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Deep-Fried Arizona Monkey Business

by Dave Dewitt on February 11, 2012 · 0 comments

Many people think that deep-fried heaven is a chimichanga, the suffed, deep-fried tortilla that was born in some Arizona restaurant, probably in Tucson. The appearance chimichangas smothered with sour cream has outraged some purists. “As for the person who slopped sour cream on a chimichanga, or any Mexican food,” said railroader Joe Lancaster, “I use a cowboy phrase, ‘Get a rope.’”

The chimichanga has always commanded a premium price–based no doubt on its size. An astonishing number of local restaurateurs have taken credit for originating this dish, which rivals fry bread for the Alka Seltzer Award of all time. Claims have also come in from Tucson’s El Charro restaurant, La Frontera in Nogales, and other restaurants all over the state. The consensus seems to be that the chimi, as it is fondly known, is the creation of the Garcia family, who also gave birth to the national chain of restaurants of the same name.

It has long been written that the word “chimichanga” has no translation into English except as the vague “thingamajig.” But recently, word sleuths have been tracking down its meaning. Since the word changa means “female monkey” in Spanish, that was the logical place to begin. Idiomatic slang was suspected and Tucson freelance writer Janet Mitchell put the question to Jim Griffith, then director of the University of Arizona Southwest Folklore Center. “No doubt about it,” he answered, “the word ‘chimichanga’ is a polite version of an unmentionable Mexican expletive that mentions a monkey.”

So, a monkey was a part of the translation, but what did it mean? And how was it connected to a deep-fried burro? The next step was to look at the first part of the word, chimi. The closest Spanish word seemed to be chimenea, meaning chimney or hearth–and both words indicated heat.

Investigator Mitchell had heard tales about the first chimichanga being created when a burro was accidentally knocked into a deep-fat fryer and the the cook exclaimed, “Chimichanga!” She had also heard that a baked burro cooked in a bar in Nogales in the ’40s had been called a “toasted monkey.”

The logical conclusion, then, was that the idiomatic “chimichanga” means “toasted monkey,” and is an allusion to the golden brown color of the deep-fried burro. Full disclosure: Janet Mitchell was my third and final ex-wife.

Chicken, Chile, and Cheese Chimichangas

These sweet chicken chimichangas with fruit are lighter than the more traditional beef and bean recipe popular in Arizona.

1 medium onion, chopped fine

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

4 green New Mexican chiles, roasted, peeled, stems and seeds removed, chopped

3 cups diced cooked chicken

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1 small orange, peeled, seeded, and chopped

6 flour tortillas

1 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese

Vegetable oil for deep-fat frying

Chopped lettuce and tomatoes for garnish

In a skillet, saute the onion in the oil until soft. Add the chiles, chicken, and spices and saute for an additional 5 minutes. Add the chopped orange and mix well.

Wrap the tortillas in a moist towel and place them in a warm oven to soften for 10 minutes. Place approximately 1/2 cup of the chicken mixture in the center of each tortilla and top with cheese. Fold the tortilla like an envelope and secure with a toothpick.

Deep-fry the chimichangas, one at a time, in 375 degree oil until well browned. Drain on paper towels and remove the toothpick.

Serve topped with shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, and a salsa selected from Chapter 5.

Yield: 6 servings

Heat Scale: Mild


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