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Oaxaca, Mexico: Culture and Cuisine

This city in southern Mexico is a feast for the palate, the eye, and the soul.

Oaxaca, Mexico's, Templo de San Felipe Neri, image
Photo caption
Garlands stream from the Templo de San Felipe Neri to celebrate the Day of the Revolution holiday.

American-born chef Susana Trilling, who presides over the Seasons of My Heart Cooking School at her ranch outside the city of Oaxaca, Mexico, is a motherly person with a cheerful "Oh, well" attitude. It's probably essential to anyone who spends her days initiating a dozen or so Yankees at a pop into the mysteries of one of the world's great cuisines. "I guess this was one of those times when you didn't read the recipe all the way through," she said, after I had dumped all of the ingredients for a smoked chile-papaya salsa into the blender at the same time. "Oh, well. The flavor will still be good." It was. And the entire five-course lunch, beginning with the sopa de guías de calabaza (summer squash vine and flower soup) and concluding with pay de queso (farmer cheese pie—assembled by an impressively mature 10-year-old boy from San Francisco), was delicious despite the mortifying runniness of the salsa. The class sat down and tucked in, marveling that such a banquet could be produced by a group of strangers who'd met only that morning on the leafy zócalo (main square).

Oaxaca, the pretty colonial capital of the southern Mexican state of the same name, has long been a magnet for connoisseurs of Mexican folk art. It's a mother lode of metalwork, intricate hand-loomed rugs, glossy black pottery, and the colorful, fanciful wood carvings called alebrijes. That Oaxaca is also the home of a sophisticated cuisine makes perfect sense to Mary Jane Gagnier de Mendoza, a Canadian who's lived in the area for nearly 20 years and whose downtown folk art shop, La Mano Mágica, displays some of the best (and priciest) of the local creations. "Oaxacan food, like Oaxacan art, is labor-intensive," Gagnier de Mendoza said. "It is the work of artisans."

Labor intensity was the reason that I'd never learned to cook Mexican food, despite having lived for four years in a village near Mexico City in the early 1990s. A neighbor's explanation of how to prepare a particular dish usually began with "OK, the day before, you . . . " But a chance to attend a cooking class in Oaxaca was not to be missed.

Of course, thinking you'll learn Oaxacan cooking in a day is like believing that participating in a Messiah sing-along will train you to perform with the Metropolitan Opera. What you can hope to come away with, after six hours of roasting and seeding chiles, marinating chickens, plucking mounds of the herb chepil, and peeling the spiny outer layers off green cha-yotes, is a heightened appreciation of that favorite restaurant-reviewer term complexity.

Like other cities known for great food—Paris, Barcelona, San Francisco—Oaxaca is a feast for all the senses. It has a pleasant Mediterranean climate, beautiful churches of pale green stone, sidewalk cafés, and an arty, slightly upscale bohemian air that seems to date from around a millennium ago, when the Mixtec, skilled in pottery and metalwork, gained ascendancy over the Zapotecs. Recipes, too, date from time out of mind, perhaps originating in the discovery that cooked food often tastes a lot better than uncooked. Eating cactus, for example, becomes a pleasure rather than a survival strategy when the leaves are scraped clean of thorns and grilled like steaks, sealing in the tangy juices. If grasshoppers are an abundant source of protein in your village, why then, catch and fry them, sprinkle them with salt and ground chiles, and you have chapulines, a crunchy snack Oaxacans still toss down like peanuts.

But it is mole (pronounced MOE-lay) that made Oaxaca famous. Today there must be hundreds of versions of this spicy sauce that traces its lineage to ancient times, when it was almost literally a food of the gods—a concoction for priests and royalty only. Seven varieties are native to Oaxaca. Prepared with chicken or pork, mole is still considered a ceremonial meal, served for baptisms, weddings, and the Day of the Dead. So Oaxacans don't tend to order it in restaurants any more than Americans request turkey and cranberries when they dine out.

"People want their grandmother's mole," sighed Iliana de la Vega, whose internationally acclaimed restaurant, El Naranjo (The Orange Tree), got the local cold shoulder when it was revealed that de la Vega had committed such culinary heresies as substituting canola oil for lard. Her menu is colorful, flavorful, but not Thanksgiving heavy, and her fluent English allows her to share with Americans her innovative approach to local cuisine in her cooking classes.

"Oaxaca is very traditional, but that's also what's attractive about it," said de la Vega. "Here, your biggest worry when your children go out at night is that they aren't sleeping enough."

Oaxaca's proliferation of language schools, cooking classes, and colonial-mansions-turned-charming-bed-and-breakfasts suggests that the word is out on this tranquil, lovely place. In a country where tourists are sometimes warned to treat the police as they might a barking dog, Oaxaca has deployed a battalion of tourist police. These affable young people patrol the broad pedestrian thoroughfare Calle Alcala, handing maps to anyone exhibiting signs of being a confused out-of-towner. Still, the city's lack of surf, sand, and ersatz attractions seems to ensure that Disney-size crowds will probably never come. You can munch a Big Mac on the Champs-Élysées, but the proud Oaxacans have just nixed an effort to install a McDonald's on their zócalo.

Another triumph of civic pride is the recent transformation of the old Santo Domingo Convent into the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca, a living museum of this area's tremendous biodiversity.

Visitors aren't permitted to walk in the ethnobotanical garden unaccompanied, but plant lovers must be any city's dream tourists: mild souls who readily agree not to eat or touch anything or wander off during a two-hour lecture in the hot sun. Time almost flew as our group, guided by anthropologist Carole Turkenik, strolled among Dr. Seuss-like elephant's-foot trees, dinosaur-era cycads, and towering stands of organ-pipe cactus.

Turkenik emphasized each plant's human connection, explaining that one particularly leafy sample, the maguey, is called el árbol de las maravillas (the tree of marvels) because it's a source of food, paper, and cloth. Nearby, a much more attractive plant putting forth shiny green fruit was identified as the deadly calaverita (the tree of little skulls), named, one can only imagine, after an unfortunate prehistoric taste test.

We learned how an early scientist plucked a tiny gray insect from a prickly pear cactus and crushed it to produce a rich, deep carmine stain. Turkenik now did this, turning her palm a gruesome red in the process. In the age of empire, Europeans highly valued the dye produced by the cochineal beetle. Louis XIV turned much of the interior of Versailles red with squashed bugs; papal robes were colored crimson with them.

Bright colors are also prominent in the Church of Santo Domingo, where polychrome relief and gold leaf completely cover the interior. Next door the former monastery, which once served a term as a military barracks, has been preserved as an interesting and thoughtfully designed repository of local history, the Oaxaca Regional Museum. Like many such displays in Mexico, it exudes an aura of melancholy, as rich collections of pre-Columbian artifacts give way to the grim narrative of conquest.

Cultures were indeed a plural reality when the Spaniards arrived, and many are still in evidence in Oaxaca today. A variety of indigenous languages can be heard on the city's streets where people use Nahuatl words from the old Aztec empire as well as Spanish. Some of the ancient customs live on, too.

I'd seen a rounded adobe structure behind our hotel, and that evening my husband and I decided to go there for a temazcal, a pre-Columbian herbal sweat bath. The hotel had a shaman on call to administer it; he arrived in a white loincloth, carrying a drum and incense. For the purification to be effective, he told us, we should give voice to our fears and worries; the temazcal would then get rid of them.

We looked at each other. We had been in Oaxaca for five days and could just vaguely remember jobs, a mortgage, two children parked with grandparents.

The shaman seemed concerned. Who doesn't have fears and worries?

"I am afraid the temazcal will be hot and claustrophobic," I said finally.

It was, a little. But at the end, I felt quite wonderful. Night had fallen, and we went out for a walk. We began talking about a Mexican friend, a writer from whom we hadn't heard in years, and then, in the magical way that people can appear when you speak of them, we saw her standing on the sidewalk across the street.

Because it was Oaxaca and it was only 11 p.m., we went to have something to eat.

The Tastes of Mexico
The variety and sophistication of Mexican cuisine are exciting discoveries for Americans reared on Taco Bell. Mainly a fusion of two traditions—Spanish and Indian—the rich blend also reflects the diversity within Mexico.

Cattle ranching has made grilled meat the mainstay of northern Mexican cooking. The Spanish brought roast kid (cabrito) and wheat flour, which is used to make tortillas de harina. Other northern specialties include caldillo (beef stew with onions, tomatoes, and chiles) and frijoles borrachos (beans cooked in beer). Along the coast, Baja California produces wonderful seafood soups.

Central Mexico's cuisine is a true blending of civilizations. Puebla is the home of mole poblano, a concoction of pumpkin seeds, chocolate, cinnamon, and several dozen other seasonings, and also of Mexico's patriotic dish, the sumptuous meat-and-fruit-stuffed chiles en nogada. Spanish colonial convents introduced many sweets, including cajeta (goat's-milk caramel) and polvorones sevillanos (fragile nut shortbread).

The central Pacific coast is home to tequila, birria (a stew made with beef or goat), and pozole, a soup of pork and hominy. Farther south, including inland to Oaxaca, cuisine is more influenced by pre-Columbian tradition. This region is known for its moles as well as for dishes made with corn, edible flowers, and herbs such as chepil. Chocolate, Mexico's most delicious contribution to civilization, is enjoyed as a beverage, sometimes mixed with mamey seeds and cocoa flowers.

Yucatán's cuisine reflects both Caribbean and Maya influences. The world's hottest chile, the habanero, is thought to have made its way here on ships from the South Pacific. Don't miss cochinita al pibil, pork wrapped in banana leaves and slow-cooked in a pit; papadzules, tortillas dipped in pumpkin-seed sauce; achiote, a spice blend made with annatto seeds; grilled cazón (shark); and horchata, a drink made with rice water, cinnamon, and sugar. The sea also has left its mark on the food of the Gulf Coast region around Veracruz. Shrimp, oyster, and octopus cocktails made with onion, tomato, and lime are tempting snacks. Red snapper in tomato and caper sauce, served with rice, is a perfect marriage of Old and New worlds and about as good as food can get.

Photography by Judith Haden

This article was first published in January 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.