Cooking and Eating in Oaxaca

Nora Andrea Valencia learned the techniques of traditional Oaxacan cooking from her late grandmother, Ofelia. Together they earned a reputation for the delicous breakfasts they prepared every morning at La Casa de Mis Recuerdos, the family’s B &B. My mother stayed at La Casa de Mis Recuerdos for a number of years, and has become a friend of the family.

With interest in Oaxacan cooking at an all time high, Nora has become internationally recognized for her knowledge of Oaxacan cuisine. She conducts cooking classes from her home, ( and we joined up with a small group for a day of cooking and eating.

The history of Mexico can be learned through food. Nora comes from a Zapotec tradition and many of the cooking methods that she has learned are based on knowledge stretching back for thousands of years. But since the Spanish invasion, Mexico has been a blend of cultures. The Spanish brought African slaves with them, and the mixture of indigenous, Spanish and African was perhaps the world’s first true fusion cooking.

Our first stop is the Merced Market to buy the ingredients for our comida.

Nora outside of the market, with a large cactus pad
Nora outside of the market, with a large cactus pad

There are many markets in Oaxaca, and this one is in Nora’s home barrio. Before we enter the market proper we meet some of the women sitting outside. Their hands are busy cleaning nopales (cactus pads) of various sizes.

Cleaning the spikes from the cactus (nopales) pads
A woman cleaning the spikes from young nopales. Hierba santa is on the ground beside her.

Nopales are very good for cholesterol levels, and the Mexicans put them in many different dishes. Nora picks a few choice pads and a big bunch of hierba santa, or sacred leaf. This green is used extensively in southern Mexican cooking. It has a unique lemony, licorice taste and it’s believed to cure just about everything including rheumatism, asthma, bronchitis, digestive disorders and skin conditions. Of course, it is impossible to grow or find in Canada. Nora recommends fennel as a flavor substitute, but there is nothing that can substitute its health benefits.

We proceed into the market where Nora explains properties of different chilies, dried and fresh.

So many chilies
So many chilies

So many chilies, so many flavours. The capsaicin in chilies is a stimulant and analgesic. It awakens endorphins, which means that “eating chilies gives your body pleasure. It also means you can get addicted to them.” But even Nora admits you can never really know how hot a pepper is. “It’s like a lottery,” she says cheerfully. You just have to keep tasting as you go. If it gets too hot, she tells us to add a bit of something acid, like cider vinegar or tomato, to bring down the spice. She introduces us to the pastillo oaxacaño, a special pepper grown only in the high Mixtec region and smoked in adobe ovens. A ready-made paste from this smokey pepper is a kitchen staple – she keeps it by the stove to add a little zing when necessary.

From the chili stand we move to the squashes. Every part of the squash plant is used, and Nora shows us how to pull the fibres from the stems so that they will be softer when added to a soup.

Nora peels the squash stems
Nora peels the squash stems

Bags of ingredients are sold cut and ready to cook a perfect Zapotec soup – squash stems, squash blossoms, pieces of squash, pieces of corn. Nora selects some perfect blossoms for our soup. “We only use the male blossoms. They are very showy, but not good for anything else,” she laughs.

At the tortilla stand, Nora shows us the soft masa dough that makes Oaxaca’s unique tortillas. Northern Mexico uses wheat for tortillas. In the south, they are corn based. Preparing the dough is an incredibly labour intensive process, involving lime and soaking and grinding corn. The result is a velvety soft corn dough that makes light tortillas totally unlike the hard corn tortillas I buy at home.

Next, Nora takes us to the cheese stand. I am addicted to Oaxacan cheese. There are two kinds – soft and stringy. The soft cheese is sold in wooden boxes to keep it moist. Like a cross between a ricotta and feta, it is crumbled over salads, enchiladas, and most dishes that have sauce on them. The harder cheese, Oaxacan string cheese, is boiled, kneaded and stretched into strands. It is melted in quesadillas, separated into strings for raw eating, wound into tight small balls to include in soup. It is salty and chewy and tastes like nothing else I’ve ever had.

The cheese stall
The cheese stall

Our final stop is to look over the mangos and avocados. She rails against people squeezing avocados in the store. “You can tell if they are ripe by looking at the stem. If there is a little dent, it is ripe. If it isn’t ripe put it in a paper bag and leave it in the trunk of your car. It will ripen!”

Nora and the mangos
Nora and the mangos

Mangos come in different sizes, colours and varieties. The small ones are super sweet and perfect for just eating a bit of fresh mango. The larger ones are better for adding to other ingredients – they absorb other flavours well.

We head to Nora’s home to turn these fresh ingredients into our comida.

Nora's courtyard
Nora’s courtyard

Mole. Originally from a Zapotec word, mole (pronounced Moh-LAY) reflects a whole concept in cooking – blending ingredients together to make a paste for a cooking sauce. Guide books talk about the 7 moles of Oaxaca. “But it’s impossible to have just seven,” laughs Nora. Mole is a concept, more than a specific thing. It is ubiquitous. “Aguaca” is Zapotec for avocado. Thus we get guaca-mole or guacamole – ground up avocado.

Nora gets us chopping and peeling. Our Comida today consists of “Consome de Hierba Santa”, a light chicken soup with tons of garlic and hierba santa, served over squash blossoms and balls of Oaxacan cheese; “Ceviche de Mango”, a marinated red snapper salad served on tostados; “Pipian de Camarones”, a pumpkin seed mole with shrimp and nopales; “Salsa Borracha”, literally drunken salsa – a hot sauce made from our dried peppers; and “Gelatina de Kahlua”, a light dessert jelly of coffee and chocolate.

Comida menu
Comida menu

We are assigned tasks. We do a lot of dry toasting on a comal, a flat dry pan traditionally made of pottery. We dry toast chili de arbol, chili de onza, and chili mora for our salsa borracha. We dry toast and boil huajillo chilies for our mole. We dry toast and grind pumpkin seeds, the thickening agent for the mole. We peel our fresh shrimp and make a shrimp stock with the shells. We cut and cook nopales; chop onions, mangos, cilantro and avocado for the ceviche. We lightly cook chunks of red snapper.

Nora shows us how to toast the chillies
Nora shows us how to toast chillies on the comal

Everything in Nora’s kitchen happens at a measured and even pace as she laughs her infectious laugh and sprinkles our cooking with historic and gastronomic information.

Nora shows us how to lay out squash blossoms and cheese balls in our soup bowls
Nora shows us how to lay out squash blossoms and cheese balls in our soup bowls

William comes in with glasses of mezcal, slices of orange and little piles of dried chilies. “Mezcal is a digestive. We have it before a meal. We have it during a meal. We have it at the end of a meal.”

We sip, dip orange slices in the chilies, taste and sip again. We are ready to eat our comida. It is as wonderful as you can imagine.

Our class is over, comida is finished. A good day with Nora Valencia
Our class is over, comida is finished. We’ve had a good day with Nora Valencia!

Running away from winter: Oaxacan Diary part 1

My grandmother started going to Mexico in 1970. She continued to journey south every winter until she was 89, when it became too hard to travel. In 2003, my mother and I scattered her ashes in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, Mexico.

My mother has been travelling to Mexico since 1975. Like my grandmother, she loves the land and the people and, of course, the fact that there is no snow or ice. In 2001, Oaxaca became her winter home.

Laurie Lewis at home in Oaxaca
Laurie Lewis at home in Oaxaca

Now, I’ve come to visit and escape the deadening greyness of winter in Eastern Ontario. I’ve left Tim at home, writing, and for a few precious weeks I’ll immerse myself in colour, feel warmth on my skin, shed layers of clothes.

Oaxaca City is in the capital of the state of Oaxaca, a central area of Mexico. The word Oaxaca comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word Huaxyácal meaning the “summit of the acacias”  and the city sits over 5,000 feet above sea level. The colonial city centre was declared part of the Cultural History for Mankind by UNESCO in 1987.

This isn’t the place to go into colonial history, but the confluence of cultures forms the city. Zapotecs, Mixtecs and Aztecs lived in the Oaxaca Valley for at least a 1,000 years before the Spanish arrived. With the conquest, the Spanish built on top of the original Aztec fortress. They designed the city around a central square, the Zócolo, and oriented it to the cardinal points. The cathedral, built over the Aztec spiritual centre, is along one side of the square and facing it on the other side they built the municipal buildings. Thus the square was designed to radiate a balance of civic and spiritual power throughout the city.

The cathedral on the Zocolo
The cathedral on the Zocolo

Today, Oaxaca is a busy and friendly city of 250,000 that does, in fact, seem very balanced between both worlds. On one side of the Zócolo is a permanent tent city of protesters. On the other, there are constant processions in and out of the cathedral.

The weather in Oaxaca is blissfully temperate. Mornings are cool, and I must wrap up in a shawl as I sit on the patio for morning coffee. My first morning in Las Mariposas, the family run hotel where we are staying, I am treated to fresh tortillas stuffed with black bean sauce, salsa, zucchini blossoms and cheese, cooked on an open grill on the patio.

My kind of breakfast.

My mother and I spend the morning walking the city streets, looking in shops, smiling at people. There is, everywhere, a mixture of wealth and extreme poverty. My mother carries coins to distribute as we walk, making a special effort to give money to musicians and elderly women. Yet even with the poverty, there is a feeling of ease on the street, an assurance of safety.

My mother constantly reminds me to slow down. Not because I am walking too fast for her, but because I am walking too fast for life.

We sit in the Zocolo listening to speeches about workers rights and watching the women and children make their rounds selling shawls, beaded jewelry, gum, wooden toys and bookmarks. Young children are employed in the family business of selling on the streets. Why aren’t they in school, I ask. “School costs money. Uniforms cost money,” explains my mother. “Many children cannot go. And many of those that do, only go half days.” I know this should depress me, but all around me are smiling, encouraging faces.

Food, and food preparation, is everywhere. Comida is the main meal of the day, served from about 2:00 – 4:00.  There’s a small restaurant beside our hotel where the owner serves a simple comida, with daily specials.

Comeda down the street
Comida down the street

Today’s menu includes Chayote soup, a kind of Mexican squash. When we ask, the owner/cook brings one from the kitchen to show us. It is light green and shaped like a fat pear. The soup is soft, light and topped with a sprinkling of fresh coriander. Second course is a “dry soup”, a rice pilaf accompanied by hot salsa and a kind of guacamole sauce. We pause as we sip our pineapple water. Lighter than juice, it is a way of getting all of your electrolytes and hydration at one go.

Chillis Rellanos are stuffed poblano chillis that are battered and fried. Today, ours are stuffed with ground meat, carrots, potatoes – almost like a dry stew in a fat pepper. The pepper sits on a bed of mole, with some fresh salsa and salad on the side.

A flan, decorated with swirls of chocolate and caramel completes our comeda.

Comida costs us each 4.50 pesos – less than $4.00 Canadian. There are up-scale restaurants in Oaxaca and we could have gone somewhere fancy and paid twice as much, but this suited us perfectly.

Our simple Comeda restaurant
Our simple Comida restaurant

This is another reason why my mother lives in Mexico. The global financial crisis hit Mexico hard. It is incredibly cheap to live here. With every peso you spend, you feel you are doing a service for the country.

As the heat of the day begins to overwhelm us, we spend the afternoon dozing, reading and recovering from comida. It hasn’t taken long to forget winter.

Ready for a post-Comeda rest at Las Mariposas
Ready for a post-Comida rest at Las Mariposas
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