Archive for the ‘Moles’ Category

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!

Update on mole-eating progress

August 18, 2007

Don’t let people tell you that “estofada” is one of the seven moles of Oaxaca. It isn’t, as delicious as it is, not according to people I trust. According to Susana Trilling, moles always involve cooking the meat separately from the sauce, while an estofada translates literally as a stew, the meat cooked in it. Soledad Ramirez agrees that estofada is not a mole. I thought by getting a mole sampler at Los Pacos, I would finally try all seven, but they only had six and it included estofada.

Counterclockwise from the bottom darkest one, we were told they were negro, amarillo, verde, chichilo, estofada and rojo. The people at Los Pacos were nice, and even gave Erin a bib to eat with, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the restaurant because the high prices weren’t justified by the food, which could be had in equal quality elsewhere.

Also, I’m now thoroughly confused because I can’t figure out the difference between rojo and coloradito. Los Pacos’s rojo tasted just like coloradito to me. Googling recipes online doesn’t help, as there’s no consensus, but again, according to Susana Trilling, only coloradito and negro include chocolate. So what the hell are the people selling at Chocolate Mayordomo as prepared rojo mole paste? It may be that I haven’t had both, just one, I just don’t know which one.

At least I know I had chichilo for sure, as I ordered it expressly at Casa del Tio Guero, or “Uncle Whitey’s House.” It was the day my camera died for the first time, so there’s no photographic record. In addition to burning chiles, a tortilla is burnt, making chichilo even smokier than mole negro. It’s generally served with green beans and vegetables, as well as meat. It had a fruitier, tarter flavor, while being bitter at the same time, and frankly, I didn’t like it, but Susana Trilling says it’s very good, and I imagine it’s the kind of thing where I need to try a better version.

Sadly, manchamantel, or tablecloth stainer, remains elusive.

Fighting malaise at El Tule

August 9, 2007

Last Sunday, eating an empanada de mole amarillo in El Tule, I realized that as long as I have an appetite, I will always be able to cheer myself up. There are those times when even I lose my appetite, like when No-No dumped me and I stopped eating for a week. But general malaise, pshaw!, I can easily get rid of just by going someplace I’ve never been in search for something good to eat.

Sunday morning, my last friends from ICO, who were also my neighbors, left Oaxaca. It had been a difficult, emotional time for them, and even watching them leave as a bystander was so exhausting, I considered forgetting my plans to go to El Tule and just getting in bed with “Black Lamb and Gray Falcon,” the book that will not end. I felt a little sad about being alone in Oaxaca and a little sorry for myself. But after I’d mopped the tiny footprint of my apartment, I was hungry, and I thought I should seize the opportunity to go try one of the famous empanadas de mole amarillo of El Tule, only available on Sundays.

El Tule is otherwise famous for its giant cypress tree, over 2000 or 4000 years old depending on who you talk to. I don’t know how tourism from the tree can be so lucrative when the entrance fee is 3 pesos, but the town seemed to be profiting well from the tree, as the buildings in the center were fresh and brightly painted, almost like Disneyworld, right down to the white-maroon-and-blue church.

I walked right by the entrance booth and around the church, looking for the empanada place recommended to me by my homestay mother, Patty, as “muy limpia.” I don’t know if it was the right place, but it was clean and airy, and I could imagine my middle-class homestay family eating there. It was little more than a straw-roofed shack with plastic tables and chairs, with an arcade attached to it playing loud American rock music, but it a pleasant place to sit on a sunny Sunday afternoon. There was a surly girl working the comal and an older woman swatting flies away from the chicharrones and a sweet-faced man watching a soccer game on TV. I sat down with a bottle of grapefruit soda, in a really good-looking bottle, and waited.

It was my fourth taste of mole amarillo, and if not the best, it was very very good. Instead of cilantro, it had the herby scent of hoja santa, the heart-shaped leaf. The mole sauce was thicker than at Iglesia de Carmen Arriba, but spicy, the kind of spiciness that doesn’t hit you right away but grows in the back of your throat. The tortilla vehicle was perfect, hot and toasty. I was so happy, I ate another empanada, of flor de calabeza and quesillo. I didn’t like it as much, but it didn’t matter.

I walked through the Mercado de Antojitos, or “Market of Appetizers,” across the street but was too full to eat anything else, but next week, I am eating barbacoa, or barbecued goat, for sure. Why don’t we have markets of appetizers in the U.S.? I’m sure it would do a great deal for depression.

It’s almost too much

August 7, 2007

I had never tried mole coloradito until I got to Oaxaca, but there have been times when I have wondered if it’s possible that I like it even more than mole negro. After my cooking lesson with Sra. Soledad, that question was answered forever: a good mole negro is king. But mole coloradito continues to run a close second in my affections, and I was thrilled when they honored my request for it at my second cooking class at Seasons of My Heart.

I loved the group at my second class: a contingent of students from a culinary school in Nebraska, two Episcopalian priests married to each other from Texas, their son from Brooklyn who has been working his way through “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” while finishing his dissertation on French literature, two girls from UC Davis who “came to Oaxaca to eat,” and a woman from Cincinnati who didn’t get mad that I got a little bossy about the mole coloradito.

Instead of a market tour in Etla, we started with a cheese-making demonstration by Sylvia in the morning, a woman who grew up in Puebla but met and married a man from Etla and joined the family business of cheese-making. Reyes Etla is famous for its cheese, and even though it is only 30-45 minutes away from Oaxaca, vendors in Oaxacan markets will brag and sometimes even lie that their cheese is from Etla when it’s not. Susana Trilling says you can tell what’s not from Etla because it’s sold in plastic rings, not in the woven straw corsets, nor in the wooden rings that are made from the wood of the tree under which Buddha found enlightenment. (It’s amazing, she says things like this in such a matter-of-fact, wry way.)

Even though Sylvia is from Puebla, she prefers Oaxacan cheese. All three Oaxacan cheeses come from different steps in one, long process. You start with a piece of dried cow stomach for the coagulant, treated with lime and salt and dried on the roof to keep it away from the dogs (though that doesn’t quite make sense to me since people here seem to keep their dogs on their roofs). The cow stomach put in the whey and allowed to release its enzymes for 2-3 days. Then the whey is mixed with cow’s milk. When the curds start to separate from the whey, they look at first like silken tofu. Sylvia just stirred the massive bucket with her hand, waiting for it to get crumblier. When it was ready, maybe 15 minutes later, she passed it through a cheesecloth and squeezed out the whey.

Without salt, the curds form the beginning of requeson, the Oaxacan version of ricotta, as rich and as delicious with honey as ricotta can be. With salt, the fermentation stops, and it becomes queso fresco, the crumblable cheese that can be found in so many Oaxacan dishes. When boiling water is poured on fermenting cheese curds, it becomes a smooth, tacky mass, the beginning of quesillo, the string cheese that is found in the remaining dishes of Oaxaca.

We were each given a small ball to pull and stretch. Mine broke almost immediately, so I ate it. The others were able to pull them sufficiently and them wrap them into tidy little turbaned bundles. It’s harder than it looks, to wrap it up just so. And then we rinsed our hands in the warm whey, which instantly made me want to bathe in it. It’s probably better for your skin than your fanciest $100 moisturizer.

While Susana explained what we would be making, we ate our almuerzo, a brunch to fortify us as we cooked, of “salsa de queso” or hunks of queso fresco simmered in a spicy salsa, accompanied by black beans and tortillas. The queso almost took on the texture of cooked tofu, the firm kind this time, with a textured skin and a chewy interior that was cheesy without being gooey.

The menu of our main meal, the whole point of the class, was truly Oaxacan this time, with regional specialties I had never tried before.

The “tetelas de juxtlahuaca” were little turnovers made of masa that looked exactly like hamantaschen, the Jewish cookie made traditionally for Purim, except they were savory rather than sweet and filled with a red bean puree. From the Mixteca Baja region of the mountains near the coast, they were cooked completely on the comal, the circular, slightly concave clay pan that is used to cook tortillas and anything else made of masa, as well as toast chilies and roast tomatoes. They had the wonderful, chewy, toasty exterior of all masa cooked on a comal. Served with a drizzle of Mexican crema, which is like crème fraiche, and then served with a spicy tomato-chile bravo salsa, it was the perfect botana to eat with our beers. Like all good appetizers, it stimulated our appetites for more.

The soup was a pureed soup of garbanzo beans, from mountainous areas like Ixtlan in the Sierra Norte, and simmered with mint, it reminded me so much of Middle Eastern soups, though there wasn’t any cumin. Not so much an exciting soup as a comforting one.

The salad was a happy mélange of green cactus fruit, guavas, red onion, oranges, avocados, pomegranate seeds, and toasted pumpkin seeds, as well as queso fresco, the kind of salad I would throw together without much thought, fruity and tart with lots of crunch. It was fairly complicated, as salads go, if not particularly revelatory, but still a good example of how every good salad should be fruity and tart with lots of crunch.

The accompaniment for the mole coloradito was a rice with “hongos del bosque,” mushrooms with no real English-language equivalent, so the school calls them “little brown mushrooms.” Prosaic, but accurate. The little wrinkly, dried buggers were delicious, and cooked to the point that they were still chewy, a good counterbalance to the tender rice.

And the mole, oh the mole. It’s one of the hardest things in the world to describe what mole tastes like. But that day, I heard a description that made wonderful sense: if you can taste any one ingredient, you haven’t done it right. Like mole negro, the coloradito required substantial toasting of chiles on their comal outside, though this time, just two types, guajillo and ancho, and no full-on burning of chile seeds, which instantly made it more feasible for a Brooklyn dinner. We also toasted the garlic cloves, the whole peppercorns and cloves, a stick of cinnamon, and the white onions.

Everything else got cooked separately on the stove inside: the tomatoes and oregano in one pan, and the fried bread, raisins, sesame seeds, and almonds in another pan. Instead of taking it to the village miller, we used the kitchen’s amazing two-horsepower blender to puree each component separately, and then pushed everything again through a food mill. That blender was both awesome and frightening, like the first time I used a power tool at a Habitat for Humanity construction site.

The pureed chili went in first, a thick, gorgeous mixture that started to get shiny as it started cooking in the cazuela. Susana taught us to look for the “ojo,” the eye that would appear as the sauce bubbled up and then broke on the surface. Then the onion-spice mixture, and when that was ready, the tomato mixture, and when that was ready, the plaintain-bread-raisin mush, and then finally the sesame-almond mixture. Like a good Thai curry, you could taste it grow and evolve with each added ingredient, but the best part was possibly near the end, after almost an hour, when we added a great deal of stock, which not only thinned it to the right consistency, it filled it with even more depth and flavor. Finally, we added the chocolate, and salt and sugar to taste.

In the traditional way, the chicken had been simmered separately to create the stock and was added to the mole when plating. I got a piece of white meat that I just couldn’t understand—it was chewy, but not dry, with real flavor. When I got home, Rick Bayless provided some illumination: Mexican chicken, which is generally free-range without self-consciousness, can handle long-cooking, unlike our “leaner, less-developed American birds.” Ha! I love how he makes it sound like American chickens are just puny, flabby things that haven’t put in sufficient time at the gym. Now I know why I’ve enjoyed the white meat I’ve had here so much.

Dessert in Mexico always feels like an afterthought, and I had actually quite hated the boozy mango dessert we had last time, but for once I loved the dessert, a Mexican chocolate boudin. It probably helped that it was made by the teacher leading the culinary school contingent, and even though she told us it would have been better if the bread had been allowed to soak longer in the crema de café mezcal and get softer, I loved the almost tough, chewy texture of the outer edge, contrasted with the smooth, silky interior and the chunks of strawberries embedded inside. (Koreans just love chewy, jjolgit jjolgit textures.)

It’s almost too much, you know. To make mole negro with Sra. Soledad, to make mole coloradito at Seasons of My Heart. I’ll never be able to complain about my life again.

My religion is mole negro, and Soledad is my guru

August 4, 2007

I’ve been telling everyone that if you want to be Zen, there’s no need to go to an ashram in India, you can just come to Mexico. You can’t plan anything, but everything works out in the end. And to make the metaphor complete, I have found my guru.

Even though I told everyone before I left that I was going to Oaxaca to learn to make mole negro, I didn’t really believe I would. I knew that it was an intensive, all-day process, and it seemed like the kind of thing you could only really learn in a Oaxacan home, from a Oaxacan grandmother. How was I, an American tourist who speaks broken Spanish, going to find that woman? It was too much like something Paula Wolfert would do for me to imagine that I could do the same.

But Mexico continues to surprise me at every turn, not only in what is possible, but also what is possible in me. I met Senora Soledad Ramirez Martinez easily enough, at the cooking class at ICO, and immediately fell in love with her. But with my pessimism, I didn’t even plot to learn with her. I just innocently asked in class, as the workshop drew to a close, “Where could I learn to make mole negro?”, and the answer came so readily, “You can come to my home and I’ll teach you.”

Sra Soledad is like that in every way. She’s no-nonsense, very straightforward, and very firm in her opinions: the best chocolate in Oaxaca (Chocolate Mayordomo), whether the vendors advertising “metate-ground” chocolate are lying (they are), whether Mexican families make their own salsa (claro!). Coupled with an incredible generosity of heart, she overwhelms you, and she’s not even five feet tall. My paternal grandmother died before I was born, my maternal grandmother when I was 15, but I didn’t know how much I was missing a grandmother in my life until I met her.

Soledad lives near the archeological site of Monte Alban, in a steep little town with an awe-inspiring view of the city. Her home sits on three terraces, the garage and the rainwater reservoir on the first, the outdoor wood-burning kitchen on the second, and the main living area with its indoor kitchen and patio on the third. She and her husband, Carlos, have four children, and I think two of them live with her, along with their youngest grandchild, five-year-old Carlita.

As Soledad spread out the twenty or so ingredients that make up mole negro, Erin and I sipped hot chocolate and gazed in wonder. The key chile, the hard-to-find chilhuatle or chilhuacle with its inflated, smooth look, is expensive, 400 pesos or $40 per kilo. Then there are the mulatos, which are dark, wrinkled and round; the pasillas mexicanas which are dark, wrinkled and long, and the chipotles mecos, which are tan, wrinkled, and somewhat triangular.

The sweetness comes very slightly from sugar, and mainly from the plaintain, the raisins, and the tomatoes, as well as the Oaxacan chocolate. A subtle, nutty flavor is added by sesame seeds, pecans, and almonds, as well as the eggy and fragrant pan de yema. As if all these flavors were not enough, mole negro requires just a few cloves and fresh peppercorns, a small stick of Mexican canela or cinnamon, and just a spoonful or two of Mexican oregano and thyme, as well as the tartness of tomatillos and the heady dimension of white onion and garlic. Everything gets mellowed and smoothed by chicken broth—sorry, vegetarians. Her recipe is enough to feed 30, as the laborious process of mole negro is honored by and reserved for fiestas, weddings, and other important occasions. Obviously a blend of Spanish-Moorish ingredients and New World flavors, the word mole, appropriately, comes both from the Nahuatl word “molli” for sauce, and the Spanish verb “mollinar,” to grind or blend.

We began by deseeding and deveining the chiles, and then toasting them on her comal in her outdoor, wood-fired kitchen until they were dark but not burned, and stiff. While they soaked in water, the next very important and very strange step was to burn the reserved chile seeds on the comal until absolutely black. This is the part I can’t imagine doing in my Brooklyn kitchen, as I can’t roast a chicken without setting off the smoke detector. Hopefully, my neighbors won’t report me when I set up an illegal Weber grill on my makeshift deck. The seeds were then rinsed in water. The pecans and sesame seeds were toasted last.

In the meantime, the tomatoes and tomatillos were simmering in water on the indoor gas stove for about 20 minutes. We fried the plaintain and the slices of pan de yema, and then the onions, raisins and pecans. We added cinnamon, in a big loose stick, and thyme and oregano. The chicken got simmered separately, creating a light broth for later use.

It was time to go to the neighborhood mollino or miller. It was like Mexican Sesame Street—let’s go visit Mr. Miller! All four of us walked down the hill, Erin, Soledad, Carlita, and me carrying the big bucket, and watched as the miller washed out the corn he had ground in the morning so he could push our mole through.

The hard part was over. All we had to do now was put it in an earthenware cazuela and cook it on a wood fire with a little oil for an hour, stirring constantly. It was amazing to watch it change in color from a chocolate brown to a dark, shiny black. (According to Susana Trilling, if your mole negro isn’t quite black, people will talk.) As we stirred and the fire smoked, the rain started to come down, and the steep slope of their street became a brown river. We tasted at 30 minutes, then 50, then 60. We added Mexican chocolate, the key thing being to use chocolate without milk, just a few spoonfuls of sugar, and then the chicken stock. Soledad asked us what we thought, should we add more sugar? And I was amazed to taste a mole so balanced, more sugar would have made it gawdy and cheap. I felt like a witch stirring a magical brew, because it was.

I’ve written mainly about the ingredients and the steps because at this point, I don’t know how to express in words what else happened that day. If you could see me, I would wave my hands and clutch my heart as I told you how Soledad and her family welcomed us into their home. We paid 350 pesos each, or about $35 for the all-day class, but there’s no price that can match what we found. Carlita, like the confident, well-loved child she is, chattered to us, pretended she was a bull, and served us rice soup in little plastic bowls from her toy kitchen. Carlos, her grandfather, showed us their photo albums with photos of their second wedding when they renewed their vows and their daughter Patty’s quinceanera or Sweet 15 party. Soledad told us how her father had found a big heavy slab of stone and carried it home to be her mother’s metate. They told us more stories while we ate full-flavored chicken in the best mole negro I’ve ever had with perfect rice. It’s not just that they were hospitable, but that their hospitality was almost without thought, it came so naturally. The heavy rains came early that day, and Carlos wasn’t able to find fresh blandas, a type of tortilla, to sop up our sauce, but although Soledad apologized more than once for having only tostadas, there was none of the nervous anxiety that comes with having guests. They made Erin and me feel like family friends, like we had become part of their lives and their memories. We could have sat at their table forever.

If you are ever in Oaxaca, or have friends who want to learn to cook in Oaxaca, please contact me, as I have her phone number and she would be happy to teach anyone who is a friend of “Ae-rin” or “Graciela.” I left Christianity because I hated proselytizing, but with Soledad as my guru, her religion is one I would gladly spread.

El Bajio

July 31, 2007

Ferran Adria says El Bajio is the best restaurant of traditional Mexican food in the world. And now, I have a higher opinion of Ferran Adria than I did before.

El Bajio is as far from the carrot-foam of El Bulli as I can imagine. It’s the kind of food I love most, traditional food prepared with love, care, and great pride. It’s the kind of food I seek most when I eat out, because I hope that the more I eat and learn from people who cook in this way, the more I will be able to make and serve this kind of food in my own home.

But I came very close to missing it completely. Erin and I were in Xochilmilco far south of the city, and we knew we could only get to El Bajio by taxi. Despite appearances, I’m quite cheap about food, and I doubted that any restaurant would be worth a $20 cab ride. But lucky for me, Erin quietly insisted.

Owned by chef Carmen “Titita” Ramirez, the restaurant now has three branches, including one in super-posh Polanco, which chowhounds have described as glassy and very-Polanco, at least in decor. But the original, the one we went to in Azcapotzalco, is decorated in warm, rich colors, with high-quality Mexican folk art. The restaurant is acclaimed by such foodie luminaries as Rick Bayless and Diane Kennedy, in addition to Ferran Adria, but it wasn’t filled with tourists, just happy Mexican families enjoying a big Sunday meal. The presence of multiple flat-screen TVs didn’t even bother me, it seemed somehow appropriate, or perhaps I was just happy I could watch the Argentina-Brazil final of the Copa America while we ate.

We ordered a hodge-podge, one platano empanada stuffed with beans; one quesdilla with huitlacoche, that prized corn fungus; a quarter of a kilo of carnitas in the Michoacan style; a clean and simple salad of jicama, nopales, tomatoes, and chayote; and a bowl of mole de Xico which we practically slurped up.

A quarter-kilo is a lot of meat—I forgot that one kilo is 2.2 pounds, and not the other way around—but we still ate almost all of it, fat, gristle, and all. It was almost too much to slather the pork with the mole, somewhat richer than Oaxacan mole negro but otherwise equally complex, but it was a meal of happy excess, and the pork was an excellent vehicle.

When faced with the prospect of dessert, Erin chose a refreshing nieve sorbet, while I, glutton that I am, chose the requeson with honey. Requeson is a ricotta-like fresh, rich wonder cheese, and when I added it to Erin’s nieve order, our waiter Raul definitely wasn’t expecting it, and so he gave an almost imperceptible but definite nod of approval and respect.

The entire restaurant seemed to be curious and pleased at the amount of food we ate and documented with Erin’s digital camera. As we left, Pablo, the manager, came forward with a smile to ask how we had heard about the restaurant. We chatted about how we had read that it was Rick Bayless’s favorite Mexican restaurant in the world, and then he gave us laminated brochures for “recuerdos” or souvenirs. When I asked if they had the cookbook for sale, Alquimias y Atmosferas del Sabor, he said I could find it at Sanborn’s, a Mexican department store, and then proudly showed me the restaurant’s own dog-eared copy. (I then spent the next day going to 4 different Sanborns looking for the damn book.)

Despite all the fuss I made about the $20 cab ride, I considered going back the next day, while Erin went to Teotihuacan. Who needs ancient Aztec pyramids when you can eat a fabulous Mexican breakfast at El Bajio? In the end, I decided to save my stomach for the dinner Erin and I had planned at Aguila y Sol, but the next time I’m in Mexico City, the first thing I’m going to do is jump in a taxi to El Bajio.

The best street food in Oaxaca, possibly the world

July 25, 2007

I believe God or the fates have impressed upon me the great responsibility of declaring and describing with exactitude how riquíssima are the empanadas and tacos in one corner of Oaxaca City.

Lina had told me about this little stand of empanadas and tacos near the church on Garcia Vigil. “You’ll know it because of all the cars double-parked around it every morning.” But it took me over a month to finally get there.

The fateful day was Thursday, July 12th, the day after my cooking class at Seasons of My Heart. After my enormous day of eating, I had gone to my Spanish teacher’s apartment to watch the Mexico-Argentina Copa America game with her. I was already so full, but Lety had prepared all this food, and when I woke up the next day, I felt the food equivalent to a hangover. I didn’t even want to get out of bed, but I realized I had to call my mother before I got on the bus to Mexico City that night, and I dragged myself out with the intention of going to an Internet place with Skype and having a light breakfast of fruit at a wireless café.

But my usual Skype place was closed, and I had to trudge my way to the other one on Garcia Vigil. As expected, the connection was painfully slow, and I barely managed to communicate to my mother that I was alive and well. I left frustrated and tired, but then, there it was, the famous food stand outside of Iglesia Carmen de Arriba.

I wasn’t expecting much. I knew the empanadas de amarillo were famous here, but I had tried mole amarillo at Patty’s and not liked it much. But when I took a bite into this empanada, what we would probably call a quesadilla, I swear the heavens opened and angels sang. It was so toasty, just off the comal, and hot enough to satisfy the most scaredy-cat street food eater, but so good I had to ignore the burning of my tongue. The amarillo sauce was enlightening, the perfect example of the maxim my friend Mimi and I firmly believe, “If you don’t like a food, you just haven’t tried a good version.” Spicy, saucy, assertive, thinner than the sauce Patty had made, and a perfect complement to the shredded chicken. Mexicans know how to cook chicken breast. Every once in awhile, I’d find a bite of bright cilantro. Oh God, it was so good.

I took a bunch of pictures of the church around it, so that any of you, should you find yourself in Oaxaca, will be able to find it. I particularly love this picture of their grill, with the fat sausages roasting underneath the comal.

Like every other empanada and taco stand I’ve seen, they make their tortilla base right there. There’s a big mass of masa, with a giant press for making the giant tortillas. The tortillas, either for empanadas or tacos, are first cooked separately on the grill. When they have the telltale dark spots showing that they are crispy and ready, they’re filled with amarillo and chicken, or squash blossoms and string cheese and folded over to become empanadas, or they’re rolled up with various meaty fillings and salsa.

I hadn’t even been hungry, but the empanada just whet my appetite for more. I considered my options and finally chose a taco wrapped around a chile relleno and had my second revelation. And to think I didn’t like chiles rellenos! The chile relleno was small and skinny and packed with ground meat, and so juicy and flavorful I was sad when there was no taco left, but there was no one to blame but myself.

So once again, the stand is tucked next to the gates of Iglesia de Carmen Arriba that are facing the street of Garcia Vigil, near the corner of Carranza, south of Quetzalcoatl. There are other street vendors nearby, selling fruit or some such, but only one stand selling empanadas and tacos, unless of course, it’s Lunes del Cerro, but that’s another blog post.

My last Patty post

June 28, 2007

On Sunday, I’m moving to my new apartment. I’m looking forward to living alone again and excited about how my understanding of Mexican food might deepen in my own kitchen, but I’m going to miss my Mexican family. Obviously, the immersion was great for my Spanish, but it’s been meaningful in ways I never anticipated. Every week, I would come home and find not only the five people who live in my house, but also a sister, brother-in-law, aunt, uncle, nieces, all of them speaking Spanish at the same time. None of them were ever flummoxed by the sight of a tall Asian woman in their house, who spoke Spanish haltingly, and would simply include me in whatever was going on. On one Sunday, while I sipped banana liqueur, the aunt sitting next to me repeatedly patted my arm and said, “¡Mira!” (“Look” or “You see”), as she told me and the rest of the family about the terrible car accident her daughter had been in. They reminded me a lot of my large Korean family. They made me miss my own family.

Not surprisingly, the cultural immersion I appreciated the most was the chance to eat homemade Mexican food. I got to see what I love most about food, how it can center family and friends and nourish more than our bodies. Given the enthusiasm with which most Oaxacans I’ve met talk about food, I can tell food is a valued part of their history and tradition, but Patty, I think, is uniquely spectacular. She and her family would give me tips on where to find good street food, the kind that’s “muy limpia” or “very clean,” or tell me which is the most authoritative cookbook on Oaxacan cooking. In the 29 days I spent with them, I ate 28 different dishes. We joked that she should write a cookbook herself, except it wasn’t really a joke, she really should. Eating with her, I not only learned words like “ajonjolí” (sesame) and “canela” (cinnamon), but also “tresoro” (treasure) and “herencia” (inheritance).

In addition to the tamales that I loved so much upon my arrival, my favorite torta, and the coloradito mole that made my toes tingle, there have been a couple of other real standouts.

Isn’t it magnificent? They’re fried taquitos filled with chicken and beans, and then drowned in Patty’s awesome salsa verde, finished off with a drizzle of crema, queso, and lettuce. She had also made some guacamole that day, thinner and more sharply acidic than the American dip, and I happily put some of that on as well. I wanted to stop at three, but I just couldn’t and I ate all them.

This is what I ate for lunch a week later, chicken estofada with rice and a bit of black bean puree, and tortillas, of course. I started with a soup that I would be thrilled to make for myself and serve to guests, so simple but so bright in its flavors. I didn’t even have to ask for the recipe, it just declared itself: chicken broth with rice, hierba santa, and then finely chopped white onion, parsley, jalapeno peppers, and limes to squeeze right before eating.

And then I ate the estofada, which according to Patty requires you to toast sesame seeds and almonds, and then grind them up with tomatoes and “muchas muchas spices.” Like a fine wine, it had such incredible depth of flavor. And like moles, it was obviously fatty because a sauce doesn’t get that smooth without fat, but it didn’t taste greasy at all. It’s not a spicy sauce, for once, and I have a strong suspicion that it must have some Moroccan origin, via Spain, because sesame seeds and almonds just don’t seem very Mesoamerican. This is my favorite kind of globalization.

And more recently, I dined on this fine chile relleno. I’ve never been a big fan of chiles rellenos, probably because I don’t really like green peppers. I just don’t see the point—you have your delicious sweet red and yellow peppers, and you have your fantastic range of hot peppers, so why would you ever eat a pepper that just tastes like crunchy grass?

I have to admit, I didn’t adore the Oaxacan chile relleno I had with Patty, but I think I would have loved it if the pepper had been hotter, maybe a chile de agua, which is lighter in color but stronger in power. It had a much more interesting filling than the chile rellenos I’ve had in the U.S., shredded chicken made saucy with tomatoes, raisins, and almonds, all wrapped in the smooth and crunchy exterior of the fried pepper.

Finally, the crème de la crème, Patty’s mole negro. Look how shiny it is in its darkness. I love how “the” dish of Oaxaca can vary so much from restaurant to restaurant, home to home. Hers is a little sweeter than mole I’ve had elsewhere, maybe a little smokier. It’s such a fine balancing act, the bitterness and the sweetness. Jane, the student who’s been staying in the apartment out back, requested the dish for lunch the Friday her husband came to town. He and I got into a discussion on immigration reform that nearly boiled over, but Oaxaca must have changed me, because I managed to keep my temper and enjoy every bite of my mole negro.

And it wasn’t only the main dishes that were so impressive. I had multiple kinds of rice, all cooked to be fluffy and flavorful. I ate every spoonful of every soup, whether it was chicken broth with precisely chopped vegetables or a soup tinged with tomato and filled with pasta. There were days that I ate more than I wanted to, but my desire not to explode was clearly overcome by greater desires.

I’m happy to know that Patty and her family will always remember me as the Korean girl who ate everything.

Mercado organico at El Pochote

June 25, 2007

Now that I’ve been here for over three weeks, it’s finally hit me that I’m actually living here, in Oaxaca, Mexico. The raw newness of the city has worn off, and there are areas I can navigate without looking at a map. Best of all, I’m starting to have favorite places, and at the top of the list is the little park of El Pochote.

You could walk by El Pochote and not even know it. It’s built into the old aqueducts of the city, with only one small wooden door in a brick wall of arches leading into the enclosed space. Once you’re inside, it’s mainly red dirt with a brick walkway, a small pond with a brush of bamboo, and not much greenery, but there’s something so lovely about its quietness and feeling of secrecy. Oaxaca, despite being a city less than 1/12th the size of New York, can still feel noisy, crowded, and polluted at times, and it’s always a relief to find myself inside El Pochote.

The park regularly shows free art films and hosts events like the bicycle-power generator demonstration I went to Saturday night (inexplicably paired with a series of animated shorts by a Czech filmmaker I’d never heard of, Jan Svankmajer). But the biggest draw of El Pochote for me is undeniably the organic market on Fridays and Saturdays.

Like organic markets in the U.S., the customers appear generally middle- and upper-class, along with a lot of the type of gringos who like to visit places like Oaxaca, lefty, green, well-meaning. The whole market is very well-groomed, pretty white tents on wooden poles, instead of helter-skelter plastic tarps. The only non-food items are tasteful, traditional pottery and all-natural soaps and shampoos, no plastic cups with Disney characters printed on them. And as much as I like the crazed chaos of piñatas juxtaposed with raw meat, I have to admit it’s often a little easier to enjoy the Mercado Organico.

And no market in the U.S., neither the Union Square Greenmarket, or my beloved Alemany Market in San Francisco, or even the gastronomic playland of the Ferry Building in San Francisco has the tlayudas, enchiladas, and tacos I can get at El Pochote. Actually, I don’t think there’s any other market in Oaxaca where I could get the food I ate at El Pochote. Looking at the wide range of sautéed vegetables—squash, mushrooms, dark leafy greens—I suddenly realized what I’d been missing in my diet for the past three weeks. My stomach cried out for something that would taste fresh and simple, not cooked or pureed or seasoned.

I started with a fantastic “taco” of a tortilla rolled around diced chicken piquant with sautéed sweet peppers, mixed with a bit of black bean spread and such lovely, tasty sautéed mushrooms.

I then had two enchiladas smothered in coloradito mole with some shredded chicken, lettuce, and queso sprinkled on top. I think prices here are slightly higher than elsewhere, but they’re still so low by American standards: 23 pesos or a little under $2.30 for a plate of food that would have been more than enough for my lunch. I felt particularly lucky eating these, that I’m here long enough to try multiple versions of my favorite foods. This coloradito had a sophisticated touch of bitterness, but still slightly sweeter and better, I think, than the one I’d tried at Casa Oaxaca.

I drank some chilacayote, a pulpy drink with seeds and all made of a type of sweet squash. I didn’t like it very much, and wished I had gotten tejate in a pretty little gourd instead, like my classmate who graciously wasn’t surprised when I asked to take a picture of her drink.

I bought some candied figs, squash, and chilacayote, which were pretty good, but a little too sweet to eat in the huge chunks they sold them in.

And then I finally tasted some chapulllines, the Oaxacan specialty of fried grasshoppers. I’d been waiting for July or August, when they would be bigger and better, according to Soledad my cooking guru from ICO, but the little old lady selling them was so insistent, I ended up buying a tiny $1 bag. They tasted salty more than anything, not as crunchy as I’d thought they would be, maybe a bit like anchovies. I love anchovies, but I don’t snack on them, and I didn’t finish the bag.

And to take home, I bought a little chocolate crescent-bread from the Korean woman who runs an organic farm and restaurant in Etla, a pueblo outside Oaxaca. I think she and her half-Korean daughters were as surprised to see me as I was to see them, but I was too shy to get her story. I had hovered by her stall for so long, though, that I felt obliged to buy the bread. Lucky for me, it was really good. I loved the cinnamon-y texture and flavor of the bit of chocolate running through the swirls of sweet, eggy bread. It wasn’t at all like eating a crappy pain au chocolate with a stingy bit of chocolate at Au Bon Pain. Most Mexican bread tastes too dry and/or too bland to me, organic or not. This was so much better, wholesome without being boring. (My friend wants to organize a trip to her restaurant, so I hope to get her story sooner or later.)

Heh heh, when I have my own apartment, I can take more food home.