Who says “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”? In Mexico we learnt different. Botanas are a snack served by bars to their patrons, usually around lunchtime and early afternoonish. Although not entirely free, as indeed one is there to imbibe a refreshing libation, these snacks are a welcome accompaniment.
The type of botanas on offer can vary greatly from establishment to establishment. The humble wheel shaped “duro” pictured above is common, usually dressed up with a drizzle of hot sauce. We have also encountered steaming bowls of soup, grilled fish, bbq’d beef, quesadillas and tacos. The strangest concoction we’ve eaten was cut-up raw hot dog, cucumber and hot sauce. It’s a surprise every time you sit down with a beer, sometimes the surprise is you don’t get anything.
The Answer to Our Prayers
The concept of botanas was explained to us fairly early on in our trip. An expat living in Mazatlan introduced us to what seemed like could be the answer to our prayers – we like beer and food but are on a budget, so if one could beget the other…. We came to the conclusion that bars/cantinas whose drink’s prices seemed inflated also appeared to serve the more substantial botanas.
In Guanajuato we visited “Clave Azul”, a great bar full of character. We drank beer and chowed down on garlicky potatoes, taquitos, soup and tortillas, all the while nervously hoping that the quality and quantity of the accompanying snacks would not be reciprocated in the bill for just beer. It was a wee bit, but not budget busting, just enough to remind us this would not be the answer to our prayers!
Not So Distant Cousins
The idea of botanas is similar to that of tapas throughout Spain or pinchos (pintxos) as they are referred to in the Basque region of Northern Spain. The distinguishing characteristic of pinchos being these tasty toppings are fixed to small slices of bread with a toothpick. Typically both tapas and pinchos are paid for separately, they are not included in the drink’s price.
However in some more traditional Spanish cities, for e.g. Granada and Madrid it is still possible to receive a tapa included in the price of your drink, apparently this is only true of the more traditional tapas bars. I have yet to visit Spain so this last morsel of information was gleaned solely from research, not from being the lucky recipient of a free tapa in Spain.
Put a Lid on It
There are a few hypotheses out there regarding the evolution of tapas and quite likely in turn botanas, the most plausible being the passing of a law in the seventeenth century ordering bar-keepers to cover the mouth of a drinking vessel with a “lid” (tapa). This “lid” was to hold a small portion of finger-food, with the intention of staving off drunken, bawdy behaviour.
Although this law is no longer enforced (to the best of my knowledge), it’s original raison d’être has evolved into a social graze-fest. Regardless of the country or the name given to the accompanying snack, there’s no amount of finger-food that can counter getting rat-arsed, if that is someone’s intention.
On one occasion in Mexico City we had popped into “Bar la Montañesa” for what had initially seemed like a very expensive beer – 40P ($2). Whilst there we couldn’t help but notice how popular this place was for people to come and eat. A friendly patron called Ruben informed us everyone was partaking in botanas. This was definitely not the fare that we associated with an afternoon beer. These were some serious upscale botanas – whole bream, churasco and vegetables all bbqing on an open flame, there was also some rather tasty soup.
Apparently if you buy three drinks here, you are then initiated into bona fide, gourmet, free botanas! Obviously it helps if your Spanish is better than our Tarzan Spanish and if you are somewhat familiar with the tradition. We got lucky that Ruben was sweet enough to look out for us and our bellies, in order that we didn’t get shafted on the botanas.
We were fortunate enough to be afforded a return visit to Mexico City recently – May 2017. Without even trying to understand the ritual, or even attempt to subtly feign like we knew the botana dance, we found ourselves inundated with them this time. Somehow within a second beer each, we found food being presented to us. Sometimes we were given a small menu of the day’s botanas and you picked from there.
As on our year long trip we were presented with dishes of peanuts, popcorn and duros; however we were definitely plied with more hearty fare, typically after we inhaled the first couple of dishes of peanuts on this latest trip. I can’t say we looked any more confident or hungry, nor has our Tarzan Spanish improved any, this time around. One particular bar – “La Dominica” was extremely generous with fresh plates of varying courses placed on the table as soon as the last plate was emptied. The waiter, seeing me drain the contents of my soup bowl down my throat, may have taken his cue from there with the refills.