Saturday, September 8, 2007
Alegria de Angelis
There is Korean food in Oaxaca, and it is very good. But the Korean woman who makes the food and her Italian husband are perhaps even more remarkable than the fact of the food’s existence.
Gya is married to Sandro, short for Alessandro, who is Italian. They have two children, a daughter named Aruna and a son named Govinda. Since these names are neither Korean nor Italian, and knowing what I do of their story, I imagine that both names are Sanskrit.
The family lives high on a hilltop in San Agustin Etla, about 30 minutes outside of Oaxaca City. Of the pueblos I have seen, Etla is the prettiest. The various towns that comprise Etla are all nestled in little dips among green hills, among skies that seem to draw close enough for you to touch. You can walk 50 feet in any direction and find a beautiful view, a buenavista.
Gya and Sandro have named their home, “Alegria de Angelis,” or “The Happiness of Angels.” Here they grow organic vegetables in plots they themselves built, and run a small restaurant by appointment that serves Italian, Korean, and a few other Asian dishes, like momos, the Nepalese dumplings. They grow sweet basil, Napa cabbage, the vegetables essential to their food. They also sell their food at the organic market in Oaxaca at El Pochote and in a newly opened take-out store in San Felipe. Their children swim in the pond with the carp and the turtles.
Gya used to be a dancer, specializing in classical Indian dance. As she says, she was “loca” for dance, completely crazy, and one day, she found herself in France trying to decide whether to buy a ticket for Spain to study flamenco or for India to study classical Indian dance. She finally decided to flip a coin, and the coin told her to go to India. But as she sat on the plane, she realized that it was not chance, but fate that was taking her to India. “Flamenco is a dance of love, but Indian dance is spiritual, and I knew then that I needed to learn a spiritual dance.”
Sometime later, Sandro was traveling through Mexico, with plans to go on to India. A friend of his asked him to go to a particular store in India and buy a dance costume for her. When he got to the store, Gya opened the door. Sandro immediately knew that they would be married, and told her so. Gya told him he was crazy.
So Sandro went into the Himalayas to meditate on whether he had had a true revelation. In the mountains, he met an old man who took him into his home. The old man opened a large wardrobe and took out everything, and in the end, there were two ancient rings. The old man said he would give them to him if Sandro gave him everything he had in return, all the clothes he was wearing and all the money he had on him, save what he needed to get back. When Sandro went back to Gya with the two rings, they were married.
I’ve seen the photos of their wedding in India, Gya with her face beautiful, smooth and calm, color smeared on her forehead, and Sandro, looking handsome and inimitably Italian, even with the topknot of hair he wore and the smear of color on his forehead. (As much as I love the improbableness of their story, I must note how lovely they both were and are. If a troll were to tell me we would be married, no matter how enlightened he was or I was, I imagine it would be difficult to say yes. Whereas if someone who looked like Sandro showed up, with all the power of the Himalayas behind him…well.)
Sandro and Gya initially wanted to live in India, but found that they, as foreigners, would be restricted in their ability to own land or start a business. So they came to Mexico, traveling from city to city until they stopped at Oaxaca, where it felt right. They have now been in Oaxaca one year. They plan to stay for five years, and then see what happens.
The whole thing seems too ethereal to be true, like you’re dreaming by a pond in the mountains of Oaxaca, but they are very down-to-earth-people. Best of all, their firm attachment to the pleasures of this earth is manifest in the food that they serve and the joy with which they serve it.
I almost wanted to cry as I spooned my bibimbop into my mouth, as I bit down on the sharp, spicy, almost raw kimchi. It’s strange how much Mexico seems to reveal to me, almost everyday, how much I miss my mother. There was a slightly foreign note to the spiciness, not dissonant, but not quite familiar, and then Gya explained that she has to combine Mexican hot peppers with the bit of Korean hot pepper she’s able to buy in Mexico City.
Yet the food was authentic, in the best sense of the word, with love and respect for its traditions. Each component of the bibimbop had been grown, washed, and sautéed just until its flavor became brightest it could be. The fried egg gleamed.
Gya had never cooked until they moved here. She had been a dancer, and in Italy, had eaten Sandro’s mother’s cooking. But, as she said, she remembered the taste, it was in her memories. And so they recreate the taste of the Korean and Italian food they know and love, here in Mexico.