Archive for the ‘Molotes’ Category

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.

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Delicious pork fat at El Biche Pobre

August 17, 2007

As I ate lunch on Wednesday, I thanked God that I had run 2.5 miles uphill towards Monte Alban earlier that day. My judgment may have been clouded by drink, as I started drinking my Bohemia beer and eating tortilla chips like a madwoman before my food came, but I have never tasted such delicious pork fat in my life as I did at El Biche Pobre.

I had spent nearly all morning in the kitchen at Puente, trying to make amaranth-corn tortillas from scratch. I had boiled dried corn kernels with limestone the day before and let it sit overnight, and then rinsed carefully and rubbed away at each husk, almost individually, as per these instructions (which turned out to be wrong since the corn kernels need to be cooked 15 minutes or more). Rather than take a handful of corn and amaranth to the molino, I’d lugged my molcajete to work on the bus and decided to grind away by hand. One of the staff laughed and said I was “una mujer de campesinos,” or a peasant woman. The temperature in the office is cool, even in the kitchen, but I started to get so hot as I mashed away at that corn, and when I tried to grind the amaranth, I had to deal with the sticky paste that stuck to the mortar, the pestle, me, and everything else it came in contact with.

For all that work, since I hadn’t made very much masa or dough, I got 6 measly little tortillas. (They had good flavor, but they were too inflexible to be tortillas, memelitas maybe.) I ate one of them, and other than a banana, nothing else from breakfast to 3 p.m., when I left work. I felt like a crazed, hungry animal.

I’d never heard of “El Biche Pobre” until that day, but I caught a mention of it in a TripAdvisor thread and when I Googled it, it turned out to be one of Rick Bayless’s favorites. As I am becoming increasingly maniacal in my devotion to him, that was enough to get me lurching towards Calzada de la Republica 600, at the corner of Hidalgo, just two blocks east of El Llano park.

“El Biche Pobre” calls itself a “comedor familiar,” which I assume means “down-home food.” They’re particularly famous for their botanas, or bar snacks, and instead of getting a proper meal of soup, rice, meat, and tortillas, I opted for the botana plate for one, one of all of the above. Of course, since I was eating bar snacks, I had to have a beer.

Immediately, I knew I was somewhere special. The chips that came in the plastic basket were perfect, crispy, completely dry and without grease, with so much flavor they didn’t need salt, maybe just a dab or two one or the other of their salsas, green and red, and their guacamole. I was also given a little bowl of pickled dried peppers, onions, and garlic. I sucked the garlic out of their little papery jackets, licking my fingers and not caring what I looked like. That was probably the beer. I’d had pickled garlic before, but not like this, where they had been softened by cooking and then marinated in a vinegary sauce, like an escabeche. The dried peppers were also fantastic, smoky and intense but not so hot that I couldn’t taste anything else.

When my plate came, I honestly felt the slightest bit of disappointment. I’d read that their botana plate for one was huge, and this, while ample, wasn’t actually incredible. And then they brought out the second plate.

On the first plate, clockwise from the top: a fried taquito with guacamole; a piece of cold pork with avocado, tomato and pickled jalapeno; a quesadilla with cheese and epazote; a chile relleno; some pieces of pork milanesa; a bocadillo de papas or potato croquette; and the piece-de-resistance in the middle, “carne frita” or fried meat.

On the second plate, clockwise from the tamal: a tamal of frijoles sitting on top of another piece of cold meat; a memela with lard and crumbled cheese; a tostada with potatoes; and another tostada with beans, cheese, tomato and avocado.

I will only touch upon what truly moved me.

When I put a small piece of the “carne frita” in my mouth, I almost shouted, “What is this?” When I asked the waiter, all he could say was “meat of the pork,” “meat of the pork,” so I still don’t really know what made it so delicious. I am not normally a huge pork fat eater. I love fat for the way it conveys flavors, not so much in and of itself, but this made me realize that just plain old fat could be wonderful. It wasn’t like carnitas that melt in your mouth, or the porchetta-like roast I made last winter that practically collapsed in its own fat. It held itself together, with a good chewy texture, a lovely crispy exterior, and a melting layer of fat in the middle. Such a tiny piece to pack such a punch.

The chile relleno was my second favorite. Instead of using a fresh chile, they had taken a dried pasilla chile and filled it with more pork, shredded this time. It had a slightly sweet flavor, but almost the flavor of sweet hot peppers rather than a more straightforward, insipid sweetness.

The memela was very simple, just a crunchy, almost tough, corny little oblong, brushed with nothing more than “asiento” or lard and garnished with a little crumbled cheese. Its simplicity was its charm, like eating a perfect baguette with butter from French cows.

I loved the pork milanesa, more than any other I’ve had here, because the breading was greaseless and well-salted. Is “milanesa” really mean that it’s from Milan? And is “milanesa” preparation related at all to Japanese fried pork cutlet, donkatsu? Sometimes, I’m embarrassed to say all my lefty politics goes out the window when I think about the food benefits of globalization.

Everything else was very good, except the bocadillo de papa which was just boring.

I staggered out of the restaurant almost dazed. I had to get home as quickly as possible so I could lie down, but having woken up at 6:30 in the morning to go running with my neighbor and her friend, my legs hurt. But I still stopped for a cantaloupe paleta at Popeyes.

Neuroticos Anonimos always feel better when they eat good food

July 7, 2007

I thought I was going to Ocotlán to check out their Friday market. I didn’t know I was going to find the solace I had been searching for.

The market was sprawling, but with arms radiating out rather than the dense block upon block at Mercado Abastos. Each arm was clearly dedicated to specific items—leather belts or fresh produce or random plastic items. My favorite was the turkey gauntlet, where people formed two long lines while holding their very placid turkeys under their arms. It felt almost stately, like a very dignified beauty pageant. I couldn’t quite tell who was buying and who was displaying, as everyone just stood there with his or her bird(s). I really wanted to take a picture, but I know most people don’t like to have their pictures taken, and I generally don’t ask unless I buy something. This was definitely something I could not take home.

I was there early enough to see the nieve, or sorbet, sellers making their ice cream. They place one bucket inside another bucket of ice and presumably salt, and they just keep turning the inner bucket to churn it to the right consistency. None of it was ready for me to eat, hence, no picture of this either.

But I did feel entitled to take pictures of everything I bought and consumed. I started with a breakfast of enfrijoladas, which are like entomatadas but in bean sauce, rather than tomatoes. It honestly tastes better than you would think. I washed it all down with a nice cup of chocolate con agua, which came with a soft bun with crumbly, sugary top and a hard little pretzel-shaped biscuit. I’ve realized that nearly all the bread in Oaxaca improves vastly when it’s dunked into some hot chocolate. Hot morning drinks, for some reason, always taste better in a bowl than a mug. I think it’s the particularly warm feeling you get when your fingers and palms are wrapped around the smooth curves of a bowl.

I then found a couple of benches full of families eating something I’d never seen before. The women ladled out bowls of dark red soup in the back, while the senora out front chopped at a soft, quivering mass of steamed meat. Chopped hot peppers, onions, cilantro and salsa were on every table, and every few minutes, a woman would walk by offering “blandas,” tortillas that are softer and tastier than their name implies. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, but when I sat down and a blanda seller approached me, a young woman at the next table gave a quick, almost imperceptible smile and nod, so I bought two. It was sort of “build-your-own-picnic,” as her family had also bought some avocados and other garnishes to add to their meal.

The soup turned out to be full of potatoes, carrots, and green beans, as well as several different kinds of unidentifiable organ meat. This thing that looks like a bit of felt is flesh—I know, I ate it.

But even I had my limits. I looked at something that looked like liver, but a tiny bite revealed it definitely was not liver. There was something else that had gelatinous folds, a whole system of mountains and valleys in a bit of meat. I decided not to eat that either.

According to Lety, my Spanish teacher, I ate menudo. Hooray! I’d always wanted to eat menudo.

I bought some albahaca, or basil, since I keep thinking I’m going to make spaghetti with tomato sauce, though it looks and smells distinctly more like Thai basil than sweet basil. I watched several goats go by, bleating wildly. Perhaps they knew something the turkeys didn’t.

My heart never leaps at the thought of touring a church, but I was actually moved when I stopped at the church that had been restored with the help of Rodolfo Morales, the local boy who became a great artist. My pictures don’t capture how fresh and light it looks, or how lovely the ceilings are with their serpentine gilt vines. It was, however, slightly alarming to see mannequins dressed in cheap satin, representing Christ or saints, encased in glass. Catholicism seems sort of blithely unselfconscious about its morbidity.

And then I went to the Casa of the artist himself, which is quite a funny little place. It’s just off the main square in Ocotlan, and when I walked into the arched entryway, there was a young, bearded, artsy-looking guy just sitting on a bench. The gate was closed, but he assured me it was open, and when I approached the gate, a woman appeared with a young boy. They welcomed me in, the woman telling me I could leave my shopping bag on a bench, and the boy wordlessly leading me up the stairs to the second floor with its exhibition hall.

The exhibit showcased the collages Morales had been making near the end of his life, with ribbon, antique images, lace, even faces I recognized as having been cut-out of Benetton ads. The exhibition hall was right next to what used to be his studio, complete with rolls of ribbon.

When I wandered back downstairs, I began to realize what a strange house I was in. He only died in 2001, and you could peer into his bedroom, his kitchen, and his dining room, presumably preserved as he’d left it. On a shelf by the staircase, you could see 30 or so empty perfume bottles, just sitting there like the tchotckes of any older person. But it also became clear that his family was still living in the house day to day.

A senora, older than the woman who’d let me in, was in the gorgeous kitchen when I came in, and she began showing me around, telling me how this horse sculpture made of wood was very old, or how that baby doll in a glass case was very old. The china cabinet was filled with crystal, but it also held a plastic thermos and one antique cup with Japanese faces that the senora had hoped I could identify. As we were talking, we heard a wail come across the courtyard, rising above the birds in their cages. Suddenly, a girl with long curly hair appeared, carrying a smaller little girl who was crying. She stopped crying when she saw me, but she started again after the older girl took her into their bedroom. When I asked where the bathroom was, the senora thought for a bit, and then kindly let me use the family bathroom. As I left, the senora told me that the lady of the house had gone to the market for bread and sodas, so I was very welcome to come back and have a snack with them.

When I left the house, the bearded boy was still there and he asked me what I liked the best. “Oh, the kitchen!” I said.

But before I went back to Oaxaca, I had to eat one last thing: a molote. I hadn’t seen these before, these little torpedo-shaped fried dumplings filled with potato and chorizo. As always, I felt slightly sheepish ordering “un molote,” but the lady was so nice. She asked me with the warmest smile, “Te gusta?”, knowing the answer already. It’s in these moments that I’m glad to be a particularly freaky foreigner—an Asian AND a woman traveling alone. The novelty of seeing me eat and enjoy their food seems to make up for the fact that I can only buy 2 blandas or one molote. When I got back to Oaxaca, I found out from Lety that molotes aren’t easy to find, as they’re usually the kind of food sold in driveways of private houses on Sunday mornings. If only I’d known, I would have bought a bagful.

But perhaps as much as my memories of the food I ate and the art I saw, I think I will treasure the brochure I found at the church for “Neuróticos Anónimos.” According to the brochure, “Neurosis” is “caused by a person’s innate egoism that keeps him from having the ability to love.” It advises the reader to read and answer the quiz in the calmest possible manner, with the most honesty possible. The questions include, among many, “Do you believe the whole world is watching you?” “Do you lie without necessity?” “Do you do things that you consider stupid?” “Do you live disgusted with the entire world?”

So in Ocotlán, I ate several things I’d never eaten before, saw an artist’s home, and learned that I’m not as neurotic as I think I am.