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).
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.