A week ago on the eve of my arrival to Oaxaca my mom asked me “Do you like Oaxaca or Puebla better?”
Perhaps I was a little grumpy when I gave my mom my first appraisal of the city. Nicole and I had accidentally taken an extra long bus ride from Puebla (extra stops turned 3 hours into 6) and had wandered the streets of Oaxaca City for an hour looking for something to eat before finally making our way to La Biznaga.
That day, when I answered, I told my mom that Puebla was enchanting and romantic in a way that Oaxaca was not. But, I wisely added that it was hard to make that kind of appraisal after one day in Oaxaca.
If my mom asked me the same question now, it would be much harder to answer. Since that apathetic first appraisal of the city of Oaxaca, I was able to visit dozens of cute restaurants, artisan shops, and clothing boutiques, stroll through a few mercados within a 45 minute radius of Oaxaca, and fell in love with Oaxaca. Oaxacan art and culture seemed inexhaustible.
I feel the same way about Oaxacan food. After eating in Oaxacan restaurants, which offered delicious and inventive meals and taking four different cooking classes over the course of a week, I can confidently say that I now love mole and that Oaxacan cuisine is my favorite Mexican cuisine.
Our trip formally kicked off on Tuesday with a cooking class at Casa Crespo. We arrived to some freshly foamed got chocolate and hibiscus jam and bread. Our fellow guests piled in slowly and we eventually settled on a menu. Then we brought previously nixtamalized corn to the mill to be ground into masa for our tortillas and we went to the local mercado to purchase a few key ingredients. After a quick tour of the mercado, we came back to the cooking school where we made ceviche, a cold avocado soup, black mole, usually eaten only during wedding or funerals or other festive days, salsas and chocolate ice cream for dessert. Getting to make mole from scratch was an amazing experience. As a kid, I hated mole since I didn’t like sweet and savory combinations. Hearing about the ceremonial nature of making such a laborious meal, reminded me that Mexican cooking is best done with people and for people. It also, ironically, convinced me that I can make mole myself as a more common occurrence! More importantly, it started to change my feelings about mole. A crucial change in the land of moles.
On Wednesday we visited Susana Trilling and made one of the best meals I’ve had on this trip. This cooking class also started with a market tour, this time at the Etla market. Our tour guide, Yolanda, was a Mixteca woman married to an American. Yolanda confidently guided us through the mercado explaining to us the importance of Mexican traditions like using cal, limestone, to help break down corn for masa as well as tools, like a comal, used to cook the many ingredients needed for a mexican meal. She also gave us a tasting of SIX delicious tamales at the mercado. A tamal that really blew my mind was the tomato raja tamal. I was amazed that a tamal could be elevated to that level of creamy and silky masa, a far cry from the dry, dense tamales I usually have (sorry mom! Sorry tias!). Then we drove to Susana Trilling’s school and as we approached the cooking school, I was enthralled by the milpa, the ancient and harmonious system of growing corn, squash and beans, leading up to the school.
Once inside the expansive cooking school, we were offered a light lunch and agua fresca and then Susana went over the logistics and history of the recipes we would be preparing that day. Then, we were broken up into teams and sent off to cook our respective portion of the meal. Nicole and I ended up with the tres leches cake and I think we did a pretty good job if I do say so myself. All of that practice making avocado flowers paid off. Also, check out Nicole’s lovely piping! After a few hours of working under the guidance of Susana and her assistants we produced a beautiful meal. After all the meals were done, we sat down and were served our 5 course dinner. We started with a panucho, followed by an amaranth meatball soup, a tart beet salad, an exquisite estofado de pollo paired with chepil arroz, and finished off with two desserts, our tres leches cake and chocolate pudding. A truly outstanding meal and group of people!
Thursday, we took a cooking class with Nora at Alma de Mi Tierra. Nora, a sweet and petite woman greeted us at the entrance of the Mercado with a basket in tow. Nora explained to us the history of the region and outlined key pre-hispanic ingredients in Oaxacan cuisine. Nora then guided us through the market, highlighting other key ingredients and purchasing our supplies for the meal. When we arrived at Nora’s home we got to work right away preparing our dessert- tamales de piña! Then, we moved on to mole verde which Nora also calls Chlorophyll Mole due to the many greens that go into the sauce. The mole was surprisingly light and the bright green color immediately made it one of my favorites. After the mole we made a sesame salsa to go over our requezon stuffed squash blossoms. After all the food was ready, Nicole, Nora and I sat down to enjoy our meal and talk about food. I loved every part of that meal but I am especially looking forward to making the squash blossom appetizer again!
Friday, our week culminated in a class with Reyna Mendoza, a Zapotec woman who runs a cooking school out of her home called El Sabor Zapoteco. Although I thought that the week could not be improved further, this class was one of my overall favorites. Reyna’s quiet demeanor and gentle instruction made the day an especially memorable one. We began by walking to the local mercado to purchase ingredients, this part of the class felt like Reyna was a nice aunt who was buying treats for us to try, making me feel like a dinner guest and a friend in her home rather than a student. I was also amazed by the zero waste initiative at the mercado, good were wrapped in naturally bio degradable materials like brown paper bags and corn husks, and everyone brought their own bags.
When we arrived back to her outdoor kitchen, Reyna began the day by serving us some of the pan dulce we’d just purchased and making us some water based hot chocolate using a molinillo. We all sat around the table briefly and got to know one another and, then, we got to work. We began by making the paste for the tamal de amarillo by grinding hoja santa, chiles, and chile seeds on the metate. This experience alone made the class more than worth it for me. Kneeling before this ancient stone tool trying to mimic the effortless grace of Reyna was such a special moment for me. However cliche it may sound, I felt like I was joining the ranks of hundreds of Mexican women before me that worked with this precious tool for thousands of years. If you know if any metates in Boston, please let me know!
After grinding the chiles, seeds, and hoja santa down to a smooth consistency we moved on to our masa which Reyna made without fat. Then, we filled these tamales with mushrooms, chicken and amarillo and wrapped and steamed them in corn leaves (not husks!). One those tamales were in the steamer, we moved onto tamales de mole negro, this time cooked in banana leaves. We carefully spread the masa over the supple banana leaf, filled each tamal with chicken and mole negro and then folded and tied each tamale shut. Finally, we turned our attention to one of my favorite mexican tools, the molcajete! We used the molcajete to make two things, a green dressing for our nopal salad, and a red salsa to go with our meal. Once the sauces were made we sat down to enjoy our meal and I had FOUR tamales, a record for me. Both of the tamales were absurdly delicious. The nopal salad was one of the best I’ve had and the mango sorbet finished of the meal perfectly. Cooking with Reyna was one of the highlights of my stay in Oaxaca and I can’t wait to return for another class.
Nicole and I wrapped up the weekend by visiting a local market on Sunday and finishing up all of our shopping for our classrooms. I am, sadly, not bringing back a real metate but I am so very excited to bring back these recipes and tools for my family, friends, and students to experience. There is so much more that I could share about Oaxaca but that’s all for now.
Stay tuned for the final trip update on San Miguel de Allende next week.