, instinctive abandon and startling aptitude.

Later that night, while driving through town, Valle pointed out the motley landmarks of his wayward youth. He nodded to his favorite place for tacos de carne asada and the corner where he got his jaw broken in a fight. He pointed out the house where Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who was convicted in U.S. federal court for crimes including conspiracy to murder and money laundering, was apprehended for the third and final time in January 2016. He showed me his favorite hot dog stand and recalled the time when someone stretched a human face over a football and threw it into the Palacio Municipal. He took me to the 60-year-old diner that still serves his favorite cheesecake and showed me the corner where, at 16, he was shot in the eye with a pellet gun. He called the injury the result of “a stupid war game” that, several surgeries later, left him with one dark-gray eye that lists absently to the right. He pointed back to the 36-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mary looking out from the top of the Cerro de la Memoria over the tomato, bean, and potato fields that are the source of Los Mochis’ prosperity. In high school, he and his friends would end late nights slamming beers at the Virgin’s feet as the rising sun turned the valley gold.

Luis Valle in Los Mochis

In 2011, after a stretch of tough years and several attempts to find a career that suited his frenetic personality, Valle met chef and TV figure Aquiles Chávez at an event in Los Mochis and followed him to work at Chávez’s Houston restaurant La Fishería. After five years cooking in the United States, he returned to Mexico. In February 2018, he opened his stall at Mercado de San Juan more or less sight unseen. “Todo sale siempre, verga!” — everything works out, always, verga! — is something like a mantra.

When Valle told his mother that he planned to call the stall Don Vergas — an innuendo-laden name that elicits either gleeful titters or knowing eyerolls when customers first hear it — she begged him to name it something else. But Valle knew what he was doing. Last June, the online magazine Cultura Colectiva produced a video about Valle and what the presenter called “los mariscos más verga de la ciudad” — roughly “the best shellfish in the city.”

In the video, Valle flashes the tattoo of Sinaloa that runs the length of his right forearm, its wedge-like outline filled in with landmarks from Los Mochis: a curled red shrimp, an indigenous drum, the Virgin on the hill. He smiles hugely and says, “This is my state, really nice, really beautiful, and my place is a really concrete example of what [Sinaloa] is.” At Don Vergas, Valle is making a new iconography — beyond El Chapo — for his misunderstood home.

By early November, when Valle and I met up in Los Mochis, Don Vergas was already famous, particularly among the many norteños from northern states like Sinaloa and Sonora who now live in the Mexico City. For them, Don Vergas is the taste of home they’d never had in the staid, stuffy capital. Valle was one of their own — explosive and funny, his shadowy bum eye and radiant smile suggesting the best and worst of the tense and joyful north. And, of course, that aguachile.

Word spread almost as quickly in Los Mochis as it had in Mexico City. “He was always aventado,” Valle’s uncle Choc Man Chen told me one evening, using a word that combines the positive and negative connotations of “fearless” and “reckless.” “But I’m glad he’s been aventado with this, because if he hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have done anything.”

One childhood friend remembered showing the Cultura Colectiva video to her aunts. “They said, ‘Is that Luisito, the one we used to pray for?’” she told me. I asked if she’d known about Valle’s success before seeing the video. “Knew about it?” she said, only half joking. “I assumed he was dead.”

On the road from Los Mochis to El Fuerte, a 16th-century town some 50 miles inland, Valle rushed over sudden potholes and unmarked speed bumps, heedlessly jolting the suspension of the Jeep he’d borrowed for the day.

In the town’s fortified, pastel-colored center, we met Valle’s friend, César Echegaray, for lunch at his restaurant, where we ate giant grilled river shrimp and several variations on aguachile. Echegaray gestured to the long plate of curiously mild shrimp in the center of the table, flavored with Tajín, a mild, prefab chile powder, instead of the wild chile from the nearby hills. “When you put chiltepín, people from other places get scared, so we put Tajín to get people to eat it,” he said. He also brought out a small cup of what he described as “real aguachile” made with crushed fresh chiltepín, garlic, salt, and oregano. Valle spooned it into his mouth like soup, laughing maniacally as his lips and tongue buzzed with heat. It was the closest we’d come so far to the dish we were seeking.

While we ate, Echegaray told us about a trucker he knows who eats whole chiltepín to keep himself alert on long-haul drives. Valle mentioned a friend in Mexico City who pulverizes dry chiltepín and snorts it to treat his chronic sinusitis: “It hurts like hell, but then for the next four days, everything’s perfect.”

A bowl of wild chiltepín

Tiny and perfectly round, the chiltepín ages from a bright green when it first sprouts to a fiery red in maturity. Eaten fresh, it tastes of chlorophyll and capsaicin, a clear, focused blaze that, like Valle’s temper, burns out as quickly as it lights. Though hotter than serrano or jalapeno or most other commercially available chiles in the States, chiltepín’s sting doesn’t linger. Dried, the chile shrivels to a brittle bead the color of clay that crumbles to a fine dust between two fingers, its heat more concentrated and longer-lasting, tasting like sun and rocks.

Historically, chiltepín would have grown throughout Sinaloa’s central valleys, including here in El Fuerte, spread by the birds that eat its ripe red berries. Chiltepín shrubs, left to grow in the shade of bigger trees, can reach over 6 feet tall, producing 6 to 10 ounces of ripe berries each season. Over thousands of years, the chiltepín, wild progenitor of all Capsicum annuum chiles, was domesticated into countless varieties now found around the world, from bell peppers to jalapenos to Hungarian wax peppers. But according to Velázquez, the food investigator, attempts to domesticate the chiltepín itself have never quite worked, producing fruit that’s subtly different from the wild variety.

Production of chiltepín has been in decline since the late 19th century, when the dictator Porfirio Díaz sold off huge swaths of land to foreign investors to develop a more industrialized agricultural system. Throughout the 20th century, and particularly during the Green Revolution, from the 1950s to the 1970s, deforestation eliminated much of the chile’s habitat. Now, virtually the only wild chiltepín left in Sinaloa grows in the remaining upland forests in the east, near the borders with the states of Chihuahua and Durango, a region known as the Golden Triangle for the high density of valuable, illicit crops found there. Those hills, Echegaray told us, are not places you go without contacts.

Echegaray’s contact was a rancher named Marcos Nafarrate, who lived 18 miles east of El Fuerte in the village of Chinobampo. As the jeep wound toward the foothills, we passed roadside stands manned by farmers selling giant bags of peanuts for a few dollars each and bottles of chiltepín for $10 a liter, a third of the price in Los Mochis. Red-and-white Tecate signs hung like pendants over the road. “There are only three things around here,” Echegaray said. “Chiltepín, peanuts, and beer.”

Nafarrate has wild blue eyes and a snarl of beard that’s either blond or a sun-bleached gray dyed yellow with dust, the only material found in abundance in tiny, ramshackle Chinobampo. And though he doesn’t harvest chiltepín himself — he keeps horses and livestock and grows fruit in his orchard a short distance from town — he has plenty of shrubs growing on his property.

Marcos Nafarrate on his ranch near the town of Chinobampo

We followed Nafarrate — mounted on horseback, face half-hidden under the brim of a tattered straw hat — down a dry, winding arroyo, shaded by the hills that rose from its flanks. In one of his pastures, Nafarrate led us to a small shrub growing halfway up the side of a granite boulder, its slender branches studded with green and red chiles the size of salmon roe. That shrub, he said, approaching gingerly to check its underbrush for snakes, had once covered the entire rock. In recent years, as prices for chiltepín have risen, people without land or animals have started collecting chiles more aggressively, often trespassing to do so. Many cut back whole shrubs all at once — either to get off their neighbors’ land quickly or, as Nafarrate suggests, out of sheer laziness — saving the tedious work of plucking individual chiles for home. Even those who take the time to pick the chiles where they grow often harvest too aggressively at the beginning of the season. If the chiles don’t reach maturity, the birds won’t eat them and new plants won’t germinate.

I snapped a green chile off the branch and chewed. The flesh tasted vividly of grass, with a sharp but curiously mellow heat. That’s because this plant had grown in direct sun, Nafarrate said. Plants that grow in the shade produce hotter, more flavorful chiles. In 2015, Nafarrate said, the state government introduced domesticated chiltepín as a cash crop, but the plants have produced elongated, rather than spherical, berries that are less spicy, less vegetal, and less wild.

Back in town, he handed a liter of dried chiltepín to Valle, who sat in the open back of the Jeep, handing out rounds of cold Tecate. He stuck his nose into the neck of the bottle, breathed in, and smiled. It smelled like a freshly mowed lawn and leaves dried under the mountain sun. “This is la verga,” Valle laughed, then asked Nafarrate if he could buy another bottle.

In the last year alone, Nafarrate said, the price for chiltepín has doubled. “People are coming in now from Culiacán and Guasave — wherever they sell mariscos — to buy it by the kilo,” Nafarrate said. “There’s a fever for it. People here, we wonder why suddenly everyone wants so much chiltepín. You’d think they were selling crystal.”

“It’s because of aguachile, I’m sure,” Valle said. “People think the star of the dish is the shrimp, but really it’s the chile.”

Sergio Castro would beg to differ.

Castro and his brothers, Benjamín and Rubén, and a fourth business partner, Omar Valdez Trapero, have worked with fishermen in the network of saltwater lagoons covering 55,000 acres along the northern and central coast of Sinaloa. In 2014, they formally registered their fishing operation under the name Del Pacifico and, in January 2016, earned their certification with Fairtrade International. Caught live using a technique similar to kite fishing, Del Pacifico shrimp, which Valle uses for his aguachile, are some of the highest-quality in Mexico. “What I know of aguachile is that it always has to be made with blue shrimp,” Castro told me.

Blue shrimp from the Gulf of California

A high-seas shrimping boat off the coast of Sinaloa

Out on the Altata Lagoon with Castro, Valle and I watched dozens of fishermen in one-man, fiberglass boats drift silently over the water. When a wind kicked up, they hauled their technicolor sails out of the water in near-perfect unison, using the breeze to pull their boats and nets through the shrimp-dense water. One fisherman sold us a bucket of his fresh catch. Valle pulled a small shrimp from the pail and, after posting a video of its silently pedaling legs to Instagram, tore its head off, slipped off the shell, and bit into the crisp gray flesh, sweet and still warm.

From the 1940s to the 1970s, Sinaloa’s industrial development focused principally on harnessing the power of its 11 broad rivers to feed the valleys that, even today, feed Mexico. Fishing villages, often far from infrastructure that could connect them to urban markets, sat on the shallowest parts of the lagoons, and the subsistence fishermen who lived there used cast nets, rather than boats, to collect their daily catch. In Las Arenitas, a village at the southern end of the Altata Lagoon, a now-deceased fisherman told Castro that the smaller shrimp cooked down to nothing but had lots of flavor, so they were better eaten raw. Local fishermen, he said, mixed the shrimp with the limes that grew a few miles inland. “This guy was 85 and he just called it botana” — a generic word for a snack — “not aguachile,” Castro told me. “I asked him why he started making it and he just said ‘because there was nothing else.’”

Today, Mexico is the world’s 17th-largest producer of seafood. In 2017, the country produced 2.1 million metric tons of fish with a total value of more than $2 billion USD; 77 percent of those catches come from Sinaloa and the four other states that border the Gulf of California. In 2018, Mexico produced 78,000 metric tons of wild-caught shrimp (another 150,000 tons came from aquaculture). That year, Sinaloa produced 37 percent of Mexico’s shrimp, by far the country’s most valuable maritime product. If aguachile has become Sinaloa’s most emblematic dish, that’s in large part because shrimp has become its most emblematic export.

The official numbers, however, only tell half the story. According to a 2013 study by the Environmental Defense Fund, the total amount of seafood extracted from Mexican waters is at least double that reported by the government due to large numbers of fishermen working without permits in unregistered boats. Many work outside the legal limits for financial reasons; permits are expensive and complicated to acquire, and unregistered boats have an easier time flaunting seasonal embargos. A minority of these illicit fishers supplement their modest incomes by transporting drugs out to larger ships for the cartels. Mario Adrian Luque Verdugo, a manager at Sociedad Cooperativa Chelelo, one of Sinaloa’s largest shrimp producers, told me that as recently as 2014, one of the company’s boats was attacked twice in the same year. The first time, it was robbed of 3 tons of shrimp. “Now, with organized crime involved, no one files complaints [about robberies], because no one wants to get involved,” Luque said. “Farther north, near Sonora, they’ve run the authorities off with guns.”

Preparing lunch aboard one of Sociedad Coopertiva Chelelo’s fishing boats

But the bigger problem is the resource itself. Starting in the 1990s, Luque told me, government subsidies to growing families fostered an explosion in the number of small-scale fishermen working the coast. Years of generous catches, low fuel prices (also subsidized), and the high commercial value for shrimp convinced people from the poor and increasingly unstable interior to migrate to the coast. Although the annual wild shrimp catch has remained practically unchanged over the years, Luque claims the number of boats fishing these waters has increased dramatically over the last 20 years (officially, there are just short of 12,000 small boats registered in Sinaloa and 860 large boats, a 0.3 percent increase since 2007). “The cake is still the same size,” Luque said, “but now there’s a ton of people who want to take a bite.”

Luque took Valle and me out to one of the company’s high-seas fishing boats, which typically work at night. The boat bobbed listlessly, its trawling rigs thrown out over the water like the wings of a sea plane too old and rusty to fly. Though vessels like these represent less than 5 percent of Mexico’s total fishing fleet — the rest are small outboard-motor launches — they pull in some 70 percent of the total volume of fish caught in Mexico’s territorial waters. In 2020, Luque said, they would likely stop fishing for wild shrimp altogether, and focus on cultivating the thousands of hectares of shrimp farms the company has built over the past 20 years.

In the boat’s kitchen, Valle and I watched as Jesús Arturo Soto Mendoza made lunch. He made cucarachas, or cockroaches: shrimp, deep-fried in butter and oil and salt, that emerged from the dented, high-sided pot encased in shells as crunchy as potato chips. He made a ceviche with the fish culled accidentally along with the shrimp (which can constitute over 90 percent of catches on large, industrial boats). And he made what most people would call aguachile: raw shrimp, butterflied and bathed in lime and liquefied serrano (he didn’t have chiltepín on hand), served with half-moons of cucumber and crescents of red onion. He called them ahogaditos.

Cucarachas — deep-fried shrimp with salt

Ahogaditos — raw shrimp with lime and liquefied serrano pepper, served with cucumber and red onion

What he and his family know as aguachile, he said, is a simple sauce usually used for dipping plain, unstuffed tamales. Valle excitedly asked if he had any on hand that we could taste. That, after all, was what we’d spent the last few days looking for. Soto shrugged. If we’d let him know ahead of time, he said, he could have brought some from home.

The next day I asked Castro if he’d ever heard aguachile called “ahogados.” I asked if he thought the dish we call aguachile and the word itself had developed separately and then, at some unknowable moment, come together. What would he call an aguachile made without shrimp? He shook his head and grinned: “First-world people, you always want to name everything.”

The day we went out with Castro was a Thursday, which meant Valle had to return to Mexico City to open Don Vergas the next morning. By the time he left, we’d eaten at least a half-dozen variants of aguachile, but none that approximated the ancestral dish we’d set out to find.

Though Valle had instigated the whole trip, he didn’t seem to mind leaving his “super-mega mission” incomplete. The restaurant, in the end, is the only thing that can hold his attention for long, which is good, because he has big plans. He wants to expand into a larger stall at the market (assuming the other vendors, many of whom dislike the rowdy crowds that Don Vergas attracts, allow it). He wants to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant, and he wants to open a whole market dedicated to products from the north. “People in Mexico City, they don’t know anything about what we have,” he says. The market, he hopes, would create a new image of the North writ large, much as Don Vergas has started to do for Sinaloa. He also wants it to double as a shelter for the homeless and as a training center where they can learn to work in the service industry.

Ofelia Gonzalez Moreno outside her home in the town of Ensenada

The morning after Valle left, Castro arranged for Valdez (one of the business partners in Del Pacifico), to take me to a village called Ensenada, a cluster of houses set in the hills an hour south of Culiacán. Driving east past fields of sesame, the mountains appeared as a gentle ridge sketched onto the blue-brown distance, a saw filed down by years of loving use.

In Ensenada, we parked under a towering tamarind tree, its trunk fixed with a ladder that allowed the owner of the adjacent house to pull down the long, sweet-sour pods. Ofelia Gonzalez Moreno has lived here for 40 years and has been going to the nearby arroyo to pick chiltepín for just as long. About a decade ago, Gonzalez’s daughter suggested they try selling the chile. In those days, they would drive an hour down the highway, set up shop beside the road and sell liter bottles for 20 pesos each. “We didn’t have anything before that,” Gonzalez said. “We lived in a house made of sticks. This chile made it possible for us to build this house.”

Until she started selling chiles to fishermen, Gonzalez had never tasted an aguachile made with shrimp. The aguachile she grew up with, she said, was simpler than that: She boiled water with salt, cooled it, and then added fresh chiltepín and a few pieces of red onion. I told her I’d been looking to taste exactly that all week. “I have some in the refrigerator — just this morning I made some,” she said before disappearing into the house and returning a moment later with a bowl in one hand and tortillas in the other.

Tiny chiles floated like capers among white curds of queso fresco. The liquid was cool and refreshing, the chile’s heat precise as a razor. My eyes rolled back with pleasure and Gonzalez’s wrinkled face cracked into a thousand smiles. I thought about Luis and what I would tell him when I got back to Mexico City:

Todo sale siempre, verga.

Wild chiltepín growing in Sinaloa

Michael Snyder is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City, and previously in Mumbai. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in T Magazine, The Believer, Lucky Peach, The Nation, and Travel + Leisure, among others.

Felipe Luna is an independent photographer based in Mexico and Spain.

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This post originally appeared on Eater and was published March 13, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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