Archive for the ‘Tacos’ Category

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.

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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.)

Tacos arabes y orientales

August 31, 2007

I was really excited to try these. I just loved the idea of “Oriental tacos.” I didn’t expect flying carpets or Buddha figures, but I’d read a little bit about “tacos arabes” in Puebla on Chowhound, and I’d imagined a beautiful collision between shwarmas and tacos to create something completely, fabulously new.

So after three months of thinking about them, I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed when I finally got to La Antequera in Colonia Reforma, on Calzada Porfirio Diaz a few blocks north of Belisario Dominguez. The menu listed quesadillas, tortas, and two types of tacos, “arabes” and “orientales.”

“What’s the difference?” I asked.

“Arabes are larger, orientales are smaller.”

A truly unexciting answer. Still, I ordered one of each and a side of “cebollas,” imagining unctuous, rich, sautéed onions.

When they arrived, they just sat there like limp rags. The “arabe” taco had, instead of a corn tortilla, a slightly thicker bread around it. It wasn’t quite like pita, a little chewy, a little floury. The bread had good flavor, and the meat inside it was salty and flavorful also, but there was nothing else going on. It came with a side of tart red salsa, and I sprinkled it on liberally, but there was nothing else to help it gain some dimension. The onions turned out to be quite pale, not at all caramelized as I’d hoped, and watery to boot.

The “orientale” was a smaller version, with a tortilla wrapped around. Just like the waiter said.

I think the experience could have been different in a group. I can imagine a happy table of friends sitting around a plate filled with meat, another plate stacked high with hot pita-like breads, drinking beer and making tacos one after the other. But my two sad little tacos and even sadder bowl of chopped onions wasn’t that.

If you are meat-lover, you are more likely to fall head over heels in love with the “carne frita” or fried meat of pork at El Biche Pobre.

Tacos of picadillo, a.k.a., delicious shredded pork

August 21, 2007

The Mercado Sanchez Pascuas, just a little north of Quetzalcoatl with its bright green entrances on both Porfirio Diaz and Tinoco y Palacios, is probably my favorite everyday market in Oaxaca. It’s not as overwhelming as the Mercado Abastos, or as colorful as Mercado Juarez, and it doesn’t have the steamy meat market-slash-taco stands of Mercado 20 de noviembre, but it feels like a neighborhood market, and increasingly, like my neighborhood market. It’s smaller than the ones closer to the zocalo described in the all the guidebooks, and on a weekday afternoon, you might even think it was half-empty. But every Saturday and Sunday morning, it’s bustling with people buying fresh blandas, flowers, tamales, all kinds of produce, various jugos, and even some barro verde, the pottery with the dark green glaze. Unlike the surly people at Mercado Juarez, the people at Mercado Sanchez don’t mind if you handle and pick your fruit yourself. Because it’s smaller, you can also see more clearly where people are clustering to buy their chicken or pork and gauge which carnicerias have the freshest meat. It’s also easier to notice who has criollo tomatoes, those heirloom tomatoes that have so much more flavor, or even criollo avocados with their enormous pits and a high, clean taste, if somewhat less rich and creamy in flavor. (You can find some fantastic photos from Planeta.com.)

This past Sunday, after a fortifying breakfast of chocolatle atole and empanadas, I enlisted my Spanish teacher and friend Lety to help in sussing out the best places to get the ingredients for the picadillo pork tacos I planned to make that afternoon. She pointed in one direction to indicate her favorite carniceria, but from across the market, I misjudged where she was pointing and had already started talking to a woman in a very smelly stand when she came over and whispered, “I meant that one.” I murmured my apologies, pretending I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted, and we quietly scurried all the way to the other end of the meat section.

I didn’t know if I could literally translate English phrases for pork cuts into Spanish, if pork shoulder is “espalda” or “pierna” or something completely different, so to our new butcher, I just asked for the cut of meat that had a lot of “grasa” or fat. “Ah, espaldita!” he said. He proudly showed off the layer of fat glistening on the piece of pork, and Lety nodded with approval. Later, when I asked her if I should trim some of the fat off before we cooked it, she said, “But that will remove the flavor!” God, I love Mexico.

After seeing the “picadillo” recipe in Rick Bayless’s cookbook last weekend, I had spent all week just thinking about it, when and where I should buy the meat, whether I should cook it on Saturday or Sunday. I had read the recipe over and over, charmed by the thought of taking shredded, cooked pork shoulder, and then browning it, scraping it up as it stuck to the pot, with chopped onion, a handful of raisins, a handful of chopped almonds, a little cinnamon, an even smaller pinch of freshly ground cloves, and a roasted tomato-pasilla oaxaquena sauce. But I’d never even tried it, so I was thankful to have Lety there to say, “Oh, it looks a little dry,” or “Add a little sugar.”

The picadillo was as easy as promised, even though it took about 2 and half hours to make, to simmer the pork shoulder with all its fat, to grind the cloves in a little molcajete, to chop and toast the almonds, to make the sweet smoky salsa, and then to cook it all together. But it was very laid-back cooking, though there was a moment when I realized trying to understand Spanish and chop almonds at the same time is the kind of multi-tasking that is yet beyond me. But otherwise, we chatted easily as she told me about the terrible people at her workplace and I told her about the horrible blind date I went on before I left New York.

Lety even showed me how to make horchata:

1) Carefully clean and wash about 1 cup of rice. Let it soak in water about 2 inches above the rice with some broken canela, the equivalent probably of 2 American cinnamon sticks. Let it sit for about 2 hours, until the rice gets soft enough that you can pinch a kernel in half.

2) Blend everything in the blender as smooth as possible.

3) Strain into a pitcher, reserving any rice-cinnamon paste for “atole de arroz.” (I only had a strainer, but I imagine a cheesecloth would be better.)

4) Add water and sugar to taste. Make sure to stir it up immediately before pouring it into a glass, as some sediment will sink to the bottom.

Incredibly clean and pure. I can totally see myself doing this in Brooklyn on a hot summer day. Other recipes I’ve seen say that you should add ground almonds, and I imagine that would be wonderful, too, as well as some pureed bright red, tiny cactus fruits with their prickly armor of skin.

I chopped up some jicama, radishes, avocado, and pickled jalapeno for garnish and heated up some of this week’s pot of black beans while Lety warmed and wrapped the tortillas in a towel. With the bright pink pitcher of horchata and a little leftover mezcal, we had a very colorful feast.

And the picadillo I liked as much as last Sunday’s supper of greens, onions, and cheese tacos. It wasn’t at all spicy—which Lety assured me was normal—but it had such a range of flavors, from smoky to rich to slightly sweet and nutty. It was complex and yet easily appealing, almost as warming as Lety’s company. Definitely one to add to the taco buffet dinner I intend to host when I get back to New York.

Tacos of garlicky greens and cheese, plus beans

August 15, 2007

There are several things that make cooking in Mexico very different from cooking in my Brooklyn apartment:

• Stoves that won’t turn down to low
• No oven
• Cheap, thin pots and pans with uneven bottoms that make the hot stove even less forgiving
• Garlic that comes in tiny, intense cloves and only white onions, rawer and better for Mexican cooking, but not complex
enough for Italian pasta sauces
• Not enough bowls
• I miss my good chef’s knife!

Still, there are quite a few advantages. Last Saturday, I cooked a pot of black beans, practically cackling with glee that I had epazote, which Rick Bayless says to use “if you can get it.” They were the best beans I’ve ever made, if not the best I’ve ever tasted, tender but with distinction, full-bodied with the incomparable flavor of epazote, and so easy, as all I had to do was boil up a cup of beans in water covering them with a sprig of epazote for two hours, adding more water when necessary and a bit of salt near the end. They didn’t even need to be pre-soaked! I may cook a pot of beans every weekend while I’m here. And if I can smuggle some fresh epazote past customs and into my Le Creuset dutch oven in Brooklyn, they might be even better than they were in the cheap, thin, misshaped pot I had to use, though admittedly, there may be some special risks to smuggling packages of herbs and weeds from Mexico into the U.S.

On Sunday, I decided to make a lunch of tacos, of garlicky greens and fried onions, from my beloved Rick Bayless cookbook. Most of his recipes are eminently and invitingly doable, but with my crappy stove and my reluctance to stock up on all kinds of spices, I’ve decided to stick to simple dishes and try making at least one kind of salsa a week, which is still an exciting goal.

I started by making Bayless’s Yucatecan simmered salsa of roasted tomatoes and fresh peppers, substituting serranos for the habaneros I couldn’t find. I roasted the tomatoes on a metal comal covered in foil right on top of the stove, until the skins were black and splitting open. After peeling them the best I could, I threw them in the blender. In the meantime, I sautéed chopped white onions until dark gold and sweet. I added the pureed tomatoes and two chiles, halved. It wasn’t as spicy as I’d hoped, but it was still such a joy to spoon it up, to remember with such brightness how delicious tomatoes could be. I wonder if this is what it’s like to fall in love again with someone you’ve been married to for 20 years.

For the greens, I had some fresh green chard from the organic market. That got washed, sliced into ribbons, and then blanched for a minute or two in boiling water. Then I thinly sliced white onions and sautéed them until dark and sweet, threw in some chopped garlic, and then the chard until it was warmed through, adding a bit of salt. Meanwhile, the black beans from the day before were reheating in another pot.

I even walked to “Las Delicias de Etla” on Independencia, past the Basilica de la Nuestra Soledad, for my cheese to try to ensure that the queso fresco I bought was truly “fresco” from Etla, where all great Oaxacan cheese is born.

Ah, the juggling of pots and pans! The mug I had to fill with crumbled cheese, the juice glass with salsa! My little sink was overflowing. But I sprinkled queso fresco all over the beans and greens, made sure my blandas, the big floppy tortillas, were warm, and sat down for a very good meal. It was so satisfying, and almost surprising to taste the sweet onions mixed in the slightly bitter, strong flavor of the chard. The beans were even better reheated, and the salsa added a tang that would otherwise have been missed. It was simple meal, despite the number of burners I had going at one point, but it was the best thing I could have eaten on that Sunday afternoon. It felt so good to be cooking again!

This weekend, I’m going to make shredded pork tacos with a tomato-chipotle salsa.

Tacos Alvaro

August 8, 2007

Impressive, no?

The chile-turkey is sitting on top of a refrigerator case of sodas at Tacos Alvaro on Porfirio Diaz at the corner of Quetzalcoatl.

They serve quite good tacos, from 2 pm until late at night, which I would describe in greater detail, except I can’t quite remember whether I ate “buche” or “trompa,” which my dictionary both translate as “mouth” or “maw,” but I’m sure the waiter said one of them was some sort of innards, “como tripa.” Erin and I had the “al pastor” and “carnitas” each, and one was very good and the other very strange, so strange to be inedible even to us, but I can’t remember which was which either.

We were tired after being in the sun and rain all day for Guelaguetza, and on our way to our all-night bus ride to Puerto Escondido, please forgive me.

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.

The wonders of the meat market

June 5, 2007

I need to be careful not to dump all my pictures on this blog in the first week of my stay here, and save a few goodies for later. But I took 43 photos today at the market and it’s hard not to blurt out everything I feel.

Classes began today, and I was placed in Nivea 1B. It’s a very popular level, those who know slightly more than nothing. The campus is beautiful, with a large enclosed courtyard garden in front and a smaller courtyard inside. It’s just the way you want your Spanish school to look, palm trees rising grandly before you, flowering trees, and bright yellow walls with arches and nooks.

Of the students I’ve met so far, there are your college students on summer vacation (who seem painfully young to me), a graduate student studying women’s peace movements in Latin America, teachers who want to gain Spanish language skills, and a middle-aged couple who quit their jobs, sold their house, and are starting a Peace Corps stint in a yet-unknown country in August. Whoa baby! Makes my little 6-month adventure seem ridiculously easy.

This school likes to pack your day. We have three hours of instruction in the morning, then one hour of conversation, a lunch break, then an optional hour of “intercambio” or English-Spanish exchange with a local student, and then an optional 2-hour, 2-week workshop in cooking, ceramics, weaving, or salsa. Guess what I picked?

It’s definitely not a serious cooking class, but it’s nice to do something laid-back in the afternoon. On Mondays, the class goes to market, and so we went to the two everyday markets downtown, Mercado 20 de noviembre and Mercado Juarez.

I’d already been to both markets, but this time, I felt less shy about taking photos, especially of the meat market that had been haunting my dreams. Imagine this: a room lined with stalls with their meat on full display, big chunks hanging on hooks, round red links of sausage, long thin slices that then vendors periodically pat with their hands, like they’re patting a baby. You see everything through a hot haze, because the room is filled with smoke from the little grills at each stall.

When the smoke blows away and you can see the meat and the cebollitas (green onions) getting browned—well, it thrilled me almost as much as when I saw the clouds part above Machu Picchu.

(My guidebook and the orientation packet the school gave us today says, “Do not eat food from street vendors!” But what’s the worst that could happen? I’ve been immunized for hepatitis and I have plenty of Pepto-Bismol.)

The meat was clearly not something to be eaten alone. There were groups of people sitting around large platters of meat with a stack of warm tortillas and all the fixings, radishes, salsa, guacamole. But this wasn’t an eating trip and we had to move on. I felt intensely jealous. One day, I WILL eat the meat at Mercado 20 de noviembre!

Next post: the “nieve de tuna” (cactus fruit sorbet) at Mercado Juarez.