Posted from Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico.
Dear Oaxaca Diary,
…okay maybe that’s a little too cheesy – or cursi, as our Spanish teacher is Xela would say…
[To see the accompanying photo post, click here.]
Last week Friday we braved the mountainous drive from beautiful Playa Zipolite, as well as the unbelievable traffic in the city of Oaxaca (in the last 30 minutes of our journey we advanced approximately 2 km/1.25 miles) to arrive in our surprisingly spacious studio apartment, our home base while we explore this great city and eat, eat, eat (okay, and do other things – maybe). Erik and I have been excited about this for a long, long time. In addition to being considered the Culinary Capital of Mexico, especially famed for its seven mole (pronounced “MOH-lay”) sauces and its hot chocolate, it has great colonial architecture, including countless old churches, scores of museums and galleries, innumerable music groups, and a diverse population with plenty of culture.
Our apartment is less than a ten-minute walk from the Zócalo, Oaxaca’s central park which is ALWAYS bustling with people, and we are able to walk anywhere we want. Of course we always love the idea of staying put in one place for awhile – and we are spending less than our monthly allotted amount for lodging. Win-win! The apartment has a kitchen, including a stove, an oven, a refrigerator, a microwave, and a blender. (I’ve already banned Erik from using it anymore to make blended beverages – the poor thing is made totally of plastic and doesn’t like being forced to grind up ice cubes.) There are a smattering of pots and pans and utensils, but unfortunately there is nothing to use inside the oven. So, I splurged… but that’s coming up.
Our first night in Oaxaca we were like kids in a candy store. We went to the Zócalo and got totally lost in excitement of the place. There were food vendors selling snacks (we had no willpower against trying street corn (elote) in a cup, decorated with mayonnaise, chili powder, and queso fresco – the cup is a good option because it keeps your teeth cleaner than eating off the cob), tons of vendors selling balloons and toys for kids, mariachi bands wandering about and serenading onlookers, clowns entertaining masses of young and old, more restaurants and cafes than you could shake a churro at, and thousands of people just being there and having a great time: old people, young people, large families, couples, individuals – and probably fewer gringos than we’ve seen yet in our travels. If this is Oaxaca, it may be very hard to get me to leave.
Our first week in Oaxaca also happened to be Semana Santa, the week before Easter, which is one of the biggest holiday/vacation weeks throughout the entire country (well, throughout most of Latin America, to be precise). There are people and festivities everywhere. There are also plenty of church processions through the streets in homage to Christ carrying the cross. Traffic is incredibly insane some days. Thursday night, for example, the entire downtown area was tied up because there are so many Catholic churches around here and they all had Holy Thursday mass. But the good thing was that that translated into more people having a great time at the Zócalo that night. It was the most packed I had seen it, and families stayed out eating snacks or cold treats on a stick, playing with toys, listening to music, until about midnight. Walking the neighborhood I found a bar that would have let me in for a 50-peso cover charge; I had no desire to pay 50 pesos (the guy in charge wouldn’t even let me look inside, although he promised it was a wonderful ambience) so I asked how long they’d be open that night… he said probably until 6am. Whoa – that’s a party!
I don’t know how much things will change next week once Easter is done and gone, but this week there have been many wonderful (and not-so-wonderful) musical performances in the Zócalo. Every Sunday afternoon the Oaxaca State Band performs, and they are truly fantastic; they are a concert band that plays more serious repertoire and a healthy selection of orchestral works arranged for band. Another pavilion band performs a few times a week during the lunch hour, and they are good as well but play more folk tunes and marches. An awesome marimba band plays Cuban danzón music every Wednesday while the older and wiser generation impresses the rest of us gawkers with their elegant footwork; they dress totally old-school with ties and hats, dance like it really means something, and make the world a better place for 90 minutes. Every night there are also at least three mariachi bands roaming the Zócalo, serenading people with their folksongs, traditional costumes, and large black sombreros. Once in a while you’ll see a guitar player and a trumpet player nonchalantly switch instruments (?!) before winding around a fountain to find another audience. Could the violinist play in a professional orchestra? Definitely not. Could the singer snag a role with the Chicago Lyric Opera? Hardly. Do I care? Not anymore.
Oaxaca is also renowned for its gigantic, humungous, colossal markets. These markets have tons of food vendors selling produce, spices, beans, or meats and fish, vendors selling textiles and souvenirs, restaurants (called comedores) that are virtually stacked on top of one another and offer amazing (and cheap) local food that you eat on a stool leaning over the counter, bread sellers, plenty of mescal stores, clothing stalls, and lots of chocolate shops (although 90% of them are the highly-respected chain Mayordomo). You want some grasshoppers to munch on? They’re here too and they’re a speciality of the area. I haven’t tried them yet, but I’m sure I will. It is NORMAL for us (especially me) to get completely, utterly, literally lost in the markets. For all intents and purposes, they are mazes, and they are indoors so you can’t look up to get your bearings.
We’ve been to a few different markets now and I certainly have my favorites. If I lived in Oaxaca, going to the market would be my favorite activity of the day. Everything is fresh, the people are bustling, and the vendors are friendly even when I stop in mid-sentence because I have no idea what the next word should be. I’m quickly learning what to buy and what to avoid. But if only I could switch my brain over to kilograms quicker! Ugh! But on our first trip to the market, we picked up: a pineapple, a brick of panela, chocolate, bananas, poblano peppers, chorizo, bread, limes, carrots, garbanzo beans, onions, canela, quesillo, plantains, and cilantro – all for about…. US $10. Are you understanding the allure of this city?
One day I had the brilliant idea that we should go to a certain market, have a fun breakfast of hot chocolate and pan de yema (traditional bread that people dunk into their chocolate) at a comedor, explore the market and the neighborhood for a few hours, then return to another comedor for lunch before heading home. Well. We were talked into having more for breakfast than we planned. I had an enmolada (folded tortilla) covered with mole negro and served with a healthy piece of steak and garnishes. Erik had a chorizo enchilada with mole coloradito. After our “light breakfast” we didn’t eat again for about nine hours. But it was SOOOO good.
As much as I like to cook, at night it’s really more fun to go out and look for street food in lieu of preparing dinner in our apartment. One night we sought the famed snack tlayuda (or sometimes clayuda). We watched a woman at her giant street cart (with stools and counter space for everyone) preparing some and she caught us watching. ALL vendors in this city are aggressive. At the comedores they practically push you into seats pretty much telling you, “You know you want to eat here so just sit down already.” Anyway, this woman saw us as foreigners with questioning expressions and gave us the spiel: what she was making, what else she could make for us, all the different options (she happened to be preparing a tlayuda of pigs feet at that moment), beverages, etc. There was a strange patience in the way she interacted with us, despite the fact that she really didn’t cease being a pushy vendor. In the end we each decided on a tlayuda with steak – pigs feet just wasn’t in the cards for us that night. And we should have shared one because they were HUGE. The diameter of the tlayuda before being folded over is probably around 14 inches.
But, despite the constant cravings for empanadas with mole amarillo and quesillo (Oaxaca cheese, which is a little like string cheese but oh-so-much better), or even a street hamburguesa (which, topped with two kinds of fried cheese, pineapple, onions, tomatoes, sauerkraut, a slice of unidentifiable processed lunchmeat, ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise at 12:30 a.m. is REALLY good), I’ve tried a couple of things in the kitchen so far…
First, and least adventurous, I made a pot of black beans in a style similar to those of Mexico. The next day I turned them into frijoles colados (refried beans) as my Guatemalan mamá called them. We used the refried beans to top tlayuda tortillas that we brought home, along with tomatoes, quesillo, and cilantro and made a little – actually, large – pizza. We made fried plantains one night, again using techniques we learned in Guatemala but with an ad-lib cream sauce made with plain yogurt, honey, and cinnamon. Deliciosa! I even made a traditional sweet garbanzo dish using panela, a dark and seriously delicious sugar (very molasses-y) that is sold in a brick, and a fresh pineapple. It was this recipe where I completely biffed the fact that I had purchased half a kilogram of garbanzos, not half a pound. Although the dish came out okay, we will be eating it for a long time. And sadly, the most painful part of the recipe – removing the skins from the garbanzos – took me 90 minutes instead of the recipe-directed 30 minutes because I had inadvertently more-than-doubled the recipe. But that’s fine. I have plans in the near future to cook with squash blossoms (practically on every street corner here) fava beans (only available during a small window in the calendar in Minnesota) and to make a mole! I think it will be mole coloradito… but we’ll see.
On Tuesday morning we took a cooking class at a nearby school. The owner took us to the market, where I was dumbfounded by the number of produce items that I had never seen before. He was wonderful, from Oaxaca, and explained to us how the locals use these ingredients. (For instance, rosemary and basil are not used in cooking very much but are used to ward off bad energy from the restaurant… or something like that.) The selection of dried and fresh chiles was mind-boggling. Back at the restaurant, we prepared several dishes including a beverage (horchata: blended almonds, rice, and cinnamon with water), a dessert (mescal-flavored sorbet topped with ground worm salt. Yes, I said “worm” and meant “worm”), a dark mole, some tortillas, some salsas and guacamole, etc. At the end of class we sat down and dined on our creations. And again, afterwards Erik and I didn’t eat for the rest of the day.
We’ve only had one clunker day so far, which was when we took Apollo to the Toyota dealership for some routine maintenance. Although we arrived a little after 10 a.m., they told us that he wouldn’t be ready until 6:00 p.m. So Erik sat and waited all day long, trying to ignore the telenovelas blaring on the television while I first walked a mile from the dealership to Walmart to buy (here’s the splurge:) a baking pan and a knife for our kitchen; the pan cost less than US$8 and the knife less than US$4. Then I walked a mile-and-a-half home in the sun and heat with my heavy Walmart purchases.
Okay… there is so much more to say but this post is already long enough. But coming up: more food adventures including tales of making mole at home (hopefully), lots of pictures from around town (especially churches) and other fun stuff. ¡Viva Oaxaca!