Tuesday, July 31, 2007

El Bajio

Ferran Adria says El Bajio is the best restaurant of traditional Mexican food in the world. And now, I have a higher opinion of Ferran Adria than I did before.

El Bajio is as far from the carrot-foam of El Bulli as I can imagine. It’s the kind of food I love most, traditional food prepared with love, care, and great pride. It’s the kind of food I seek most when I eat out, because I hope that the more I eat and learn from people who cook in this way, the more I will be able to make and serve this kind of food in my own home.

But I came very close to missing it completely. Erin and I were in Xochilmilco far south of the city, and we knew we could only get to El Bajio by taxi. Despite appearances, I’m quite cheap about food, and I doubted that any restaurant would be worth a $20 cab ride. But lucky for me, Erin quietly insisted.

Owned by chef Carmen “Titita” Ramirez, the restaurant now has three branches, including one in super-posh Polanco, which chowhounds have described as glassy and very-Polanco, at least in decor. But the original, the one we went to in Azcapotzalco, is decorated in warm, rich colors, with high-quality Mexican folk art. The restaurant is acclaimed by such foodie luminaries as Rick Bayless and Diane Kennedy, in addition to Ferran Adria, but it wasn’t filled with tourists, just happy Mexican families enjoying a big Sunday meal. The presence of multiple flat-screen TVs didn’t even bother me, it seemed somehow appropriate, or perhaps I was just happy I could watch the Argentina-Brazil final of the Copa America while we ate.

We ordered a hodge-podge, one platano empanada stuffed with beans; one quesdilla with huitlacoche, that prized corn fungus; a quarter of a kilo of carnitas in the Michoacan style; a clean and simple salad of jicama, nopales, tomatoes, and chayote; and a bowl of mole de Xico which we practically slurped up.

A quarter-kilo is a lot of meat—I forgot that one kilo is 2.2 pounds, and not the other way around—but we still ate almost all of it, fat, gristle, and all. It was almost too much to slather the pork with the mole, somewhat richer than Oaxacan mole negro but otherwise equally complex, but it was a meal of happy excess, and the pork was an excellent vehicle.

When faced with the prospect of dessert, Erin chose a refreshing nieve sorbet, while I, glutton that I am, chose the requeson with honey. Requeson is a ricotta-like fresh, rich wonder cheese, and when I added it to Erin’s nieve order, our waiter Raul definitely wasn’t expecting it, and so he gave an almost imperceptible but definite nod of approval and respect.

The entire restaurant seemed to be curious and pleased at the amount of food we ate and documented with Erin’s digital camera. As we left, Pablo, the manager, came forward with a smile to ask how we had heard about the restaurant. We chatted about how we had read that it was Rick Bayless’s favorite Mexican restaurant in the world, and then he gave us laminated brochures for “recuerdos” or souvenirs. When I asked if they had the cookbook for sale, Alquimias y Atmosferas del Sabor, he said I could find it at Sanborn’s, a Mexican department store, and then proudly showed me the restaurant’s own dog-eared copy. (I then spent the next day going to 4 different Sanborns looking for the damn book.)

Despite all the fuss I made about the $20 cab ride, I considered going back the next day, while Erin went to Teotihuacan. Who needs ancient Aztec pyramids when you can eat a fabulous Mexican breakfast at El Bajio? In the end, I decided to save my stomach for the dinner Erin and I had planned at Aguila y Sol, but the next time I’m in Mexico City, the first thing I’m going to do is jump in a taxi to El Bajio.

Super spicy potato chips

You gotta love a country that differentiates between serrano and habanero flavored potato chips.

Churros y chocolate

People are so kind. I’ve met so many warm Mexicans since I got here—Soledad my cooking teacher at ICO, Hector the architect professor at the Museo de Anthropologia who invited me to tour the city with the Pratt professors he was showing around, Eduardo our guide in the mountains of the Sierra Norte in Ixtlan de Juarez—but one of my favorite memories will always involve the waitress at the Churreria “El Moro” who wanted to make sure that we knew what kind of hot chocolate we were ordering.

“El Moro” at Eje Central Lázaro Cardenas 4 in the Centro Historico is open 24 hours, so that you can satisfy your churros and chocolate craving any time of day. Open since 1935, it has a sense of worn, well-loved history, from the faded old-school menus to the stained glass window and old Mexican tiles to the baby-blue diner uniforms the waitresses wear. The menu consists of churros, slim tubes of fried dough dusted in sugar, and hot chocolate or coffee, nothing more, nothing less.

Erin and I are never perturbed by not knowing what something is, and we blithely ordered one “espanol y 4 churros” and one “frances y 4 churros.” Five minutes later, the waitress came back, anxious.

“Do you know the espanol is very sweet?”

“Uh, no. How sweet are the others?”

“Especial is a little bitter, espanol is very sweet, frances is sweeter and mexicano is normal sweet.”

“Especial is a little bitter?”


“I’ll have the ‘especial,’ please.”

She smiled, glad that we understood.

Later, we realized “espanol” must be the Spanish style of very thick, almost sludgy hot chocolate, which can be very good, but I was happy with my “especial” which was made of strong, delicious bittersweet chocolate, especially since I’ve been craving
dark chocolate since I got here. Bracing and fortifying, it almost made me forget that I hadn’t had my morning coffee yet.

The churros, sadly, weren’t on par with the hot chocolate, since they were too greasy. But I did love seeing them piled up in giant coils in the window, next to an equally giant pan of sugar. And at least we had been guided towards impressive chocolate!

Monday, July 30, 2007

The riches of the Yucatan at Coox Hanal in Mexico City

Oaxaca is a culinary wonderland, but other than an Italian place or two, it has too much hometown pride to move beyond Oaxacan specialities and favorites. So Mexico City was my chance to eat food from Veracruz or the Yucatan or Puebla. And Erin being a big Yucatecan food fan, off we marched to find Coox Hanal, at Isabel la Catolica 83, in Centro Historico. We walked by it almost twice, since it’s on the 3rd floor, above a billiards hall. But once you’re at the door, you know you’re there because Coox and Hanal are there to greet you.

All the words on the menu were so foreign to me! Sablutes, sopa de lima? My heart beat with anticipation. We ordered 3 plates of antojitos and sopa de lima, despite our chicken soup breakfast, and I had a Montejo, a light Yucatecan lager, nothing more or less than a middle-of-the-road lager.

But I was happy to have my beer, as the food turned out to be greasy bar food, and I mean that as a compliment. The panchutos, tortillas stuffed with beans and then fried and topped with pork and cabbage, were better at Seasons of My Heart, but I still ate more than my fair share.

The sablutes turned out to be fried tortillas, a little thicker than usual, with pavo or turkey, and they cut their grease with shredded lettuce, chopped tomato and avocado. I thought the tacos of cochinita pibil were smooth with fat, though Erin with her experience of cooking cochinita pibil herself thought they were a tad too dry. (Erin, care to comment on what goes into pibil?) All of it was accompanied tartly and brilliantly by the pickled red onions that seem to be to the Yucatan as kimchi is to Korea.

But the most impresionate, para mi, was the sopa de lima. I wish I had the kind of sensitive palate to sniff the soup and say in a tone of authority and only polite doubt, “Ah! Is it cardamom?”, but I don’t. The recipes I’ve found online vary greatly, some requiring just a bit of dried oregano to add some mystery—which I find hard to believe would recreate what I had, despite the particular strengths of Mexican oregano—while others call for a battery of spices. Clearly, something unusual is going on with the “limas agrias” or bitter limes. The soup also had the look of coconut milk, if not the taste, and with its complex tartness, it reminded me of the careful balance of great Thai soups. You could also find shredded chicken and some dark green bits that were bitter when I bit down. Could they have been bits of lime rind? Like a fine wine, the flavors kept shifting in my mouth, from smooth to tart, bitter to warm.

It’s good for me, with my lack of religion, to have some sense of mystery in my life.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Beer and posole, to the accompaniment of the mariachis

Mexico City at night, like so many colonial Latin American cities, is particularly beautiful at night. The grey stone of the buildings and monuments gleams golden around you, and when mariachi bands in tight spangled uniforms walk around asking if you want a serenade, it actually feels like magic. It’s not a quiet, romantic magic at the Plaza Garibaldi, where every taxi seems to be unloading yet another mariachi band with even more elaborate costumes. It’s the kind of magic that’s buoyed by the loud cantinas around the plaza, the men hawking stacks of sombreros twice as tall as themselves, the laughing Mexican and non-Mexican tourists carrying Giant Gulp cups of booze. I saw a teenage girl being bullied by her mother and aunt into standing in the middle of a serenading band, with a sombrero plunked on her head; I saw a woman holding a bouquet of roses and a mylar balloon with tears in her eyes as her personal mariachi band sang to her under her husband’s instructions.

We found the same kind of magical, uncomplicated happiness at Xochimilco two days later, as we floated down the river in a painted barge. Mexico City used to be next to these enormous lakes, now drained. Because there wasn't enough land to grow food, the Xochimilca people planted arificial islands rooted by trees in the lakes, creating a system of canals. Xochimilco means "garden of flowers" in the Aztec language, and is the only part of the city that remains to remind us of the canals that existed before the Spanish came.

It was a sunny day as bright as our boat. Erin and I ended up rolling around in our enormous boat alone, except for 60-year-old Miguel “de los manos,” our punter who suggested that we take photos with him so that he could strenuously pinch us. But nearly every other boat we saw was filled with Mexican families celebrating, dancing or feasting or chasing each other around. We said hello to everyone, everyone said hello to us. Smaller boats drifted by offering cold beers, grilled corn, whole meals with rice and beans, plastic toys, and of course, mariachi and marimba music. For 70 pesos, a boat full of mariachi musicians pulled up to our boat, attached theirs to ours somehow, and then launched into full song. They barely knew the words or tune to “Como fue,” but it was one of those days where nothing could go wrong.

How happy I was, to be drinking beer on a barge in Xochimilco. How lucky I was, to eat posole and spicy, warm birria, or goat stew, next to the Plaza Garibaldi.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

It's our last day in Puerto Escondido

It’s our last day in Puerto Escondido. Erin has already left for the airport, and Elena and I are spending the 5 hours before our bus in the most profitable way—doing nothing on the rooftop terrace of our hotel. Elena is in a hammock reading, or maybe even napping, and I’m sitting with my laptop facing the bluest ocean imaginable. It’s almost too mean to say out loud to my friends, who are going back to lawyer jobs in San Francisco, but I’ve been on a vacation from my vacation.

In this blissed-out town, I haven’t been doing my usual nosing around for superb food, and perhaps for my Zen acceptance of life, I’ve been rewarded with some of the most memorable food adventures I’ve had so far.

Playa Carrizalillo is the best kind of surprise. It’s a bit further west than Playa Zicatela, with its wide expanse of glassy waves that look like the purest and cleanest of blue-green Japanese ceramics as they break. Carrizalillo is not as obvious, if only because you have to descend a long flight of stairs to get there. The steps are solidly constructed and pretty, with flowers and suitably tropical plants at every angled turn, but the best part is only a few turns from the top, when you immediately see before you the perfect, deep blue, baby bay.

Little thatched palapas and restaurants line the beach, selling beer and shrimp cocktails. The restaurants aren’t particularly noteworthy, though I’m impressed they don’t mark up the beer more, and there are fewer vendors who come by, probably because of the steep steps.

There is, however, a leathery, old man selling mystery mollusks that were tender, almost buttery, and salty from the bucket he just caught them in. He called the bivalves “callos de margarita,” which after some Google research, Erin and I have decided they are some type of scallop. The conches he called “caracoles,” which I thought meant “snails” in Spanish.

The callos had a pebbly, almost spiny outer surface, and a deep purple ring around the pearly interior. He husked them right on the rocks, rinsed them in the murky seawater in his bucket, sliced them thinly and expertly, and served them back in their shells, with a fresh squeeze of lime and some hot sauce available, though it turned out for us to be superfluous. It was better to eat add just a bit of lime and taste the sweetness of the meat.

In classic Mexican fashion, he didn’t assume that Erin and I, who were standing over him almost panting with eagerness, wanted to buy a mollusk or two. We were finally moved to explicit action when another woman started negotiating a price for all the mollusks he had left. The fact that I might never taste a “callo de margarita” again is okay. It seems so fortuitous, so blessed, that we got to taste them at all.

We even had more nieve de coco, this one purer and cleaner, the more innocent version compared to the more sophisticated salty-sweet coconut ice cream we'd had on Playa Marinero. I am glad I don't have to judge which was better.

We had thought nothing could top Playa Carrizalillo, but two days later, we went to Mazunte. About an hour east of Puerto Escondido, Mazunte is a small town that seems to take the overflow from the hippies and nudists in Zipolite. The whole town consists of four or five streets in a loose grid, only two or three of them paved. It’s not much of a surfer town, and it feels even more laid-back than Puerto Escondido, which I hadn't known was possible.

We stayed all day on a little semicircle of a beach that had no umbrellas, no lounge chairs, only a lovingly ramshackle beach hut selling sandwiches, juices and tropical cocktails. We had brought a light picnic lunch with us, based on the tostadas de corozo I had gotten obsessed with after our lagoon guide, Lalo, told us about them. They were flatter and darker, a little thicker, and not ripply like your usual tostada of corn. When I tasted them, I knew immediately they were worth the long, hot walk to the market in town and dealing with the surly woman who sold them to me. They were just sweet enough, rich with the milk of coconuts, but completely dry and non-greasy. Topped with ripe avocados, fresh lime juice, and criollo tomatoes, crinkly like heirlooms, they whet our appetites for more.

It was so easy to walk just a few feet backwards to Babel, the little drink hut, run by a group of young, attractive South Americans, who were so at ease with their good fortune. The entire area was little more than 15 by 15 feet, with a few chairs, two hammocks, and an astonishing view of the ocean. Their mix tape was clearly a beloved one, as we heard the same Bob Marley song twice. We put our feet up and drank big, soda fountain glasses of “cucu melon,” 1 for 35 pesos, 2 for 50, which were made of freshly squeezed honeydew, a bit of mezcal, crema de coco, sugar, and crushed ice. So simple and so good. I kept thinking about it for the rest of the day, absentmindedly murmuring, “Wouldn’t that be a good drink for a summer dinner party?” I know it would console me back in Brooklyn, when I finally have to go back home.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Fortifying ourselves for Mexico City with rooster soup for breakfast

Mexico City, in some ways, reminds me of other big cities I know, New York, Seoul, Los Angeles, and yet is unlike them in so many other ways. At 20 million people, it makes New York feel airy. Walking through the Centro Historico was like Times Square times 10, except with graceful old buildings, relatively few tourists, and no flashing lights. You could, however, still buy pornographic DVDs right on the street, next to hair barrettes and tracksuits. And it has the energy of New York, the feeling that anything could happen, and people outside Mexico City talk about “D.F.” or the “Distrito Federal” the way people outside New York talk about NY: “It’s another world.” The inhabitants of Mexico City can’t imagine living anywhere else, while Mexicans elsewhere can’t understand how anyone can live there.

But the biggest difference between Mexico City and New York City, at least to this tourist who was in Mexico City for 4 days, is that New York is a city of people ignoring each other, while everyone in Mexico City is trying to get your attention. People are constantly trying to sell you something, with more vigor than your most vigorous Senegalese seller of fake Rolexes in Chinatown. After living in relative obscurity for a month and a half in Oaxaca City, I was shocked to find how Erin and I were subjected to constant catcalls and whistles, including one man, who said in English with much careful deliberation, and in an accent eerily remniscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger, “Wow-oo, you are so bee-you-ti-fool!” I have to admit, I was proud of myself the next day for understanding the declaration shouted at me in Spanish from a man who had been driving his van at our walking pace in Condesa: “I was just looking at your beautiful legs!” He had such a genial smile, I shouted back, “¡Gracias!” Sadly, the only men who ever compliment me are men in the street and tollbooth operators, but I’ll take my compliments where I can get them. I am also now aware exactly how short my red dress is.

Our first morning in Mexico City was also otherwise overwhelming. I had arrived at 7 am on Friday morning, after an overnight bus ride from Oaxaca, and found Erin almost bouncing off the hotel bed in her excitement to try some of the restaurants she had highlighted on her map. An hour later, we were wandering around La Merced, one of the largest markets in Mexico and possibly the world.

And the Cathedral in the Zocalo is the largest cathedral in the world, right next to Templo Mayor, an archeological site some electricians found right smack in the middle of the city. And of course, there are Diego Rivera murals all over the city, all bigger than life, and most spectacularly in the Palacio Nacional.

You can’t throw a stone without hitting something with Frida Kahlo or Diego Rivera on it in Mexico City. Either they are truly are as emblematic of Mexico as foreigners think they are, or Mexico City has responded to tourist demand with a complete, almost-innocent enthusiasm. I don’t find the work of either artist particularly moving, but in Diego Rivera’s large murals, the triteness I sometimes see in his work gets absorbed into a larger earnestness that appeals to me and my fatigue with NY-cool. And I did love the kitchen in Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul, with its large, glossy pottery and bright colors inexplicably balancing each other. Her home made Leon Trotsky’s poor little fortification, just blocks from hers, feel even more austere and Soviet.

Thankfully, for all the marching we did around Mexico City that first day, we had had a substantial breakfast of caldo de gallo, or soup made from rooster stock, near La Merced. Being Korean, I think nothing of eating rice and soup for breakfast, but I was impressed by the way Erin tucked into hers. All Mexican soups are essentially the same: simple, happily dependent on the rawness of the last-minute garnishes, and restorative.

Of course, nothing is restorative like caffeine, and I sucked down every drop my first “café de olla. “Olla” means clay pot, and a “café de olla” is made and served traditionally in a little clay pot and sweetened with cinnamon and piloncillo, a Mexican unrefined brown sugar. Strong and sweet, it gave me the strength to enjoy everything Mexico City could throw at me.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The best street food in Oaxaca, possibly the world

I believe God or the fates have impressed upon me the great responsibility of declaring and describing with exactitude how riquíssima are the empanadas and tacos in one corner of Oaxaca City.

Lina had told me about this little stand of empanadas and tacos near the church on Garcia Vigil. “You’ll know it because of all the cars double-parked around it every morning.” But it took me over a month to finally get there.

The fateful day was Thursday, July 12th, the day after my cooking class at Seasons of My Heart. After my enormous day of eating, I had gone to my Spanish teacher’s apartment to watch the Mexico-Argentina Copa America game with her. I was already so full, but Lety had prepared all this food, and when I woke up the next day, I felt the food equivalent to a hangover. I didn’t even want to get out of bed, but I realized I had to call my mother before I got on the bus to Mexico City that night, and I dragged myself out with the intention of going to an Internet place with Skype and having a light breakfast of fruit at a wireless café.

But my usual Skype place was closed, and I had to trudge my way to the other one on Garcia Vigil. As expected, the connection was painfully slow, and I barely managed to communicate to my mother that I was alive and well. I left frustrated and tired, but then, there it was, the famous food stand outside of Iglesia Carmen de Arriba.

I wasn’t expecting much. I knew the empanadas de amarillo were famous here, but I had tried mole amarillo at Patty’s and not liked it much. But when I took a bite into this empanada, what we would probably call a quesadilla, I swear the heavens opened and angels sang. It was so toasty, just off the comal, and hot enough to satisfy the most scaredy-cat street food eater, but so good I had to ignore the burning of my tongue. The amarillo sauce was enlightening, the perfect example of the maxim my friend Mimi and I firmly believe, “If you don’t like a food, you just haven’t tried a good version.” Spicy, saucy, assertive, thinner than the sauce Patty had made, and a perfect complement to the shredded chicken. Mexicans know how to cook chicken breast. Every once in awhile, I’d find a bite of bright cilantro. Oh God, it was so good.

I took a bunch of pictures of the church around it, so that any of you, should you find yourself in Oaxaca, will be able to find it. I particularly love this picture of their grill, with the fat sausages roasting underneath the comal.

Like every other empanada and taco stand I’ve seen, they make their tortilla base right there. There’s a big mass of masa, with a giant press for making the giant tortillas. The tortillas, either for empanadas or tacos, are first cooked separately on the grill. When they have the telltale dark spots showing that they are crispy and ready, they’re filled with amarillo and chicken, or squash blossoms and string cheese and folded over to become empanadas, or they’re rolled up with various meaty fillings and salsa.

I hadn’t even been hungry, but the empanada just whet my appetite for more. I considered my options and finally chose a taco wrapped around a chile relleno and had my second revelation. And to think I didn’t like chiles rellenos! The chile relleno was small and skinny and packed with ground meat, and so juicy and flavorful I was sad when there was no taco left, but there was no one to blame but myself.

So once again, the stand is tucked next to the gates of Iglesia de Carmen Arriba that are facing the street of Garcia Vigil, near the corner of Carranza, south of Quetzalcoatl. There are other street vendors nearby, selling fruit or some such, but only one stand selling empanadas and tacos, unless of course, it’s Lunes del Cerro, but that’s another blog post.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

¡Oh, la playa!

I have almost a month’s worth of posts to catch up on, including all the food I ate in Mexico City and the mole negro cooking class that literally brought tears to my eyes, but I have to gloat a bit about where I am, here and now.

Erin, Elena, and I are in Puerto Escondido. It’s a surfer’s paradise, which means there are many bare-chested men walking around. Sadly, surfers are not our type, but there are many other natural wonders to observe and enjoy, including, of course, very fresh mariscos or seafood and other culinary delights. And even if the food wasn’t that great, even I could be happy just swinging in a hammock on the roof terrace of our hotel", drinking Dos Equis and reading Rebecca West’s amazing “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.” But on this first day of our stay here, the food has been happily surprising.

Life here feels even sweeter because we survived a 9-hour overnight bus ride from Oaxaca City to get here. Erin had to knock herself out with sleeping pills, and Elena got some serious cricks in her neck, but as soon as saw the beach, the memory of the bus ride just melted away.

While you sit in your lounge chair under a straw palapa, you can get almost anything you want from the peddlers walking up and down the sand. You can buy a blessing or a wish from a giant clay pig (at least, I think that’s what he said), you can get your name engraved on a grain of rice (isn’t it weird what tourist-things travel all over the world?), and you can eat a delicious ceviche-like shrimp cocktail with a freshly tart, picante flavor, served in plastic dixie cup with fresh wedges of lime.

Or you can get nieve de coco, or coconut ice cream, from a sweet man who is so proud of his product that even after we had asked for two cones, he insisted we taste it first. This nieve, with a sorbet-like texture, would not have been out of place at the foodiest of foodie NY restaurants, with its rich, pure, and salty-sweet flavor. I have another great photo of Erin with her ice cream cone, but it's a tad too bodacious for this blog.

And at least so far, even your run-of-the-mill, random lunch place knows how to cook a fish with respect. At Vitamina, on the Adoquin, the pedestrian street lined with your usual flip-flops, crafts, and caftans, I had a lovely whole huachinango, or red snapper, that tasted as rich and fatty as bluefish or mackerel. It had been prepared “al Diablo,” in a creamy, just slightly spicy sauce. With some hot tortillas and a neverending pitcher of watermelon agua, how could I be anything but muy satisfecha? How could I be anything but satisfecha on a beach in Mexico?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Seasons of My Heart, Part II

After our market tour, we drove through fields of corn on winding, unpaved roads to end up at Rancho Aurora, immediately visible with its red domed roof on top of a hill. While Susana explained the recipes and their components, we sampled some of the ingredients, like the sea salt from the Tehuantepec that I loved (and I don’t buy into all that fancy salt stuff) and the house-made chocolate. Because our group was so big, we divided into groups of 2 or 3 to work on each part of our five-course meal.

We started with panuchos, which are a Yucatacan antojito or snack of tortillas stuffed with beans, then fried, then topped with spicy chicken and shredded cabbage. It’s quite an operation to prepare all the components, and before tasting it, I had already written it off as something I probably wouldn’t bother to make at home. But after one bite, I knew I would have to try even if I burned all ten fingers trying. The panucho was decadent as it sounds, especially with the drizzle of mayonnaise Susana urged on us. (Mexicans love mayonnaise. Japanese love mayonnaise. Isn’t it funny the countries mayonnaise has conquered?) It’s the kind of thing you can only cook for your best friends, since they have to be willing to eat in rounds as the panuchos come fresh out of the fryer, and you couldn’t really prepare anything else at the same time, but who wouldn’t want to come to a an all-fried dinner?

What really put me over the edge was the salsa de chile verde that was served with them. The recipe calls for 3 chiles bravos, these tiny, very hot little chiles that Susana grows in her garden, which you have to prick with a needle before roasting so they wont’ explode. (You can substitute 20 chiles serranos or 4 chiles jalapenos, that’s how hot the little suckers are.) My lips were tingling with happiness.

But there were four more courses to come. We had a tomato-based tortilla soup, hearty and satisfying. Susana suggested it could be eaten with a poached egg on top for breakfast—I think the words “poached egg” are some of the most beautiful in the English language. Each bowl was served with an entire chipotle chile in adobo; I was the only one who ate the chile itself. (I hope I don’t sound like I have delusions of grandeur; I just have a stomach that tends to say, “Yes!” to everything.)

We then had one of those salads that are really just a vehicle for fatty saltiness, inspired by the botanas or bar snacks popular in Oaxaca. On top of a basic salad of greens, tomatoes, radishes, avocados, and green onions were placed crumbled chicharrones (so much better than American pork rinds), the Oaxacan string cheese quesillo, and a really wonderful dressing made of jalapeno jelly, the aforementioned fruit vinegar that sits in a dark closet for months, and Dijon mustard.

Our entrée was a Veracruzano-style red snapper wrapped in hoja santa, this fragrant leaf bigger than my hand, that has a fennel-like yet unique flavor, and then wrapped again in banana leaves and baked in the oven, served with a sauce of tomatillos. The banana leaves came straight from Susana’s garden, those that hadn’t already been shredded by the wind.

The fish was plated with the arroz ázafran con piña, a saffron rice cooked with roasted red pepper and coconut milk, then tossed with bits of caramelized pineapple and served with fried platanos, which my group had been in charge of. I kept invoking Julia Child and her advice never to denigrate your own food, as I bit my lip to avoid saying we had undersalted the rice, but luckily for my sanity, the fish group had oversalted their sauce. And at least I could feel secure that the pineapples were really, truly caramelized.

By that point, I thought I was going to explode. Perhaps luckily for me, I didn’t really like the dessert, a mango charlotte spiked with a crema de mezcal made of maracuya or passion fruit, probably because the people making it had gotten a little punchy with the booze.

El Rey Zapoteco makes organic mezcal that Susana promotes in her store, and for good reason. Mezcal is the tequila of Oaxaca. Like tequila, it’s made from the maguey plant, which is a big desert plant with spikes radiating out, and again like tequila, there is a huge range of quality and ability to burn in your chest. Your average, run-of-the-mill blanco or young mezcal either makes you gasp in horror or pound your chest and shout, “Yeah, that puts hair on your chest!”, depending on your taste in alcohol. Then there are the aged ones that are more palatable to me, and the cremas, which normally just mask the taste with a sweet, fruity flavor—the girly mezcales. The El Rey Zapoteco passionfruit mezcal that we tasted in class, however, managed to be sweet and still have that kick that declared itself proudly to be mezcal.

I bought a small bottle of the maracuya crema de mezcal to take home, and oh shame, I bought a molcajete with a pig face too! It has beady red eyes and a red smile on a black snout, and I couldn’t resist for 150 pesos. I’m going to have to buy another bottle of mezcal to bribe the Continental Airlines ticket agent when my bags come in seriously overweight. Such a fitting, greedy end to a day overflowing with food and pleasure.

Seasons of My Heart, Part I

{So much to catch up on! I was in Mexico City and then hiking in the Sierra Norte with my friend Erin for a week, and i've gotten behind.]

“The vanilla extract we use is made in Veracruz, from a flower that blooms every four years for only two hours. Because there usually aren’t enough bees, it needs to be pollinated by hand. It takes 9 months to grow the vanilla beans, then 5 months to cure them in the sun. They can tell whether the beans are ready or not by the heat of the beans, when they hold them in their hands.”

“This is the only salt we use here, hand-harvested from the sea by women in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.”

“You can make fruit vinegar by putting rinds of fresh pineapple on a plate outside to catch the first morning dew, but before the sun’s rays hit them. Then you add piloncillo, unrefined sugar, in a clay pot, stick it in a closet, and let it ferment. It’ll become tepate, or pineapple beer, first, but if you let it keep fermenting, it’ll become vinegar. You’ll see a thick sludge on top, which they call “madre,” and you can cut it up to start the fermenting process all over again.”

“If you don’t eat pork, try grasshoppers.”

Susana Trilling is serious about food. I tend to be skeptical of cooking schools for amateurs—I never feel like I learn any real skills, and they feel suspiciously like corporate team-building exercises. But as I sat in the big, bright Mexican-tiled kitchen, festooned with the Mexican paper cut-outs I love so much, and graced with enormous and obviously well-loved Le Creuset pots in a riot of colors, I scribbled so fast and yet could barely keep up with the wealth of information falling from Susana’s lips. I felt so lucky to be there, and especially to have friends like Angela and Lina, who gifted me with the class at Seasons of My Heart as my 30th birthday gift.

Susana also had that hard-ass voice of authority I respect, like when she emphasized the great importance of adding enough salt to the arroz azafran con pina, or saffron rice with caramelized pineapple. I could tell, that like most chefs, she was a serious control-freak, and yet she managed to run her school and teach novices with grace and patience. Given that I won’t let certain friends chop vegetables for me, I felt I could learn a lot from her.

We had started the day at the Wednesday market in Etla, tasting and smelling everywhere we went. The tour was designed for people new to Oaxaca, but even though I had already been poking around markets for a month, it was a relief to have a guide who patiently answered my questions in English. One thing I’ve noticed about Mexico is that people here are generally so nice, but they can’t conceive of what outsiders don’t know. When I ask for directions, they often just say, “Oh, it’s over there!” And I’m left to say, “To the left? To the right?” So when I ask in a market, “What is this?”, I usually get an answer like, “equilemefo-mush-mush.”

Our guide pointed out herbs for eating like chepil, hierba de conejo; herbs for cleansing like rosemary, which isn’t really used in cooking in Oaxaca; and different kinds of cheese including requeson, a soft and rich cheese remniscent of the best ricotta.

She also explained, to my great enlightenment, that that cheesy looking white stuff was actually a sweet dessert made of corn and milk called nicuatole. It really tasted like a sweet cheese, which I liked but probably wouldn’t eat in great quantities.

I saw jicama popsicles, ready to be dipped in the flavors of your choice! We ate so much. We tried different flavors of nieve, every type of tamal the woman had, and something that looked like spinach when it’s cooked. I bought some spicy pickled vegetables to assuage my kimchi cravings.

Most interesting to me, we had chocolate atole. There was a mini-debate on Chowhound recently about whether chocolate atole is the same thing is champurrado. I can now add my two cents and say definitively that they are not the same. Champurrado is atole of corn mixed with hot chocolate, for a thick, nutty, almost sludgy (though I don’t meant that pejoratively) flavor. Chocolate atole involves an atole that’s made of rice and white chocolate, which isn’t our non-cacao bean white chocolate, but something that’s made by fermenting chocolate underground. It’s then poured into a bowl with chocolate spuma that’s made by whipping hot chocolate into a frothy frenzy.

We were then supposed to eat enfrijoladas or entomatadas at one of the fondas, since we wouldn’t be eating our comida until much later, but we had already eaten so much, I was the only person to eat a full plate of food. If I believed in God, I would thank Him for the metabolism that keeps me from blowing up like a balloon.

Monday, July 16, 2007

My camera died

I would be having an unholy conniption, but I feel weirdly blessed. It had gone blank once in Oaxaca, in the middle of my lunch of chichilo, one more mole on my list, but it had miraculously come back from the dead and I had hoped, in the way people who know nothing about technology hope, that my camera had somehow fixed itself. So when it went blank at the Museo de Anthropología in Mexico City, I wasn´t surprised. More importantly, I wasn´t devastated because I was there with my friend and old roommate Erin, who had flown in from San Francisco to spend two weeks with me in Mexico.

Erin is the kind of woman, who in the first hours of catching up, informed me that she had recently made the conchinita pibil, a giant piece of pork slow-cooked in banana leaves in the Yucatecan style, and that it was the most delicious thing she had ever made. This news item ranked right up there with news about her work life and her love life. In addition to having a generous, pork-loving heart, Erin has a digital camera with an enormous memory chip, and she happily agreed to contribute to the photographic record of our meals in Distrito Federal. After all, she had shown up in Mexico City with a map on which she had marked in pink highlighter where to find the best ice cream, churros (Mexican fritters), and other culinary gems.

And as if my luck could not get better, I managed to email my friend Elena, who is also flying in from San Francisco in a week, get her work address, order a new camera on Amazon, and have it shipped to her by overnight mail so that she can bring it with her to Oaxaca, all within an hour at an internet cafe on Saturday afternoon.

So Dear Readers, all ten of you, do not fear! Even better photos will soon appear on this blog. (And I'll be posting soon about the amazing panuchos I ate and more at my cooking lesson at Seasons of My Heart.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

My "Mexican Kitchen"

I have a new cookbook!

Before I left, I checked this book out of the Brooklyn Public Library as part of pre-trip research. I also had “My Mexico” by Diane Kennedy, the doyenne of Mexican cookbooks, and “Seasons of My Heart” by Susana Trilling on my nightstand, but Rick Bayless was the only one who described the different kinds of chiles in such evocative detail and with such clarity that I actually felt confident I could go out and find the right chiles for the right recipes. I’m too cynical to expect my heroes to ever truly be as they appear, but when I read his books, I feel all mushy and sure that he is a good and wonderful person. It helps that I share his philosophy on food, its blessings, and the value of authenticity as a principle that values traditions but recognizes food as dynamic rather than something to be preserved as artifact. (This is the book’s dedication to his daughter: “With loving hope that the world you grow up into is blessed with generous gardens, comfortable kitchens and welcoming tables.”) And his missionary zeal in promoting lard! So when I saw “Mexican Kitchen” on sale just days before moving to my new apartment at Amate Books, the beautiful and carefully edited English-language bookstore here in Oaxaca, I couldn’t resist.

Sadly, I haven’t cooked as much as I’d hoped, at least not yet. The amount of kitchen equipment that came with my apartment is shockingly limited—I’m lucky to have a can opener. And the same challenges I’ve always had living and cooking alone are even more present here. Produce and other basics, like tortillas, go bad very quickly. My homestay family buys 30 fresh tortillas every day; I know how alien I look buying five. The smallest amount of sugar I was able to find was a 1 kg plastic sack at a dry-goods stall, and until I found a woman selling eggs individually at the organic market, I despaired of buying fewer than two dozen at a time.

I did buy some soy sauce and sesame seed oil in a moment of intense longing for Korean food, thinking I would make that most basic of Korean foods, bulgogi, with the thin cut of beef they have here called “tasajo,” but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. I had thought that cooking at home would be a good way to eat the foods I miss, but I’ve become a spoiled brat about ingredients, and even my tried-and-true, cook-anywhere recipe for pasta with tuna, garlic, tomatoes, and olive oil just tastes bad since my taste buds got accustomed to high-quality Italian or Spanish tuna. The one stick of butter I bought was so depressing, I haven’t touched it since.

But the more I read Bayless, I’m inspired to take advantage of the ingredients I do have access to. Every time he laments the inavailability of Oaxacan queso fresco in the U.S., or says something like, “In Oaxaca, I do…, but in the U.S., I substitute…”, I feel like shouting, “Rick, I’m in your spiritual home!” How I can waste this opportunity, when Oaxacan cheese; piloncillo, the unrefined sugar sold in brown cones; and fresh hierba santa are staring me in the face every time I go the market? Every dollar I save is 0.75 Euros I can spend in Spain in October and November (and goddamnit, the dollar keeps falling in value), but I may just have to suck it up and buy a molcajete and comal. I did make a salsa the other day, a simmered tomato sauce that Bayless says is Yucatecan in style, and even though it took a fair amount of time to parboil the tomatoes, skin them, mash them in my neighbor’s molcajete, and then simmer them with white onions and a halved serrano pepper, it had the fresh, delicious flavor of food that is also absurdly simple. Of course, if I buy a molcajete, I know I will want to take it home, and I’ll probably end up having to pay overweight baggage charges to Continental Airlines. Sigh. Well, such are my priorities.

Monday, July 9, 2007

One jellied apricot in a lovely, imperfect meal

As much as I’ve enjoyed the perfect culinary moments I’ve already had in Oaxaca, I’ve also loved those moments that aren’t quite perfect. Perhaps I am learning to be zen, but after living in New York, it’s a relief to be at a place where not everything needs to be the best of its kind.

I read about Casa Elipidia in a little booklet on Oaxaca, self-published by two frequent American visitors. Several blocks south of the zocalo, the restaurant is in the dirtier, hotter part of town. You could walk right by it and miss it, since the only indication the restaurant exists beyond the metal door is a small 8 x 11 sign that says “Restaurant” and little more. (I also love that, so antithetical to the NY philosophy of marketing yourself to the hilt.) But once you enter, you find yourself in an oasis, a quiet courtyard overflowing with plants. There’s only one menu available, the comida corrida, and I didn’t even know what they were serving when I sat down.

The owner and cook is a cross-eyed woman with a quiet smile. The food was fine, nothing to write home about, or blog about, except I was touched by the careful way everything was presented. The botana, or snack, of a fried dumpling with quesillo and a slice of squash was perfectly fried, crispy without being greasy. The tender brisket wasn’t really to my taste, but it sat in the middle of a plate with spears of green beans and chayote artfully placed around it. The dessert, my favorite part, was a little jellied apricot in sweet syrup, in a glass bowl just big enough to hold it. It was the kind of plating I would do at my best, sincere if not rising to the level of art. (My sister, whenever she looks at my plating, sighs, laughs, and says, “You and I are so different.”) It was homey. It was good enough.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

La Biznaga is perfection

Everything is spot-on—the dark red and gold walls, the columns encircling the courtyard with the tree in the center, the retractable roof, the lights and candles in their unusual but organic vessels. The waiters look like hot, young intellectuals, especially the bearded one with the inky black hair, and even better, they have genuine smiles. This restaurant could be in New York, except it’s so much better than its NY equivalent would ever be, if only because a NY-version would be mobbed with hipsters and you’d have to wait 2 hours for a table.

Friday night, I wanted to celebrate, though I wasn’t quite sure what. My full day at the market in Ocotlan? How thrilled I am that I’m becoming friends with my very cool Spanish teacher? For whatever reason, I arrived at La Biznaga, which means "cactus," happy at all the world. It didn’t matter that my glass of Chilean merlot was a little too brassy. The salsa that came with my “Tres Mixtecas” quesadillas was, like my waiter, just beautiful. (Have I mentioned how cute the waiters are?) The prices at La Biznaga are higher than average, except that for less than $4.50, you can get full on an appetizer of three quesadillas, of mushrooms, peppers, and squash blossoms, with a bit of black bean puree garnished with queso fresco. The food is sincerely Oaxacan, but with a light, modern hand.

I was so happy to sit there, scribble in my journal, and reread these words from the “Labyrinth of Solitude” by Octavio Paz:

“I remember that in Spain during the civil war I had a revelation of ‘the other man’ and of another kind of solitude: not closed, not mechanical, but open to the transcendent…in those faces—obtuse and obstinate, gross and brutal, like those the great Spanish painters, without the least touch of complacency and with an almost flesh-and-blood realism, have left us—there was something like a desperate hopefulness, something very concrete and at the same time universal. Since then I have never seen the same expression on any face…

The Spanish dream was broken and defiled later, not because it was Spanish, but because it was universal, and, at the same time, concrete, an embodied dream with wide, astonished eyes…Anyone who has looked Hope in the face will never forget it. He will search for it everywhere he goes, among all kinds of men. And he will dream of finding it again someday, somewhere, perhaps among those closest to him. In every man there is the possibility of his being—or, to be more exact, of his becoming once again—another man.”

Neuroticos Anonimos always feel better when they eat good food

I thought I was going to Ocotlán to check out their Friday market. I didn’t know I was going to find the solace I had been searching for.

The market was sprawling, but with arms radiating out rather than the dense block upon block at Mercado Abastos. Each arm was clearly dedicated to specific items—leather belts or fresh produce or random plastic items. My favorite was the turkey gauntlet, where people formed two long lines while holding their very placid turkeys under their arms. It felt almost stately, like a very dignified beauty pageant. I couldn’t quite tell who was buying and who was displaying, as everyone just stood there with his or her bird(s). I really wanted to take a picture, but I know most people don’t like to have their pictures taken, and I generally don’t ask unless I buy something. This was definitely something I could not take home.

I was there early enough to see the nieve, or sorbet, sellers making their ice cream. They place one bucket inside another bucket of ice and presumably salt, and they just keep turning the inner bucket to churn it to the right consistency. None of it was ready for me to eat, hence, no picture of this either.

But I did feel entitled to take pictures of everything I bought and consumed. I started with a breakfast of enfrijoladas, which are like entomatadas but in bean sauce, rather than tomatoes. It honestly tastes better than you would think. I washed it all down with a nice cup of chocolate con agua, which came with a soft bun with crumbly, sugary top and a hard little pretzel-shaped biscuit. I’ve realized that nearly all the bread in Oaxaca improves vastly when it’s dunked into some hot chocolate. Hot morning drinks, for some reason, always taste better in a bowl than a mug. I think it’s the particularly warm feeling you get when your fingers and palms are wrapped around the smooth curves of a bowl.

I then found a couple of benches full of families eating something I’d never seen before. The women ladled out bowls of dark red soup in the back, while the senora out front chopped at a soft, quivering mass of steamed meat. Chopped hot peppers, onions, cilantro and salsa were on every table, and every few minutes, a woman would walk by offering “blandas,” tortillas that are softer and tastier than their name implies. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, but when I sat down and a blanda seller approached me, a young woman at the next table gave a quick, almost imperceptible smile and nod, so I bought two. It was sort of “build-your-own-picnic,” as her family had also bought some avocados and other garnishes to add to their meal.

The soup turned out to be full of potatoes, carrots, and green beans, as well as several different kinds of unidentifiable organ meat. This thing that looks like a bit of felt is flesh—I know, I ate it.

But even I had my limits. I looked at something that looked like liver, but a tiny bite revealed it definitely was not liver. There was something else that had gelatinous folds, a whole system of mountains and valleys in a bit of meat. I decided not to eat that either.

According to Lety, my Spanish teacher, I ate menudo. Hooray! I’d always wanted to eat menudo.

I bought some albahaca, or basil, since I keep thinking I’m going to make spaghetti with tomato sauce, though it looks and smells distinctly more like Thai basil than sweet basil. I watched several goats go by, bleating wildly. Perhaps they knew something the turkeys didn’t.

My heart never leaps at the thought of touring a church, but I was actually moved when I stopped at the church that had been restored with the help of Rodolfo Morales, the local boy who became a great artist. My pictures don’t capture how fresh and light it looks, or how lovely the ceilings are with their serpentine gilt vines. It was, however, slightly alarming to see mannequins dressed in cheap satin, representing Christ or saints, encased in glass. Catholicism seems sort of blithely unselfconscious about its morbidity.

And then I went to the Casa of the artist himself, which is quite a funny little place. It’s just off the main square in Ocotlan, and when I walked into the arched entryway, there was a young, bearded, artsy-looking guy just sitting on a bench. The gate was closed, but he assured me it was open, and when I approached the gate, a woman appeared with a young boy. They welcomed me in, the woman telling me I could leave my shopping bag on a bench, and the boy wordlessly leading me up the stairs to the second floor with its exhibition hall.

The exhibit showcased the collages Morales had been making near the end of his life, with ribbon, antique images, lace, even faces I recognized as having been cut-out of Benetton ads. The exhibition hall was right next to what used to be his studio, complete with rolls of ribbon.

When I wandered back downstairs, I began to realize what a strange house I was in. He only died in 2001, and you could peer into his bedroom, his kitchen, and his dining room, presumably preserved as he’d left it. On a shelf by the staircase, you could see 30 or so empty perfume bottles, just sitting there like the tchotckes of any older person. But it also became clear that his family was still living in the house day to day.

A senora, older than the woman who’d let me in, was in the gorgeous kitchen when I came in, and she began showing me around, telling me how this horse sculpture made of wood was very old, or how that baby doll in a glass case was very old. The china cabinet was filled with crystal, but it also held a plastic thermos and one antique cup with Japanese faces that the senora had hoped I could identify. As we were talking, we heard a wail come across the courtyard, rising above the birds in their cages. Suddenly, a girl with long curly hair appeared, carrying a smaller little girl who was crying. She stopped crying when she saw me, but she started again after the older girl took her into their bedroom. When I asked where the bathroom was, the senora thought for a bit, and then kindly let me use the family bathroom. As I left, the senora told me that the lady of the house had gone to the market for bread and sodas, so I was very welcome to come back and have a snack with them.

When I left the house, the bearded boy was still there and he asked me what I liked the best. “Oh, the kitchen!” I said.

But before I went back to Oaxaca, I had to eat one last thing: a molote. I hadn’t seen these before, these little torpedo-shaped fried dumplings filled with potato and chorizo. As always, I felt slightly sheepish ordering “un molote,” but the lady was so nice. She asked me with the warmest smile, “Te gusta?”, knowing the answer already. It’s in these moments that I’m glad to be a particularly freaky foreigner—an Asian AND a woman traveling alone. The novelty of seeing me eat and enjoy their food seems to make up for the fact that I can only buy 2 blandas or one molote. When I got back to Oaxaca, I found out from Lety that molotes aren’t easy to find, as they’re usually the kind of food sold in driveways of private houses on Sunday mornings. If only I’d known, I would have bought a bagful.

But perhaps as much as my memories of the food I ate and the art I saw, I think I will treasure the brochure I found at the church for “Neuróticos Anónimos.” According to the brochure, “Neurosis” is “caused by a person’s innate egoism that keeps him from having the ability to love.” It advises the reader to read and answer the quiz in the calmest possible manner, with the most honesty possible. The questions include, among many, “Do you believe the whole world is watching you?” “Do you lie without necessity?” “Do you do things that you consider stupid?” “Do you live disgusted with the entire world?”

So in Ocotlán, I ate several things I’d never eaten before, saw an artist’s home, and learned that I’m not as neurotic as I think I am.