Archive for the ‘Mexico’ Category

Strawberry Jam Empanadas

February 11, 2013

As a child, I looked forward to making empanadas with my mother because I was always welcome to take on small tasks in the creation process of these deliciously, sweet-filled pastries. My favorite part was helping my mother cover the empanadas in sugar and cinnamon once they were out of the oven because this meant that they were almost ready to eat. At this point, all that was left was to wait for them to further cool down. While I anxiously waited, I would consider cracking one open to facilitate the cooling process, but then I would quickly remind myself of the rewarding feeling that came with biting into a whole empanada. First, I could cover my lips with the sugar and cinnamon before biting into the delicately crumbling, textured bread, and finally coming across the sweet gooey strawberry jam with which my mom most often filled our empanadas. Empanadas taught me the value of patience!

While studying abroad in Argentina, I was surprised by the empanadas that were no longer a dessert, but creatively filled with meat, cheese or vegetables. It was my first time coming across such empanadas and I struggled with the idea of eating empanadas at the beginning of a meal. Not until I found Cumana Restaurant’s savory, but mouth-watering empanadas in Buenos Aires was I able to let go of my nervousness of eating something so similar yet opposite to what I was used to.

After my encounter with empanadas in Argentina, I was open to the idea that empanadas exist in different forms across the world. The songpyeon that I attempted to make several months ago also struck me as empanada-like, and I found comfort in approaching something so unfamiliar to me in the routine way that I would make empanadas with my mother. These half-moon rice cakes that were sticky and chewy on the outside with an inner delicate sweet bean paste ended up not having much in common with my empanadas, but I nonetheless found warmth and ease in relating this Korean dessert to empanadas.

Below is my mother’s recipe for Strawberry Jam filled Empanadas which makes slightly over 1 dozen empanadas. Please remember that you are welcome to fill the empanada with whatever you like.

Strawberry Jam Empanadas


2 cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup  all vegetable shortening
5-7 tablespoons cold water
strawberry jam
¼ cup cinnamon
1 cup sugar

rolling pin
1 large bowl
1 small bowl
measuring cups
measuring spoons
plastic bag
baking pan

1) Mix 2 cups of flour with ½ teaspoon of salt in a large bowl.
2) Add 1 cup of all vegetable shortening to the bowl and mix.
3) While mixing the ingredients to make the dough, add 1 tablespoon at a time (out of the 5-7 tablespoons) of cold water to the bowl.
4) Knead the dough into a ball and place in a plastic bag.
5) Set this bag aside for 30 minutes.
6) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
7) After 30 minutes have passed, take the dough out of the bag.
8) Form a small ball that is about half the length and width of your palm.
9) Use a rolling pin to roll out the dough into a flat circle. It is okay if the circle is not perfectly round.
10) Add 1 tablespoon of strawberry jam to the middle upper half of the circle.
11) Fold the circle into a half moon shape by pulling the dough over.
12) Cut some of the dough off while leaving a border edge from the dough that is not filled with jam.
13) Press the border edge down lightly and with a fork press down to decorate the border.
14) Place your empanada on a greased pan.
15) Repeat steps 8 – 14 until you have used up all the dough.
16) Place pan in oven to bake for 35 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
17) Combine sugar and cinnamon in bowl, mix, and set aside.
18) Remove empanadas from the oven when they are a light golden brown and allow to cool for 5 minutes.
19) Roll empanadas in sugar and cinnamon mixture one at a time. Set aside to allow to cool for another 10 minutes.


Mom’s Yams

October 22, 2012

My passion for cooking arises from the curiosity of learning about foods from other cultures and expanding my knowledge in order to improvise how I can complement other foods with those of my Mexican background. Last week, I tested Goguma-matang or candied sweet potatoes that reminded me of a Mexican dish; camotes is a classic that my mom makes often. This is because the diversity of this dish with its mushy potatoes, sweet golden flavor with a touch of cinnamon allows it to be a light dessert after a meal, a sweet snack before bedtime with a cup of milk, or just a simple anytime treat to satisfy that sweet tooth.

I called my mother to ask her for her recipe and I more than ever understood Diane and Grace’s goal in trying to put together a cook book; not an easy task, but definitely worth all the effort. You see, like many housewives, my mother easily spends more than half her day in the kitchen, cooking every day for our large family. Her experience no longer requires her to use measuring cups or keep track of how long something has been cooking for. It’s as simple as “When it’s done, it is done.” Therefore, while asking her for the recipe, I ran into the frustration of what happens every time I need a recipe: I have to stop her after each second to ask how much, how long, or simply how! Luckily, my mother happened to be making her camotes when I called her for the recipe, making it a lot easier to get more accurate guidance. I would like to share her recipe with you:

Los Camotes de Mamá de Maria

Los Camotes de Mamá (Mom’s Yams)
Serves 8

2 large piloncillos (you can substitute ¾ of a pack of brown sugar)
1 stick of cinnamon
2 cups of water
6 medium-sized yams

  1. Wash yams well.
  2. Cut the yams into thick pieces, about 2 inches wide, and leave the skin on. (My mom likes to cut the yams horizontally in large ovals.)
  3. Combine all ingredients (piloncillos, cinnamon, water and yams) into a medium-sized pot.
  4. Allow mixture to come to a boil.
  5. Lower the temperature to medium-low heat and cover with a lid.
  6. Cook for about 1.5 hours or until the potatoes are tender.
  7. Remove the lid and allow sugar to thicken by raising the temperature to medium high for about 10 minutes, but do not allow the sauce to become too sticky.

Remember Senora Soledad?

April 9, 2012

She’s been immortalized! I met Senora Soledad in Oaxaca almost five years ago, and wrote up an account of my adventure learning how to make mole negro with her. A couple years later, I got this lovely email from Neal Erickson telling me what a wonderful time he’d had with Sra. Soledad as well.

And now, Soledad Ramirez is in The Atlantic magazine! The author, Grace Rubinstein, found me through the grace of Google. There is a small, selfish part of me that wishes I had written the story myself, but the rest of me is just happy that Sra. Soledad is getting the recognition she deserves.


Oaxacan mole negro redux

December 1, 2009

If you have been reading this blog since I was in Mexico, you may remember that one of the most incredible people I met was a woman named Senora Soledad, a cooking teacher at the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca who became a friend and Oaxacan grandmother to me.  When my friend Erin came to visit, she and her family welcomed us into her home and we learned how to make Oaxaca’s most famous and most labor-intensive dish, mole negro, which I wrote up here.

Over the past two years, I’ve had dozens of people, complete strangers, write me and ask if I could help them get in touch with Sra Soledad.  After awhile, I stopped giving out the contact information I had because it had been so long and I wasn’t sure if she was still interested in teaching classes, as no one ever got back to me and told me how if they were able to get in touch with her.  That is, until this Sunday, when I got this warm and detailed email from Neal Erickson:

Dear Grace,

Hola!  I’ve been meaning to write you to tell you about our stay in Oaxaca over the Day of the Dead and our wonderful “class” and visit with Senora Soledad.  We did manage to get in touch with her, finally, after we arrived, and cooking with her and getting to meet her family was the highlight of our trip.

I must also say that, in a sense, you were with us on the trip.  I cribbed notes from your “Best of Oaxaca” entries and referred to them a lot, especially about restaurants.  We didn’t get to all of them, but I’ll give you an update on a couple.

Soledad met us at the Catedral and we decided to make mole Coloradito, since we didn’t have enough time to make mole negro.  We stocked up at Mercado Juarez and 20 de Noviembre:  chiles anchos rojos, cosle and Guajillo, sesame, raisins and pork.  We taxied to her house and cooked in her indoor kitchen.  Her husband Carlos and granddaughter Carlita were home.  Since our recipe was fairly small we just used the gas stove and the electric blender.  No trip to the molinero needed.  Soledad and her family were so gracious and welcoming.  We communicated very well with our limited Spanish, mostly because Soledad has a lot of experience working with foreigners and speaks clearly and slowly and was very patient with us.

My wife’s sister’s husband Mikal had died unexpectedly just a few days before our trip.  We brought his picture with us and were looking for an altar where we could remember him.  Soledad and Carlos invited us back to their house on Saturday (Oct 31) when more of the family would be there.  Of course we went.  I was able to experience her outdoor kitchen then and watched her make tortillas by the dozens and I helped stir the mole negro in the biggest cazuela I’ve ever cooked with.  Three wood fires for the comal, chicken, and mole.  It was a beautiful day.  We helped set up their altar with their son and our friend Mikal spent the rest of the week on the altar along with their dead family.  Her entire living family was very open and welcoming to us and didn’t give a second thought to letting us share their altar.  We brought beer and hot sauce for Mikal — they said he would have to share with Soledad’s mother, who apparently could hold her own in that department.

We have a family joke about how I learned to cook from my Mexican mama, my Italian mama, etc. (believe me, I didn’t learn from  my real mother).  In this case, I feel like I now really do have a Mexican mama!

The rest of our stay was nice, as well.  We rented an apartment from a local family on Fiallo only three blocks from the Zocalo.   They were also very warm and helpful.  Here’s some notes on restaurants visited:

La Biznaga — Absolutely the best, most interesting meal.  Cynthia had chicken wrapped around a squash blossom and queso de Oaxaca with a mole verde of their own.  I had a bifstek with a red mole.  I like how they tart up the traditional dishes — someone in that kitchen has a sure hand.  It was also very reasonably priced.

Marco Polo — I had the pescado cooked in the wood oven and it was perfect.  The mayonaisse and mustard they used remind me of the “secret sauce” at a drive-in hamburger joint of my youth (mayo and ketchup mixed together).  It sure worked.  Cynthia did not like the place, I think not only because her fish soup was a mostly uninteresting bowl of reddish broth with a hunk of unboned fish in it, but also the fact that some guy that looked like a minor drug lord right out of a Mexican Sopranos seemed to be getting all the attention.  I, however, would eat that baked fish any day.

El Poche Pobre — Underwhelming.  We did order the botanas plate and perhaps it was just the wrong time of day, but nothing on it stood out for me.  I did have a steak which was excellent and almost melted in my mouth.

La Red — It’s a chain and we ate at the one near Mercado Juarez.  We had camarones, two different dishes that were both superb.  It’s what I go to Mexico for.

Restaurante de los Abuelos (I think) — It’s on the second floor over the Zocalo’s west side and looks out over the Alameda.  Food was good, but the view doesn’t get any better (except from Soledad’s house).

The two attached pictures are of us (los gringos) and Soledad’s family in front of the altar, and her nephew stirring the mole negro.

Anyway, thank you so much for your blog and helping us to get in touch with Soledad.  Good luck to you and I look forward to seeing your Korean cookbook.

Neal Erickson

Neal, I can’t thank you enough for sharing your story and your photos with me.  Even in two and a half years, so much can change.  I’ve heard El Pochote, the mercado organico, has closed, and Oaxaca’s economy is still reeling from everything Mexico has gone through, but Sra Soledad hasn’t changed and will never change.  I hope when I finally grow up, I will be like her.

And check out how similar these photos are!

My Very Subjective Best of Oaxaca Guide, Part II

September 25, 2007

Best Market

The most unbelievable one in Oaxaca City proper is Mercado Abastos, which is literally labyrinthine.

Mercado 20 de noviembre and Mercado Juarez south of the zocalo are definitely worth visiting, as they are always bustling with a huge array of stuff, from leather sandals to mole pastes to nieves to piñatas. Ocotlan and Tlacolula are two exciting pueblo markets, held on Friday and Sunday, respectively, that sprawl with plenty of live animals, turkeys, rabbits, goats.

Rick Bayless raves about the tamales and empanadas at Mercado de la Merced, about 8 blocks east of the zocalo, but I’ve never been because I had my own neighborhood market: Mercado Sanchez Pascuas. It’s situated between Tinoco y Palacios and Porfirio Diaz just north of Quetzalcoatl. It can seem really dead in the afternoons, but if you go in the mornings, especially on Saturday or Sunday, it’s bustling with people doing their daily marketing. This is not a country that shops once a week for groceries. In addition to the stands selling meat, fruit, cheese, and bread, there are vendors who just set up tarps outside the western entrance, selling whatever they brought in that day from their village, like roses, chiles de agua, and giant fava beans. There are two tamale sellers, the one in the middle of the meat section and another with a little table by the empanada/memela ladies near the western entrance. The one in the middle has the better tamal de mole, wrapped in banana leaf with mole negro and chicken, but the one on at the entrance has a great tamal de salsa verde, very fresh and bright.

The Mercado Organico at El Pochote on Fridays and Saturdays is also terrific, but I don’t think of it as a true market, as there’s very little fresh produce. There is, however, some of the best street food in Oaxaca, and safe for sensitive gringo stomachs. You can also buy good Real Minera brand mezcal, from a sweet man who will pour a very generous taster of anything you want to try. The Anejo and the Reserva, I think are particularly good, and the cremas, which are sweet versions flavored with everything from passionfruit to coffee, are good alternatives for people who don’t really want to be drinking mezcal. I almost always bought breads (especially the long, flat pizza-flatbreads) and Korean take-out food from Alegria de Angelis, and frequently bought the maracuya-coffee jam, the organic coffee, and pottery. The one man who consistently sells fresh produce has very beautiful lettuce and other greens, right inside the door, though it goes fast, and there are always people with unusual, striking native flowers outside the doors the same days. Don’t bother showing up before 9:30 or even 10, though—you’re in Mexico.

Mercado Hidalgo on Emilio Carranza, a block north of Belisario Dominguez, in Colonia Reforma has beautiful produce, but it’s a little out of the way for most tourists.

Best Supermarket

When you need toilet paper, dish detergent, peanut butter, and unsweetened, plain yogurt: Gigante. The one in Colonia Reforma is the spiffiest, but the one a couple of blocks west of the Basilica de la Soledad on Independencia is probably closer for most tourists.

If I just need a few things, I like going to Pitico, which is a small grocery chain scattered throughout the city, bigger than a bodega but smaller than Gigante, which is sort like Kmart. I’ve bought good chorizo there, decent produce, as well as things like paper towels, but I’ve only seen Alpura brand, unsweetened yogurt at Gigante.

Even though nearly all yogurt is sweetened (and watch out if it says “no sugar,” as it could be sweetened with Splenda), all the granola I’ve tried in Oaxaca, just bought at grocery stores, has been surprisingly unsweet and very good.

Best Bread

The vendor furthest north, or furthest to the right as you’re facing the Tinoco y Palacios entrance at Mercado Sanchez has good bread, chewy and flavorful, my favorites being the flat rolls with sesame seeds on top and the large cinnamon-raisin breads with brioche-like topknots, but only in the mornings. Pan & Co., on Constitucion at the corner of Garcia Vigil, has very good bread, including one of the best ciabattas I’ve ever had, but it’s “European artisanal style,” not Mexican. I am very fond of Fidel Integral on 20 de noviembre, south of Hidalgo, which makes whole-wheat breads that don’t taste like cardboard.

Best Coffee

Mexico produces some of the best coffee in the world, but the highest-quality tends to get exported to the U.S. and Europe, as Mexico doesn’t have the coffee culture of Italy, France, or even Starbucks-America. If you are a coffee-lover, your ordinary cup in Oaxaca will probably taste a little feeble, though if you get a chance, the traditional café de olla, flavored with piloncillo or unrefined sugar and cinnamon, can be good and strong. A lot of the little fondas in the markets will just use instant Nescafe. It is possible, though, to find places in Oaxaca that serve Mexico’s best, called Pluma Hidalgo. These two are my favorites:

1) El Pochote Mercado Organico, the woman with the stand farthest north, selling also whole-bean and ground coffee called “Maravilla de Araguz”

2) Nuevo Mundo on M. Bravo between Porfirio Diaz and Alcala.

I’ve heard Coffee Beans on Garcia Vigil, next to Café Brujula, also serves Pluma Hidalgo, and Café Antigua on Reforma north of Constitucion is also popular.

Best Street Food

So good you feel like you’re going to faint, and so hot they made my nose run: empanadas de mole amarillo and tacos de chile relleno next to Iglesia Carmen de Arriba on Garcia Vigil. But almost everything at Mercado Organico is also fantastic, especially the tostadas, the mole enchiladas, and the mole tlayuda, made with what the vendors say is a Zapotecan-style of mole. I love the tamales at Mercado Sanchez, especially the ones sold from the center of the room with the meat vendors. And I will always feel a special fondness for Sra Angelita’s esquites and elotes on the western side of El Llano (Parque Juarez), as that was where I had my first street food.

Best nieves, aguas, and paletas

If the woman selling yogurt and fruit tarts at Mercado Organico is selling strawberry-flavored nieve, get it! Otherwise, they are good but not like you’re going to die. In general, I’ve never had bad nieve, from Chonita in Mercado Juarez to El Niagara near the Basilica de Soledad to the beaches in Puerto Escondido.

The best paletas are at Popeye’s. You’ll see the orange carts all over town and there’s a proper outlet on the southside of El Llano. I tried a paleta at Michoacan once, and there was something sort of metallic-tasting, though it may not be fair to judge it based on one paleta. My favorite flavors are cajeta, nuez, sandia, fresa, y chocolate.

And of course, Aguas de Casilda.

Best Chocolate

Everyone I respect agrees that Chocolate Mayordomo has the best chocolate, even if it is the most commercial and widely marketed. I always took visitors to the one on Mina, between 20 de noviembre and Miguel Cabrera, south of Mercado 20 de noviembre, because it’s bright and spacious with samplers in easy reach. It smells really good, too.

I didn’t taste much prepared mole while I was there, but I am planning to take some home from Chocolates de Guelaguetza and Chocolates de Soledad, based on Patty’s and Soledad’s recommendations. It’s easy to end up with mole that’s too sweet so be sure to taste a sample before buying, it’s normal.

Desserts in Oaxacan restaurants, especially for the set-lunch, can be disappointing, but I had addictively delicious chocolate desserts at La Biznaga and Casa Oaxaca, and I am the kind of person who sneers at molten chocolate cake.

Best Wireless Café

All of these have good, strong signals with plenty of seats. Where I went depended on what I wanted to eat. I would probably give a slight edge to Café los Cuiles for having the broadest menu, as well as alcohol. I like having a beer while I write, don’t you?

1) Café Los Cuiles on Abasolo between Alcala and 5 de mayo, across from the handicrafts plaza. Nothing to write home about, but dependable, decent food and excellent Oaxacan hot chocolate.
2) Café Brujula on Garcia Vigil just north of Allende. The nicest, smiliest staff ever and my favorite drink in Oaxaca, pepe y limonada con agua mineral, cucumber-lime juice with carbonated water.
3) Nuevo Mundo on M. Bravo between Porfirio Diaz and Alcala. Uncomfortable chairs, sort of metal-café style, but very laid-back, nice staff, and excellent coffee.

Best Cooking Class

Sra Soledad Ramirez, who teaches at the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca and will teach private classes upon request, is a Oaxacan grandmother to all who know her.

Seasons of My Heart, with Susana Trilling in Etla, is a completely different experience. Not quite like being in a Oaxacan abuela’s home, but also a lot of fun. Susana is not a Oaxacan grandmother, but knowledgeable nonetheless, and just tasting the hand-harvested salt from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and tasting the excellent El Rey Zapoteco mezcal is exhilarating.

My Very Subjective Best of Oaxaca Guide, Part I

September 24, 2007

Best All-Around Restaurant

La Biznaga is perfection. Casa Oaxaca has wonderful food, but La Biznaga is even better and in a classy, yet casual setting. It’s nueva cocina, traditional Mexican food with smart, interesting modern touches, but without ever losing respect for the traditional. Don’t be deterred by the “nice restaurant” prices—the portions are big, and no one will care, including you, if you just order an appetizer for dinner. You’ll be particularly happy if you order the Trilogia Mixteca, an unbelievable appetizer sampler that includes quesillo wrapped in a hoja santa leaf, a memelita with beans and queso fresco, a fried little cone stuffed with jamaica in refreshingly picante guacamole, and even a little blob of simple yet delicious beans. But if you are hungry for more, other dishes I’ve loved are the mushroom soup, the chicken stuffed with peppers and squash blossoms in a chile poblano sauce and the chicken stuffed with plaintains in a guava mole sauce. I almost never order chocolate dessert, but their chocolate mousse I would happily eat over and over.

And if La Biznaga is closed, I would go to Zandunga for istmeno food. A plate of garnachas and a beer is good eating! But if you want more, we also tried and liked the estofada, chicken stewed with fruits and vegetables, all sort of mixed together. Don’t be turned off by the fact that it looks like a pile of turd, it’s good.

Best Comida Corrida

I went several times to La Olla on Reforma between Abasolo and Constitucion for their comida corrida and was disappointed only once. It’s a pleasant, brightly lit restaurant, and everything comes prepared and plated with finesse, but it’s only 70 pesos for a 4-course meal, plus an agua of fruit. Nothing will blow your mind, but almost everything is tasty and comforting, starting with the excellent tortilla chips, bread and salsa. My favorites off the menu are the pasilla chile stuffed with cheese and beans and the tlayuda azteca, a big thick, almost tough but very Oaxacan tortilla which you can ask to have spread with half red mole and half black mole, and then the chicken, avocado, and tomatoes.

I tried various set lunch deals at other places, but nowhere else was particularly noteworthy, other than El Escapulario on Garcia Vigil north of Carranza. It’s more of a hole-in-the-wall, and not something to make space in your schedule for, but if you’re here for awhile and want to get a good meal for 35 pesos, El Escapulario is a good place to go.

Best Seafood

If you go to Puerto Escondido, definitely the old man selling shellfish out of his bucket on Playa Carrizalillo. But if you want to eat someplace a little more regulated, Marco Polo on El Llano was one of the few places I went more than once. A long-time American resident in Oaxaca told me that Sushi Itto in the zocalo isn’t bad, but when I said I would go try it, she hastened to add that I shouldn’t bother, it’s only acceptable for people who are truly stuck in Oaxaca.

Best Place for Bar Snacks

La Biche Pobre closes before dinner time, but if you need an excuse to drink in the afternoon—I don’t—their fried pork is an excellent excuse. There are other snacks that are tasty, but the fried pork is sublime.

I, sadly, did not get to try very many cantinas, places where they bring you free food with your booze. El Paseo’s food was so-so. I wish I had tried La Farola, advertised as the oldest cantina in Oaxaca, complete with swinging doors, but I never got around to it. La Farola is reputed to serve El Rey Zapoteco, my favorite brand of mezcal.

Best Place to Eat on a Cold and Rainy Night

I thought Patty’s pozole was the best, though it might have been the heady thrill of trying it for the first time, but if you’re not staying with her and her family, you can find warming pozole at La Gran Torta, open from 7 pm to 2 am, on Porfirio Diaz between Morelos and Independencia (closed on Tuesdays). They serve three kinds, Jalisco (white), Guerrero (green), and Michoacan (red). The Guerrero comes with chicharrones and avocado, as well as your choice of meat, but the Michoacan is more warming and spicy.

Zandunga, or, How Rebecca Saved Me from Loneliness and Boredom

September 19, 2007

In one week, I am leaving Oaxaca. It’s just as well, as I am running out of things to blog about. I’ve been lonely and bored, and the fact that I am getting tired of Mexican food has seriously affected my number one way of combating loneliness and boredom. Thankfully, my friend Rebecca is in town for a last-minute visit, and her enthusiastic and happy food-loving personality has reignited my enthusiasm for Mexican food. And of course, I am just thrilled to have her here. One of the things I have realized most during my four months here is how much I love my friends and how lucky I am to have them.

With Rebecca’s open mind and stomach, I’ve even been able to try things that I wouldn’t have been able to eat on my own, like the appetizer sampler plate for two at Zandunga, a restaurant on Garcia Vigil near the corner of Carranza that specializes in food from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca state. Even I could not have handled that bountiful platter of food alone.

Anthropologists are fascinated by the Isthmus because of its matriarchal society; folklorists are interested in the colorful huipiles or traditional clothes worn by these powerful women (often worn by Frida Kahlo) and its festive atmosphere and music. But for me, not surprisingly, the most powerful attraction is from its delicious and unique food. One day, I would love to go on a tour with Susana Trilling , eat more of the food I tried at Zandunga, and dance with the zandungas themselves, women “who radiate beauty, enthusiasm and pride.”

We had actually only come to Zandunga because La Biznaga was closed for the week for renovations, and I was apprehensive, worried that I was going to waste one of Rebecca’s meals in Oaxaca on something not-so-good. But soon after we sat down, we knew everything was going to be just fine. They immediately brought out a small plate of perfectly fried tortilla chips, a little bowl of dark, intense salsa, and another small plate of meltingly tender, crumbled ground beef. It doesn’t sound like much, but when we had eaten all the chips, I started just spooning the ground beef up with my salsa-laden spoon. (Rebecca is a very good friend—I have no shame around her.)

We quickly decided on the appetizer sampler, which included the following:

1) 3 garnachas, small fried tortillas with a mound of tender meat, fresh cheese, and a tomato sauce, served with pickled cabbage, our favorite. So good we carefully split the third one in half, neither of us able to pretend we didn’t want it;

2) 1 tamal de cambray, made of a masa that seemed sweeter, almost as sweet as American cornbread, and stuffed with a picadillo of shredded meat with cinnamon and raisins;

3) 2 molotes de platano, little torpedos of mashed plantains with a dark, fried crust;

4) 2 empanadas, darling little fried turnovers stuffed with meat and served with a garnish of cabbage, crema and salsa;

5) 1 generous bowl of ensalada de pica de gallo, which was the tomato-onion-cilantro mixture we’re used to seeing as pica de gallo, but with dried shrimp that made it deliciously fishy; and

6) 1 generous bowl of carne horneada, which were big hunks of beef that seemed to have been cooked very very slowly in a red, spicy rub.

It was accompanied with a stack of totopos, the tortillas made with corn unique to the Isthmus, flat and crunchy like a cracker.

The garnachas, the tamal de cambray, the carne horneada and the ensalada de pica de gallo were superb. Everything else was very good. Rebecca was happy, I was no longer bored nor lonely. It’s universally known, there’s little in life that can make you as content as sharing a plate of riquissimos antojitos, appetizers, antipasti, whatever you want to call it, with an old friend.

Itanoni, Flower of Corn

September 15, 2007

Yesterday, as I ate the most delicious tortillas of my life at Itanoni, a casual restaurant that seriously celebrates corn, I thought about Mexican Independence Day, which begins tonight at 11 pm with “El grito de independencia” or the shout for independence in the zocalo.

As the cheese and poblano peppers, with their slight yet sure spiciness, oozed out of my rolled-up taco, as I scooped up the last bit of chicharrones, or fried pork rinds, in red salsa with my bare fingers, I pondered all the ways in which Mexico is so different from the U.S.

When I bit into my tetela, the pre-Hispanic triangular corn turnover filled, in this case, with an intense black bean puree, enhanced by crema, queso, and the anise-scented hoja santa, I sighed and longed for some culinary delight that would link me and my country to a history spanning more than 250 years.

Mexicans domesticated corn 9000 years ago. They’ve probably been eating tortillas for almost as long. Although the Spanish brought smallpox, death, and destruction to the indigenous peoples, Mexicans are still eating the tortillas the conquistadors were given when they arrived 500 years ago.

I imagine most Mexicans take this for granted. Itanoni doesn’t. Its full name is “Itanoni, Flor del Maiz,” meaning “Flower of Corn.” It declares with pride that all its antojitos are made out of maiz criollo, meaning that the variety is indigenous and native to Mexico. (Criollo also means a Mexican of Spanish descent. Confusing and yet revealing, no?) Each plastic table, under its plastic tablecloth, displays a sweet story about the ant that revealed to the god Quetzalcoatl the secret of maiz, thus ending a famine.

Although Itanoni has a heightened sense of purpose, it tries to look like yet another little storefront selling memelas, tacos, and other small treats based on masa or corn dough, with its tin roof and casual, cheap resort furniture. You only begin to notice how self-consciously it seeks to be traditional when you see the menus, artfully designed with wholesome corrugated cardboard and brown paper, the aguas served in old-fashioned, thick glass bottles, and the sturdy construction of the wood-burning, outdoor stoves.

Whatever Itanoni is doing, it works. My tacos, my tetela, were the best anything made out of masa I have ever eaten anywhere. They reminded me that like a sandwich, a taco can be elevated by tasty fillings, but it can never be sublime without a great base. They had subtle layers, as flat as they were, almost like roti but without a hint of grease. They were unsalted and unsweet, tasting purely and cleanly of corn. The outer layers were toasty, while the inner layers remained soft and pliable. Is there anything that smells more innocent and more comforting than something toasted?

Octavio Paz says that Mexico believes in a continuity between its indigenous past and its post-Revolution, independent state, broken only by a couple hundred years of New Spain. Unlike the U.S., whose Founding Fathers plotted for independence without a thought for the Native Americans, the Mexican struggle for independence began with a Catholic priest calling to action angry indigenous groups, mestizos, and criollos, Mexican-born Spaniards who didn’t have the power and status accorded to Spanish-born Spaniards. However false and however strange, as Paz implies it is, to see modern Mexico as a restoration of what existed before New Spain, it’s what Itanoni celebrates, a sense of gastronomic and cultural heritage stretching back thousands of years. I envy it, if only because the food is so delicious. What would we similarly celebrate in the U.S.? Corn-on-the-cob? Roast turkey, when they’re bred to be so big-breasted the poor things end up with sad, sexless, artificially inseminated lives? (Apparently, Mexican Independence Day is now being celebrated in California. Really, illegal immigration is just Mexico’s revenge for having lost California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas to the U.S. only 150 years ago.)

Calvin Trillin is probably right, the best thing that ever happened to America food-wise was the Immigration Act of 1965. When I get home, I am going to comfort myself with a big platter of sushi.

Pomegranates grow on the sidewalks of Oaxaca

September 11, 2007

Look, you can even see the pomegranate forming from the flower.

Grapefruits grow on the sidewalk, too!

Ice cream with a view

September 10, 2007

You can find good nieve almost anywhere in Oaxaca, a random street corner in Colonia Reforma even. This melon had a lovely creaminess to it that didn’t keep it from being light and fresh with the flavor of real melons.

But possibly the most beautiful place to eat nieve is at the ice cream “jardin” at the base of the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Soledad. The ornate façade of the cathedral faces west an open plaza ringed by walls.

Just beyond that plaza to the east are five or six nieve vendors set up with wrought-iron chairs and café tables, as well as bright striped metal parasols.

A few steps above and to the north is an even larger plaza with giant steps leading down from the street. This plaza is reputed to be a popular place for dance groups to rehearse, though the only thing I’ve ever seen is a pick-up soccer game but that itself was good entertainment. Sitting on the giant steps and facing south, you can see palm trees and then past them, the mountains to the south of the city. It’s not the most majestic view, definitely not the most breathtaking, but sitting there, looking out at the mountains, the church, and even the slightly dingy plastic tarps and parasols of the nieve sellers, it’s easy to feel a sense of peace.

If you have a little cup or cone of nieve, of course, you can feel glee as well as peace. I’ve only tried one, El Niagara, but have been told they’re all more or less the same. My little cup was filled with durazno, or peach, on the bottom and then cajeta, or goat’s milk dulce de leche, on top. They’re more like sorbet than the super-fatty, super-creamy ice cream I love most, and yet I never feel like I’m missing something. The durazno had little chunks of peach! Nothing ever tastes false here.