Friday, August 31, 2007

Tacos arabes y orientales

I was really excited to try these. I just loved the idea of “Oriental tacos.” I didn’t expect flying carpets or Buddha figures, but I’d read a little bit about “tacos arabes” in Puebla on Chowhound, and I’d imagined a beautiful collision between shwarmas and tacos to create something completely, fabulously new.

So after three months of thinking about them, I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed when I finally got to La Antequera in Colonia Reforma, on Calzada Porfirio Diaz a few blocks north of Belisario Dominguez. The menu listed quesadillas, tortas, and two types of tacos, “arabes” and “orientales.”

“What’s the difference?” I asked.

“Arabes are larger, orientales are smaller.”

A truly unexciting answer. Still, I ordered one of each and a side of “cebollas,” imagining unctuous, rich, sautéed onions.

When they arrived, they just sat there like limp rags. The “arabe” taco had, instead of a corn tortilla, a slightly thicker bread around it. It wasn’t quite like pita, a little chewy, a little floury. The bread had good flavor, and the meat inside it was salty and flavorful also, but there was nothing else going on. It came with a side of tart red salsa, and I sprinkled it on liberally, but there was nothing else to help it gain some dimension. The onions turned out to be quite pale, not at all caramelized as I’d hoped, and watery to boot.

The “orientale” was a smaller version, with a tortilla wrapped around. Just like the waiter said.

I think the experience could have been different in a group. I can imagine a happy table of friends sitting around a plate filled with meat, another plate stacked high with hot pita-like breads, drinking beer and making tacos one after the other. But my two sad little tacos and even sadder bowl of chopped onions wasn’t that.

If you are meat-lover, you are more likely to fall head over heels in love with the "carne frita" or fried meat of pork at El Biche Pobre.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Oaxacan breads and sweets, part I

This is for my sister, who can happily spend a day looking in bakery windows and display cases, maybe tasting a mouthful or two, but really just happy to see rows and rows of sweet things.

Mexican sweets and breads are a mystery to me. There are so many varieties, each with their own name, and I have yet to find a source that will give me all the information I crave. In the markets, a stall may specialize only in pan de yema, an eggy bread with a light anise flavor, or in a chewy, flat roll with a hard crust and pink sugar sprinkled on top. Then there are sweet sellers, with little stacks of honeyed, sticky cookies and cones filled with white cream. By the doors of Mercado Juarez and on corners around Oaxaca, there are several women selling alegrias, “joy” bars made of amaranth and piloncillo, the brown sugar sold in little cone-shaped cakes, and similar bars made with peanuts or pumpkin seeds, as well as round flats of pecans embedded in a crumbly brown sugar. I’ve seen several street vendors sitting around with cases filled with bright gelatins and little flans, clearly specializing in anything that can quiver. Then there are those women with the huge glass jars of stewed fruits in syrup. I haven’t even begun to describe the more modern bakeries and their enormous range of offerings. And apparently, if I go to Puebla or San Cristobal de las Casas, I will find sweets that can’t be found here in Oaxaca, trays of caramels and candies and things I cannot even dream of. The only thing I have really grasped so far are “nieves” and “paletas,” the sorbet-like ice creams and popsicles that taste proudly and intensely of fruit.

To be honest, I’ve been reluctant to really try and taste, as I will generally pick eggs over pancakes, a slice of pizza over a cookie, a piece of levain bread over a tart. And if I do have something sweet, I want it to be small and perfect, like a piece of very dark chocolate or a scoop of ice cream from Il Laboratorio del Gelato. I hadn’t gone out of my way to try more than the few desserts that had come my way, as there was so much mole to be eaten and I feared wasting time eating things that were sugary and sub-par. But considering that I’ve been going around saying I don’t like Mexican desserts and breads, without trying more of them, I realized was being quite unfair. I’ve been missing my sister so much, I wanted to do what she would do, if she were in Oaxaca.

So I decided to spend Saturday afternoon perusing 3 different bakeries in a 2-block radius around the zocalo. I found two more bakeries in this area on my way home, but decided to save them for another day, as my hands were full of bread. I had also started frequenting the enormous bakery, Pan Bamby, on Porfirio Diaz at the corner of Independencia, and so I’m adding that to this post, too. I only bought one pastry or bread at each bakery, so I can’t really speak with authority, but at least I am starting to get a sense of what is out there.

Pan Bamby is the largest bakery I’ve seen in Oaxaca. In the evenings, it’s full of people piling their trays high with bread, buying 10 or 20 rolls, loaves, and pastries. It sells what is expected, the same stuff I see at the giant supermarkets and the smaller weekend markets, but in greater varieties and quantities. So they sell bolillos, the torpedo-shaped white crusty rolls, for a peso a piece; conchas with their swirl of crumble on top, numerous kinds of flaky pastries filled with chocolate or jam or just dusted with sugar.

Their bolillo was terrible, even though it was fresh and warm and the crust crackled promisingly. It just didn’t have any flavor.

But then I had a sweet, soft croissant-shaped roll, with a very tender crumb and such an appealing, lovable flavor, like Hawaiian bread or Portuguese sweet bread. I also had a very good bandilla, a long, rectangular pastry of flaky layers, topped with sugar, a perfect light cena with tea. My neighbor had left me a bag of their garlicky breadsticks when she went back to Iowa, and they were strangely addictive, as well as scarily durable.

Fidel Integral, which specializes in whole-wheat breads, is on the same street further south, except that at that point, Porfirio Diaz has become 20 de Noviembre. Located between Hidalgo and Trujano, just north of Mercado Juarez, Fidel isn’t as large but I could get a sense of what breads must be available by seeing what Fidel chose to make in whole wheat form. Fidel also sells bolillos and conchas and bandillas. They also make a fantastic whole wheat roll, just a simple dinner roll that has great flavor, so great that it’s oddly addictive for something so plain. I also tried something a hard, crumbly sweet bread, shaped like a long, oblong stick, because it looked so much like these “butter sticks” in Korean bakeries I used to love. It tasted just as I had imagined it would, sweet but with a real wheaty flavor, and very good with a cup of coffee in the afternoon.

Walking south from Fidel, if you turn a left at the next corner, you will find yourself in front of Tartamiel. It definitely has the cutest logo, a smiling yellow bee with the tip of its tongue sticking amiably out of its mouth.

It calls itself a “pasteleria frances,” and it did seem to be aiming for a different tone. The English language is poor in only having one word, “bakery,” to describe a place that sells baked goods, when Spanish and French both distinguish between places that sell breads, panaderias or boulangeries, and places that sell cakes, pastelerias or patisseries. There was no way I could buy a cake to taste, but I did buy a little “tartaleta de queso,” and it was really quite good. The crust wasn’t so noteworthy, though it was sturdy and correct, but the cheese part I liked a lot. It was firm, like NY-style cheesecake, and it clearly wasn’t relying just on sugar to make itself appealing.

The last bakery, at least for this post, is Vasconia on Independencia, between 5 de Mayo and Reforma. This place is a little different, selling slices of creamy cake in a window swarming with bees, as well as empanadas with various savory fillings, bread rolls filled with chorizo and cheese, and your usual conchas and donas or donuts. I bought a little empanada filled with champinones, which weirdly is the Mexican way of describing basic button mushrooms, calling them by their French name to signify their high-class ways. “Hongos” describe the gorgeous wild mushrooms you can find in the Sierra Norte during the rainy season. I got excited when I took it out of its bag when I got home, because the top almost caved in as I pressed it, it was so delicately flaky, but overall, I liked it the least of everything I ate today. It felt right and looked right, but the flavor was a little off, probably because Mexican butter just isn’t great, and this was probably made with margarine anyway. I think it must be easier to get away without high-quality butter if the pastry is sweet rather than savory. The mushroom filling was pretty good, though, mixed with tomato sauce.

So it was a very good day! But I miss my sister more than ever.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Tacos in the crisp mountain air!

One of the things I love most about Mexico is how good food can just happen to you, right when you least expect it.

Last Wednesday, I got in a car at 7:30 in the morning to go with two Puente staff members to a town far, far away in the mountains, one of the communities they work with. They were going to check in on how the amaranth was growing, give advice to the farmers, and then lead a cooking with amaranth workshop. It was gorgeous country, but for the first time in my life, I felt carsick with every U-shaped curve. So when we stopped in Ayutla, a larger town on the way to Tejas, they asked if I wanted some breakfast. I stumbled out of the car, thinking, “Okay, something hot to drink might be good,” but that there was no way I could actually eat anything.

And then we sat down at a fonda that declared, with multiple exclamation points, that they had “caldo de pancita.” It smelled so good, suddenly my nausea went away and my appetite returned. I tried to figure out what “pancita” is, and in the end, I decided it must be some kind of beef belly, as it was lovely and smooth, soft and chewy at the same time. Garnished with some raw chopped onions, spicy chopped “chiles de canario” that were bright yellow with black seeds, and a spoonful or two of salsa, the soup made me instantly feel better. (But I don’t have photos because I felt too ill getting out of the car to think of documenting anything.)

On the way back, they asked again, “Should we stop to eat or just go home as quickly as possible?” Again, I wasn’t really hungry, but then one of them said, “Mmmm, tacos de tripa, que sabrosos,” and the question was answered. I started with two, one of tripe and one of “suadero,” which isn’t in my dictionary,” and then couldn’t resist and ordered two more, another suadero and one of “maciza,” which I think is some sort of thigh meat of beef. I don’t know if it was the cool mountain air, but they were so good! This time, I had my camera, but I kept forgetting to take a picture in my eagerness to eat. I finally managed to remember to take a photo of my very last taco.

It’s funny, Pola the agronomist asked me if I was vegetarian, because nearly all the volunteers are vegetarian. Ha ha ha ha! Given the type of American who comes to Oaxaca, Oaxacans must think all Americans are liberal, Bush-hating vegetarians. And even I am two out of three.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Update on Marco Polo

Mimi and Alex have arrived in Oaxaca, and they are like putty in my hands. I understand that kind of mind-meltdown, the joy of being on a vacation where someone else makes all the decisions for you, and I am happy to be that person. So off we went to “Marco Polo" on Sunday afternoon for a big, big lunch.

We started with a “cocktele de jaiba,” shredded crabmeat in a icecream sundae glass, and tostadas de cazon, or shark. Both weren’t particularly memorable, but we all loved the chopped salsa of raw onions and hot fresh peppers. When we had arrived, the waiter had whisked it away, so I was glad I had asked for it back. Shark turned out to be a shredded meat, firmer than most fish, almost with the texture of Korean dried squid, but with not much else going on. Not bad, just not as exciting as you think shark is going to be. And the crab cocktail was a little too sweet, even after I squeezed lime after lime into it.

But everything else was delicious. We had something called “vitaminas al vapor,” which turned out to be a seafood soup stuffed with all kinds of squid, octopus, fish, and shrimp, as well as bits of soft egg and a flavor to the tomato broth that we couldn’t quite identify. The broth was sweetish, but in the way fresh seafood can be sweet, not annoying. It actually did taste kind of nutritive, so maybe “vitaminas” is a reference to that?

We had red snapper "al horno," and then an order of pulpo, or octopus, cooked in butter and garlic. It was simple, meaty, and wonderful.

And finally, the bananas baked in the oven I had been wanting to eat for so long. This is one order, believe it or not, of one platano macho, or plantain, split in three parts, and then served with a little trio of rompope or Mexican eggnog, condensed milk called “leche Nestle,” and crema, which is more like crème fraiche than heavy whipped cream. The bananas had that tart flavor that I love about bananas and plantains here, that made the rich, creamy, roasted taste more striking by contrast.

We ate so much even Alex wasn't really hungry for dinner.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Ricas tostadas en El Pochote

This tostada is on my top 10 list of things I love to eat in Oaxaca, and pretty high up, too.

I’ve raved before the Mercado Organico at El Pochote before, but I will rave again. On the far wall from the entrance, next to the lovely Korean woman selling baked goods, there is a husband-and-wife pair that sells tostadas with a wide range of topping choices. A tostada is a crunchy taco, but not those U-shaped boats we all ate growing up, made by Taco Bello or Dos Pasos or whatever they called themselves. It's flat, a little ripply usually, and not as hard-crunchy as a tortilla chip, thinner and crisper.

There are an array of topping choices, sparkling with different colors. Each tostada starts with a thin base of black bean puree, and then, you have to start making some decisions. There are nopales, cactus paddles, one that is spicier than the other, but both deliciously tart and fresh. There are sauteed mushrooms, and one type has small kernels of corn, too. There's spicy chicken tinga, shredded white chicken breast, and then two kinds of requeson, a fresh ricotta-like cheese. One has green specks, herby, and the other is spicier and redder, but not actually hot. Just fragrantly spicy. You can thin avocado sauce drizzled over everything, as well as salsa. No matter what combination you get, one topping or 3, it's 15 pesos. You feel almost righteously healthy eating so many vegetables, but you're not making any sacrifices.

Probably my favorite is half spicy nopales, half mushrooms with bits of corn, topped with the spicy requeson, and then drizzled with both salsa and guacamole. It’s so simple and yet illustrates so perfectly what I love most about Mexican food, the way fresh, bright flavors and textures contrast and complement each other. (To think, melted cheese over everything represents Mexican food to most Americans!) The slightly tart nopales, the savory mushrooms, the spicy salsa, the creamy requeson, the crunchy tostada. It’s hard not to get it all over your face, but it’s worth every messy bite.

I think the wife recognizes me now, she smiled so broadly at me this weekend. It's my Saturday morning ritual!

(This is my 100th post. Can you believe it?)

Friday, August 24, 2007

Rice and greens, or arroz con quelites

Mercado Hidalgo is considered a little “fresa,” which literally means “strawberry” but is also Mexican slang meaning “snobby.” It’s located in upper-class Colonia Reforma, on Emilio Carranza on the block north of Palmeras, and its produce does sparkle. I saw stuff that I hadn’t seen in other markets in Oaxaca, like huitlacoche and fresh figs. I almost flipped when I saw the figs, as it doesn’t quite feel like summer unless I eat some fresh figs.

They also had beautiful bunches of quelites, a type of Mexican green, leafy vegetable, which inspired me to actually try one of the recipes from my new Mexican cookbook, “Alquimias y Atmosferas de Sabor,” by Carmen Ramirez Degollado, the chef and owner of the beloved “El Bajio” in Mexico City. I’ve been trying to read more Spanish, since I remember more from reading than hearing, but the only thing that really holds my interest enough to get through more than a few pages are cookbooks and food magazines. Unfortunately, reading them doesn’t challenge me as much as reading literature or news articles would because I know enough about how recipes are constructed to figure out most of what I read through context. For example, as I read a recipe calling for “chayotes tiernos,” I guessed that “tierno” meant fresh or tender, didn’t bother looking it up in the dictionary, and then was shocked when my Spanish teacher described her ex-boyfriend as acting very gentlemanly and very “tierno” on their first date. It turns a man can be as tender as a vegetable.

Rick Bayless translates “quelites” as “lamb’s quarters,” and recommends substituting it in his recipes with chard or collard greens in the U.S., some green with strong flavors. But I’m not sure that he’s describing the same thing I bought, as my “quelites” were more like spinach, just better. They had a similar sweet flavor, and reminded me a lot of Korean spinach with its leggy stems, but without the furry aftertaste of a lot of American spinach. Also, I know that the word “quelites” is used to describe a whole category of Mexican greens, including even amaranth leaves which are also called “quintonil,” and amaranth leaves are distinctly stronger and more bitter, more like chard.

But I digress. The recipe was very simple, a rice with greens dish, calling for the rice to be fried with pureed raw onion and garlic. Then broth was to be added with the bunch of raw quelites, two parts broth to one part rice. Like most Mexican recipes, it assumed a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader, and I wondered, “Stalks and all? Should I pulverize the leaves and make it a green rice? Should I throw the leaves in whole?” Finally, I decided to just destem them, chop them roughly and throw them in with the broth leftover from cooking my pork shoulder.

Well, I put in way too much broth, forgetting the leaves would emit a fair amount of water themselves, and I ended up with a rice with greens porridge. I mistakenly thought I could avoid burning the rice this time by adding more broth earlier on. I also think there’s a reason chicken broth is normally used to cook rice, not pork broth, because although the flavor was richer than it would have been with water, it wasn’t rich in quite the right way. But the quelites didn’t turn turd green, I got to try cooking with them, and I still enjoyed my rice mush very much. Thank God I had my shameless solitude.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Hot baked fish at Marco Polo

So my maniacal devotion to Rick Bayless continues, and I am going through his Oaxaca list of recommended restaurants like a pilgrim on the trail to a sainted relic. Monday was my day to eat fish, to give my body just a bit of a rest from the picadillo I ate on Sunday and the big pot of quinoa, chorizo, potato, and carrot I made on Saturday. So off I went to Marco Polo.

The restaurant has several locations, but it’s generally accepted that the best one is on Pino Suarez, the east side of El Llano or Parque Juarez, as it’s known on all the maps and to no one else. Given how far inland Oaxaca is, seafood is very popular, and the restaurant was crowded at four in the afternoon.

My first regret, as I looked at the menu, was that I was alone. So much I wanted to try, and yet how much could one woman eat? Shark (cazon) quesadillas, shark tostadas, shark all kinds of things, not to mention a whole section for cebiches and pulpos. I took a deep breath, told myself I could come back, and calmly ordered one dish: a filete de pescado al horno, or a filet of red snapper baked in their outdoor, wood-burning oven.

Honestly, when it finally arrived and I had already eaten half the bread basket, it didn’t look like much. But then I took my first bite and smiled. The fish had real flavor, its own flavor and more. I could taste the fire in which it had been cooked, the slight bite with the ground chiles sprinkled on it, and when I smeared a bit of chipotle mayonnaise on it, the fish just took off into outer space. It wasn’t at all undercooked, and of course, it wasn’t overcooked, just the perfect texture to give you something to chew, even as it melted away.

The little mound of rice it came with was very good, too, and I was sorry there was so little of it. Instead of tortillas, there was a dry bolillo, or torpedo-shaped hard roll, that did nothing to change my mind about Mexican bread, and then some flat tostadas, crispy and perfect for dipping into the darkly spicy salsa.

Sadly, because I had scraped every last bit of fish off its foil, I was too full to try the platanos baked in their oven, drizzled with a little crema. I am going to strong-arm my friends Mimi and Alex, who arrive this Saturday, into going with me again.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Tacos of picadillo, a.k.a., delicious shredded pork

The Mercado Sanchez Pascuas, just a little north of Quetzalcoatl with its bright green entrances on both Porfirio Diaz and Tinoco y Palacios, is probably my favorite everyday market in Oaxaca. It’s not as overwhelming as the Mercado Abastos, or as colorful as Mercado Juarez, and it doesn’t have the steamy meat market-slash-taco stands of Mercado 20 de noviembre, but it feels like a neighborhood market, and increasingly, like my neighborhood market. It’s smaller than the ones closer to the zocalo described in the all the guidebooks, and on a weekday afternoon, you might even think it was half-empty. But every Saturday and Sunday morning, it’s bustling with people buying fresh blandas, flowers, tamales, all kinds of produce, various jugos, and even some barro verde, the pottery with the dark green glaze. Unlike the surly people at Mercado Juarez, the people at Mercado Sanchez don’t mind if you handle and pick your fruit yourself. Because it’s smaller, you can also see more clearly where people are clustering to buy their chicken or pork and gauge which carnicerias have the freshest meat. It’s also easier to notice who has criollo tomatoes, those heirloom tomatoes that have so much more flavor, or even criollo avocados with their enormous pits and a high, clean taste, if somewhat less rich and creamy in flavor. (You can find some fantastic photos from

This past Sunday, after a fortifying breakfast of chocolatle atole and empanadas, I enlisted my Spanish teacher and friend Lety to help in sussing out the best places to get the ingredients for the picadillo pork tacos I planned to make that afternoon. She pointed in one direction to indicate her favorite carniceria, but from across the market, I misjudged where she was pointing and had already started talking to a woman in a very smelly stand when she came over and whispered, “I meant that one.” I murmured my apologies, pretending I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted, and we quietly scurried all the way to the other end of the meat section.

I didn’t know if I could literally translate English phrases for pork cuts into Spanish, if pork shoulder is “espalda” or “pierna” or something completely different, so to our new butcher, I just asked for the cut of meat that had a lot of “grasa” or fat. “Ah, espaldita!” he said. He proudly showed off the layer of fat glistening on the piece of pork, and Lety nodded with approval. Later, when I asked her if I should trim some of the fat off before we cooked it, she said, “But that will remove the flavor!” God, I love Mexico.

After seeing the “picadillo” recipe in Rick Bayless’s cookbook last weekend, I had spent all week just thinking about it, when and where I should buy the meat, whether I should cook it on Saturday or Sunday. I had read the recipe over and over, charmed by the thought of taking shredded, cooked pork shoulder, and then browning it, scraping it up as it stuck to the pot, with chopped onion, a handful of raisins, a handful of chopped almonds, a little cinnamon, an even smaller pinch of freshly ground cloves, and a roasted tomato-pasilla oaxaquena sauce. But I’d never even tried it, so I was thankful to have Lety there to say, “Oh, it looks a little dry,” or “Add a little sugar.”

The picadillo was as easy as promised, even though it took about 2 and half hours to make, to simmer the pork shoulder with all its fat, to grind the cloves in a little molcajete, to chop and toast the almonds, to make the sweet smoky salsa, and then to cook it all together. But it was very laid-back cooking, though there was a moment when I realized trying to understand Spanish and chop almonds at the same time is the kind of multi-tasking that is yet beyond me. But otherwise, we chatted easily as she told me about the terrible people at her workplace and I told her about the horrible blind date I went on before I left New York.

Lety even showed me how to make horchata:

1) Carefully clean and wash about 1 cup of rice. Let it soak in water about 2 inches above the rice with some broken canela, the equivalent probably of 2 American cinnamon sticks. Let it sit for about 2 hours, until the rice gets soft enough that you can pinch a kernel in half.

2) Blend everything in the blender as smooth as possible.

3) Strain into a pitcher, reserving any rice-cinnamon paste for “atole de arroz.” (I only had a strainer, but I imagine a cheesecloth would be better.)

4) Add water and sugar to taste. Make sure to stir it up immediately before pouring it into a glass, as some sediment will sink to the bottom.

Incredibly clean and pure. I can totally see myself doing this in Brooklyn on a hot summer day. Other recipes I’ve seen say that you should add ground almonds, and I imagine that would be wonderful, too, as well as some pureed bright red, tiny cactus fruits with their prickly armor of skin.

I chopped up some jicama, radishes, avocado, and pickled jalapeno for garnish and heated up some of this week’s pot of black beans while Lety warmed and wrapped the tortillas in a towel. With the bright pink pitcher of horchata and a little leftover mezcal, we had a very colorful feast.

And the picadillo I liked as much as last Sunday’s supper of greens, onions, and cheese tacos. It wasn’t at all spicy—which Lety assured me was normal—but it had such a range of flavors, from smoky to rich to slightly sweet and nutty. It was complex and yet easily appealing, almost as warming as Lety’s company. Definitely one to add to the taco buffet dinner I intend to host when I get back to New York.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Update on mole-eating progress

Don’t let people tell you that “estofada” is one of the seven moles of Oaxaca. It isn’t, as delicious as it is, not according to people I trust. According to Susana Trilling, moles always involve cooking the meat separately from the sauce, while an estofada translates literally as a stew, the meat cooked in it. Soledad Ramirez agrees that estofada is not a mole. I thought by getting a mole sampler at Los Pacos, I would finally try all seven, but they only had six and it included estofada.

Counterclockwise from the bottom darkest one, we were told they were negro, amarillo, verde, chichilo, estofada and rojo. The people at Los Pacos were nice, and even gave Erin a bib to eat with, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the restaurant because the high prices weren’t justified by the food, which could be had in equal quality elsewhere.

Also, I’m now thoroughly confused because I can’t figure out the difference between rojo and coloradito. Los Pacos’s rojo tasted just like coloradito to me. Googling recipes online doesn’t help, as there’s no consensus, but again, according to Susana Trilling, only coloradito and negro include chocolate. So what the hell are the people selling at Chocolate Mayordomo as prepared rojo mole paste? It may be that I haven’t had both, just one, I just don’t know which one.

At least I know I had chichilo for sure, as I ordered it expressly at Casa del Tio Guero, or “Uncle Whitey’s House.” It was the day my camera died for the first time, so there’s no photographic record. In addition to burning chiles, a tortilla is burnt, making chichilo even smokier than mole negro. It’s generally served with green beans and vegetables, as well as meat. It had a fruitier, tarter flavor, while being bitter at the same time, and frankly, I didn’t like it, but Susana Trilling says it’s very good, and I imagine it’s the kind of thing where I need to try a better version.

Sadly, manchamantel, or tablecloth stainer, remains elusive.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Delicious pork fat at El Biche Pobre

As I ate lunch on Wednesday, I thanked God that I had run 2.5 miles uphill towards Monte Alban earlier that day. My judgment may have been clouded by drink, as I started drinking my Bohemia beer and eating tortilla chips like a madwoman before my food came, but I have never tasted such delicious pork fat in my life as I did at El Biche Pobre.

I had spent nearly all morning in the kitchen at Puente, trying to make amaranth-corn tortillas from scratch. I had boiled dried corn kernels with limestone the day before and let it sit overnight, and then rinsed carefully and rubbed away at each husk, almost individually, as per these instructions (which turned out to be wrong since the corn kernels need to be cooked 15 minutes or more). Rather than take a handful of corn and amaranth to the molino, I’d lugged my molcajete to work on the bus and decided to grind away by hand. One of the staff laughed and said I was “una mujer de campesinos,” or a peasant woman. The temperature in the office is cool, even in the kitchen, but I started to get so hot as I mashed away at that corn, and when I tried to grind the amaranth, I had to deal with the sticky paste that stuck to the mortar, the pestle, me, and everything else it came in contact with.

For all that work, since I hadn’t made very much masa or dough, I got 6 measly little tortillas. (They had good flavor, but they were too inflexible to be tortillas, memelitas maybe.) I ate one of them, and other than a banana, nothing else from breakfast to 3 p.m., when I left work. I felt like a crazed, hungry animal.

I’d never heard of “El Biche Pobre” until that day, but I caught a mention of it in a TripAdvisor thread and when I Googled it, it turned out to be one of Rick Bayless’s favorites. As I am becoming increasingly maniacal in my devotion to him, that was enough to get me lurching towards Calzada de la Republica 600, at the corner of Hidalgo, just two blocks east of El Llano park.

“El Biche Pobre” calls itself a “comedor familiar,” which I assume means “down-home food.” They’re particularly famous for their botanas, or bar snacks, and instead of getting a proper meal of soup, rice, meat, and tortillas, I opted for the botana plate for one, one of all of the above. Of course, since I was eating bar snacks, I had to have a beer.

Immediately, I knew I was somewhere special. The chips that came in the plastic basket were perfect, crispy, completely dry and without grease, with so much flavor they didn’t need salt, maybe just a dab or two one or the other of their salsas, green and red, and their guacamole. I was also given a little bowl of pickled dried peppers, onions, and garlic. I sucked the garlic out of their little papery jackets, licking my fingers and not caring what I looked like. That was probably the beer. I’d had pickled garlic before, but not like this, where they had been softened by cooking and then marinated in a vinegary sauce, like an escabeche. The dried peppers were also fantastic, smoky and intense but not so hot that I couldn't taste anything else.

When my plate came, I honestly felt the slightest bit of disappointment. I’d read that their botana plate for one was huge, and this, while ample, wasn’t actually incredible. And then they brought out the second plate.

On the first plate, clockwise from the top: a fried taquito with guacamole; a piece of cold pork with avocado, tomato and pickled jalapeno; a quesadilla with cheese and epazote; a chile relleno; some pieces of pork milanesa; a bocadillo de papas or potato croquette; and the piece-de-resistance in the middle, “carne frita” or fried meat.

On the second plate, clockwise from the tamal: a tamal of frijoles sitting on top of another piece of cold meat; a memela with lard and crumbled cheese; a tostada with potatoes; and another tostada with beans, cheese, tomato and avocado.

I will only touch upon what truly moved me.

When I put a small piece of the “carne frita” in my mouth, I almost shouted, “What is this?” When I asked the waiter, all he could say was “meat of the pork,” “meat of the pork,” so I still don't really know what made it so delicious. I am not normally a huge pork fat eater. I love fat for the way it conveys flavors, not so much in and of itself, but this made me realize that just plain old fat could be wonderful. It wasn’t like carnitas that melt in your mouth, or the porchetta-like roast I made last winter that practically collapsed in its own fat. It held itself together, with a good chewy texture, a lovely crispy exterior, and a melting layer of fat in the middle. Such a tiny piece to pack such a punch.

The chile relleno was my second favorite. Instead of using a fresh chile, they had taken a dried pasilla chile and filled it with more pork, shredded this time. It had a slightly sweet flavor, but almost the flavor of sweet hot peppers rather than a more straightforward, insipid sweetness.

The memela was very simple, just a crunchy, almost tough, corny little oblong, brushed with nothing more than “asiento” or lard and garnished with a little crumbled cheese. Its simplicity was its charm, like eating a perfect baguette with butter from French cows.

I loved the pork milanesa, more than any other I’ve had here, because the breading was greaseless and well-salted. Is “milanesa” really mean that it’s from Milan? And is “milanesa” preparation related at all to Japanese fried pork cutlet, donkatsu? Sometimes, I'm embarrassed to say all my lefty politics goes out the window when I think about the food benefits of globalization.

Everything else was very good, except the bocadillo de papa which was just boring.

I staggered out of the restaurant almost dazed. I had to get home as quickly as possible so I could lie down, but having woken up at 6:30 in the morning to go running with my neighbor and her friend, my legs hurt. But I still stopped for a cantaloupe paleta at Popeyes.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Playing with amaranth

You, dear friends and family, know that the word “macrobiotic” makes me itch. It is only slightly higher than the bottom-rung words “raw food” and slightly below “vegan” in my hierarchy of words that describe things I want to eat. I love quinoa, I love those Heritage Flakes made by Nature’s Path made of “ancient grains,” even as I’m tittering at my cereal box, but amaranth is, in the U.S., the province of people who need gluten-free foods, and although I would never sneer at other’s misfortune, I’ve never felt a need to share in their misfortune. So I’d never tasted amaranth beyond what was put into the aforementioned Heritage Flakes until last Monday. And now I’m eating amaranth until it comes out of my ears.

¿Por que? It’s my volunteer job to cook it, play with it, and of course, taste it. It’s the best volunteer, nonpaid job I’ve ever had, even more evidence that the gods are smiling on me.

Amaranth, or amaranto en espanol, is one of those forgotten plants that seem to promise everything. It has incredibly high amounts of protein, calcium, and other essential nutrients, much more than corn, and these nutrients manifest themselves in a form more easily digestible and absorbable than in other foods. When combined with corn or other grains, it even forms a complete protein. It’s native to Mexico and Latin America, but amaranth was significant in religious rituals for indigenous peoples here, and so was stamped out by the Spanish.

Puente’s work in community health in rural Oaxaca therefore has a simple, straightforward message: eat more amaranth. They’re working with farmers to grow it, especially since it commands four times the price of corn, and they work with women in the communities to develop new recipes incorporating amaranth into their diet. Malnutrition in Oaxaca is more the result of a lack of variety in the diet rather than a straightforward lack of food; in fact, obesity and diabetes are leading causes of death here.

Although the organization has already developed a fair number of recipes using amaranth flour, amaranth leaves, and puffed amaranth, which is usually sold in Oaxaca in honey-amaranth bars called “alegrias,” meaning “joys,” but they haven’t done much experimenting yet with the seed or grain itself. So everyday, I think about what typical foods in the pueblos could incorporate some amaranth grain without being too strange, without requiring foreign or expensive ingredients. That means most American hippie-gluten-averse-health-nut recipes are out, and even a fair number of ingredients that I think of as Mexican but aren’t really available to poor rural Oaxacans, like cheese or tomatillos or chicken. In any case, since this is my first time actually trying to create recipes, it’s a relief not to have the whole world at my disposal.

They don’t expect me to perfect recipes, just to see what works and perhaps more important, what absolutely doesn’t work, before they encourage the women in their communities to experiment themselves. So I started by just cooking amaranth straight, trying to understand what basic properties it had, what basic flavor it had, and thinking about how it would complement the flavors in existing rural Mexican food. The moment I tasted my first mouthful, I learned something very elemental: wash it first. It was so embarrassing to eat gritty, gummy amaranth, even standing alone in the kitchen.

I did eventually find a better way to cook it: either to boil it, covered, in twice as much water as amaranth for 15 minutes, or to boil it uncovered in a lot of broth, like rice or pasta soup, for 25 minutes. This way, the grains stayed distinct, even if they still stuck together, and they retained a pleasantly nutty flavor. At this point, though, I don’t know how well the flavor and texture are going to go across with the communities. As the program director put it, while tasting the chicken soup with amaranth, you’d have to be okay with having millions of tiny little grains in your mouth. (My friend Sharon, who has a fear of small, round things, would absolutely die.)

One of the best things about this job is that I’m forced to get over my fear of cooking really basic Mexican food. I thought amaranth, even when gummy, would taste pretty good mixed up with nopales, or cactus, and diced tomato, lime juice, and cilantro, like the salad I’d been served when I visited a community with the executive director a month ago. So I went out and bought cactus paddles, already de-spined and cleaned, at the Gigante grocery store in the neighborhood. Most Mexican recipes for nopales don’t even bother telling you how to cook it, they just say, “Cook the nopales and then…” So I had to Google some English-language recipes. Although Rick Bayless says they’re best when grilled, I thought I should cook it in the way they would most likely be cooked in the pueblos and boiled them with some water and salt for 15 minutes, until tender. I rinsed them carefully to minimize their slimy tendency and was surprised to find they had a tart, bright flavor of their own, separate from the lime juice and cilantro I was ready to add. Nopales are usually sort of slimy anyway, and the gumminess of the amaranth wasn’t too weird in combination. This was successful enough that a couple of Puente staff had it for lunch with salsa and tostadas.

But most exciting of all, I’m being forced to make tortillas from scratch! Tortillas, tamales, and atole all come from the same base, dried corn kernels that are boiled with limestone to remove the tough outer husks and then ground very finely and combined with water to make a dough for tortillas or tamales, or added to boiling water and sometimes chocolate to make a filling hot drink, like champurrado. Puente would love to know if a handful can just be thrown into the pot to make masa. My first attempt was okay, tasty the way a whole-wheat, crunchy piece of bread can be tasty, just not tortilla-like at all. I had another pot sitting overnight, so we’ll see what happens today with a different ratio of corn to amaranth.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Tacos of garlicky greens and cheese, plus beans

There are several things that make cooking in Mexico very different from cooking in my Brooklyn apartment:

• Stoves that won’t turn down to low
• No oven
• Cheap, thin pots and pans with uneven bottoms that make the hot stove even less forgiving
• Garlic that comes in tiny, intense cloves and only white onions, rawer and better for Mexican cooking, but not complex
enough for Italian pasta sauces
• Not enough bowls
• I miss my good chef’s knife!

Still, there are quite a few advantages. Last Saturday, I cooked a pot of black beans, practically cackling with glee that I had epazote, which Rick Bayless says to use “if you can get it.” They were the best beans I’ve ever made, if not the best I’ve ever tasted, tender but with distinction, full-bodied with the incomparable flavor of epazote, and so easy, as all I had to do was boil up a cup of beans in water covering them with a sprig of epazote for two hours, adding more water when necessary and a bit of salt near the end. They didn’t even need to be pre-soaked! I may cook a pot of beans every weekend while I’m here. And if I can smuggle some fresh epazote past customs and into my Le Creuset dutch oven in Brooklyn, they might be even better than they were in the cheap, thin, misshaped pot I had to use, though admittedly, there may be some special risks to smuggling packages of herbs and weeds from Mexico into the U.S.

On Sunday, I decided to make a lunch of tacos, of garlicky greens and fried onions, from my beloved Rick Bayless cookbook. Most of his recipes are eminently and invitingly doable, but with my crappy stove and my reluctance to stock up on all kinds of spices, I’ve decided to stick to simple dishes and try making at least one kind of salsa a week, which is still an exciting goal.

I started by making Bayless’s Yucatecan simmered salsa of roasted tomatoes and fresh peppers, substituting serranos for the habaneros I couldn’t find. I roasted the tomatoes on a metal comal covered in foil right on top of the stove, until the skins were black and splitting open. After peeling them the best I could, I threw them in the blender. In the meantime, I sautéed chopped white onions until dark gold and sweet. I added the pureed tomatoes and two chiles, halved. It wasn’t as spicy as I’d hoped, but it was still such a joy to spoon it up, to remember with such brightness how delicious tomatoes could be. I wonder if this is what it’s like to fall in love again with someone you’ve been married to for 20 years.

For the greens, I had some fresh green chard from the organic market. That got washed, sliced into ribbons, and then blanched for a minute or two in boiling water. Then I thinly sliced white onions and sautéed them until dark and sweet, threw in some chopped garlic, and then the chard until it was warmed through, adding a bit of salt. Meanwhile, the black beans from the day before were reheating in another pot.

I even walked to “Las Delicias de Etla” on Independencia, past the Basilica de la Nuestra Soledad, for my cheese to try to ensure that the queso fresco I bought was truly “fresco” from Etla, where all great Oaxacan cheese is born.

Ah, the juggling of pots and pans! The mug I had to fill with crumbled cheese, the juice glass with salsa! My little sink was overflowing. But I sprinkled queso fresco all over the beans and greens, made sure my blandas, the big floppy tortillas, were warm, and sat down for a very good meal. It was so satisfying, and almost surprising to taste the sweet onions mixed in the slightly bitter, strong flavor of the chard. The beans were even better reheated, and the salsa added a tang that would otherwise have been missed. It was simple meal, despite the number of burners I had going at one point, but it was the best thing I could have eaten on that Sunday afternoon. It felt so good to be cooking again!

This weekend, I’m going to make shredded pork tacos with a tomato-chipotle salsa.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Beginning my explorations in Colonia Reforma: Ecatepec

The walk from home to Puente takes over 30 minutes each way, and not all of it is pretty, but I'd rather walk than take the bus because it's the only exercise I get, and because I can take mental notes on places to eat. The office is located in Colonia Reforma, an upper-class, semi-suburban neighborhood, a litte north and east of the historic center. This means that in addition to your usual tortas, tacos, and other street food antojitos, of which there are still plenty, there is also a spiffier Gigante grocery store and the original branch of Pan & Co., a bakery that makes the only bread I’ve really enjoyed, as its schtick is European-style artisanal bread. Seriously, their ciabatta is amazing, and even better with a bit of passion fruit-coffee jam from the organic market. Colonia Reforma is not a tourist neighborhood, so I have no guidebook to review, just my eyes and my nose. It’s intoxicating.

I left work yesterday with a mission to get to the tacos arabe place on Calzada Porfirio Diaz, strongly recommended to me by a sister of a friend, as I thought pita bread would be a nice change from tortillas, but on my way, I saw that Ecatepec, a restaurant I had assumed was too expensive for me, had a 40-peso “comida corrida” or set meal for lunch. Located on the corner of Belisario Dominguez and Colegio Militar, it has a proud, whitewashed look, very spick-and-span and middle-class. It also declares that it is both a restaurant and a “galeria,” and true enough, there were some folksy mixed-media paintings on the wall of indigenous subjects.

I chose the sopa de lentejas, or lentil soup, and the rice as my “sopa seca.” Mexican menus generally won’t describe what’s actually in a soup or on a plate, unlike the American trend of telling you not only about the provenance of the vegetables, herbs, and meat that went into the dish, but also how the salt was harvested and the how freshly the pepper was ground. So when I got it, I was pleasantly surprised to find it had been cooked in a fish broth, with small chunks of a grayish-white fish. It had the particular briny flavor of all fish broths without being fishy, which I’d never tasted with lentils before, and I liked it a lot.

Mexican rice is generally considered a “dry soup” because the rice is basically boiled in broth until the liquid evaporates, rather than steamed. It’s very smart as the stoves won’t turn down low to simmer. Also good, and simple with bits of carrot and corn kernels. I love American corn, but sometimes, I like Mexican corn even more, the way it doesn’t assault you with its sugary sweetness.

For my “guisado,” which literally means stew but also “main dish,” I had a hard time choosing between the chicken in cacahuate sauce, or peanut sauce, and the “coliflor relleno de queso,” because I was so curious about what cauliflower stuffed with cheese would look like. Well, it turned out to look just like a knish, except it didn’t sit like a brick in my stomach. It was actually really good, the simple smoothness of the steamed cauliflower with the sharp saltiness of the queso fresco, with the whole thing was just coated in a light, fried batter.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find the coliflor came with sliced avocado, sliced tomato, and a delicious salad of nopales, or cactus, in a chunky, tomato salsa. I didn’t know until I cooked nopales myself for the first time last week, but nopales when just cooked have a tart, tangy flavor of their own, separate from any salsa or lime juice you might add. The salsa was a good way to mask how slimy nopales can get. I like nopales, even when they are oozing their okra-like slime, but it’s a little disconcerting when you can see the thread of slime stretching between your fork and the plate.

But best of all, ironically enough after my quest for tacos in pita bread, were the tortillas. They were large, about the size of a dinner plate, and revealed multiple, thin layers when you tore one in half, almost like Malaysian roti. Like perfectly cooked East Asian white rice, their blandness was their banner of pride, because then you could taste how perfectly cooked and almost nutty it was.

Dessert was extra, and I was stuffed, so I walked on towards the Oaxaca Lending Library to return my books, but by the time I got there, I’d digested enough to want a pecan popsicle at Paleteria Popeye. Seriously, why don’t we have popsicles with real flavors in the U.S.? This popsicle had even the slight bitterness of real nuts. I’ve had probably 10 popsicles in the past 2 months, compared to maybe one in the previous 10 years, and will probably have 10 more before I leave. God, I'm so lucky.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Tlamanalli in Teotitlan del Valle

So I went to Teotitlan del Valle to look visit some rug workshops and eat at the famed Zapotecan restaurant, Tlamanalli, but ended up instead just eating at Tlamanalli with three guys who went to business school in London together, and who are now taking a roadtrip through Mexico, a la “Y tu mama tambien,” but without the drugs and the hot older woman. Life is so funny when you’re traveling alone.

This whole past week was a bit of an adjustment. I've started volunteering at Puente a la Salud Comunitaria, an organization that promotes amaranth as a way of fighting malnutrition in rural Oaxaca. Although it’s been good to have some structure in my life, I’m now at the phase of my adventures where every friend from ICO is gone, Erin and Elena are gone, and I now have to face what it really means to travel alone. The upside is that life is really cheap when you have no friends. The downside is that you have no friends.

Luckily, the one thing I am good at doing alone is eating. I feel so awkward at a bar by myself, and a club would be my worst nightmare, but give me some utensils and something to eat, and my hunger will squash any feelings of embarrassment. I had asked my neighbor if she wanted to go to Tlamanalli with me today, but she already had plans to visit a mezcal factory. I thought about waiting to make the trip until Mimi and Alex get here, but then I thought, what if it’s so good, I want to go again?

Teotitlan del Valle is one of the small towns surrounding Oaxaca, and its cottage industry is its handwoven rugs. They’re quite expensive, as Oaxacan handicrafts go, but at the prices they charge, they still only get paid $1/hour for their labor. Some of them are garish, more than a few inexplicably incorporate Matisse’s blue woman collage cut-out, but most are beautiful, with expensive colors that come from natural sources, like the cochineal bug, which produces a deep, rich red. I’ve been tempted to buy a rug or two, but I recently decided that if I buy a rug at all this year, it will be in Morocco.

So what really drew me to Teotitlan del Valle was Tlamanalli, a restaurant that makes a mole negro that Rick Bayless describes as “what dreams are made of.” It’s a foodie pilgrimage site, raved about in the NY Times, Saveur, Chowhound, with even a Culinary Institute of America podcast of Abigail Mendoza, the owner and chef demonstrating how to make mole negro. The fact that you have to get out of Oaxaca only makes it more magical to the kind of people who like to drive around the French countryside eating at restaurants with Michelin stars.

But when I got there around 2, prime comida-time, the restaurant was empty, save for a table of three guys in their 30s. They were speaking excellent English, but with a peculiar range of accents, from slightly European to slightly British to slightly American.

When they realized I was there alone, they pulled up a chair and invited me to join them. They turned out to be Luis and Alberto, two Mexicans from the Yucatan who had studied with Jeff, the American, in London last year, and who were now on vacation together. Jeff, despite his absurdly American name, had the most un-American accent of them all, and it turned out he had grown up all over the world, including high school in Madrid, and was now living in Finland working for Nokia. He looked like a Scandinavian Boy Scout, too, a clean-cut blond with pale-blue eyes, while Luis looked like a kindly investment banker losing a bit of hair at the top of his head but not his sense of humor. Alberto, the dark, good-looking one, looked like the kind of guy that goes to business school but doesn’t think he belongs there, with a piece of jade on a red cord around his neck and talk of his surfing gear that he was taking to Puerto Escondido. They had the easy camaraderie of old friends—Jeff and Luis even had a story about having once bribed their way out of a Russian jail—and a “kitty” out of which they paid all their expenses. They had one whole day in Oaxaca before heading out to the coast, and they had driven out to Teotitlan del Valle to eat at Tlamanalli because they heard it was really good. They thought it was funny, but not strange, that I had come out there by myself to eat, that I had come out to Oaxaca by myself to eat, though Alberto did remark that I was too skinny to be such a big eater.

It was the kind of encounter that only happens when you’re traveling: easy, of-the-moment, with no expectations. There was only the mildest undercurrent of flirtation, and more out of politeness than design, like the way gay men will sometimes flirt with straight women. (I think they were straight.) They were good conversationalists, and they knew about the kinds of things I was interested in, like San Sebastian, Spain, and pig-farming and the onset of industrialized poultry production in Mexico. Usually the words “business school” trigger all kinds of prejudice in me, but they were the kind of people I might meet in New York, unlike the hippie retirees I keep meeting, and I felt almost a homesick attraction to them. Of course, in New York, I would never end up eating with three strange guys in a random town in upstate New York and then get in their car when they offered me a ride back to the city. Only in Oaxaca.

So how was the food, you ask? Wonderful. It’s a homey place, with not-so-homey prices, but everything is done with great pride and care, as in the highest of high-end restaurants. I started with a complimentary shot of mezcal that was fiery but clean. It was good the restaurant was dark, as I was wearing a sundress and I could feel my Asian flush creeping up my neck and face. I skipped the soup to save room for dessert, and went straight to the chicken in mole negro, which was thinner than any mole I’ve had before, just barely coating the chicken. Just slightly sweet, very black, but not bitter, which now that I know how to make it, just amazes me that you can burn the hell out of the seeds and then balance it so that you only retain the smoky complexity and not the bitterness. Again, it was a piece of breast with actual flavor. In the U.S., my only hope in cooking white breast meat is to keep it tender and moist, as it’s the only way to make it palatable. Here, it can even be on the verge of dryness and yet still be flavorful, something you actually want to eat.

Sadly, they didn’t have the flan of elote, so I settled on a café de olla and a nieve of zapote negro, a fruit that Luis said looked like a green apple but with a black interior. Luis said he grew up hating it, that it gets made into a pudding in the Yucatan, but Alberto insisted that the ice cream tasted different than the zapote negro they’d eaten growing up. Jeff and I, with no childhood associations to burden us, decided it tasted like rich, sticky fig, made it into an icy sorbet.

It wasn’t cheap, among the more expensive meals I’ve had in Oaxaca, but definitely one of the most amusing. I know that I would get tired if life were only a string of encounters like this lunch, with nothing more permanent to give me ballast (sorry, what a horror of a mixed metaphor), but it’s nice to be reminded that surprises like this only happen when you’re eating alone.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Mi casa es tu casa

My sister wanted to know where I was living, and I don’t have much to report food-wise, as all I’ve been eating is amaranth (more on that to come).

I’ve moved to a smaller apartment, further into the building on Calle M. Bravo and away from the street, and it’s changed my life. My friends who were living in other apartments in the same building didn’t understand at first why I complained about the noise. “Our place is noisy too,” they would say, until they spent an hour or so in mine.

The landlady refused to lower the rent, even though my new place is half the size of my old place, but I didn’t care. I thought briefly about getting worked up, about being righteously angry or strategically firm, but even just thinking about it took more energy than I wanted to expend. In any case, I do like the new apartment so much more. It’s not just the noise, it’s the space. There must be good feng-shui.

It’s always been a beautiful building. Like many old-fashioned buildings in Oaxaca, the apartments are built around a central courtyard. The outside is a feeble sort of peach color, but the inside is a deep brick-red with very clean, fresh white columns and ceilings. Inside the courtyard, you can find a slim yet tall lime tree, an empty fountain, a dark pink bougainvillea just directly across from the front gate, and a riot of potted plants. I find my landlady so frustrating, it’s hard to reconcile her with all the plants gracing her courtyard, but nearly every courtyard I’ve seen is overflowing with plants so perhaps a love of greenery is a general Oaxacan characteristic, and not a sign of individual character.

Onti, the man who owns the sporting goods store facing the street, lives with his family in one group of rooms on the eastern side of the courtyard. There a bit of a tin roof over his portion, which makes me so happy every time it rains, and it rains everyday.

The rest is divided into 6 apartments, three in front and three even further back, quieter but not directly on the courtyard. Since Calle M. Bravo slopes steeply westward, the three in front on the western side of the courtyard are on a raised platform. These apartments were obviously designed to be short-term tourist apartments, as none are big enough for families and all are decorated to accord with Western ideas about home décor, but they’re lovely, if spare, with Mexican tiles in the bathrooms and kitchens and solid, dark wood furniture.

My apartment is just two rooms, a kitchen with a mini-fridge, a little table, and a small couch. You walk up three little steps to the bedroom, which has a built-in desk and a closet and then just enough room for a full-size bed with a little space to walk around it. It's very small, just big enough for me, but it makes me feel more secure than the other one. If I were a dog, I'd be the kind that likes to hide under the bed.

All the souvenirs I’ve bought as gifts and for myself fill the apartment and make it homey, while they just rattled around in the cavernous rooms of the other apartment. I like having a little table instead of a counter and barstools. I don’t mind having less counter space, I don’t even get mad when I see ants walking on the little counter space I have. I just kill them calmly and drink my tea. The woman living here before was complaining how she had requested 3 separate rooms, but she's clearly from California. If it were in Manhattan, it would be advertised as a one-bedroom (with closets!) and the rent would be $1600.

And now that I’m not so pissy and edgy from the street noise, I can actually appreciate how charming the courtyard is. Every morning, I go outside with my breakfast and drink my coffee sitting in the big green chair by my door. The mornings are so beautiful here, with enough sun to warm you without a jacket, but with just enough breeze to make you almost, just almost wish you had one.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Fighting malaise at El Tule

Last Sunday, eating an empanada de mole amarillo in El Tule, I realized that as long as I have an appetite, I will always be able to cheer myself up. There are those times when even I lose my appetite, like when No-No dumped me and I stopped eating for a week. But general malaise, pshaw!, I can easily get rid of just by going someplace I’ve never been in search for something good to eat.

Sunday morning, my last friends from ICO, who were also my neighbors, left Oaxaca. It had been a difficult, emotional time for them, and even watching them leave as a bystander was so exhausting, I considered forgetting my plans to go to El Tule and just getting in bed with “Black Lamb and Gray Falcon,” the book that will not end. I felt a little sad about being alone in Oaxaca and a little sorry for myself. But after I’d mopped the tiny footprint of my apartment, I was hungry, and I thought I should seize the opportunity to go try one of the famous empanadas de mole amarillo of El Tule, only available on Sundays.

El Tule is otherwise famous for its giant cypress tree, over 2000 or 4000 years old depending on who you talk to. I don’t know how tourism from the tree can be so lucrative when the entrance fee is 3 pesos, but the town seemed to be profiting well from the tree, as the buildings in the center were fresh and brightly painted, almost like Disneyworld, right down to the white-maroon-and-blue church.

I walked right by the entrance booth and around the church, looking for the empanada place recommended to me by my homestay mother, Patty, as “muy limpia.” I don’t know if it was the right place, but it was clean and airy, and I could imagine my middle-class homestay family eating there. It was little more than a straw-roofed shack with plastic tables and chairs, with an arcade attached to it playing loud American rock music, but it a pleasant place to sit on a sunny Sunday afternoon. There was a surly girl working the comal and an older woman swatting flies away from the chicharrones and a sweet-faced man watching a soccer game on TV. I sat down with a bottle of grapefruit soda, in a really good-looking bottle, and waited.

It was my fourth taste of mole amarillo, and if not the best, it was very very good. Instead of cilantro, it had the herby scent of hoja santa, the heart-shaped leaf. The mole sauce was thicker than at Iglesia de Carmen Arriba, but spicy, the kind of spiciness that doesn’t hit you right away but grows in the back of your throat. The tortilla vehicle was perfect, hot and toasty. I was so happy, I ate another empanada, of flor de calabeza and quesillo. I didn’t like it as much, but it didn’t matter.

I walked through the Mercado de Antojitos, or “Market of Appetizers,” across the street but was too full to eat anything else, but next week, I am eating barbacoa, or barbecued goat, for sure. Why don’t we have markets of appetizers in the U.S.? I’m sure it would do a great deal for depression.