“If I get to heaven I’ll look for Grandma’s hands.”
For years I attempted making one of my favorite dishes from my mother’s kitchen. It happened like with all my favorite family recipes. They seem so simple and easy and yet they are objectively impossible to replicate. I made countless attempts at making food from home during years of living abroad (meaning in the US, away from my native Quito, Ecuador). The results were almost always far from satisfactory. (You know, that feeling of disappointment at the lame version of your mother’s favorite food…)
This is one of those ridiculously simple recipes, a kind of salad dressing we call “agrio” (literally “sour” in Spanish), although one could also categorize it under “pickle” and “curtido” (fermented vegetables). My mother’s agrio recipe is basically a watery sauce flavored with pickled radishes and onions. The key-lime juice and salt work together to “curtir” or pickle the veggies, and the finely sliced cilantro adds the characteristically Ecuadorian touch. The “agrio” sauce is characteristically red due to the effect of the salt and lime juice in releasing the color of the radishes. The longer the dressing sits in the kitchen counter top or dinner table at room temperature, the stronger the color and the flavor.
My mother’s “agrio” is basically a watery sauce flavored with pickled radishes and onions.
Traditionally (in my mother’s kitchen, that is), “agrio” is an accompaniment to whole leaves of fresh iceberg lettuce. The lettuce leaf (shallow-side face up) is dipped in the bowl with “agrio,” carrying with it a few sliced radishes, onions and cilantro bits as it is transferred to any main course plate. Occasionally, sliced avocado quarters are served alongside the dressed lettuce leaf or even inside it. In the latter case, the avocado travels in the lettuce’s hollow to the dressing bowl and returns all dressed up with radish, onion and cilantro pieces.
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The reddish/radish “agüita” (diminutive for “water” in Spanish) in the agrio is what makes the flavor unique. The sauce needs to have the perfect balance of lime, salt, water and the released vegetable juices. The challenge for me then becomes to achieve this perfect balance. Fresh ingredients play a role, as well as the experience of trying it out and tasting it countless times. Trial and error is a required process, in my case, as my mother does not use measurements for this recipe (or any other recipe, for that matter).
It turns out the key isn’t just in the ingredients or in the proportions, as she explained to me today. I asked her once again, after so many failed attempts, “How do I make this dressing taste good (that is, like the one you make)?”
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I stood next to her as she demonstrated for me. After hearing her say it, and insist on this one thing over and over again in countless over-the-phone recipe-explanations, it finally clicked in my head.
“You have to use your hands.”
It didn’t seem so obviously important before today when I watched her do it in front of me. It went like this:
“First slice the radishes.”
She let me do it although objecting to the kind of knife I was using…
“You have to use a plain blade knife or it changes the shape of your vegetables.”
I then started pressing the key limes. I did a few halves and then walked over to the kitchen sink to rinse my hands off.
“No, no, no.”
At this point she took over and started pressing the halved key limes, using her fingers to firmly punch the juice out into the dressing bowl.
She then walked over to the tap, opened it slightly, and rinsed off the lime stuck to her fingers right into the dressing bowl.
“The hands give you flavor. This is how we used to do it in Ecuador. Here [in the US] they use gloves.”
I see. Now what?
“You mince the green onions, very finely, like this.”
I watch her mince the onions.
“Now, rinse the onion bits off of your hands the same way, with a little bit of water.”
She repeats the process for the cilantro leafs, not without pointing out that the kind of cilantro sold at supermarkets here is useless (“no sirve para nada”). She explains these are very young cilantro leafs which are tasteless compared to the more mature and more tasty leafs of the cilantro sold at the markets, back in Ecuador. (Mature cilantro looks like this.)
After adding all the ingredients to the bowl, she added a bit more water to dilute the mixture.
Salt was the only missing ingredient. Of course, as I was in my mother’s kitchen, adding salt couldn’t be as simple as it sounds. I went ahead and made yet another failed attempt to do things right for this recipe.
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“No. You shouldn’t use a spoon, I told you. You need to use your hands.”
She grabbed the salt container from me and took a pinch with her fingers. She sprinkled the salt onto the mixture and repeated the ritual: she walked up to the tap and rinsed off her fingers with water that fell right into the dressing bowl.
In goes the salt, the water and the taste of my mother’s hands.
Looking back in time, the scenes of my grandmother’s kitchen pop up in my memory. I see her scratching off the dough stuck in her hands with a spoon to incorporate it back to the dough mixture as she shaped balls, buns or tortillas (be it potato, white carrot or plantain).
This cooking session renewed my hope that I will make a decent “agrio” for my iceberg lettuce. But it also gave me a sense of closure. I finally understood that my attempts at making family recipes will never meet my desired sensory expectations, given the obvious fact that a big part of flavor lies in the actual, unique hand taste of family members.
My mother’s handtaste theory made even more sense years later, when I discovered the micriobiological explanation of handtaste—fungi inhabiting our hands are deposited on to hand-amassed food, helping ferment it, while passing on genes (and taste) from dish to dish, and from generation to generation. After all these years reflecting upon the complexities of handtaste, I feel somewhat relieved and empowered. The search for the perfect balance is over—I now know I count with my own, unique handtaste to season family recipes. Just like my mom’s, my hands are the source of the flavor unique to our family’s food heritage.
My Mother’s Agrio Recipe (approximate measurements)
6-8 young, small radishes, sliced
½ lime juice
Water (add until the cut radishes float)
½ tsp. salt
2 green onions sliced
Pilar Egüez Guevara, original recipe September 2015 (Revised January 2021)
To learn how to make this recipe firsthand taught by my mom herself, as well as other traditional recipes, sign up for the self-paced online course“Cuisine for a Strong Immune System, co-taught with my colleague Javier Carrera at the Seed Savers Network.
A version of this agrio recipe piece was first published in Render Feminist Food and Culture Quarterly (2016).