© Howard Roth
(Warning: this is rated G. We traveled with children ranging in age from 16 to 4. There are no topless convertible rides, no wild naked hot tub experiences, and very little wine. More on that later.)
First day - We went to Oaxaca, Mexico primarily to visit with our friend Anita and her family. The hospitality they showed us was nothing short of overwhelming. They completely opened their homes and their lives to us, and took such good care of us that we will always grateful and indebted to them. As only one example of their kind consideration, we were invited to their home on our first night in Oaxaca.
|Dinner at Anita's|
The family had prepared a relatively light supper, knowing that we would be fatigued from the trip. The meal included a ratatouille zucchini/tomato type preparation that was served with white rice flavored with mint. The best part of the meal was a chayote squash soup with epazote. It had some kind of chili in it because it had a little kick. This had a texture like potato soup, but it was a lot more fragrant and very tasty. There were patties made out of oatmeal, olives, and carrots. Dessert was a creamy sweet gelatin that made with fruits and walnuts. The whole meal was a light vegetarian meal designed for us because we had been traveling all day and it hit the spot perfectly.
|We stayed at the Hotel Victoria (View from our "villa")|
Next day - Each morning's breakfast consisted of a buffet loaded with traditional Oaxacan foods. Each day's buffet had foods different from the day before so we really had fun exploring the cuisine. Brunch the first day was mind boggling for us gringos. They had homemade granola and yogurt and cereals, of course, but then the eggs were with peppers and tomatoes and a little bit of spice, really not much, but flavorful. There was a dish of chicken sautéed with green vegetables and peppers that was very good. The chorizo was firm, almost dry rather than greasy, very flavorful with chilies and significant heat. Also, there was a flat, thick corn flour cake topped with beans and a little cheese - queso fresco - with some lovely salsa picante, which just gave huge amounts of depth and flavor -these were called memelas. The tamales were exquisite. That was my favorite part of the meal. Shredded chicken with mole and spices were wrapped in a cornhusk. They tasted roasted, tender, and flavorful. Very nice! Then, there were two buckets of typical Mexican chocolate at the end, with cinnamon. One was made with water, the other with milk. (More on chocolate later). We actually began to prefer the chocolate con agua and this is what I drink now that I'm back. The coffee was also very good. They had several bins of fresh beans and you could pick which one you wanted ground and they would make your coffee for you. There was one decaffeinated, one organic, Veracruz, Oaxacan, and several others. As they served it, they gave you a little piece of square chocolate that had cinnamon in it that you were to crumple and put into your coffee, which was a nice touch.
Typical scene from a Mercado with chilies on display
Tempting breads and sweets and pastries.
This was a drink that the Zapotecas drank since the times of the Aztecs, before the Colonial days, as part of the sacrificial ceremonies. I also tasted chapulinas, which are spiced, salted, chopped grasshoppers. It tasted peppery, sour from limes and salty, like bar food, and grossed my kids out so it was worth it. There are, of course different kinds of chapulinas preparations ranging from chopped and unrecognizable to large locust like bugs. The old ladies in the market treat it like tobacco and place a plug between their teeth and gums. There were stalls of breads and sweets and pastries, which were all very tempting. We quickly developed our favorite, called conchas, a slightly sweet egg dough with sugar flour on top. This is made to be dunked into your chocolate drink.
We walked by a chocolate factory on that first day and saw them take the cacao beans and throw them into a grinder with almonds and cinnamon. Then the paste drops down into a container full of sugar where it is mixed by hand. It is taken from that bin into another grinder where it is smoothed. People came and bought the warm paste by the bagful. You can take it home and mix chocolate drink with the paste or shape the paste into whatever shapes you like and let it harden. More on this later.
|Chocolate factory - the black oily paste has fallen into the sugar to be mixed, then reground and smoothed in the grinder next to this one.|
One of the events is a free event, but because it is free, we got there at 4 o'clock for an 8 o'clock performance. For ten dollars (100 pesos), we bought our 10 seats from someone that had gotten there at 8 o'clock in the morning to reserve them. We then took turns going to a festival market until the show started. In the festival market, we had amazing things to eat. For example tlayuda is a giant tortilla, which we watched the woman pound, press and then lay on a heavy plate that was resting on some coals so that the tortilla baked. She then filled it with several different kinds of fillings. One was called Amarillo sauce - sort of a fiery orange pepper tomato sauce with chicken and cilantro, and then folded and tapped shut and baked on this hot plate over the hot coals.
|Tlayuda with Amarillo sauce. Doesn't get much better than this folks.|
The festival activity today was an hour-and-one-half to two-hour presentation of the different ways in which the guelaguetza has been celebrated over the last several hundred years. The first was pre-Colonial and they acted out a sacrifice of a virgin (I have never really understood this fascination with killing virgins, but I didn't write the history books). Next came a wonderful production of acting consisting of hundreds of people from the town with music, dancing, and beautiful costumes. This terminated in a depiction of a modern-day guelaguetza with the food, the market, the festival, and the fiesta, and a wonderful fireworks display - all taking place on a beautiful 70 degree night with the stars shining, lit up by houses on the mountainside. These were stunningly beautiful surroundings.
|Second night, pre-guelaguetza presentation.|
Third day - was the guelaguetza proper - a four or five hour display of Oaxacan culture. There were sixteen teams of dancers - representatives of Oaxaca state - each with their own style of dance and music. There were some with incredibly colorful costumes and some with more subdued black and white costumes. Some were extremely festive and others were more sedate. Several depicted wedding ceremonies. They were all beautiful dances.
You want hot sauce with those chips señor?
Whirling, swirling, and twirling at the Gueleguetza.
We walked down from the guelaguetza to lunch, which was yet another Oaxacan buffet. There was a table of ensalada with some fresh cheese. We didn't eat many of the salads though. There were two giant jars full of chili pepper marinades. One was made from chipotle peppers that were sweet, sour, smoky, and fiery hot and was excellent. ( I later learned to love this preparation spread out over grilled steak - makes my mouth water just thinking about it.) The other was made from jalapenos with carrots, vinegar, lemon, and some kind of oil - probably corn oil - that was also excellent. I believe this is called escabeche.
The buffet consisted of four or five different tamales. One had sweet corn, chicken, and hot pepper in the center. One had plantains, which are supposed to be a banana, but they are cooked to a texture of potatoes, with tomatoes and peppers and spices. There was plain corn tamale, with just sweet corn; a red mole with beef; and a green mole with chicken. The drink was popo, which is made from cacao and corn and another plant, which I am having trouble getting translated. It is kind of a sweet, corn, starchy flavor that is rather refreshing after a day at the guelaguetza.
|Preparation for rock soup.|
We rested for a while and then went off to see Ballet Folklorico Oaxaca perform an ancient fable about the princess Donoji. This was another magical night with temperatures in the 70's; clear skies mountains all around and wonderful company. My kids had moved from awe to delight and we were having a great time. After the performance, we wandered around the market that sprung up around the outdoor guelaguetza auditorium. We ate corn off the cob with some kind of hard shredded cheese chili salt, and lime eaten out of a paper cup with a spoon. We also had fried plantains, and guayaba soda.
Next day we laid low with some touring around the town, shopping and resting.
Downtown Oaxaca (above)
Typical Oaxacan building (left).
One of the reasons we shopped was to get the stuff we needed for dinner. Anita and her family had invited us back to their house in order to show us how to prepare some typical Oaxacan food. So, of course we went back to the market for chilies, tortillas, tomatillos, chocolate, etc. They started by boiling the huajillo peppers, tomatillos, and garlic. Red salsa was huajillo, ajo, which is garlic, and tomatillos and salt. Green salsa is cilantro, tomatillos, garlic, and jalapeno. They like their salsas blended in the blender. We made tortillas (tlayudas) with black beans, refried in olive oil, queso fresco, and guacamole.
|Boiling the huajillos and tomatillos for the salsas.|
Chocolate drink is either paste or chunks of chocolate in hot water or milk. We also opened the paste we had bought in the market and flattened it out into a round pancake on a platter. Then my kids made various shapes and cut them out. This hardened over the time it took to eat dinner and we ate our homemade chocolate candies over the course of the trip. The chocolate is in no way milk chocolate. There is a bitterness that is hugely pleasant, mixed with the sugar, cinnamon and almonds it is truly a remarkable treat. The paste contains sugar already, and you can mix it with a wooden chocolate mixer in a special pitcher with hot water as a drink. Of course we had our concha dipped in the chocolate. Pasillas peppers with ajo (garlic), vinegar, onions, and oregano were used as a salad to go with the moletos con papas. Moletos have kind of a shell that I think is deep-fried with potatoes and a red pepper sauce inside. Pasillas are mild, taste like chipotles only they have a richer flavor, but the smokiness is their real characteristic. This was a marvelous dinner with nieces, nephews, cousins, and aunts joining us for a real festival dinner. A great deal of Spanglish was spoken.
Buying the tortillas for supper (above).
Preparing the chocolate paste to become candies. Notice the prickly pears (tuna) on the side (near right).
Tia Sarita making the chocolate con agua (far right).
|Chicken breast with mole negro. Just like food service at the Washington Monument?|
The most interesting ice cream was the sweet corn ice cream, which was unlike anything I've ever had. It tasted of the essence of sweet, sweet corn and was very enjoyable. The manzania or the apple ice cream was also very good. Each of the fruit ice creams were served in a frozen fruit, so the naranjo was served in an orange and the apple ice cream was served in an apple, and they had melon and cacao. The cacao was in a large cacao bean. We also visited Dona Rosa de Coyotapec, which is where they make a traditional black pottery.
|We're having a great time - Monte Alban.|
|Lunch plate with (clockwise) chili relleno, pasilla salad, grilled chicken, tortilla, taquitos with guacamole.|
|Now that's a picnic!|
Everyone we met in Oaxaca was helpful, friendly, and eager to help or to please. One example illustrates. We went to Mitla, which is another amazing site with ancient ruins.
The restaurant near Mitla (above).
Mitla (at left).
|Chops at El Asado De Vasco|
Our last night we ate in what our hosts considered the finest restaurant in Oaxaca: El Asado De Vasco, a Spanish restaurant but with an exceptional local Oaxacena cuisine. I had marinated lamb chops, grilled, chili peppered and served with limejuice. For dessert my son had mango custard that was enchanting. The restaurant was on the second floor of the building overlooking the Zocalo. During the meal a parade went by consisting of people in native costume, mariachi bands and dancers. I have no idea if this was planned or spontaneous with many people in town for the Guelaguetza anyway.
|Parade during dinner on the last night.|
We had the only bottle of wine for the entire 10 days. (See tasting note posted earlier: Chateau Dolmeq 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon). Partially this was because our friends were Seventh Day Adventists and partially because Oaxacan food doesn't lend itself easily to wines. Finally, many of the places we went simply had no wine list or a very rudimentary one: couple of Spanish reds and whites, no vintages listed etc.
|Mexican chocolate for breakfast!|
I've had a chance to think about Oaxaca as well. This city of 350,000 is in a valley with rich dark loamy dirt everywhere in the countryside. Fresh fruits, meats, and spices are all abundant, yet economically it is the second poorest state in Mexico. I asked people why this is so. Their explanation was that the government or governmental agencies buy the produce cheap, sell to exporters and the money goes to the politicians. There is an air of resignation about this and the people take great consolation in their history and heritage. The customs, festivals, crafts, traditional foods, religion but most of all the family, create a rich environment, a luminous tapestry on which the Oaxacans weave their daily lives.