Friday, March 28, 2008

The Road Back to Mexico City

We find ourselves back on the road leading out of Oaxaca and I again have some time to write. Traveling with a 9 month old gives me little down time, but it is a very rewarding vacation. She has been stimulated by new faces and languages and the Mexican people love children. This is a great place to travel with kids. She is napping in her car seat as we head back to Mexico City. It turns out the bus ride is one fifth the price of the flight and the trip to Oaxaca took 5 hours instead of the planned 6 1/2, and so we risked taking the bus and are hoping we have smooth travels once again.

We spent one week in the central southern town of Oaxaca. I say town because the city of 250,000 felt very small. With a compact city center and a population that congregated in the Zocalo nightly, Oaxaca was not only a journey in distance but also in time. I imagined that the activity of the Zocalo might have been what was experienced in our own pre-TV society’s small town squares. On any given night, Oaxacans come out of their houses to be entertained by street performers, to enjoy almost any genre of live music, to watch the tourists play with the long, tubular balloons that are sold there, or perhaps just to people watch as tourists and locals alike stroll around the perimeter of the Zocalo. Last night, our last night in Oaxaca, we went to Terranova Cafe for a taste of their crepes with cajeta and their chocolate caliente. Marissa had fallen in love with cajeta, which is caramelized goat’s milk and sugar. This topping is thinner, more syrupy than the caramel we often enjoy in the states and I have determined I will need to replicate this concoction at home. The hot chocolate was the perfect strength for our tastes and we are not worried about duplicating this at home because earlier in the week I had bought one half of a kilogram of ground up cacao mixed with cinnamon and sugar. That was the minimum amount the shop owner would sell and so we have enough Oaxacan chocolate to enjoy for a year. Well, knowing Lou, make that a month or two.

Last Saturday, we went to the main market, Central de Abastos. Marissa gave us the tour. The market consisted of everything from Nike shoes to handmade clothes to fresh and prepared foods. Here we captured our first glimpse of the ingredients of Oaxacan cuisine such as fresh and dried chilies, tomatillos, and cacao. The fresh produce was similar to what we see now in San Francisco with more abundance of certain things such as Chermoya and Nopales (cactus leaves). We got our first taste of the bright purple-pink Jamaica drink, which I am told is Hibiscus petals steeped in hot water, then cooled and sweetened to taste with simple syrup. It is something that should be easily duplicated at home and I have decided to either buy the dried Jamaica petals or find them at home. Marissa tells me they can be bought at health food stores. The drink was very refreshing and hydrating on that very hot day.

We had another market visit as part of a cooking class that Marissa and I took at Casa Las Sabores on Tuesday. Pilar Cabrera is a well known and respected cook in Oaxaca. She runs the bed and breakfast as well as a restaurant in the middle of town called La Olla, where we ate our first meal in Oaxaca last Friday. Pilar started the class going through a market list of ingredients we were to buy. Most of the ingredients were familiar, but their names were not. We had for the second time run into the Yerba Santa, also seen spelled Hierba Santa. It is a unique, large leafed herb that was like a mix between mint and basil, with a strong minty-licorice flavor. We made a rice pudding for our dessert that was topped with the flesh of tuna, the fruit of a cactus. The name suggested the thought and the color of the fruit supported that perhaps it was called tuna because of its similarity in looks to Ahi, with its scarlet hue. It tasted like kiwi fruit. I asked about the rice and where it came from, assuming it was from Asia. The teacher confirmed this, adding that Oaxaca doesn’t have enough water to grow rice. I wondered why we were making rice pudding, but didn’t want to press the issue. We also made what Pilar called a quick mole with few ingredients compared to the traditional moles. To make the mole, we basically made salsa from a combination of dried and fresh chilis and then thickened it with masa. The mole did not have as deep or rich of a flavor as a traditional mole, but it was repeatable and easily could be made at home, so I think it was an excellent choice for a cooking class for a bunch of Gringos. We also made a corn soup with squash blossoms. For us, squash blossoms are quite seasonal as is fresh corn, so this might be harder to reproduce as I am not sure I will be able to find squash blossoms when corn is being harvested. To make the soup, we cut kernels of corn from the cobs and blended them in a blender along with some chilies and chicken stock until they were liquefied. Then, we poured the mixture through a sieve to filter out the skins of the kernels. Pilar had a handy way of tapping the sieve to roll the solids off its floor and allow the liquid to pass through the mesh to the soup pot. She said it was how her grandmother did it. Blocks of raw sugar were added to the soup to sweeten it. I volunteered to stir the soup while I wondered if I could even find this type of corn in San Francisco. It was not the sweet corn we buy on the cob, it was a tender white corn filled with starch. In fact, our hands and cutting boards were covered with the dry white starch after we cut the kernels from the cobs. If I cannot find similar corn, I can perhaps try to duplicate the soup by using sweet corn and deleting or reducing the added sugar while adding a thickener such as corn starch to make up for the lack of natural thickener in the less starchy sweet corn. The most interesting part of the meal was the salsa we made from dried red chilies that were roasted then ground in a molcajete along with salt, roasted garlic, and if desired, worms. To this paste we added roasted tomatillos. It was good, classic salsa rioja and definitely something I’ll duplicate at home, without the worms.

As I mentioned earlier, we ate our first dinner in Oaxaca at La Olla. Lou and I each had a different type of mole- red and black. Moles are found at most every restaurant in Oaxaca and they were not of the characteristic black mole that you often find in the states. Every single mole we tasted over the course of the week was unique. I wouldn’t say I absolutely loved any one of them, but I also didn’t find a single one that I wouldn’t eat.

Fresh Fruit Stand (above) and dried beans (below) at the Central de Abastos market.

Red and Black Mole pastes. Kind of like Mexican Hamburger Helper.

Friday, March 21, 2008

On the Road to Oaxaca

There is a field of Sonoran cacti outside my window. Some of the Saguaros are as large as trees with multiple arms branching out and reaching for the sky. Some are just tall poles standing alone in the desert. We are on our way to Oaxaca – a 6 ½ hour drive from Mexico City. We’re 3 ½ hours into it and have decided we should check into flights for our return as the road to Oaxaca is long and monotonous. Little resides between these two cities save some makeshift cafes and a couple of churches, which by the way are packed on this Good Friday. Mexicans are passionate about Semana Santa, or Holy Week and on this Good Friday, reenactments of Christ’s crucifixion take place across the country.

We landed 3 days ago in Mexico City, on the Tuesday afternoon of Semana Santa. As the days passed, the crowded city became even more congested as Mexican families flocked to their capital for what is Mexico’s most celebrated holiday. We had read that it would be a busy time to travel, but we decided that the rewards of being in Mexico during Easter Sunday would outweigh the inconveniences. I have yet to determine that, but the crowds are a spectacle in themselves. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I imagine it may be like Mecca, Saudi Arabia when Muslims of the world flock there for Ramadan. The Zocala in Mexico City, which is the city’s central square, is flanked by such sights as the Catedral Metropolitana and Palacio Nacional, and was a temporary home to a nomadic museum housing an exhibit named “Ashes and Snow”. The line for this exhibit was 5 to 6 people deep and stretched around the massive temporary structure. The Mexican people must be very patient, because the wait had to be hours. The congestion of Mexico City reminded me of Hong Kong and Shanghai, places where you just get used to waiting in line. There was a bustle of people at certain peek times, one of those being 7:00 in the evening, which is when we would venture out for a bite to eat. Last night, on Holy Thursday, or Maunday Thursday, the sidewalks in the Central Historico district were so packed, one could only move at a snails pace. We inched our way to the café lined pedestrian-only streets. With a 9 month old in tow, we no longer were seeking out an atmospheric bar, but instead a nice quiet café where we could relax with beers and a light meal. Not finding any “light” Mexican food, we ended up at a sushi joint where we ordered two rolls that were stuffed with far too much cheese and not enough fish, and soggy Udon noodles in a dark, over flavored broth. It was supposed to be shrimp tempura, unfortunately, they missed the mark a bit with shrimp that was covered in a heavy, overcooked batter. It was a disappointing meal compared to the one we had the night before in Condessa. Condessa, in contrast to the Central Historico, is a peaceful, relaxing neighborhood made up of picturesque tree lined avenues. When we stepped out of the subway stop, we felt like we were transported to an entirely different city. Trendy bars and cafes abound there and we had a hard time choosing where to eat. We decided to follow the crowd and scored a table at a bustling little open-aired eatery called the Village Café. I chose enchiladas verde and Lou had their soup of the day which was outstanding and a salad that was less so. With their delicious house vino tinto or red wine, a quaint atmosphere, and excellent service we were more than satisfied to spend our time there.

Our guide book took us to an upscale restaurant on our first night. Los Girasoles at 84 Tacuba “specializes in alta cocina Mexicana”, according to Lonely Planet, Mexico. The food was excellent and inventive. To me the food seemed like a fusion of French and Mexican: French in technique and Mexican in flavor. We were far from the ocean, but we both had fish that was perfectly seared and fresh- as if we had an ocean view. It was a great way to start a culinary tour.

The Crowds in and around the Zocalo on Holy Thursday.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Chocolate Snob

For a Christmas stocking stuffer, I bought Lou a pack of 10 bars of dark chocolate. Each bar was from a different growing region. We finnally broke them out a couple of weeks ago and we became chocolate snobs over night. After tasting the chocolate from Peru and the Dominican Republic, which were determined to be the favorites, the bars from Venezuela and Sao Tome seemed bitter and grainy while Grenada was just average- a good everyday chocolate. One day earlier, we wouild have gobbled any of these up without hesitation. We so enjoyed the chocolate tasting, (although, admittedly, I was a bit chocoloated out) that on my last trip to Trader Joe's I intended to buy another pack and one to spare for our friend, Marissa, who we will be visiting soon in Oaxaca and is in need of some good dark chocolate. Unfortunately, the specialy packaged chocolate bars were only available for the holidays so we were out of luck. (Don't worry, Marissa, I bought some other chocolate for you!) If Trader Joe's brings the chocolate back next Christmas, I will be sure to stock up, but in the meantime, I look forward to seeking out and tasting some more regionally grown cacao and filling my new chocolate-snob boots.