Cooking In Oaxaca
OAXACA (PRONOUNCED WA HA KA) is located in southern Mexico, just a one-hour flight south of Mexico City. It may not be at the top of most tourist destination lists yet, but Oaxaca shines as a culinary oasis. It is situated on a mountain plain surrounded by many villages, each specializing in a unique traditional craft. There is much to see and do in the city itself. The Zocalo in the Centro Histórico is a popular and bustling gathering place for locals and tourists alike. As you sit at one of the cafes that surround the square, a concert might begin or puppets might entertain passers-by. You will certainly be offered the chance to purchase locally made arts and crafts and if it's a very hot day, stepping inside the cathedral beside the square is a cool respite.
The large cathedral Santa Domingo de Guzman alongside the national museum is a short walk away. You will discover many marketplaces along the way, offering beautiful artefacts for sale. If you're lucky, there'll be a concert in the small jewel box of an opera house. Short side trips out of town will take you to the ancient mountaintop Zapotec ruin, Monte Alban, a UNESCO World Heritage site. In another nearby village you can marvel at the world's largest tree, El Arbol del Tule. If a few days at the beach is what you want, the western edge of the region borders on the Pacific Ocean.
Hotels and restaurants are affordable and the food is excellent and varied. There is truly something in Oaxaca for everyone. Oaxaca is known as the birthplace of moles (pronounced mo-lays), the complex chile-based sauces that flavour so many Mexican dishes. One of the main reasons we came to this region was to immerse ourselves in the wonderful world of moles and other regional specialities in a cooking class.
Our destination one sunny, hot March day was La Casa de Los Sabores, (House of Flavours) a cooking school owned and run by Pilar Cabrera, popular restaurateur and cooking teacher. An exchange of emails with Pilar allowed us to choose our menu before we left Canada. We'd learn to make Tortilla Soup, Roasted Green Salsa, the red mole called Coloradito, Estofado de Pollo (special chicken stew with a non-chile mole base) Arroz con Leche (Mexican rice pudding) and Agua de Horchata, a regional beverage made with rice, almonds, pecans and cantaloupe.
After a warm welcome from Pilar and a short introduction to our menu and ingredients, we set out to the marketplace. Pilar pointed out interesting sites along the way, including a building, open at the front, containing several large grinders. She explained that in Oaxaca, people use grinders for many things: corn, moles, salsa, chiles, coffee and cocoa beans. Almost everyone in Oaxaca uses these grinders at one time or another to grind coffee and other ingredients for their own use or for sale in restaurants, markets and stores.
Fresh food markets of all sizes can be found in every corner of Oaxaca. They might be set up outdoors or inside a building. In addition to food, you will find housewares and locally made handicrafts, including red and special Oaxacan black pottery, hand woven rugs made with naturally dyed wool, beautifully embroidered clothing and jewellery. We visited the fairly small Mercado Democracia in Pilar's neighbourhood. Stalls of all sizes displayed colourful mounds of fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, eggs, meat, fish, poultry and dairy items, as well as baked goods, candies and household goods. Everything was attractively arranged and vendors offered welcoming smiles as we passed by. Pilar guided us from booth to booth, explaining the different types of chiles, putting names on unfamiliar fruits and vegetables, introducing us to her favourite producer of the thick fresh cream we needed for our dessert and explaining why the chickens were so yellow: marigold flowers are rubbed on the raw chickens to make them look more appealing.
Once we had what we needed for the class, we headed back to Pilar's brightly tiled kitchen. Traditional embroidered aprons were donned, even by the men, and we got to work. Ingredients for each recipe were set out in colourful wicker baskets. Pilar explained the techniques and ingredients and we set to work chopping, roasting, puréeing and tasting. Pilar explained that many ingredients now grown locally have their origin in other parts of the world. Most Oaxacan dishes have a European influence. Items such as pork, almonds and cinnamon originated in Sri Lanka.
As we put together the roasted green salsa, Pilar explained that purple tomatillos are sweeter than the green ones we are more familiar with. (Add a bit of sugar if you only have green ones). We enjoyed our salsa verde with crisp tortilla chips but it is also served with grilled meats, scrambled eggs, chicken and "on almost everything!" according to Pilar.
We learned that there are seven basic moles: negro (black), verde (green), amarillo (yellow) and several red ones including rojo, coloradito, chichilo and manchamantel or 'tablecloth stainer.' All contain one or more types of chiles and assorted other ingredients. We were warned to take care when handling chiles. Wearing rubber gloves is a very good idea. Removing the seeds and membranes from the chiles will decrease the heat. A number of our dishes began with vegetables roasted on a dry grill or comal placed atop a burner set to high. This roasting process intensifies the flavour of ingredients such as tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, fresh and dried chiles and the technique is a common feature of Oaxacan cuisine. As I don't own a comal, I substituted a cast iron skillet at home. Pilar also answered our questions about other foods we had come upon in Oaxaca. Did you know that chapulines or grasshoppers, are nutritious? They are roasted or fried with garlic, lime, agave and salt and sold on the street or in restaurants where they are added to salads and tacos. Yes we sampled them and found them to be crunchy with a veggie/ herb flavour and a slightly fishy aroma. An acquired taste and definitely a "been there, tasted that" experience for me! Asked about the white Oaxaca cheese that's sold in coils, Pilar said that this mild tasting and stringy cheese could be replaced by mozzarella in Oaxacan recipes.
As we cooked together, we scribbled hasty notes on our recipe sheets, took lots of photos, sampled as we went and asked many questions. Soon the cooking was completed and it was time for lunch.
Our aperitif was fiery mezcal that, like tequila, is made from the agave plant and for me, another taste that I have yet to acquire. We sipped as we sampled our salsa verde and two red moles - spicy and delicious. With our meal we drank Agua Horchata, one of several types of agua fresca available seasonally. At another time of year you might be served an agua fresca made with hibiscus flowers or chilacayota (squash). The many garnishes on the Tortilla Soup elevated it to what could be a meal in itself. For the tortillas in the soup, use slightly stale tortilla strips. They will absorb less fat when they are fried. If you choose not to fry them, spray them with vegetable oil spray and oven bake until crisp.
When Estofado de Pollo is made for festivals in Oaxaca, it is served with pickled jalapeno peppers. The almond tomato sauce resembles a mole but without added chiles. As the chorizos in the Oaxacan marketplace are half the size of what's available elsewhere, use half as many larger ones as the recipe calls for. If necessary, substitute another type of spicy fresh or smoked spicy sausage if fresh chorizos are not available. "The spicier, the better!" says Pilar.
Arroz con Leche provided a cool and creamy finish to our delicious Oaxacan lunch. We used short grain rice, producing a pudding with the consistency of risotto. A mint leaf and a small stick of Mexican cinnamon garnished each serving. Mexican cinnamon is loosely rolled and crushes easily. The tight firm stick we are familiar with is actually cassia bark.