Archive for the ‘Tamales’ 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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A wall of pork rinds, and a swim in the mountains

June 26, 2007

Have you ever seen a wall of fried pork rinds? I hadn’t, until I went to the big weekly Sunday market at Tlacolula, a pueblo about 25 minutes east of Oaxaca City.

As soon as we got out of our “colectivo taxi,” a shared taxi, we saw two Zapotec women walking with turkeys tucked under their arms, like they were footballs. This market also sold everything under the sun, from big tin buckets

to large metates for grinding corn

to pink kernels of dried corn. I have no idea how or why they are this way.

I’d eaten an enormous breakfast of eggs cooked in salsa, then wrapped with beans in tortillas, so I couldn’t work up much of an appetite, even for the wall of chicharrones but I did buy some tamales de elote, which turned out to be basically sweet corn bread baked in corn husks. Smokier than American-style cornbread, but not the mushy texture of other tamales. Very hearty and satisfying.

And I saw the most lovable dog. Look at his face!

But I had to admit, it wasn’t as much fun to go to a market when I didn’t have any reason to buy a plastic bag full of nopales (cactus salad), or a big loaf of pan de yema. And I felt badly just taking pictures of everything without buying much.

So the highlight of the day was moving further east to Hierve El Agua, which translates as “boiling water, which is quite an overstatement. It’s actually a slightly lukewarm spring on top of a mountain. But it’s not as boring as it sounds! It’s a lovely place to get away from the big bad city, and to swim in what looks almost like a fancy infinity pool on top of a mountain.

We had taken a “coletivo taxi” or a shared taxi from Oaxaca to Tlacolula, and from Tlacolula to Mitla, where we found a pick-up truck with a covered back taking people to Hierve El Agua. It turned out Hierve El Agua isn’t actually that far from Oaxaca, but it takes an hour and a half to get there because from Mitla, you have to climb a steep, curvy, unpaved road.

Once you enter, you see a fairly bare hilltop, a few spare brick buildings on top of one hill where they serve snacks and drinks, and a few half-constructed buildings that seem to be hopefully anticipating more tourism. Like the rest of Oaxaca, though, Hierve El Agua seemed to be hurting for tourists.

We walked down a stony slope strewn with cacti and other dry plants to find the spring itself, enclosed in a little metal fence as if it were in some danger, and then a beautiful pool facing the mountains across and the valleys below. There were a few families with children splashing around, three Asian tourists with cameras slung around their necks, and us. The water had a slight smell of sulfur and it was warm from the sun, but it wasn’t anything approximating a hot spring. Still, I was so happy to jump in the water and do a few awkward crawls.

I would have liked to take the footpath around the mountain, but we didn’t really have time since we wanted to eat lunch, and I didn’t really care, it was that kind of day.

(Admittedly, it didn’t feel so relaxing when we started making our way back on the same curvy, steep road in pouring rain. I saw the driver cross himself before we started, and then at one point instruct his compañero to put rocks behind the tires so we wouldn’t slide backwards, but hey, we got back just fine. Such are the joys of public transportation!)

Soledad’s tamales and entomatadas

June 13, 2007

Truly, God should strike me down for ever doubting my cooking class at ICO. I love the teacher, Soledad Ramirez. I wish she were my grandmother. She’s one of those tiny, older women who are obviously forces of nature. I asked her the other day if the majority of Mexican families make their own salsa. The way she replied, “Claro!” “Of course!” She pointed out how easy it is these days, now that people have blenders, but that for her, she believes salsa is mas sabrosa, or tastier, when made with a mortar and pestle, a molcajete. No shortcuts for her. Claro!

At the same time, the food Soledad is teaching us is simple food, food made at home for your family, though beloved enough to be served at restaurants. They involve techniques that have always intimidated me, because who was I to know what consistency tamale filling should be, but now I can see, they’re techniques that anyone can learn, if she has the desire. Of course, the subtleties, nuances, and perfect seasoning I’ve found in Soledad’s beans, salsa, and other elements can only come with practice, but now I have hope. The only peril I face is the heavy weight of my backpack if I try to return to NY with my own molcajete, comal (griddle), and jarra (hot chocolate jug).

The simple, heartwarming deliciousness of the food we’ve made has been apparent in the tamales de frijol that we made last Thursday and the entomatadas we made on Monday. For the tamales, Soledad began by mixing masa de maiz (ground corn) with a little lard, salt, and baking powder. She poured in some liquid that she had quickly boiled up, just water with the tomatillo husks she had saved from the day before. She then asked us to knead it by hand for about 10 to 15 minutes.

Soledad showed us step by step how to take a clean corn husk and fill it the masa mixture, then a layer of black beans that I could eat by the potful, and finally a few hierba santa leaves. She made it look so easy, wrapping it up and tying a neat bow on it.

Not surprisingly, the rest of our tamales were not quite so beautiful. They take a long time to cook, about an hour in a steamer, and when we uncovered our pot, masa was oozing out of the ones that had been wrapped not-so-tightly. But no matter, the seasoning had been done by Soledad and even the ugly ones, especially with a little chipotle salsa from the day before, were muy muy ricos.

Perhaps even more amazing to me were the entomatadas we made on Monday. Entomatadas are a Oaxacan specialty, and so easy, it’s almost embarrassing that I haven’t been eating them my entire life. We lined up one by one to try to follow her neat example.

You begin by frying large tortillas in oil, folding them first in half, and then again, to create a neat wedge. You need to be careful to drain them as much as possible of oil, and place them on paper towels to continue draining.

In the meantime, you make a mindblowingly delicious sauce: a kilogram (or about 2 lbs.) of tomatoes, 6 cloves of garlic, and 4 serrano chiles (or 2 jalapenos) simmered in a small cup of water for about 15 minutes. When cool, you put the tomatoes in the blender with a piece, maybe half an onion. You then fry this sauce in a pan with two spoonfuls of oil for about 15 minutes on low heat. You can then add two spoonfuls of bouillon or two small cups of chicken stock.

Finally, it is ready to put together. One at a time, you place a fried wedge of tortilla in the mindblowingly delicious sauce, and make sure it’s thoroughly coated. When you retrieve it, you ladle more sauce onto it. You only need a garnish of cilantro, white onion slices, and crumbled queso to make it better than you ever imagined it could be.

Seriously, entomatadas are just fried tortillas in tomato sauce, but the one I ate in class, made with Soledad’s help, was one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten since I got here. Oh Dios mio.

¡En Oaxaca!

June 3, 2007

(Revised, with photos, June 5, 2007)
God, I wish I could show you a photo of what I´ve eaten already! But I haven´t figured out a way to upload photos from my camera yet. Sooner or later, I´m bound to find a place with wireless internet. (I knew I should have bought a flash drive.) But for now, I´m just going to have to make myself write tantalizingly vivid descriptions to make up for the lack of visual food porn.

I arrived yesterday at Oaxaca International Airport, a short 2.5 hour flight from Houston, Texas. Houston was a good way to ease into a foreign country from New York. The Oaxaca airport, thankfully, was small and easy to navigate, and I found myself easily enough in a cheap airport shuttle that dropped me off at my homestay, the home of Betsy the grandmother, Patty the mother, Homero the father, and their two children, Valeria and Homero, Jr. They´ve had students stay with them for years, and so they´re used to speaking slowly, using easy words, and being very very patient. And lucky for me, Patty is an excellent cocinera (cook)–more on that to come.

Their house is a little north of the center of the city, but still easily walkable to the famous zocalo (square) and the famous cathedrals, and just blocks from my school, Instituto Cultural Oaxaca. It´s on a fairly busy street with a few bodegas, a fancy liquor store, a gas station, and a couple of restaurants, but it´s easy to find because it´s marked with a huge, beautiful tree with vibrant fuschia flowers that planes directly in front of the gates. The family also maintains a little hostel behind the house where another student, 53-year-old Jane from Miami, is staying.

My room, to a New Yorker´s eyes, is huge, half the size of the old tiny tenement apartment I shared with my sister in the East Village. To my happy surprise, unlike most mattresses I´ve encountered outside the U.S., the mattress is firm and I slept better last night than I have in weeks. Probably also helps that I now have absolutely zero responsibilities, ha ha!

I spent an hour or two yesterday just orienting myself in my neighborhood, wandering around with Jane who was in Oaxaca two summers ago. But today is the real day my Oaxaca adventures began, starting with an unbelievable desayuno (breakfast).

When I sat down at the breakfast table, there was a plate of cut-up fruit, banana, papaya, and half a mango, and a bowl of nicely sour yogurt. When Patty asked me last night if I ate todo (everything), I answered with a strong “¡Si!”, forgetting how much I loathe papaya. This papaya was a deeper orange than any papaya I´d ever seen, and I thought I would give it a chance. Nope, still tasted like fart. I ate as much of it as I could, dumping small pieces in the yogurt and eating it with the banana to mask the taste. I´ll have to figure out some way to tell them.

I was happy and full, when Patty came out with a big platter–my God, a oaxequeno tamale! Imagine this: the platter covered with unfolded banana leaves, and in the center, chunks of tamale, shredded chicken, the possibly the most complex and delicious sauce in the world, mole negro. “¿Todo para mi?” (All for me?).

Tamales are not my favorite food. Too often, they´re too dense and uninteresting. But a tamale like this, I could eat for breakfast almost everyday. The corny tamale was so flavorful, it was almost fluffy, it was so easy to eat.

I wish I had the words to describe what mole negro means to me. It was already my second mole negro in Oaxaca, as I´d had enchiladas en mole con quesillo (cheese) the day before with Jane, and thought it reasonably enjoyable. But this mole negro made obvious why mole is not something to be taken lightly or eaten mindlessly. Slightly sweet, earthy and deep. Perfecto.

I ate it all.

And then I walked all the way down to the zocalo and sat at a cafe on the western side, drinking pineapple juice and watching people walk by.