A Cultural and Immersive Cooking Experience in Oaxaca
If you are like me, when traveling you love having the full cultural experience: insight into people’s day-to-day lives, cultural history, native food, language, and color. Rarely have I had the opportunity to experience all aspects of a culture intimately in one day, but I received the gift on a recent trip to Mexico with my daughter Alana for her 19th birthday.
In search of the most authentic experience as possible, we decided to spend a few days in Oaxaca in south central Mexico. Oaxaca is an amazing melting pot of indigenous culture — dating back to before the Spanish colonization with 16 distinct groups that each hold their own unique language and a shared cooking tradition. Our research turned up several cooking class options in Oaxaca. We decided on Sabor Zapoteco in Teotitlán del Valle, run by Reyna Mendoza, as it seemed a full immersion option. I contacted Reyna and asked if she would change the content to a Mole Negro class — to which she graciously agreed –so we were on.
At 9:00 on a warm, sunny Oaxaca morning we met our driver Manuel at the entrance of the Ethnobotanical Museum for the trip to Teotitlán del Valle. After a pleasant 30 minute ride across corn and agave fields, we arrived at Reyna’s home, just as her neighbor was coming home with a donkey-load of firewood — a clear sign of the cultural experience in store for the day. Reyna greeted us at the large front gate that lead to a pressed earth courtyard. A large, open kitchen served as the anchor of a three-house compound where her family has lived for four generations.
After a brief introduction to the menu for the day — black mole, jicama and nopal salad with cilantro avocado dressing, chipil rice and tomatillo, and pasilla pepper Oaxaca salsa — we took our baskets and started the three-block stroll to the market. Far from the large and crowded markets we were expecting, the Teotitlán market is an intimate affair where everyone knows each other. Rather than merchants these are mostly producers selling the product of their small plots and workshops.
Initially, there was some shock at the dubious sanitary practices (by Western standards) of the meat section,but it quickly wore off as I took in the scene of mostly women in traditional garb, all speaking Zapotec. These same people have inhabited this land for thousands of years, as unadulterated as you can get after centuries of western development knocking at their door.
As Reyna navigated the market she stopped to greet what seemed like every other person with a soft shake of the wrist and a smiling Zac xtili (good morning in Zapotec). Later she would explain the Teotitlán community system, where each citizen must serve in the local community support groups in order to get accepted and supplied with basic services such as water and power. Foreigners cannot own property and can only really join the community through marriage. These practices have kept the customs and culture of the Zapotec society alive in the Oaxaca valley.
After buying the ingredients we were missing –avocados, Oaxaca cheese, epazote leaves, cilantro, and some beautiful wild green tomatillos — we headed back to the kitchen. I took advantage of the opportunity to to pick up some essentials: quesillo (string cheese) to snack on later at the hotel, chocolate, a few souvenirs, and the traditional huacas to drink mezcal.
Back at the kitchen, we indulged in in a classic Oaxaca chocolate to build energy to start cooking. Reyna used Oaxaca cocoa prepared in a class earlier in the week and whipped up this magical beverage with the traditional molinillo. After this invigorating repose, we were ready to hit the stove.
Reyna’s is a traditional kitchen with a Zapotecan wood burning stove – two large clay comales built into an adobe base. These stoves are surprisingly versatile. We ended up cooking all the meal there– only resorting to a modern stove to keep the mole warm. The other two utensils essential to the traditional Mexican kitchen are the molcajete and the metate. In Western cooking today, the food processor has taken over the molcajete and metate role. The results, while close, are not the same.
Reyna, Alana and I all took our turns at the metate — processing tool that requires a real physical commitment. After 10 minutes at it I surrendered, admitting I was not delivering either on quality or speed. Alana, on the other hand, performed like a pro and carried the day to deliver a mole worthy of any Zapotecan celebration. I was more successful with the more utilitarian and familiar Molcajete (Mexico’s version of a mortar and pestle), and was quite satisfied with my tomatillo sauce and avocado dressing.
After four hours between the market visit and food preparation, we were ready to enjoy the fruit of our labor. We started with a small huaca of mezcal to open our appetite. Reyna’s open kitchen with typical Oaxaca textiles and clay pottery was the perfect setting for this very amazing mix of both bold and fresh flavors.
If you want to bring a taste of Oaxaca to your own dinner table, check out our recipes for cactus salsa and aderezo dressing.