Friday, June 29, 2007

Crapola American food

This is what happens when you order nachos, chicken wings, and fried cheese sticks at a sports bar in Oaxaca. I haven't eaten cheese like that in...well, maybe never. Oh, there was that Philly cheesesteak I ate the "authentic" way with Cheez Whiz in 2003.

A group of us had hoped to find some thrills in watching Mexico play Brazil in the Copa America fútbol tournament in a crowd full of Mexicans, but on top of missing Mexico's two winning goals, due to a misreading of the newspaper, we had to order crapola American food, due to the 80 peso per person minimum being enforced that night. Keep in mind that this was only a first round game, but the bar was packed, and only seats left required me to tilt my head back so far, I started getting a crick right away.

Being in "Metrocity," the sports bar, reminded me of being in Seoul in high school. The bar was trying to be very American, despite its almost completely Mexican clientele. It had a black wooden bar that kind of made it look like an American pub, if you squinted and didn't notice the paneling didn't go all the way, and a bunch of random, mainly American sports posters, like one of Scottie Pippen for the Portland Trailblazers, and a big inflated inner tube advertising a beer company.

I don't really have to describe the way the food tasted because I'm sure you know. I need to find a new sports bar pronto, because the Copa America is going on all month. I watched Argentina trounce the U.S. beautifully at my homestay last night (sorry, I'm a bad American but it was really well done), but my new apartment doesn't have a TV. It's a good thing I don't have cravings for American bar food, because God knows where I would go.

Vota por chiken

And for lamb and for beef, for duck and for pork, for fish and for shrimp, for clams and for lobsters, for everything delicious that walks and swims and crawls on this earth.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

My last Patty post

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).

In addition to the tamales that I loved so much upon my arrival, my favorite torta, and the coloradito mole that made my toes tingle, there have been a couple of other real standouts.

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.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A wall of pork rinds, and a swim in the mountains

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!)

Monday, June 25, 2007

Mercado organico at El Pochote

Now that I’ve been here for over three weeks, it’s finally hit me that I’m actually living here, in Oaxaca, Mexico. The raw newness of the city has worn off, and there are areas I can navigate without looking at a map. Best of all, I’m starting to have favorite places, and at the top of the list is the little park of El Pochote.

You could walk by El Pochote and not even know it. It’s built into the old aqueducts of the city, with only one small wooden door in a brick wall of arches leading into the enclosed space. Once you’re inside, it’s mainly red dirt with a brick walkway, a small pond with a brush of bamboo, and not much greenery, but there’s something so lovely about its quietness and feeling of secrecy. Oaxaca, despite being a city less than 1/12th the size of New York, can still feel noisy, crowded, and polluted at times, and it’s always a relief to find myself inside El Pochote.

The park regularly shows free art films and hosts events like the bicycle-power generator demonstration I went to Saturday night (inexplicably paired with a series of animated shorts by a Czech filmmaker I’d never heard of, Jan Svankmajer). But the biggest draw of El Pochote for me is undeniably the organic market on Fridays and Saturdays.

Like organic markets in the U.S., the customers appear generally middle- and upper-class, along with a lot of the type of gringos who like to visit places like Oaxaca, lefty, green, well-meaning. The whole market is very well-groomed, pretty white tents on wooden poles, instead of helter-skelter plastic tarps. The only non-food items are tasteful, traditional pottery and all-natural soaps and shampoos, no plastic cups with Disney characters printed on them. And as much as I like the crazed chaos of piñatas juxtaposed with raw meat, I have to admit it’s often a little easier to enjoy the Mercado Organico.

And no market in the U.S., neither the Union Square Greenmarket, or my beloved Alemany Market in San Francisco, or even the gastronomic playland of the Ferry Building in San Francisco has the tlayudas, enchiladas, and tacos I can get at El Pochote. Actually, I don’t think there’s any other market in Oaxaca where I could get the food I ate at El Pochote. Looking at the wide range of sautéed vegetables—squash, mushrooms, dark leafy greens—I suddenly realized what I’d been missing in my diet for the past three weeks. My stomach cried out for something that would taste fresh and simple, not cooked or pureed or seasoned.

I started with a fantastic “taco” of a tortilla rolled around diced chicken piquant with sautéed sweet peppers, mixed with a bit of black bean spread and such lovely, tasty sautéed mushrooms.

I then had two enchiladas smothered in coloradito mole with some shredded chicken, lettuce, and queso sprinkled on top. I think prices here are slightly higher than elsewhere, but they’re still so low by American standards: 23 pesos or a little under $2.30 for a plate of food that would have been more than enough for my lunch. I felt particularly lucky eating these, that I’m here long enough to try multiple versions of my favorite foods. This coloradito had a sophisticated touch of bitterness, but still slightly sweeter and better, I think, than the one I’d tried at Casa Oaxaca.

I drank some chilacayote, a pulpy drink with seeds and all made of a type of sweet squash. I didn’t like it very much, and wished I had gotten tejate in a pretty little gourd instead, like my classmate who graciously wasn’t surprised when I asked to take a picture of her drink.

I bought some candied figs, squash, and chilacayote, which were pretty good, but a little too sweet to eat in the huge chunks they sold them in.

And then I finally tasted some chapulllines, the Oaxacan specialty of fried grasshoppers. I’d been waiting for July or August, when they would be bigger and better, according to Soledad my cooking guru from ICO, but the little old lady selling them was so insistent, I ended up buying a tiny $1 bag. They tasted salty more than anything, not as crunchy as I’d thought they would be, maybe a bit like anchovies. I love anchovies, but I don’t snack on them, and I didn’t finish the bag.

And to take home, I bought a little chocolate crescent-bread from the Korean woman who runs an organic farm and restaurant in Etla, a pueblo outside Oaxaca. I think she and her half-Korean daughters were as surprised to see me as I was to see them, but I was too shy to get her story. I had hovered by her stall for so long, though, that I felt obliged to buy the bread. Lucky for me, it was really good. I loved the cinnamon-y texture and flavor of the bit of chocolate running through the swirls of sweet, eggy bread. It wasn’t at all like eating a crappy pain au chocolate with a stingy bit of chocolate at Au Bon Pain. Most Mexican bread tastes too dry and/or too bland to me, organic or not. This was so much better, wholesome without being boring. (My friend wants to organize a trip to her restaurant, so I hope to get her story sooner or later.)

Heh heh, when I have my own apartment, I can take more food home.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The five official meals of Mexico

After 3 weeks of classes, I now have more than 3 tenses at my disposal, which means I have even more conjugations to run through my head as I search for the right one. We're now in the murky world of tenses that don't have a real equivalent tense in English, and we wrestle with the difference between a desire that may possibly be fulfilled versus a past desire that has already been thwarted. Neither tense is appropriate for the direct declaration, "I want..." There's even a difference between asking, "What happened?" when you know there's a definite answer, versus when you don't. And we haven't even gone over the subjunctive yet! The Spanish speaker's sense of time, not to mention reality, must be so different from ours. My friend Lisa agrees; she says it's the only explanation for why her half-Mexican husband takes 20 minutes to get out the door after announcing that he's ready to leave.

This more complicated and possibly more nuanced view of time is carried over into meals, the Mexican conception of which differs even more from the American one than I'd previously thought. The main meal is definitely "la comida correa," but in addition to "desayunar" (to breakfast) and "cenar" (to dine lightly late at night), there is also "almorzar" and "merendar." "Almorazar describes the act of eating a bigger breakfast, like eggs or atole or chilaquiles, and it's eaten around 8-10 a.m. Merendar is the act of eating a late afternoon snack, like coffee and a sweet bread, at 6-7 pm. I love that each meal deserves its own verb. It's not good enough just to say, "I ate breakfast, I ate lunch, I ate an afternoon snack."

So there's no real point to this, except that I had my favorite "cenar" the other day. I only eat 3 meals a day, with an occasional popsicle in between, but my light-dinner is never a sweet bread or yogurt, as explained in my guidebook. I don't know if it's because Patty thinks I'm a hungry American--and given that I eat everything she gives me, she probably thinks I am. But usually, it is a big torta, or sandwich, and my favorite is bean-quesillo-avocado-tomato. I’ve raved before about Patty’s beans, but I’ll rave again. They’re black beans that have been pureed into a smooth, savory spread. She must just have some made lying around almost everyday, because I know she’s not soaking, cooking, and pureeing the beans right before “cenar.” But what a way to use leftovers! Patty combines the beans with the stringy Oaxacan cheese called “quesillo,” slices of ripe avocado and tomato, and then something spicy and creamy that I finally identified as chipotle mayonnaise.

In a week, I'll be moving out of the homestay into my own apartment, and I'm curious to see how much I'll maintain the Mexican pattern of meals, especially since I'll be leaving the institutional classes of the school and switching to private one-on-one classes in the afternoon. If I keep nothing else, I just hope I can figure out some way to approximate Patty's bean-quesillo-avocado-tomato sandwich.

Aqui, Casilda (Here, Casilda)

Such a declaration of place!

Whenever I ask, “Do you know Aguas Casilda,” everyone says, “Ohhh, Aguas Casilda, muy riquissimas!” I doubt Casilda is still there, as she would have to be 97 years old, but regardless, her stall is situated just a few stalls down from the nieve place I also love in Mercado Juarez, making that spot a place of difficult decisions. Even those who are squeamish about street food exclaim, “Y ella es muy limpia,” because the stall uses purified water. When King Juan Carlos of Spain and unspecified presidents of Mexico, governors, actors, actresses, and singers have come to pay homage to Casilda, who established her stall in 1926, who are you to be afraid of diarrhea?

I know all this about Casilda because the laminated menu has a history on the back. If my reading is correct, Casilda was practically a saint, as she is described giving horchata to thirsty, often penniless students, making her, “La Samaritana Oaxaquena.” I don’t think Americans have ever felt that strongly about a drink-maker. Even your biggest, die-hard Coca-Cola fan isn’t likely to want to confer sainthood on the inventor, whatshisname. Their pride in Casilda reminded me a bit of Korea, where the government catalogs every person with a traditional talent or craft, so that Mr. Kim the master of ceramics becomes “National Living Treasure #548.”

But of course, the most important object of pride is not Casilda’s history but her products, the aguas themselves. When I flipped over the laminated history, I could see clearly that pride of place had been given to one drink in particular: horchata con tuna y almendres.

Isn’t it beautiful? I’ve always liked horchata, ever since I tried it at my first taqueria with my first burrito in the Mission in San Francisco, but this version of Mexico’s famous drink made of rice tasted simpler and purer, and definitely less sugary. The tuna, which you remember is cactus fruit, made it rosier and fruitier, as did the chunks of cantaloupe floating in it. The small bits of nuts were definitely not almonds, but probably pecans or “nuez.” Maybe they ran out of almonds. No importa, I love pecans.

Sadly, it was over too quickly. I drained my glass in five minutes.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The chaos of Mercado Abastos

In the past two weeks, I’ve been to five markets and I haven’t even visited the ones in the pueblos yet. I try to remind myself that I’m going to be here for awhile, and that I’ll have plenty of time to visit them, and won’t it be nicer to go when I actually need to buy things like onions and chilis? But markets are my crack: I can’t get enough of them.

The biggest market in town is the Mercado Abastos on the southwestern end of town, near the second-class bus terminal and a good 10-15 minute walk away from the tourist-friendly Centro. It’s open everyday, but Saturday is its “market” day, the day people come from all over to sell and buy everything under the sun. It’s not in either of my guidebooks, the fussy Fodor’s or the more adventurous Moon Oaxaca, and from talking to my host mother, I get a sense that middle-class Oaxacans aren’t too fond of it. But chowhounds, of course, who tend to rate food more highly when it’s harder to get, like a frat brother who’s been hazed, love to write loving stall-by-stall descriptions of its culinary highlights.

Once we went past the zocalo, we soon stopped seeing other tourists and found ourselves squeezing between other people heading to the market with big bags on narrow sidewalks. I somehow ended up in charge, with a map and some sense of where we were going but with no real idea of what I was looking for. The streets felt louder, smellier, oilier even.

When we arrived, there was no real entrance. We just plunged in, finding ourselves at first surrounded by flowers, which segued into fish which segued into bread.

Tamales! I needed to buy one, but with no fork, I ended up carrying it for an hour, this hot little bundle that the vendor had somehow kept intensely warm in the depths of her straw basket.

And then we were in the religious section, with candles, skeletal images and books, on Wicca, and then the section for piñatas and the section for New Age health supplements.

We kept turning and turning, and I lost all sense of north-south-east-west. Jane was looking for crafts, and we kept asking people who just said, “Oh, straight ahead,” when that could mean absolutely anything.

We saw plastic cups hanging in bunches over our heads, tubs of yogurt big enough to bathe a child in, and then suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a stall full of frothy wedding and First Communion dresses.

Of course we passed fruit and vegetables, and the white onions that I love because with their tops on, they look like green onions with tumors, but we also passed rows of turkeys and chickens lying on the ground and cages crammed with ducklings and rabbits.

It was everything I knew it would be. Oh the excitement to being somewhere with live animals that you know are just waiting to be eaten! The unrecognizable herbs, little old ladies carrying mysterious sacks that could hold anything, perhaps the best homemade tortillas in the world! Yes, your pocket could be picked in the mad scrum of humanity, but you might also find anything and everything.

At the same time, It's not an easy market to be in. It's not like sitting in the shade of a secret garden at the organic market, serenely eating the most delicious, healthy-tasting taco ever (more on that to come). In a way, if you've seen Dongdaemun market in Seoul, or been in other similarly chaotic markets, it's not as shocking and exciting as it might be to an American. At the same time, my American friends didn't like it at all. But we're going to another massive market at Tlacolula, a pueblo outside of Oaxaca, on Sunday!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Two stomachs can always eat more than one

Oaxaca is an easy place to eat alone. Obviously, there’s fabulous street food that you can always eat on a park bench, and it’s almost better to be alone when you find your face smeared with salsa and your fingers tangled in the long, stretchy strings of Oaxacan quesillo. The only people watching you are the native Oaxaquenos to whom you’re already completely foreign anyway.

So until my lovely lunch with a fellow foodie at Casa Oaxaca today, I’d almost forgotten how enjoyable it can be to sit down and share a meal, compare notes, and revel together in a new, gustatory experience. It’s like seeing a funny movie or looking out at a gorgeous vista: you want someone to hear you say, “Wow, that is really good.” It’s even better, of course, when that person agrees with you, and this was such a meal.

The restaurant is beautiful but casual, with clean white walls, wooden beams, and a courtyard that opens to the sky. It felt very still and very calm, though that might also have been because we were practically the only ones there.

Soon after we sat down, the waiter brought with a flourish a large platter of the fish available that day: mahi-mahi, grouper, dorado, tuna, and some amazing prawns. Jonathan, who claims not to like shellfish, was instantly hypnotized by the prawns. I was so flustered, I forgot to take a picture, but being with someone who takes notes at most of his meals, I felt no shame in asking the waiter, “¿Por favor, podriamos ver el plato de pescados una otra vez?”, and then whipping out my camera.

The bread basket was surprising. It was filled with fried blue corn tortillas and this very curious, nutty and delicious bread with a smear of creamy cheese and red pepper running through the loaf. It tasted like the best pimiento cheese I’d ever had—could Oaxaca and the American South share a culinary ancestor? The bread was served with a blob of decent guacamole, the springy queso fresco, and the stretchy quesillo, as well as two kinds of salsa, one that was sweet like a peppery jelly and one that was more straightforward.

The poor waiters had so little to do, they came towards our table 3-4 times before we were finally able to make our decisions.

We began with two appetizers. “Bursting with flavor” always makes me think of chewing gum commercials, but I can’t think of any other way to describe it. The “chile relleno” stuffed with ceviche and served with a sauce of passionfruit and pomegranate seeds was literally bursting with flavor. I was shocked when I took my first bite and found the chile was actually spicy, a “chile de agua.” Stuffed peppers are some of the most boring things to eat ever—they bring back memories of Yale’s dining hall—but this “chile relleno” may have fully blotted out all other memories. As nouveau as it seemed, it was so representative of what I love most about Mexican food, the riot of flavors and textures that somehow all comes together.

The bean and tortilla soup, garnished with queso fresco and avocado, was good, but not the party in your mouth of the chile relleno. Smooth, just not revelatory.

But I’d be hard pressed to say what was better, the chile relleno or the entrée of prawns served “guajillo” with a little cake of mashed plantain and chayote, capers, oyster mushrooms, and stuffed squash blossoms. The mushrooms were so fragrant, the colors so vivid, and the guajillo chile oil! The guajillo chile has become one of my favorite chiles in the past two weeks. I was already so full, but I had to eat every single one of my allotted prawns, sopping up the chile oil with every bite.

Our second entrée, the mahi-mahi with a mango-chipotle sauce, Jonathan liked better than I did. For me, it was just a little too sweet without enough kick. But it clearly had been cooked with grace and care.

Our third entrée, because how could we not order any mole, was the coloradito with turkey. Sadly, it appeared we had been served turkey breast as it was a tad too dry, but at that point, I had eaten so much, it didn’t matter. All I could do was valiantly dab a blue corn tortilla in the very deep coloradito. It was a bit less sweet than Patty’s coloradito, maybe a bit smokier, and very very fascinating. I’m shocked to be saying this, but there are days when I wonder if I like coloradito maybe, just maybe, more than mole negro.

Finally, and there was an end to all this food, we shared a guava tart served with a scoop of rose-petal nieve (sorbet) on a little fried tortilla. As Jonathan put it, it wouldn’t be Mexican without a little corn. The nieve was the first rose-petal dessert I’d had that didn’t taste like lotion, just fresh and pretty and the perfect complement to the tartness of the guava.

Like all memorable meals, it wasn’t just that the food was fantastic. The whole event felt fortuitous, the kind of thing that can only happen when you’re traveling, to eat and exclaim over a culinary delight with a relative stranger but a fellow chowhound in another country. Is this what it feels like to be a Freemason?

Monday, June 18, 2007

Searching for the famed tlayuda of Oaxaca

Tlayudas, according to people more expert than I, are unique to Oaxaca. Before I came, I learned that they’re very large hand-made corn tortillas, the size of a dinner plate, but different in texture from even your toastiest tortilla. Like much street food here, it’s largely available as a nighttime snack. They might encase meat or cheese or both, and they are grilled over charcoal. I was utterly entranced. “Are they like huaraches?”, I asked my homestay family within days of getting here. “No, not really,” was the short reply since at that point, I couldn’t understand them if they had said much more.

But after two weeks in Oaxaca, I still hadn’t had a chance to try one because I was so busy eating at home. The other night, for my “light evening meal,” I had tortillas fried up in black bean sauce with queso fresco and thin rings of white onions. I could probably eat a bowlful of Patty’s beans every night. I was so sad the night Patty was late getting home and Betty, her mother, made me a ham and American cheese sandwich.

I’d managed to squeeze in a little bit of street food here and there: an “empanada” which is more like a tortilla folded in half in American terms, with flor de calabeza (squash blossoms) and quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese); the esquite and elote with salt, lime, chili, queso fresco, and mayonnaise; a couple of tacos at the Friday tianguis (indigenous market) while another American student looked on, expecting me to keel over from food poisoning any moment; and a cup of tejate, a drink made of corn, mamey, chocolate, and the rosita cacao flower. But no tlayudas, at least not until this past Friday night.

For two weeks, I took notes. When Soledad, my cooking teacher, mentioned a favorite street corner for tlayudas, I painstakingly wrote it down: Libres y Abasola. But when it finally came to actually walking and finding a tlayuda, I chose the Tlayuderia Las Reliquias, which a chowhound had described with loud, loving authority.

The menu listed four ingredients from which you can make any combination: tasajo, cecina, chorizo, and quesillo. It’s a good thing I have no dietary restrictions, because I often find out what something is only after I order it. “One tlayuda with tasajo and quesillo, please.” At least I knew how much it cost, 33 pesos.

As promised, the restaurant was in the open courtyard of the family’s home. They had placed a couple of plastic tables and chairs, the kind you see at bare-bones seaside resorts, in the center of the courtyard, but all around, you could see open doors with furniture, a set of swings and a slide, a typewriter hanging on the wall in a very bohemian-artsy way, and a bright yellow punching bag, just a few feet from the grill.

When I first saw my tlayuda, I almost died. It was the size of a dinner plate all right, the modern gigantic size of dinner plate that makes Americans eat too much and become obese. The guy who took my order, both waiter and cook that night, spread (beans) thinly all over it and set it aside while the tasajo, which turned out to be thinly sliced beef, got cooked on the grill. The tasajo, the stringy quesillo, and a fair amount of cabbage slaw got folded into the tlayuda, and the whole thing was then set on the grill to meld together.

When it arrived at my table, it was even bigger than I’d remembered. Finally, the moment had arrived. I was going to eat a tlayuda.

Oooohhhhh…it was a disappointment. I enjoyed the texture of the tlayuda, the combination of leathery and crunchy, because the outer layers of the tlayuda puff and crumble as it sits on the grill. I loved the stringy Oaxacan cheese called quesillo, which is like an adult version of the string cheese I loved as a child. The salsas the tlayuda came with were powerful. But I felt like all I could taste was smoke, and the beans weren’t assertive enough to balance the smokiness.

Luckily, a few days later, I had another tlayuda for breakfast at Café los Cuiles, the other wireless internet place in town. For 35 pesos, or less than $3.50, I got a cup of Oaxacan coffee, some fruit salad, and another giant tlayuda with beans, quesillo, avocado and tomato. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to give the famed tlayuda another chance, I just wasn’t interested in scrambled eggs or the “whole wheat Belgian waffle.”

It turned out Oaxacan coffee, if Café los Cuiles serves a representative one, is the color of tea and has cinnamon sticks floating in it. Fine if you don’t expect it to be coffee. But the tlayuda was tasty! Made on a coffee shop hot plate, it couldn’t have the full crunchy texture of the first tlayuda, but the beans were saltier, and the avocado and tomato added an important textural and tangy dimension.

Such a relief. I would have been devastated otherwise.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Four down, three to go

I have now tried four of the seven famed moles of Oaxaca, and I’ve been lucky enough to have three of them home-made by Patty, my homestay mother.

Although I am still learning, I think it’s safe to define “mole” (pronounced “mol-ay”) as a sauce, period. Each kind has different ingredients, different kinds of chiles, different kinds of spices, different nuts or seeds, and sometimes even chocolate. The mole might be served over chicken or turkey, to be eaten with rice and tortillas, or mixed into tamales, or spread on a tlayuda. Some are more everyday than others, like the mole verde we whipped up in a blender on class last Wednesday, while the ultimate mole of moles, mole negro, is a serious operation that can take all day and is therefore reserved for Christmas, fiestas, and other special occasions.

I came to Oaxaca ostensibly to learn Spanish. That’s what I told Yale, when I told them I was going on unpaid sabbatical and needed to continue to receive loan repayment assistance. But really, I came to Oaxaca to learn to make mole negro and to eat and ponder each of the seven moles of Oaxaca.

So here’s the score so far:
Mole negro in tamales oaxaquenos, which are wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks: an out-of-the-ballpark 10.

Mole coloradito with chicken and rice: an outstanding 9. Such a beautiful deep red. (Sorry, no photo.)

Mole verde with chicken and tortillas made in class at ICO: a satisfying 6.5. Very bright and tasty but not as complex as the others.

Mole amarillo with chicken and rice: a very good 7.5. More orange than yellow, with an interesting flavor that’s deeper than the verde but brighter, perhaps because of the last-minute squeeze of lime, than the coloradito.

So only three more to go: rojo, chichilo, and manchamantel!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Protests and blue tortillas

This is Oaxaca. I took these photos on Thursday, June 14, the anniversary of the “fallido desarojo,” or the beginning of the government's heavy-handed and eventually violent crackdown on the protests that took over the city of Oaxaca last year. So it’s not all tamales and salsa here.

The situation in Oaxaca then and now is almost impossible to decipher from an “objective” perspective. Perhaps everyone can agree on how it began, that the annual teacher strike turned into a months-long demonstration by the APPO (Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca), a coalition that grew to include teachers, indigenous groups, and others agitating for the removal of the Oaxacan state governor, Ulises Ruiz-Ortiz, as well as the more usual demands about wages. But I can’t sift through the little I’ve read in Spanish-language papers, the New York Times, and the State Department warnings for American travelers and say, “I know what happened next.”

On June 13, my teacher Octavio told us what he saw and did during the protests last year. He leaves you in no doubt whose side he is on: he was both a journalist and a supporter of APPO. The class sat in silence as he told us about the people who were killed, about families who still do not know where their relatives are, about being beaten himself by the police. He scoffed at news reports that the protesters were terrorists or guerillas. “I saw a pregnant woman, she was 7 or 8 months pregnant, about to give birth right there, pick up a rock and throw it at the police. I saw a 70-, 80-year-old woman protesting. These people are terrorists? No, they are not terrorists.” Octavio’s tone wasn’t polemic, more half-smiling, half-laughing: “People would call me at home and say, ‘Cuidate, te vamos matar’ (Be careful, we are going to kill you), and I would say, ‘Esta bien’ (That’s good) and hang up. But don’t worry, nothing’s going to happen tomorrow. The government will be careful, everyone will be careful. The world is watching now.”

He had been trying to get us to play a game where we, using various past tense forms, were to tell fantastic yet true stories about our lives.

The next day, after class, I walked down to the zocalo. No one really looked at me, another gawking tourist with a camera. The plaza was packed, with a crowd any American organizer would have been proud of, and there was fresh graffiti on the walls of the cathedral, but it felt more like a carnival than a protest. There were clumps of people sitting around, some listening intently, some less so, to the people reading point by point the pieces of paper in their hands, forming small teach-ins. There was a mini-parade of signs, a few women in indigenous costumes, and a bunch of anarchist teenagers, some masked and armed with spray paint. The people in the bandstand were making speeches that no one seemed to be listening to, and there were people hawking CD’s and T-shirts of the revolucion, as well as your usual balloon and candy sellers. Most comical of all, at least to me, were the large, blown-up photos of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. Stalin?!?!? The others, I could understand, but Stalin?

On June 13, I’d been moved by Octavio’s story. On June 14, I remembered why movements always annoy me.

And then I went home to have lunch with my family and ate blue corn tortillas for the first time.

There’s so much I can’t see or know as a tourist, not now or ever. I wish it really were as simple as this: