Wednesday, March 27, 2024

The Simple Foods of Oaxaca

Many of the foods in Oaxaca are extremely complex, like Martina Escobar’s recipe for the 35 ingredient Black Mole at Restaurante Catedral in Centro. Eight years ago, it took just one plate of this dark, rich, wonderfully sweet and spicy Mole Negro to convince me that the food in Oaxaca has a depth no other place in Mexico has.
Tejate, a drink that’s made in the markets in Oaxaca, is known as the Drink of the Gods. It’s made from maize corn, a flower called flor de cacao, mamey seeds, roasted cacao beans and fine ash. After being toasted and ground, the paste is dissolved with water and beaten with the hands for an hour to obtain the thick foam. Tejate is also the most labor intensive drink on the planet. The amount of time and effort that goes into making a bowl of Tejate is mind blowing. Beyond the complexity of many of the dishes in Oaxaca, we found a genuine simplicity to some of Oaxaca’s best foods…
Truth be told, I would go to Oaxaca just for the chocolate. Here, one made with milk and the other made with water are served at one of the best restaurants in Oaxaca, Restaurante Catedral. Of course Patsy Dubois, who teaches Mexican cooking in SMA and Jose Yanez, an accomplished pre-Hispanic cook, both are fond of the age-old tradition of chocolate made with water. I prefer the consistency that milk adds to the mix. Side by side, you can really see the difference between the two. Oaxaca is a place that has a deep-seated chocolate and cacao consuming culture imbedded into everyday life and once you’ve tasted Oaxacan chocolate, you’ll find a good reason to get up in the morning. It’s my favorite breakfast drink.
The Chilaquiles at Restaurante Catedral were also made of simple ingredients once the Guajillo chili salsa was made: fried tortillas, onions, shredded chicken and cheese. This red salsa, which surprisingly I loved so much that I went back for seconds, made me wonder what else I’ve been missing out on by only eating salsa verde my entire life. Take your pick; the chili is a medium heat but the smaller version of the chili, the Guajillo Puya, is said to be a lot hotter. I like my Chilaquiles on the crispy side but according to Jose, those would not be considered ‘authentic’ Chilaquiles according to his mama and who knows better than a Mexican mother?
Simple roasted tomatoes on phyllo dough were sold as a pizza roll at Boulenc, our favorite bakery in Oaxaca. They were so good, we ate them in the afternoon, sometimes instead of lunch. Tomatoes were also used in one of Chef Thalía Barrios Garcia’s signature dishes at Levadura de Olla. Her tomato salad was defined by a base of beetroot puree and cinnamon vinaigrette that dressed the wild Quelites on top. My favorite tomato on the plate was what Jose called the Manzana; a golden tomato with a delicious, sweet flavor. Even the tortillas at Levadura de Olla were beautiful; made with a mix of masas including the traditional blue. The salsa was also divine; pure tomato and chili with just the right spice. Of course, Jose was the star of the show at Levadura de Olla, owning his knowledge of Mexican foods and even impressing the staff with his explanations to several inquisitive customers.
Boulenc also sells simple ingredients in their stores: the heirloom tomatoes that Patsy purchased to take home for the seeds, goat milk Dulce de Leche from Etla that they used for the delicious, cold coffee I drank every morning, Dulce de Leche Frio Latte, and various Oaxaca coffees they used in their other drinks. Boulenc also used simple accents that add remarkable flavors to the foods like this fresh squeezed lemonade with mineral water that was flavored with a slice of fresh grapefruit; totally altering the taste of the drink. We loved many of the creative but simple things that Boulenc made like this sandwich of thin waffles and a fried egg and toast with a peep hole in the middle. Of course, there were always a number of rather complex salsas and oils on the side to give the foods an additional boost.
Although we’ve pretty much given up drinking in exchange for health, we couldn’t resist a sip of this made-in-Oaxaca Mezcal. We also anticipated the cross in the bottom of the glass; a rendezvous left over from our years of Catholic schools. Although the spirit can be up to 160 proof, it’s also known to leave you headache free. Oaxaca mezcals are enjoyed neat, allowing the nuances of flavor to come through. The most important thing to remember is that they should be sipped. As they say in Oaxaca: “tómalo a besos” or drink it with kisses. And don’t forget to hit the Mezcal trail while you’re there. From Oaxaca to San Augustin de las Juntas, Santa Catarina Minas and San Baltazar Chichicapam, every palenque is different, unique in its brands and methods of distilling and is also totally off-the-beaten-path. We love the route because the palenque’s are all small and very simple; the thing we love best about an ever changing Oaxaca. At one of them, the family made an altar with the first dollar they ever earned in heartening display.
Outside the entrance to the Tlacolula market on Sunday, you can’t miss Pollos Guerrero; an aroma that carried me back to the BBQs of my childhood past. The chickens at Pollos Guerrero were placed on a grill and roasted over charcoal; it was that simple. Jose and I sat down and polished off a half a chicken before we even had time to think about what was inside the market… Barbacoa, Nieves, Tejate, Pan de Cazuela, Carne Asada; all of which we had eaten before. No regrets here because my appetite was handed over to this meaty chicken and it was truly the best pollo we’ve eaten in Mexico. I ate mine plain without any sauce; the mark of truly great BBQ.
In very complex market, like Central de Abastos, where you can get lost in the blink of an eye, willing locals, with a little sweet-talk from Patsy, led us to food stands like Memelas Dona Vale where the order of the day was brushed with lard and covered with cheese and a secret salsa. A global celebrity, Dona Vale is featured in the third episode of the Netflix series Street Food: Latin America. Simple foods like Dona Vale’s memelas filled out moments of pleasurable eating, especially when we were wandering the markets.
Patsy Dubois and Jose Yanez, two very gifted cooks, both have a passion for squash blossoms. In fact, Patsy is known as the Queen of Squash Blossoms in SMA having stuffed thousands of them for parties and cooking classes over the years. Patsy went to the Tlacolula market a few weeks before I did and told me about a squash blossom quesadilla she had eaten there. What really astonished her was that the squash blossoms still had dew on them; obviously picked fresh that morning. What a remarkable experience to get ingredients this fresh because that just doesn’t happen every day.
If I have to choose one fruit, pineapple will always be it. I love the taste of pineapple and Jose and I ate extra thick slices in the Tlacolula market that were dusted with chili. Oaxaca is known for its pineapples and the flavor was exceptional. Oaxaca hosts an annual festival, the Feria de la Piña, in the town of Loma Bonita every May. Both the Covilli growers in the area cultivate the Oaxacan Gold variety, which has a sweet taste even though the outside is green. Senor Rendon, a third- generation pineapple grower, likes to walk his Loma Bonita fields barefoot; he says it helps him get a better feel for the crop. Growers sell many of their organic pineapples to restaurants in the Mexican wine region of Valle de Guadalupe where former SMA residents and veteran Mixologists, Gabriel and Angel Avila, also use them in their contemporary cocktails. Although I loved some of the rich, complex dishes we ate at some of the restaurants in Oaxaca, foods like hot chocolate, a simple but signature tomato salad, regional Mezcals, roasted tomato pizzas, tortillas made with multiple masas, uncomplicated BBQ chicken, Chilaquiles made with modest ingredients, a quesadilla with the morning dew still on the squash blossoms and a thick slice of a Oaxacan Gold pineapple were just some of the many favorite flavors of Oaxaca we appreciate and would travel for again. Buen Provecho!