Bladder Friendly Mexican Cuisine – Part 1 of 2 – Fresh Tastes by Bev
By Bev Laumann, Author of A Taste of The Good Life: A Cookbook for IC & OAB
Twelve years ago, when I was first diagnosed with IC, I wasn’t sure there was a connection between what I ate and how my bladder felt. But when the light finally dawned on me that what I was eating may be a problem, one of the first connections I made was the one between spicy hot Mexican food and sleepless nights in the bathroom. The realization that my favorite foods were triggering bladder pain was really depressing. And I especially hated the idea of giving up Mexican food. I love Mexican food and so does my whole family.
Mexican cuisine is not just one cuisine, but many. Not unlike regional styles in the U.S., each province of Mexico has its own specialties and its own way of preparing traditional foods. Chiapas, Chihuahua, and Oaxaca for instance are famous for their great variety of cheeses and cheese dishes. The Spanish brought dairy products and new spices to Mexico and changed forever the diet and culture there. Spices such as cinnamon, which are used extensively in Mexican cooking, are also favorites in Spain. The resourceful Mexicans gave Spanish food a new twist and thus we have a wide variety of tasty Mexican sausages, called chorizo, which often are spiced with native chile peppers. Then too, its proximity to the United States has greatly influenced modern Mexican cooking just as Mexican cooking has influenced that of the southwestern U.S. Recently, blend of Southern U.S. cooking and that of Mexico has created a new food fad for Americans– Tex-Mex.
All the variations of Mexican cooking though include foods that are unique to the Americas– ones eaten by the native population centuries before the Europeans arrived. Chile peppers, vanilla, and chocolate are chief among the native American contributions to Mexican cooking and are used extensively in all regions of Mexico. Corn is a staple of the diet throughout Mexico much as wheat is in the United States and Europe. Despite frequently containing tropical fruits, tomatoes, and chile peppers, not all Mexican food is off-limits to those with tender bladders or delicate stomachs. Wonderful stews, chicken dishes, cheese dishes and desserts are easily adaptable for Americans with IC.
Healthy Mexican Cuisine
Many traditional Mexican foods rely on lard, bacon, or fatty meat products for their unique flavor. Corn tortillas for instance, are traditionally made with lard. Refried pinto beans are fried in bacon grease or the fat from chorizos. Mexican foods have become popular with Americans in recent years, so brands of both flour and corn tortillas made in the U.S. often substitute shortening for the lard. Be sure to check the labels of tortillas you buy.
There is a down side to the availability of Mexican foods here in the U.S., at least for people with IC. The manufacturers have cut the fat content of their products for health-conscious American consumers, but they’ve also added preservatives and flavor enhancers. Some of these additives irritate tender IC bladders. There is one small glimmer of hope though. Packaged foods made by Mexican firms and marketed both here and in Mexico are more likely to lack the irritating additives than those made by U.S. firms strictly for U.S. consumers.
Another point on the good side: Mexican cuisine relies on a wealth of fresh ingredients, especially vitamin rich vegetables and cheap but protein-packed beans. That makes it ideal for people who need to get good nutrition while avoiding artificial ingredients. It’s also a high-fiber cuisine that’s ideal for offsetting the effects of constipating painkillers and antidepressants used to treat IC. (If you have IBS, it’s advisable to ease slowly into a high-fiber diet, otherwise the sudden increase in fiber can cause painful gas and cramping).
Salsas: Sauce only for the brave
As we begin to see our bladder improve with appropriate treatment, it’s natural for us to want to push the limits and see what we can get away with. So we often experiment with things like tomato salsas. If you want to bladder-test a salsa, the best route is to buy one with no preservatives (it will not last long though, even in the refrigerator). If you are at a restaurant, ask if they make their salsa fresh daily. In the southwestern U.S., one good additive-free brand of bottled tomato and tomatillo salsa is Herdez (it’s made and also sold in Mexico). You may also find you have more luck with bottled salsa made only with tomatoes versus those made with tomato paste. And if you are genuinely allergic to tomatoes, you may also have more luck with the green salsas made with tomatillos (husk tomatoes). If you want to make your own salsa, you can increase your chance of success by cooking the onions before adding them to the salsa. Be aware too, of the Scoville heat scale for chile peppers. Serranos are much hotter than jalapenos. And habanero chiles (don’t even think about it…) are among the hottest, being many times hotter than a jalapeno.
Here’s another trick you might try if you’re getting brave enough to try a salsa again. The Tomato Growers Supply Company (888-478-7333, www.tomatogrowers.com) markets seeds of an interesting new variety of hot pepper named “Fooled You”. Their catalog says, “Truly a jalapeno pepper for gringoes…”. They claim it has “no heat but still retains the essential flavor of a jalapeno.” They advise it for Mexican food served to children, so how bad can it be? It’s new, so I haven’t personally bladder-tested or taste-tested this yet, but I’m looking forward to growing and trying some this summer.
Another help if you are going to bladder-test a homemade salsa, is to use low-acid tomatoes. My cookbook, A Taste of the Good Life, lists some lower acid varieties you could grow yourself.
For tortillas, again, small is beautiful. The smaller the company that makes them, the more likely it is that the tortillas are only distributed locally, and so the less likely they are to contain additives to extend shelf life. The additives to especially watch out for in corn or flour tortillas are sulfites. Check the label for the word “sulfite” or “metabisulfite”. Benzoates and benzoic acid can also be a problem for IC patients, and they too are frequently found in tortillas. The amount used by each manufacturer varies though, so if you can’t find additive-free tortillas it pays to actually bladder-test various brands that do have benzoates to see if the amount is low enough for you to get away with. Other than the preservative issue, tortillas are very bladder friendly. (If you suffer from vulvodynia and are oxalate-sensitive though, you’ll be better off with the flour ones).
The problematic spices and seasonings used in Mexican cooking are not all hot. Besides the obvious (red pepper flakes, cayenne pepper, and chiles), paprika or oleoresin paprika can also be flare-inducing. Oleoresin paprika is sometimes found as an orange coloring in otherwise “safe” Mexican cheeses. Cumin (called comino) is another seasoning used extensively in Mexican cooking. It isn’t hot like chile peppers, but it is pungent and may irritate a very sensitive bladder when used in huge amounts (as it typically is in tamales or enchilada sauces).
Cilantro, the leaf of the plant that produces coriander seeds, is commonly used in sauces and salads and even in fruit dishes served in Mexico. It is an interesting flavor addition to scrambled bacon and eggs. It complements potato salads. Though it seems safe for many people, I have heard from at least one woman with IC and vulvodynia who says she cannot tolerate cilantro. I’m not aware of whether or not cilantro has a high oxalate content. Just to be safe though, and because we all vary in our sensitivities to foods, before making a dish with fresh cilantro, try eating a sprig of fresh cilantro alone to make sure your body can tolerate it. (By the way, I’d be very interested to hear from any of you who have experienced bladder flares from cilantro.)
Mexican Foods We Can Eat
All’s not gloom if you have a sensitive bladder and love Mexican food. There are a lot of tasty Mexican dishes we can safely eat:
We’re able eat many Mexican soft cheeses because they are either not aged or aged very little. Two bladder friendly soft cheeses you might want to try are Requeson and Queso Blanco. Requeson is soft like ricotta. It works well for things like spinach lasagnas and cheese spreads. Queso Blanco is made from skimmed cow’s milk and is much like a cross between mozzarella and cottage cheese (or ricotta). It doesn’t melt, however. The versions of Queso Blanco made in Mexico have a slight lemon flavor because the milk is curdled with lemon juice. Versions made in the U.S. however, are likely to have been made with rennet instead, just like most cheeses we are familiar with here. You can check them out out a local Mexican food market if one is near you.
Another cheese that’s often used in Mexican-American cooking and is available in most places in the U.S., is Monterey Jack cheese. This is a soft, creamy yellow cheese aged a scant two weeks. (Aging increases the monoamine content of cheeses and also their propensity to cause bladder flares). Melted with some ch