This just happened to fall into my “editorial calendar” during the week of Cinco De Mayo. I didn’t really plan it, but it makes sense. This isn’t a traditional sandwich and I’m not a cemita or tinga specialist. These are just recipes I use to make good sandwiches at home.
What is a cemita sandwich?
A cemita is a type of bun originating from Mexico, specifically the Puebla region (East of Mexico City). Cemita buns are most often used for sandwiching. But cemita is also a word used to describe a sandwich typically served in these buns.
Tinga is a Mexican food-focused term that means “torn meat.” In most applications and recipes that I’ve seen online, it’s usually chicken and it’s cooked in a red-colored sauce containing tomatoes, chipotle peppers, and the adobo sauce accompanying jarred or canned chipotles.
To describe cemita sandwiches succinctly, they are served on a sesame seed cemita bun containing mashed or sliced avocado, meat/protein – sometimes pounded super thin and fried, milanesa style – chipotle with adobo sauce, shredded or stringed Oaxaca cheese, and then a lot of papalo leaves or cilantro.
That’s quite a description. Let’s make some chicken tinga cemitas.
Why a chicken tinga cemita?
My wife made this happen.
The main reason we went with a tinga cemita was that my wife suggested it as an idea. But the second reason that I thought of later – when the idea of the sandwich really clicked for me – was the fact that both tinga and a cemita have chipotle and adobo sauce as a major component. In my mind, cemented that both components were asking to be sandwiched together.
When we started thinking about this sandwich and blog post I wasn’t sure if a chicken tinga cemita was a real thing or not. And it turns out that there are some out there in the world, but they’re not super common from what I can tell with google searches.
I found a chicken tinga cemita on a menu at a place called Cemitas el Tigre Sunnyside in Sunnyside, New York and they provided this nice picture and description on their delivery order page. But by the time I had found this, we had already made our chicken tinga cemitas.
Theirs and ours turned out similar, which makes a lot of sense. Time to make some bread and get started.
The cemita sandwich buns
Cemita buns are made from an enriched dough, including eggs, milk, and a tiny bit of butter (some use lard). They are like hamburger buns and baked covered in sesame seeds. The cemitas I have had have a bit more chew than a soft hamburger bun, but they are still tender, and the outside isn’t firm or crusty.
Here’s my cemita sandwich bun recipe that I’ve been working on for the past few months.
Papalo is the wild card. So wild in fact that I never even enjoyed it in a sandwich. But from everything I have read, it is centric on an authentic Mexican cemita.
Papalo is an herb with a pungent flavor. Here’s an article from the Chicago Reader about papalo leaves that explains some of the herb’s place in cemitas.
In place of the papalo leaves, you can substitute cilantro. That’s what we did. I asked around at my local markets about papalo leaves and all the responses I got from my new friends in the produce sections were that the herb is very seasonal and unavailable outside of June or July through October. During that time, if you have a market with a Mexican focus, I’d suggest giving it a try. I know I will be doing that soon.
I don’t really need to write about this. Get the avocado out of its shell and remove the pit. Add a sprinkle of salt and if you have a good avocado, you’ve already got something special. Dip a tortilla chip in it and savor life for a moment and then come back to Earth and use the rest to spread inside your cemita buns.
Oaxaca cheese, which is also known as quesillo, is very similar to a firm mozzarella with a flavor akin to Monterey jack. The label of the Oaxaca cheese that I bought at my local store claimed it was “Mexican style string cheese,” but this brand really didn’t pull into strings for me. The main goal in this sandwich is not to have sliced cheese but shredded or thinly pulled strings of cheese work so well.
My favorite versions of the cemita sandwiches that I made included shredded Oaxaca cheese that was pushed through the fine side of the cheese grater. The heat from the meat will mostly melt the finely shredded cheese and it all incorporates into a fantastic bite.
The chicken tinga
Let’s make some chicken tinga.
Tinga as I wrote earlier means “torn meat”, so we almost always take the easy option which involves a grocery store roasted chicken. You can buy your own chicken parts and cook them to your liking, or you can be lazy like we typically are and just buy a rotisserie chicken and pull the meat off the bone and mix it into the tinga sauce.
This chicken tinga recipe is VERY similar to the recipe that my wife has been making for 10 or 15 years. Many years ago, my wife found this Rick Bayless recipe for chicken tinga tacos and we have been making it ever since. It’s just easy, quick, weeknight cooking and makes for a great taco.
BUT! My wife found out a while back that you can recreate almost the same final product without the Frontera chipotle salsa with just a couple of subtle changes in the recipe.
Anyway, this tinga recipe is fantastic. We’ve used it in tacos, in calzones, and even on a chicken tinga pizza. So, don’t just assume that this is just sandwiching focus. Add it to your mix for quick meal options.
The chicken tinga cemita sandwich recipe
Here’s my recipe for the chicken tinga and this cemita sandwich. Scroll past the recipe for an extra addition I added to some of these sandwiches and a lot of photos of cemitas.
This chicken tinga cemita is a super easy and very flavorful weeknight sandwich. Chicken tinga can be used in tacos, nachos or even pizza, but this recipe focuses on a fantastic cemita sandwich.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 5 garlic cloves, finely diced
- 1 chipotle, diced
- 2 tablespoons adobo sauce
- 15 ounces fire roasted diced tomatoes, with juices
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 1⁄4 cup chicken broth
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- meat from whole roasted chicken (3 to 4 cups)
- 4 cemita buns (click for my recipe)
- 2 to 4 cups of chicken tinga (from above)
- papalo leaves (or cilantro)
- 1 to 2 avocados, scooped out and smashed with a pinch of salt
- Mexican Oaxaca cheese, shredded
Chicken tinga: add a large skillet or pan to medium-high heat.
Add one tablespoon of olive oil to the pan and when it starts to shimmer, add diced onions, garlic, chipotle, adobo sauce, fire-roasted tomatoes, chili powder, and chicken broth. Stir to combine everything.
Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring occasionally. After it starts to simmer, turn the heat down to medium-low.
Cover the pan and allow it to cook for 10 minutes.
After 10 minutes add the tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and stir everything up. Add chicken, stir and cook for another 2 to 5 minutes, until the chicken is warmed through.
Make the sandwich: toast your cemita buns if you prefer.
Spread avocado onto the bottom bun. Sprinkle with salt
Add a heaping quarter cup of chicken tinga on top of the avocado.
Top chicken with shredded Oaxaca cheese.
Sprinkle on a healthy amount of papalo or cilantro leaves.
Add the top of the bun to the sandwich. Serve and enjoy.
An extra addition
I added black bean spread to some of the bottoms of these sandwiches but not all. Overall, it’s a fantastic addition and you should add it if you want an even more savory sandwich.
The cross-section on this next photo allows you to see the light crumb in these rolls even though they are still chewy enough to stand up to the fillings.
Even if you don’t make this chicken tinga cemita – AND YOU SHOULD, make sure you bookmark the chicken tinga part of the recipe for your next taco night. It’s super easy and since it can be easily made with the meat from a rotisserie chicken, you’re already halfway there.
Check back next week when we’re hitting the Big Apple and I’ll be making their second favorite sandwich.