Cooking Class in Oaxaca, Mexico

Experience the smells and tastes of colonial Mexico

By Michael Yaeger

Grinding roasted tomatillos and chiles in my stone molcajete always reminds me of Oaxaca, the beautiful Palm Tree and Houseand tranquil colonial city of Southern Mexico. White cathedrals and hotels encircle quiet shaded zocalos and enormous colorful markets. Famous for intense mole sauces, Oaxaca also has a number of other less known regional specialties, and a focus on fresh and local ingredients that most foodies north of the border would relish.

One of the best ways to experience the food of Oaxaca, besides eating your way through the plentiful restaurant circuit and simple markets stalls, is to take a cooking class. A number of classes are offered around town, and I took mine at Casa de los Sabores (house of flavors), an intimate bed and breakfast run by Pilar Cabrera. Pilar is also head chef at a restaurant in town called run by her husband called La Olla, a charming second floor space overlooking the pedestrian street.

Arriving at Casa de los Sabores after a long flight from Montreal, I was immediately smitten. A large wooden door on an unassuming side street led into a red tiled courtyard with an open ceiling to the sky, shaded only by beautiful climbing plants. A long table dominated the courtyard, off of which sat a large open kitchen, with a brilliant tiled island. Pilar herself greeted me, and we held a long conversation in Spanish that put me immediately at ease with my language skills. Clearly, she was used to non-native Spanish speakers, but our interaction was a confidence boost none the less.

As the first attendee of the cooking class to arrive, I was given the honor (or burden) of choosing the menu that the class would prepare several days later. There were a dozen menus to choose from, but in an effort to avoid the typical mole (which takes many hours and ingredients to make correctly), and with an eye towards vegetarian options, I chose the menu Patrio (native).

Market StallIt would start with squash blossoms stuffed with white cheese Oaxaqueño, served with a salsa verde asada, followed by a smoky tortilla soup, stuffed poblano peppers with a creamy walnut sauce, and a coconut flan for dessert.

On the morning of the class, ten people gathered in the courtyard. The group was almost all thirty-something’s from the States or Europe, basically the backpacker crowd of my generation grown up; a couple from South Africa going around the world, a pair of designers from Chicago, a reporter from Colorado.

Pilar passed out a list of ingredients of the things we needed to buy at the local market, so we walked several blocks to the Merced Mercado, one of the smaller neighborhood markets in the city. She took us around the market, explaining what all the different types of fruits, vegetables, herbs and chiles were.

She made a point to buy a little bit from each vendor, especially the elderly women, who had travelled miles with their produce to the market. She recommended vendors to buy chocolate and moles from, and showed us the machines used to grind the chocolate and create the mole pastes.

She pointed out food stalls that she liked, the best of which was La Guerita, that made many types of a Oaxacan specialty called Tlayudas, which we were to have many times throughout the region. A Tlayuda is a very large tortilla with a bunch of toppings that is heated usually on a comal. Some specialties include the corn truffle Huitlicoche, Flor de Calabaza (squash blossoms), and the spicy pork Conchinita Pibil.

The most popular place for Tlayudas in Oaxaca is Tlayuda Libres, an outdoor stand across the street from Casa de Los Sabores, which opens at 10pm and stays open till dawn (beware if you want the upstairs room at the inn facing it). The grills are setup right out in the street, and patrons park illegally up and down the street all night long.

After returning from the market with our goods, we set about cooking. Pilar had a couple of helpersMoles who had done some of the more time consuming and meticulous prep work, like blanching and peeling the skin off pounds of walnuts. Everything else though was done by the group. She handed out packets that included the recipes for all of the dishes we would be making, and then orchestrated our efforts. We peeled, chopped, sautéed, roasted, boiled and ground our ingredients under her pleasantly instructive and watchful eye.

The cooking experience of most participants was reasonably high, and I was surprised that we all had a chance to do a little of everything, despite the size of the group. A couple of unique tools were used, including the comal and the molcajete. The comal is a flat piece of metal that sits on the stove burner and is used to roast chiles, garlic, tomatoes and tomatillos till their skin is dark and can be removed. The molcajete we know as a mortar and pestle, and it’s used to grind the ingredients for the salsa and pastes.

Several hours later, we all sat around the table to enjoy the fruits of our labor. Pilar also talked about and presented a couple different kinds of Mezcal, a less refined relative of Tequila, including a special bottle from a local farmer. The conversation was lively and interesting, certainly fostered by the quality of the food.

The squash blossoms were beautiful, and were accented perfectly by the spicy salsa verde. The tortilla soup, something I had made many times in many different variations, was smoky and rich and exactly the recipe I had hoped for. The poblano peppers were overflowing with a chicken and fruit stuffing, although we did a vegetarian version as well for the several of us who didn’t prefer meat.

Completely stuffed, the group slowly dispersed back out into the sleepy late afternoon sunlight. To this day, many of the chiles that I smuggled back home sit in my freezer, and I’ve since recreated that wonderful meal several times for friends and family. Someday, I’ll run out, and it will be the perfect excuse to return to Casa de Los Sabores and the intriguing culinary city of Oaxaca.

Michael Yaeger is the senior editor of TravelsInParadise.com and lives in Barre, Vermont. He can be contacted at

See Michael Yaeger's bio and more of his travel articles

Resources

La Olla Restaurant: http://www.laolla.com.mx/index.html

Casa de los Sabores: http://www.mexonline.com/sabores.htm

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