“Although this record of my first Oaxacan adventure was almost 6 years ago, the experience is timeless. From the first smells of the wood fire, to the sights of the street food carts, to the colorful dress and festive music in the streets, there is nothing more satisfying then trying to recreate your experience through food for family and friends when you return home. With the products found at Sabor Imports, I will provide you with the authentic ingredients and educational tools to bring those special moments to life. Enjoy my journey! – Sara”
After a smooth day of traveling, all flights on time, cooperative weather and no 6 year old to entertain, I was finally able to do some reading about my much anticipated trip and also fit some craft time in as well.
After a short taxi from the airport to the very quaint and Mexican hotel, I headed out to the Zocalo for a bite. A warm rainy stroll, only 2 blocks away, find me surrounded by mariachis, street carts, open cafes and a late night buzz you can only get while traveling abroad. There is a sweet smell in the air here that overpowers the falling rain, probably from the hotcake stall behind me, it is reminiscent of freshly made waffle cones.
Trying to maneuver my way through my first meal- menu es en espanol, ordered en espanol. Ok so I knew that Oaxaca cheese was one of my favorites at home but it can’t compare to the flavor and texture of it here. So tender and full of flavor. Tastes great on my tlayuda, a tostada-like dish with black bean spread, fresh onions, lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, sliced beef and Oaxaca cheese (known as quesilla) and queso fresco, and of course a large helping of a perfectly picante salsa verde. A must try for the Bloody Mary lover in me is the michelada- cerveza con chile-lime-salt and something else I will investigate later. Delicioso! I honestly don’t know how I am going to pack it all in this week but I will find a way. Let the games, I mean eating, begin!
It is always an adventure when you are in a foreign land and rely on your ability to somehow maneuver your way through the day. So far my bare bones kitchen Spanish has helped fix the lack of agua caliente in the shower- oh my gato! It has allowed me to munch on the most amazing Oaxaca cheese and pan dulce. As I made my way through the rows of room temperature, fly infested hanging meats, sausages, whole chickens, intestines, livers and who knows what else, I found my way to the recommended chocolate con leche. So I thought I was going to have a nice relaxing cup of frothy hot chocolate when I suddenly get bombarded with women wanting to sell me painted wood s!!t and fried crickets. (a local specialty which I’m sure I will break down and try-amongst the convincing from my peers). Lots of “no gracias”! I think I’m done here, until the next meal at least.
So that time has come after being a wandering soul for hours visiting shops, cathedrals and walking the wet streets and realizing the necessity for the aqueduct mid city.
I stumble upon another mercado for empanadas of squash blossoms and my hourly dose of Oaxaca cheese. The aroma of perfectly ripe guavas permeate the marketplace, that is until you cross over to the section of raw meat. Almost makes you want to be a vegetarian, that is until you bite into the tinga de pollo with its smoky and juicy chipotle broth, just picante enough to make your nose run. The women rule the kitchen here and there is no doubt that these ladies, young and old could survive “hells kitchen”.
Another culinary opportunity almost hit me in the middle of the street. A young man was pushing a wooden cart full of rambutan, the exotic and deliciously sweet hairy cousin to the lychee. A must try! I am off to try the famous Mexican paletas. A popsicle to the nth degree. Lots of fresh fruit, exotic flavors and all hand made. Mango con chile for me. I have no idea how many miles I have walked today but my shoes are sopping and I am headed for a siesta.
It is amazing how much more you become aware of your surroundings when you travel alone. The sidewalks are an amazing slate-like tile of green and yellow that have a warmth about them in the rain-which hasn’t stopped since I landed. And the craftsmanship of the people is very apparent not only in it’s textiles, crafts and food but in the construction and beautiful placement of the stones in the streets that the cars drive over day and night.
I much prefer traveling with a companion than alone but tonight I am so busy stuffing my face that I would not make for a good conversationalist. I am at La Olla, a farm to table restaurant that has won me over! And not just because they have enticed me with yet another helping of Oaxaca cheese but because the food was so fresh and so delicious. My favorite was a pasilla chile de Oaxaca relleno stuffed with black bean purée and topped with seared queso fresco and a fresh and sweet tomato sauce that could only be farm grown. The smokiness of the chile pasilla (a special Oaxacan variety) reminded me of a warm cozy fire in the mountains. I can’t wait to get this recipe! I am officially stuffed! Besides they are kicking me out of the restaurant, closing time. – Hasta Mañana!
It is amazing that after 24 hours in a foreign city how familiar streets can begin to feel. So after a long relaxing morning I met up with my roommate for the week and we headed out straight for the street food. I was jonsin’ for some Oaxaca cheese so I had another freshly made local empanada con calabazas y quesillo and a bowl of chocolate con leche. That just hit the spot and we headed off to the church of Santo Domingo full of amazing architecture and stunning artistry. A visit to the museum of Oaxaca was very educational and extensive but another peek inside the mercado proved to be more exciting.
After meeting up with our group we headed out to our first meal together. Supposedly the best restaurant in the city, not so impressed. Flavors, interesting- execution, fair. Can’t win them all but tomorrow is jam packed with culinary adventures awaiting us at every corner. Buenas noches!
Two words can be used to sum up our day: SENSORY OVERLOAD! It was off to the marketplace for a street food extravaganza! We had fresh squeezed orange juice, chocolate con leche, pan de yema (local bread), enchiladas de carne, puerco and chorizo, a similar dish but with mole sauces, more freshly grilled tacos, chocolate, and hand churned ices. And this was all before noon. I honestly don’t know where I put it all but I just keep telling myself that it is all in the name of education and to take one for the team.
So 15 minutes to digest and absorb all we had just experienced and it was off to our 1st cooking lesson. Classes are held at a home in the city which has been converted to a cooking school and part time B&B. It has a fabulous open Spanish style design, a courtyard with those amazing green, yellow, and orange- brown stones lining the floor. Bougainvillea covers a wall and the very open kitchen easily allows 20 of us to observe and participate in the cooking process. We did an intensive chile tasting, had a class on Adobos of Mexico, made a variety of local tamales from different regions of Oaxaca with an amazing local female chef, mescal tasting, and enjoyed chocolate atole. Wow! I am so full and need some more time to process all I have learned today. There are some great people on this trip and even better food!
I am feeling a little withdrawal though – I have not had any Oaxaca cheese in the last 24 hrs. I better get on it tomorrow!
In all of my years of being involved in this industry, and yes, I am allowed to say that now with experience and confidence, I have never experienced anything like I have in the last 3 days. There is a reason why the company I am traveling with is called Culinary Adventures. What an adventure it has been.
We started off the day at an antojitos restaurant. These are corn masa based snack like items using the freshest ingredients like squash blossoms, Oaxaca cheese and hoja santa, an amazing anise like green that I cant wait to grow back home. We had a lecture from a man who is passionate about the corn of Oaxaca and preserving the native varieties. You could taste the love in his food and feel his passion in his presentation. I have a much greater appreciation for corn and how it has sustained the Mexican culture for thousands of years.
We hopped into a van and rode out of the city a short while to the rustic roads of the farmlands. After a lot of bouncing around on the very torn up dirt roads we had to cross a vado, which is slightly elevated path used to cross the river instead of a bridge. After the drivers conferred as to whether the water level was too high to cross, they let the donkey with the Cart pass first. We had never seen a donkey move so fast! We safely made it to the other side and ended the journey at Susana Trilling’s home and cooking school. We spent the entire day there and had an intensive hands-on class about moles de Oaxaca. Cooking on the outdoor comal, using local handmade products and the best chiles in the world it was a site to see. Cooking on the outdoor stoves, you feel part of the landscape and people.
Just when you think you have reached your physical capacity for ingesting food, you somehow make room for yet another tantalizing treat.
The best treat of the day was meeting Rick Bayless. Most of you know how much I admire him, his amazing talent as a chef, his humbleness, and most of all his ability to evoke a passion in me to learn more about authentic and regional Mexican food. It is hard to explain how enamored this group of 16 food professionals is of him. All of us feel so fortunate to be in such a setting and learn from one of the best. The amazing thing about Rick is that he has a background in anthropology, so he teaches you not only about flavors and techniques but the history behind the culture and food.
This experience has been intense, the people amazing and the food out of this world. Time to decompress and gear up for tomorrow.
I am officially tired but in the best way. We woke to the most beautiful breakfast at one of my favorite restaurants with one of my new favorite chefs. Chef Pilar from La Olla presented a table setting on the rooftop patio of the restaurant showcasing a view of the surrounding mountains and studded with the church of Santo Domingo in the background. The table was set with regional handmade pottery dishes, cloth napkins in shades of pink and orange, Oaxacan style decorated silver chargers and a floral arrangement of bright colors which just captured the essence of the tropical environment. The food was displayed in a variety of green glazed casuelas (typical pottery) and kept hot on individual anafres (like a chafing dish concept). A rainbow of fresh local melons and fruits, freshly baked breakfast breads with pineapple guava marmalade, a granola to rival mine and 6 more hot dishes that showcased the cuisine and the talent of this young beautiful chef so well that it deserves taking the time to savor every bite. It could have easily been a cover of a magazine.
Sustainable agriculture is a very important part of everyday life in Mexico. We were able to visit an area where they grow alfalfa for feed and then we took a very unique trip to a local home where the husband and wife make chorizo and chicharones to sell at the local market. The butchering, sausage forming and frying are all done in the courtyard area of about 150 sq feet. For what us Americans would consider a very difficult life, the people of Oaxaca seem to smile a lot.
So from there we were off to a true home distillery for mescal. Again, my words can’t describe the process like the pictures can. They harvest the heart of the maguey (agave) roast it in a pit with local wood, rocks and the leftover plants fibers from the fermentation process. It is roasted for 5-8 days until the hearts resemble the consistency and flavor of a firm roasted sweet potato glazed in syrup. It was time to eat again of course so some of the women on property made tortillas made with some roasted maguey in the masa, chorizo, made just hours before, along with some pepita paste and tomatillo salsa she made in front of us in the mocajete, mortar and pestle. We passed the mescal, and set up tables in the middle of the whole operation and enjoyed another amazing experience together.
The day is only half over and it is time for another mescal adventure. A tasting of Del Maguey, rated the best in the world, was our destination. The smokiness of this prized drink is what sets it apart from its cousin tequila. We are all getting tired by now but must move on to our next course of the day. The famous stone soup was on the menu and we were not about to miss this. What a show! A tomato, onion and chile based broth with shrimp and fish cooked with a river stone from a hot fire. Not only was it amazing to watch the process but it was delicious as well.
Back to class for the most innovative ceviches I have ever had. The additions of cactus pear, coconut, tamarind and mango all made my mouth explode with flavor. What a way to end the experience.
As I am flying over the city of Oaxaca and its surrounding villages you notice something different about the land. You can see the crops planted in small sections, all connected to each other in a stunning mosaic pattern with different sizes and shades of green. After experiencing and learning about how deeply rooted the food, culture and people are of this region of Mexico it is no wonder why it has survived for so many centuries. I will be proud to share my experiences with others. Not only will this culinary adventure enrich my life forever but I truly believe I made some life long friends. It is not often you gather with so many people with the same interests but also with the same passion and quest for knowledge about food and life. Thank you all for sharing this adventure with me.