Thursday, February 28, 2013

Consuming Oaxaca

It was Hubby’s turn to pick our vacation destination this time around. More than anything, he’s drawn to chiles, the spicier the better, so he picked Oaxaca. For years I’ve read that Oaxaca is one of the world’s best destinations for fooding, so I agreed it was high time we travel there to see what all the fuss is about. We fortified ourselves with several vaccinations and packed two bottles of Cipro and an English-to-Spanish dictionary, and we were off.

For the first day of our trip we organized a private lesson with Zapotec cook Reyna Mendoza, who teaches students traditional recipes out of her open-air home kitchen in Teotitlán del Valle.

Reyna welcomed us as if we were close friends and wowed us with her dedication to the labor-intensive techniques of her ancient cuisine, though I did spy an electric blender hidden in a corner.

Chocolate atole, a beverage of a hot and thick masa-flavored liquid topped with a cool, cloud-like chocolate foam, was first on the menu.

For the espuma, raw cacao beans, pataxle, wheat, rice, and canela are toasted separately on the comal and then ground together on the metate, formed into bricks, and dried. Pataxle, by the way, is also known as cacao blanco.

It’s cacao that has been buried in the earth until it turns white, and it’ll set you back a whopping 500 pesos per kilo (that’s like $20 per pound to you and me). The dried cacao bricks are reground on the metate.

The powder is blended with cold water, whipped with a special molinillo until every last drop is transformed into tiny bubbles, and then lightly sweetened with raw sugar.

If there was a theme in the class, it was the metate.

Reyna and her family own more than half a dozen, some deeply worn from decades of use by previous generations.

And as one of Reyna’s sisters proved making a batch of salsa, they’re all put to use on a daily basis.

Metates are traditional gifts to the bride at weddings. Many bear the word “recuerdo” along with the year, signifying that it’s a memento. You must have separate metates for processing chile, cacao, and masa preparations since metates are porous and absorb odors. Though I had always suspected this to be the case, I was dismayed to finally learn it for a fact—I knew that convincing my husband to lug just one metate back home, let alone three would be difficult. If you do manage to get it home, there’s a lengthy process of seasoning the metate and chipping down the mano, or rolling pin, to a more effective shape. I got to try my hand at grinding both cacao and chiles on Reyna’s various metates—let’s just say it was quite a work out. When I didn’t last more than a few minutes, I was told that no Oaxacan man would ever want to marry me. I suppose it’s a good thing I managed to snag a husband who’ll settle for blender use.

Reyna also made mole negro, probably the most famous dish of the region, from beginning to end with us. It's another labor of love which involves toasting countless ingredients…

And—what else—grinding them on the metate. Three different types of dried chiles, sesame seeds, almonds, walnuts, raisins, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, peppercorns, ginger, thyme, oregano, avocado leaves, bay leaves, garlic, onions, tomatoes, tomatillos, and bread and/or tortillas de maíz all go into mole along with a healthy dose of chocolate. The most unusual and surprising step of preparing mole negro, and the one that contributes most to the color, is toasting the chile seeds until they are jet black and then actually lighting them on fire. The seeds are left to burn until the flame dies out and then ground and incorporated along with all of the other ingredients. Reyna's mole negro was rich, spicy, and perfectly balanced, with the bitterness of the charred chile seeds providing the perfect contrast to the sweetness of the chocolate.

The final treat of our cooking class was drinking chocolate. Reyna toasted the cacao beans, which made them easy to peel. She placed a bowlful of hot coals under the metate that was reserved just for chocolate. Once the metate was properly preheated, she ground the cacao with canela until it was a shiny brown liquid.

Lots, and I mean lots, of coarse raw sugar was added and ground with the smooth, melted chocolate, and then little logs were formed to dry in the sun. This preparation is what's blended with hot water (not milk) to make hot chocolate.

Reyna offered up the chocolate with a selection of pan dulce, which included some really memorable conchas.

Quite a bit of our time was devoted to grazing our way through the markets in the different towns of the valley. They’re a riot of color, a hive of activity, a cacophony of vendors calling out what they have on offer. In short, it’s sensory overload. Every square foot is packed with shoppers, arms loaded with crinkly plastic shopping bags and live turkeys destined for mole, and if you don’t watch out you’ll be run over by one of the dozens of hand trucks darting up and down the aisles at high speed making deliveries of pillowy bread or tropical fruit or enormous blocks of ice. People negotiate the crowds however possible—it’s not uncommon to see a woman skillfully balancing her purchases on her head.

The Sunday Tlacolula market seemed to have the best goods and freshest produce. It definitely had the biggest selection of molinillos and other cooking utensils.

Tlacolula also had the most impressive fried pork rinds. The enormous pieces of chicharrón must have been made from whole pig skins. I can only imagine the size of the cauldron they were fried in! There we tasted the famous chapulines.

It’s been said that if you eat chapulines when visiting Oaxaca, you will always return. Even if I do return, I doubt I’ll be eating those grasshoppers again because the smell reminded me of something you’d feed your pet fish. The gelatinas were like stained glass, too pretty to eat.

Vine-ripened native tomatoes, known as criollo, were typical.

We also sampled the seeds of the guaje pod.

They taste green and vegetal and slightly pungent like garlic, and the flavor lingers with you for hours. Incidentally, the name Oaxaca comes from guaje. The piloncillo looked much darker and less refined than what I’m used to getting at my local Mexican tienda.

Perhaps Hansel and Gretel’s house was built of these bricks? Apparently, January is strawberry season in Oaxaca.

A fact that makes me very jealous since we have to wait until July in our neck of the woods. Fried peanuts tossed with plenty of chile and garlic are a favorite market snack.

The chickens at the market are sold with their heads and feet intact, and though they are gutted, immature eggs are left inside.

We also hit the markets in Etla and Ocotlán, and since Oaxaca City was our base, we visited Mercado Juarez and Mercado Sánchez Pascuas several times. The meat vendors at all of the markets display everything in the open air at room temperature.

Fish is kept on ice. Baskets overflow with dried shrimp.

Oaxaca is known for its cheeses, and quesillo is available everywhere.

Essentially a flavorsome string cheese that’s stretched and wound into balls, it’s shredded by hand and often used in quesadillas along with epazote and fresh squash blossoms. Quesillo is known as queso de Oaxaca outside of Oaxaca. Chiles de agua are displayed in pretty stacks and used for rajas and rellenos.

They are the same shade of green as New Mexico green chiles and mild like poblanos. Dozens of varieties of dried red and yellow chiles are sold in bulk.

I recognized many of them, but varieties such as Onza and Catarina were new to me. The dried chiles were so fresh, supple and flexible and aromatic. Chile vendors also offer up bulk spices and crumbly, fat sticks of fragrant canela that are over a foot long. Squash is another mainstay of the Oaxacan diet, and it comes in every shape and size.

Bananas come in a number of varieties.

Some are yellow, some are red, and they all have distinctly different flavors. Papayas are a favorite, and there are many types of unfamiliar tropical fruit, including mamey.

Another common sight is the rows of molinos, where locals who have given up the metate have their chiles, corn, and chocolate ground.

We planned to explore Central de Abastos. It is the largest market in Oaxaca, sprawling across several city blocks. Everyone told us that it was overwhelming and that it was crawling with pickpockets. We were warned time and again they would take our wallets, they would take my camera, they would take our hats and socks if we blinked. Still, we were confident in our instincts and took a taxi over. It was true that there were people loitering about, seemingly for no other reason than to look for potential marks. I certainly felt the eyes on the back of my head. But I don’t wear jewelry or carry a purse, and Hubby buries his wallet in a zippered pocket within a pocket. So everything was fine. Thank goodness we ignored the warnings and went. It was the only place we got to see colorfully painted metates and molcajetes for sale.

Sadly, I couldn’t work out how to get one of those heavy things home (shipping would’ve have cost a fortune—I checked), but it was fun to see them for sale. It was also interesting to see the livestock at Abastos. People can purchase a baby goat to fatten up for barbacoa. My most precious find at this market was a set of three different stamps for making conchas.

The markets really made me wish I had access to a kitchen, but since I didn’t, we took breakfast at our B&B and most of our other meals at street food stalls. We picked Casa Ollin because of its reputation for delicious breakfasts. Each morning we were treated to a multi-course meal of freshly squeezed orange juice, hot chocolate, coffee, a goblet of fresh tropical fruit with yogurt, a selection of pan dulce, and a main dish of mole negro tamales, entomatadas, enchiladas with salsa verde, or rajas Oaxaqueñas. Everything was superb, but the rajas dish was my absolute favorite. It consisted of strips of onions and fire-roasted poblanos with cubes of squash and chunks of barely-melting queso fresco in cream. We sopped up the sauce with fresh corn tortillas. The vegetables were especially welcome because it seemed like every other meal was a big hunk of meat.

On the street and in the markets, we tried everything from empanadas, which were made with corn tortillas rather than a flakey pastry, to freshly fried potato chips, to the regional pastries and beverages. Churros were part of our diet at least once, if not twice a day. Icy nieves were sort of similar in texture to Italian granitas, but flavors like queso and corn were purely Oaxaqueño. I ordered the leche quemada, which I thought would be some sort of caramel concoction, but it tasted precisely like scorched milk—ick. Though it was incredibly tempting, we passed up the tamales.

We avoided the rainbow of aguas frescas and steered clear of the cut and prepared fresh fruit.

It was so hard to resist.

But you see, delicate tourists are cautioned to eat only hot food. Aside from the aguas frescas, which are popular all over Mexico, Oaxaca has many unique beverages, and our tour guides insisted we try them all. Tejate is a foamy drink made of corn, cacao, rosita flowers, mamey pits, piloncillo, and water. We were told that it takes hours to prepare. Pulque is the sap that collects and ferments naturally in the center of a maguey plant that has been hollowed out. It has a milky appearance and is pleasantly sour and fizzy. Pulque that is mixed with pineapple juice, onions, and chiles becomes tepache.

We tried a number of restaurants. Without exception, the most humble ones were the most enjoyable. And they also had the best freshly-made corn tortillas. I’ve been told that the sign of an expertly-made tortilla is when it puffs up on the comal.

Caldo de Piedra utilizes a rather curious main ingredient.

The stones are heated in an open fire until they are red hot and then added to a bowl of shrimp, fish, water, and flavorings. The whole thing bubbles up furiously and cooks in a matter of moments. The rocks are removed from the bowl before the soup is served, but I couldn’t help but think that such a thing would never fly with the health inspectors and lawyers here.

Another memorable meal was at Mercado 20 de Noviembre, if just for the bureaucratic hurdles we had to jump in order to get it. We wandered the smoke-filled room trying to figure out how to order and where. Luckily, one of the guys behind the counter at the produce stall spoke English and gave us an overview of how it all worked. We were to order our raw chiles and onions from him. We were to take these and order meat of our choice from the butcher. The butcher would pass the meat to the grill cook, who would also take our chiles and onions and cook everything up. We would pay everyone separately. This was a particularly important detail to know as we took the tortillas offered by the grill cook and walked away. She gave chase as we had to pay her for those separately too. We sat down, at which point the produce vendors took back our cooked chiles and onions and offered us a trayful of different salsas and salads to choose from. Eventually the chiles and onions reappeared peeled, we settled our accounts with each of the vendors, and we could eat. Which was good because all that back and forth really worked up a hunger. This was Hubby’s favorite meal, especially the little links of chile-laden chorizo. Interestingly, all of the grill cooks in Oaxaca seem to be women.

They fan the flames furiously as they cook over the flaring grills breathing clouds of smoke, and they have scarcely an arm hair—or lung cell—left. Also interestingly, the preferred method of butchering meat is into thin pieces with the grain. The meat is usually cooked through and through, and the results are of course predictably chewy.

To my surprise, the best meal of the trip for me was at Tlayudas Libres (Libres 212). Oaxacan food experts always sing the praises of tlayudas, but they never sounded too exciting to me—I mean, what’s so special about a giant tostada? It turns out that a tlayuda isn’t at all like a tostada. It isn’t fried but rather griddled on the comal until it’s quite dry and shelf stable. The dry tlayuda is spread with a generous spoonful of savory asiento, the sediment-heavy lard that’s left at the end of rendering, and a layer of bean puree and then heated on a grill until softened. It’s topped with a sprinkling of cheese and shredded lettuce, and at Tlayudas Libres, folded in half and served with red salsa and your choice of grilled beef, pork, or chorizo on top. It was a revelation—the slightly leathery texture of the tlayuda, crisp in spots where it was licked by flame, the flavor of the smoke of the grill, the savory, porky asiento, the salty cheese, and the picante salsa together are truly greater than the sum of the parts. If you ever have a chance to go, keep in mind that Tlayudas Libres is open only at night.

When we spotted fresh huitlacoche on a menu, we seized the opportunity to taste it. Huitlacoche is a fungus that takes over corn during the rainy season. It mutates entire ears, causing them to have overgrown, greyish mushroom-like kernels. This prized delicacy is sometimes referred to as the Mexican truffle, and I’ve always wanted to try it. Unfortunately, the huilachoche was overpowered by the massive quantity of onions it was sautéed with. I could tell that it had a slight bitterness, but beyond that I couldn’t get the flavor of it. This was one of the disappointments of the trip. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to give it another shot.

One of the highlights was hanging out in tiny bread bakery in Etla. The bakery was so small it didn’t have a name, and even our tour guide had trouble finding it. Inside, we discovered the truly artisan operation of an elderly couple working harder and faster than most people half their age.

José and Juana were tickled at the prospect of having visitors and gave generously of both their time and their bread. Their adobe oven was built by hand and fueled by wood.

They mix the dough each morning and form it in a variety of shapes, some pretzels.

Some rolls and rabbits.

Juana would spread each piece with melted manteca.

The savory pan amarillo was topped with sesame seeds. Sweet hojaldras were sprinkled generously with sugar. Juana would carry the racks of bread, which were longer than she is tall, over to the oven, where José would score them.

And load them into the oven.

And then bake them to perfection.

The hot rolls were irresistible, with a lovely char from the hearth on the bottom.

The hojaldras were barely sweet.

The granulated sugar topping turned into a crackling caramel crust.

Just as the last batches came out of the oven, the locals started trickling in—they knew exactly what time to come to stock up.

We journeyed to a mezcal distillery. This producer was off the beaten track—certainly not a place any tourist would just stumble upon. There, the agave hearts are baked in pits underground until they are a caramel color and intensely sweet and smokey. The cooked agave is mashed with Fred Flinstone-style clubs. The agave pulp is fermented in barrels and then distilled in clay stills over fire.

It’s surely a rustic operation, some might call it moonshine, but it was the best, most nuanced mezcal we tasted. And after a couple of shots, the world looked a little different…

The craft artisans of Oaxaca are as famous as the food artisans. We visited the village of San Marcos Tlapazola to see the famous red pottery being made. As you already know, I’m pretty single minded about all my travels having to relate to food in one way or another. This fit the bill because the pottery is largely utilitarian rather than decorative. These potters make comales, ollas, and other cookware.

They do everything by hand, from mining the earth and producing the clay, to forming each piece…

To firing, to burnishing. They lack even a potter’s wheel, instead relying on crude tools such as a corn cob for rolling out the clay.

The workshop of knife maker Apolinar Aguilar was another must-see destination. Apolinar carries on the generations-old family tradition of forging knives.

His claim to fame is that he made the swords used in the Conan movies. His demonstration of forging, polishing, and etching techniques was so practiced that it almost seemed scripted. In Apolinar’s hands, car parts and other recycled materials become cooking knives, sporting knives, or ceremonial knives for witch doctors. He showed off an ostrich foot that was destined to become the handle of a knife for a shaman. A beautiful turkey carving set that Apolinar signed and dated for us is a souvenir of our visit.

Thus we consumed all of Oaxaca, and we were definitely ready to get back home for some rest from our vacation.

Postscript: One thing we didn’t get to do is observe the cheese makers in Etla, only because they do most of their production in the wee hours of the morning before we could even roll ourselves out of bed. If and when I ever make it back to Oaxaca, they’ll be at the top of my to-do list.
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