Cinco De Mayo cemita: more than a sandwich


Danielle Barcena/The Inquirer

Originally published on 05/03/2012

Cinco de Mayo arrives this Saturday, leaving ample time for people to celebrate on a holiday that conjures up images of drinking tequila under the guise of a sombrero from Chevy’s until an involuntary siesta takes over.

“The celebrations are many and varied, but…more have forgotten why we celebrate,” Dr. David Hayes-Bautista, Director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the School of Medicine, UCLA, wrote in a packet provided by his media representative.

“The celebration has devolved into a mere party; a time to eat Mexican food and drink Mexican drinks,” Hayes-Bautista wrote.

Many are not aware of what they are celebrating, and probably even less aware of how they ended up back in their beds after a night of endless margaritas. Some think it is Mexican Independence day. “Mexicans in California used the commemoration of the Cinco de Mayo, the Battle of Puebla, to symbolize their desire for freedom and democracy,” Hayes-Bautista wrote.

In his new book, “El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition,” Hayes-Bautista shares the true history of the “Battle of Puebla,” which led to the holiday as we know it.

“On the morning of May 5, 1862…the French Empire charged the walls of Puebla…to their surprise, the Mexican army did not yield [and] threw the French troops off the town’s walls,” Hayes-Bautista wrote in his media packet.

The French continued to charge, but the Mexican defenders resisted, causing the French troops to retreat. News of the Mexican victory in the battle made its way to a San Francisco newspaper and was celebrated by a group of miners who Hayes-Bautista said, “fired off rifle shots and fireworks, sang patriotic songs.”

On the first anniversary of the “Battle of Puebla,” Mexicans celebrated their continued success against oppression. “Cinco de Mayo became a symbol of the struggle to preserve liberty…Mexicans in California used the commemoration of the Cinco de Mayo, the Battle of Puebla, to symbolize their desire for freedom and democracy,” Hayes-Bautista wrote.

Instead of celebrating with your nose face down after a night of drinks, you can stick it high in the air and brag about your sandwich with historical significance: the cemita. During the French Intervention from 1862 to 1867, a flaky, egg-washed sesame seed roll was introduced by the French oppressors to the people of Puebla, Mexico.

The sandwich is made from that cemita roll, which holds beef Milanesa, a deep fried thin slice of beef, avocados and onions. Adding a white cheese is essential to getting the traditional taste. Either panela, a gentle mozzarella like cheese, or quesillo, a stringy cheese from Oaxaca will suffice. Adding flavor in a red sauce is common.

Picking out the ingredients using my method is simple; get what is on sale. Any cut of meat will do. I substitute an authentic cemita roll for any hard roll, like a Kaiser roll or toasted ciabatta.

Danielita’s Easy Cemita:


1 hard roll
1 generous slice of steak
½ c bread crumbs
½ c flour
½ c cooking oil
1 egg
1 tsp water
salt and pepper to taste
red bell pepper
1 piece of string cheese


Cook your thawed slice of beef thoroughly. Saute sliced bell pepper and onion. Pull apart your string cheese. Set aside. Add oil to pan.

Toss in a small piece of food, when it bubbles in the oil, it is ready to fry. Mix together flour, bread crumbs, salt and pepper.

In another bowl, whisk egg and water. Coat the meat in the egg wash, then put in the dry ingredients. Use tongs if you have them and gently place the coated meat into the oil. Watch out for splatters!
When your meat turns a crispy brown, remove from oil and turn stove off. Dab the greasy food with a paper towel.

Build all the ingredients onto the hard roll and enjoy!