I just can’t get enough of this city. It is my third visit to Oaxaca City and it seems new and exciting each time. Mexican culture prides itself on their fiestas, parties with a purpose, not that you need an excuse to sing, dance and drink mescal, but just like a good party planner, they sure know how to put on a show! This time around it was for the Guelaguetza, a celebration unique to Oaxaca. It is an annual indigenous cultural event celebrating the people and customs of the outlying villages of Oaxaca City. Elevated and built into the side of the mountain, a stunning amphitheater hosts the annual celebration holding around 11,000 spectators. 3 hours of lively orchestral music, singing, dancing, colorful displays of head pieces, giant paper mache stilt walkers, firecrackers, elaborate costumes of traditional fabrics. A selected group of performers from each village are invited to perform on the rounded stage with a picturesque backdrop of Oaxaca City in the background. Each performance tells a story about the village crafts, their daily rituals, ceremonial events or just a drunken girl at a party who is trying to steal all of the other women’s men. Each showcase was followed by a roar of the crowd and a frenzy of excited fans jumping to their feet attempting to catch one of the many trinkets or thlyudas, a giant tostadas like tortilla, thrown into the crowd for a memento. Mini woven baskets, tea towels, fans, hats and even fresh pineapples were flying overhead every 20 minutes.
On the main street in the city a celebration of Gueleguetza takes place a few days prior to the main event with a street parade. A shorter version of the stage performance parades down may blocks of the city streets lined with excited fans, mescal cups in hand waiting for the band members to come by and pour out a shot to whomever was willing to partake.
One of my favorite parts of Oaxaca are the markets. Breakfast at the Merced market is a must for fresh squeezed juices, hot chocolate, pan dulce and the best empanadas ever!
A recent renovation of the Mercado 20 Noviembre marketplace had me a bit disoriented but we still managed to find some of my favorite items, and then some. A must to bring home, and enjoy throughout your stay are the chapulines (grasshoppers), roasted peanuts with garlic and chiles and of course my favorite, Quesillo cheese.
Enjoying this cheese is one of the simple pleasures in life with its extreme stringiness, slight squeaky texture similar to that of cheese curds, its rich milky and buttery flavor which with each chew emits a fantastic sensation in the mouth that you just can’t seem to get enough of. Some vendors will wind the freshly stretched strands of cheese into a ball to your specific size specification. We opted this day for a small ball of a quarter kilo to snack on throughout the afternoon. But we also could not resist an afternoon street snack of an empanada.
Next up was a close up of the Chocolate Molino, the machine that grinds the freshly toasted cacao beans along with large cinnamon sticks and coarse cane sugar. Many villages still grind it by hand on the metate, a large grinding stone, but here in the city modern technology is the only way to keep up with demand.
After tasting our way through the market and pursuing the vendors in circles about 3 times, buying an occasional bag, shoe or shirt, we headed to the indoor “food court” where each local vendor serves their traditional favorites. No corporate names are to be found here. At the newly remodeled Abuelitas, it was Pollo con Mole Coloradito for me, a silky rich sauce made of chiles, spices, tomatoes, chocolate and about 20 other ingredients. Just one of the many moles Oaxaca is famous for. The street food in Oaxaca is abundant, affordable, fresh and delicious. The molotes, Thlyudas, elotes and even the fresh cut and fried potato chips with hot sauce and a soy like sauce are not to be missed.
Juices are squeezed and blended fresh at the stalls, real Mexican hot chocolate is served with water or milk and pan dulce is abundant throughout the day. But my favorite is the empanadas. A large corn tortilla, pressed to order, cooked on the comal over a small wood fire and filled with fresh ingredients such as squash blossoms, mushrooms and of course the Quesillo cheese. They are served with salsas, habanero onions and at this time of year a fragrant green herb known as pepicha. For an afternoon treat (or any time of the day for that matter) don’t miss the paletas, popsicles made from fresh fruits or chocolate, caramel, nuts or fruits blended with cream. Nieves are popular too and are hand churned ice creams in a variety of flavors such as tamarindo, prickly pear, guanabana, coconut and many, many more.
There never seems to be a dull moment in Oaxaca or even a chance to rest, thinking you might just miss something great you keep exploring the nooks and crannies of this magical place. On the way back from the market we passed by a familiar location from a previous visit that became a visual landmark because of its stunning iron gates and woven brick walkway. Remembering this particular spot in Oaxaca, it is the home to rotating exhibits, concerts and other events promoting artists and the culture of Oaxaca. Upon our arrival, a busload of children entered the courtyard, ranging from the ages of 6-18, each dressed in traditional whites, carrying a myriad of instruments and headed to their seats arranged orchestral style in the courtyard. We arrived early, without any knowledge of what was about to take place, grabbed a seat and embarked on the most unexpected musical journey for the next 3 hours. These kids were from a town a few hours outside the city and were being led by one of Mexico’s most revered maestros on this day. The joy, comraderie and talent was a sight to see and the crowd was abundant and enthusiastic about the performance of classic pieces as well as celebratory Guelaguetza tunes. They even nailed a rendition of New York, New York.
As my mom and I enjoyed our front row seats, Ava was in a world of her own, learning how to paint alibrijes, wood-carved and hand painted animals, traditional to Oaxaca. A local vendor set up a station for those who wanted to paint their own souvenir of this special and magical place. Her attention to detail was impeccable and the Oaxacan spirit of the experience was enhanced by the music in the background. Another lesson to just let life happen, because you never know that is right around the corner. This has proven to be the theme of this trip, as it seems like my life too.
This could not have been more apparent in our next and last adventure of the trip. After meeting up with a friend, colleague and now business partner, Susana Trilling led us up into the mountains for an experience we will never forget. I have known Susana for 6 years now and she is an amazing teacher, chef, author, businesswoman, owner of Season’s of My Heart cooking school and product line, and a great friend. She has befriended many locals over her 28+ years living in Oaxaca. We met up with Abdias, who’s family owns a large piece of property in the mountains which has cabins for rent and a restaurant with a stunning view of the pristine landscape. The microclimate is perfect for growing mushrooms so off we went to explore what nature had to offer. 3 hours on and off trail, looking for mounds of mulch to uncover nature’s gems from just feet away was a spiritual experience that completely connects one to nature. The sounds of the forest, the smells of the fresh moss, and spotting the colors in an array of reds, yellows, blues and browns, was once again magical. We learned early in the journey to stay away from the white angels of death but soon uncovered some rare finds such as an indigo and porcini. As the hours passed, out basket transformed and the colors, textures and even smells of the mushrooms (one smelled like marzipan) was a confirmation of the philosophy that no matter how diverse, all things can live together in nature. Although our walk through the forest ended, the journey was not over. It is not often that you get to step into someone else’s professional kitchen and take over. Susana, Abdias and I, along with my family, and kitchen staff, began to dice, sauté, simmer, grill, grind, and fry and within 1 ½ hours we were sitting down to a truly rewarding and blessed family meal of 5 dishes created with our gathered gems from our foraging expedition. These are the moments that make life unforgettable.
Our long adventure has come to an end but the memories will always exist and will keep shaping me as a chef, a mother and a human being. We went in with no expectations, and discovered the generosity and passion of others, came upon a forest full of 4 leaf clovers, had the pleasure of taking a piece of each city back with us by supporting local artists, connecting with great friends and ending our experience with the vision of a double rainbow. As I raise a glass of Mescal, I feel good about the future and all that it might bring.