Archive for the ‘Sopas’ Category

El Escapulario

September 7, 2007

When dining out alone, there are several things you can do to feel a little less conspicuous. None of these techniques actually hide that you are eating alone, but done with sufficient brio, they can at least help you forget that you’re eating alone.

Lots of people like to take a book to read, but I often find it hard to keep a book open on the table while holding a fork and knife at the same time. If I’m going to have to let go of my utensils, I’d rather take my journal. I fancy that maybe I look like a serious restaurant reviewer, or a travel writer, or best of all, a writer, period. Ever since I read “A Moveable Feast,” the only Hemingway book I truly like, the romance of sitting at a café table with a glass of wine, a notebook, and a pen has sustained me for many a solo meal.

But eating lunch at El Escapulario last week, I realized the absolute best way to distract yourself from your solitude is to go to a foreign country and practice your foreign-language skills by eavesdropping on conversations next to you.

I’d passed El Escapulario maybe a hundred times since I got to Oaxaca. It’s on the second floor of a building on Garcia Vigil, just across from the Iglesia de Carmen Arriba, with a little cut-out of a window on the corner that makes it look almost magical. No matter that escapulario doesn’t mean “escape” but “scapulary,” or a religious garment. Lina had recommended it, too, but I never seemed to find myself in that part of town during comida time.

I wasn’t impressed walking up the stairs, which were dingy and dark. The first thing I saw at the top of the stairs was a kitchen and a storeroom, and I didn’t really want to look at either too closely. I am definitely of the “see no evil” school of restaurant hygiene. But then I saw the room with the window I had admired for so long. The room was painted white, with art on the walls, and the tablecloths were bright, colorful, and clean. The best table, the one right by the magical table was taken by a gringo and his Mexican friend, so I positioned myself the best I could to catch some of that window view.

The waitress took my order with such a sincere smile, the menu del dia with sopa de conde, barbacoa de cordero, an agua de guayaba, and a free beer! I opened up my journal and started scribbling my thoughts on the restaurant, the day, but I soon realized there was so much more to occupy me, right there in the restaurant.

The gringo at the window was truly a gringo of gringos. Even sitting down, he towered over the Mexican man eating with him, and being blond, buff, and dressed in a tank top and army green pants, he couldn’t be anything but American. His Spanish was exactly like mine, exceedingly earnest with a capacity for quite a wide range of verb tenses, though far from fluid. Because he was trying so hard, he spoke a little louder than he might normally, and I could hear him perfectly from my table. He said two words for every word his lunch-mate said, probably because, like me, he had been thinking so long about all what else he could say in Spanish, he had whole conversations planned out in his head. I found out that his name is Sky, “Like cielo,” he said, that this was his first vacation in years, and that he had worked really hard for the past couple of years. He asked his friend if he liked the weather, if he liked the beach, that he had heard some Mexicans don’t like, “Hmmm, como se dice ‘sand’?”, and so they don’t like the beach.

I understood every word the Mexican man said, but I can’t remember a thing because he said so little.

Knowing that my Spanish sounded as good and as bad as Sky’s made me depressed. Thankfully, I could drown my sorrows in the excellent food at El Escapulario. The sopa de conde was a pureed black bean soup, with chunks of queso fresco simmered in it and garnished with strips of fried tortillas. It was really really really good. I’ve now cooked black beans 4 or 5 times in Oaxaca, and it never ceases to amaze me how much flavor there can be in a handful of black beans. The waitress brought me a little cup of spicy avocado salsa, and though I don’t know if it was intended for the soup, it made it taste even better.

Barbacoa normally describes goat or other meat wrapped and roasted in banana leaves until the meat is deeply tender. This barbacoa was a lamb chop, and it really did fall off its little bone, almost dissolving into the sauce of guajillo chile and avocado leaf. I suspected that the sauce had been cooked with hoja de aguacate, and I felt so proud when the waitress confirmed my suspicions. The little pile of rice accompanying the barbacoa was perfect, each kernel surprisingly plump.

There was even a little postre, or dessert, a syrupy canned pear, its slices arranged in a sweet fan on the plate. I hate canned fruit, but it wasn’t too sweet and I enjoyed it.

By then, Sky and his friend were also done with lunch. I lingered to listen to the last scraps of conversation, sipping at my little baby bottle of beer. It wasn’t that their conversation was so fascinating, really. It’s just that when you’re learning a language, anything you can understand becomes instantly riveting, just because you’re so happy you understand. Even though I still have trouble with casual conversations, I can generally understand anything that is announced, and I’ll watch, rapt, commercials for shampoo and baby formula.

What a fantastic meal. I’d had a delicious three-course meal, with drinks, for 35 pesos plus tip, about $3.50, and been entertained while eating it.


Bragging about my soup

September 6, 2007

One of the things I love most about my friend Mimi is that she does not believe in hiding one’s light under a bushel. Hanging around her, it has started to rub off on me, and I can say, without hesitation, that I made a fantastic black bean soup the other night, and that I also made tacos of chicken and Mexican greens in a tomatillo-serrano sauce were both complex and soothingly delicious.

Of course, I have to admit that neither was very hard to make. Both recipes came from Rick Bayless’s “Mexican Kitchen,” and involved little more than patience and a good blender, though the availability of authentic ingredients like avocado leaves and Oaxacan chorizo was no small matter.

The black bean soup involved so little work, it’s almost embarrassing. I put Mimi to work picking out the ugly beans, while I roughly chopped a small white onion and peeled the casing off of three fat, round links of Oaxacan chorizo. I also toasted 4 avocado leaves very briefly on the burner, watching with fascination as dark spots spread almost instantly and completely across the leaf. Everything got simmered together for about two hours, until the beans were tender, and then salted to taste. I blended the soup in batches, and we ate it garnished with fried tortilla strips and crumbled queso fresco. There was no stock! And yet so much flavor came from the chorizo, the beans, and the unique anise-like scent of the avocado leaves. It was slightly spicy, in a deep, dark way, and utterly warming.

The chicken in tomatillo sauce had a completely different flavor, all brightness and verve. I began by roasting tomatillos and 2 serrano chiles on a metal comal, directly on the stove, until they had big, dark, soft spots. In the meantime, I sautéed half a white chopped onion until deep golden, adding some chopped garlic to cook for a minute more, and then blended the onions and garlic with the roasted tomatillos and chiles. This puree got fried in oil for 10 minutes, getting darker and richer. When it was done cooking, I stirred in 3 tablespoons of chopped cilantro.

In the meantime, I was simmering three chicken legs in plain water. I had been nervous about buying unrefrigerated chicken in the markets, and had wandered around for 2 hours looking for a rotisserie chicken, but in the end, I felt so lucky I had had a chance to cook those marigold-yellow chickens in the market. I didn’t put in an onion or a carrot, peppercorns or thyme, too lazy to try to make a real broth, and I even pulled off the skin in a fit of fat-consciousness, but nothing I could do could make the chicken taste bad. To think I just boiled the darn things! And yet they were meaty with flavor. Now that I think about it, chicken in the U.S. so rarely tastes like meat, it just tastes like filler or a flavor vehicle. When I think of all those people who only eat chicken, and even then only white meat, I have to blame them for creating a market for flavorless gum.

While the chicken finished poaching, I added thin strips of amaranth leaves, or quintoniles, in the tomatillo-serrano sauce, until they were only slightly bitter. I almost felt like they took on a bright tartness of their own. When I added the cooked, shredded chicken, the richness of the meat rounded out the tartness of the greens and sauce. All it needed was a little crumbled queso fresco.

We also had a salad of jicama, mango, and avocado, with some red leaf lettuce to bulk it up. Mimi and I ate most of it, as Alex didn’t even notice we had a salad until he was full of soup and chicken. (Thanks to them both for the glamorous close-ups; I was too frazzled to take photos.)

The riches of the Yucatan at Coox Hanal in Mexico City

July 30, 2007

Oaxaca is a culinary wonderland, but other than an Italian place or two, it has too much hometown pride to move beyond Oaxacan specialities and favorites. So Mexico City was my chance to eat food from Veracruz or the Yucatan or Puebla. And Erin being a big Yucatecan food fan, off we marched to find Coox Hanal, at Isabel la Catolica 83, in Centro Historico. We walked by it almost twice, since it’s on the 3rd floor, above a billiards hall. But once you’re at the door, you know you’re there because Coox and Hanal are there to greet you.

All the words on the menu were so foreign to me! Sablutes, sopa de lima? My heart beat with anticipation. We ordered 3 plates of antojitos and sopa de lima, despite our chicken soup breakfast, and I had a Montejo, a light Yucatecan lager, nothing more or less than a middle-of-the-road lager.

But I was happy to have my beer, as the food turned out to be greasy bar food, and I mean that as a compliment. The panchutos, tortillas stuffed with beans and then fried and topped with pork and cabbage, were better at Seasons of My Heart, but I still ate more than my fair share.

The sablutes turned out to be fried tortillas, a little thicker than usual, with pavo or turkey, and they cut their grease with shredded lettuce, chopped tomato and avocado. I thought the tacos of cochinita pibil were smooth with fat, though Erin with her experience of cooking cochinita pibil herself thought they were a tad too dry. (Erin, care to comment on what goes into pibil?) All of it was accompanied tartly and brilliantly by the pickled red onions that seem to be to the Yucatan as kimchi is to Korea.

But the most impresionate, para mi, was the sopa de lima. I wish I had the kind of sensitive palate to sniff the soup and say in a tone of authority and only polite doubt, “Ah! Is it cardamom?”, but I don’t. The recipes I’ve found online vary greatly, some requiring just a bit of dried oregano to add some mystery—which I find hard to believe would recreate what I had, despite the particular strengths of Mexican oregano—while others call for a battery of spices. Clearly, something unusual is going on with the “limas agrias” or bitter limes. The soup also had the look of coconut milk, if not the taste, and with its complex tartness, it reminded me of the careful balance of great Thai soups. You could also find shredded chicken and some dark green bits that were bitter when I bit down. Could they have been bits of lime rind? Like a fine wine, the flavors kept shifting in my mouth, from smooth to tart, bitter to warm.

It’s good for me, with my lack of religion, to have some sense of mystery in my life.

Fortifying ourselves for Mexico City with rooster soup for breakfast

July 26, 2007

Mexico City, in some ways, reminds me of other big cities I know, New York, Seoul, Los Angeles, and yet is unlike them in so many other ways. At 20 million people, it makes New York feel airy. Walking through the Centro Historico was like Times Square times 10, except with graceful old buildings, relatively few tourists, and no flashing lights. You could, however, still buy pornographic DVDs right on the street, next to hair barrettes and tracksuits. And it has the energy of New York, the feeling that anything could happen, and people outside Mexico City talk about “D.F.” or the “Distrito Federal” the way people outside New York talk about NY: “It’s another world.” The inhabitants of Mexico City can’t imagine living anywhere else, while Mexicans elsewhere can’t understand how anyone can live there.

But the biggest difference between Mexico City and New York City, at least to this tourist who was in Mexico City for 4 days, is that New York is a city of people ignoring each other, while everyone in Mexico City is trying to get your attention. People are constantly trying to sell you something, with more vigor than your most vigorous Senegalese seller of fake Rolexes in Chinatown. After living in relative obscurity for a month and a half in Oaxaca City, I was shocked to find how Erin and I were subjected to constant catcalls and whistles, including one man, who said in English with much careful deliberation, and in an accent eerily remniscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger, “Wow-oo, you are so bee-you-ti-fool!” I have to admit, I was proud of myself the next day for understanding the declaration shouted at me in Spanish from a man who had been driving his van at our walking pace in Condesa: “I was just looking at your beautiful legs!” He had such a genial smile, I shouted back, “¡Gracias!” Sadly, the only men who ever compliment me are men in the street and tollbooth operators, but I’ll take my compliments where I can get them. I am also now aware exactly how short my red dress is.

Our first morning in Mexico City was also otherwise overwhelming. I had arrived at 7 am on Friday morning, after an overnight bus ride from Oaxaca, and found Erin almost bouncing off the hotel bed in her excitement to try some of the restaurants she had highlighted on her map. An hour later, we were wandering around La Merced, one of the largest markets in Mexico and possibly the world.

And the Cathedral in the Zocalo is the largest cathedral in the world, right next to Templo Mayor, an archeological site some electricians found right smack in the middle of the city. And of course, there are Diego Rivera murals all over the city, all bigger than life, and most spectacularly in the Palacio Nacional.

You can’t throw a stone without hitting something with Frida Kahlo or Diego Rivera on it in Mexico City. Either they are truly are as emblematic of Mexico as foreigners think they are, or Mexico City has responded to tourist demand with a complete, almost-innocent enthusiasm. I don’t find the work of either artist particularly moving, but in Diego Rivera’s large murals, the triteness I sometimes see in his work gets absorbed into a larger earnestness that appeals to me and my fatigue with NY-cool. And I did love the kitchen in Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul, with its large, glossy pottery and bright colors inexplicably balancing each other. Her home made Leon Trotsky’s poor little fortification, just blocks from hers, feel even more austere and Soviet.

Thankfully, for all the marching we did around Mexico City that first day, we had had a substantial breakfast of caldo de gallo, or soup made from rooster stock, near La Merced. Being Korean, I think nothing of eating rice and soup for breakfast, but I was impressed by the way Erin tucked into hers. All Mexican soups are essentially the same: simple, happily dependent on the rawness of the last-minute garnishes, and restorative.

Of course, nothing is restorative like caffeine, and I sucked down every drop my first “café de olla. “Olla” means clay pot, and a “café de olla” is made and served traditionally in a little clay pot and sweetened with cinnamon and piloncillo, a Mexican unrefined brown sugar. Strong and sweet, it gave me the strength to enjoy everything Mexico City could throw at me.