Mexico: The Road to Oaxaca

Carne galore at Mercado 20 Noviembre
Carne galore at Mercado 20 Noviembre

Learning to Cook Mole and More in Oaxaca, Mexico

By Wai-Ling Au and James Allingham

Come and get your chapulines grasshoppers at Casa Crespo cooking school
Come and get your chapulines grasshoppers at Casa Crespo cooking school.

An adventure in Mexico is incomplete without a taste of Oaxaca (pronounced as “wah-HAH-kah”). Not only is it visually stunning with its pre Columbian ruins, brightly painted buildings where you can recreate Vogue magazine photo shoots, its art and crafts are highly sought after, and it is known as the food capital of Mexico. To be honest, the latter is the main reason why James and I packed up and left the exciting bustling confines of Mexico City to spend three glorious days in the beautiful Land of Mole (pronounced MO-LAY).

Clinging to its Roots

Oaxaca has 17 distinct languages (Spanish and 16 indigenous tongues) and is one of the most heavily indigenous in the Americas, with approximately 40% of its people claiming to be of native blood.

To appreciate the diversity of Oaxaca, it helps to understand its history. Oaxaca was the largest and most important settlement back in the day (i.e. around 1500 BC to 500BC), consisting largely of Zapotecas and Mixtecas.

But by the 15th century, the Aztecs arrived and conquered the locals. The Aztecs, in turn, were overthrown by the Spanish, who started a 300-year colonial period and produced the beautiful Colonial architecture that makes Oaxaca such a romantic city. During this time, hierarchy ruled a society where the best posts were reserved for the Spanish, and wealth was concentrated in the hands of Spanish landowners and the clergy. As a result, churches and schools became Europeanized.

It wasn’t until the early 1800s that Mexico took back control from the Spanish. Today, tourism is an important source of income for the people who live here.

Can I Have Some More, Please?

Cooking traditional tortillas at Casa Crespo though not sure if the traditional method includes these handy little pressers
Cooking traditional tortillas at Casa Crespo though not sure if the traditional method includes these handy little pressers

Mole. Even months after we first met, when I relive my first encounter with mole, it still has the power of robbing me of words. Mole looks extremely unappealing at first sight - just a goopy thick mess in a disturbing hue. But drizzle mole over chicken and the entire dish becomes 1000 times more complex with subtle chocolate undertones and spicy garlicky attacks.

7 varieties of mole were born in Oaxaca state:

Negro (the most famous)

Rojo

Coloradito

Verde

Chichilo

Manchamantel

Amarillo

After attending an informative and interactive cooking school run by Oscar Carrizosa from Casa Crespo, we learned that the derivative of mole negro is chocolate. There can be up to 30 ingredients in a mole, ranging from ground chilies, sesame seed, cinnamon, cloves, garlic, black pepper, cumin, pumpkin seeds, hoja santo, cilantro, bread, dried fruit and of course dark chocolate.

Being schooled by Oscar at the Casa Crespo cooking school
Being schooled by Oscar at the Casa Crespo cooking school

The menu from our cooking class consisted of:

Avocado soup

Chillaquilles

Tortillas with zucchini flowers

Quesadillas with chupalines (grasshoppers)

Guacamole

Mole negro con pollo

Cucumber drink

Rose petal ice cream

At a local market tour in the morning, we dutifully followed Oscar around the neat rows overflowing with flowers, vibrant colored vegetables and non-refrigerated meat like obedient ducks. The half day culinary adventure will set us back USD$65 per person.

Another dining experience that Oaxaca has to offer is the famous asados. Follow your nose -- you will smell it before you see it. Head to Mercado 20 Noviembre for an assault on the senses.

If you can get past the smokiness of the market hall, and the smells of the barbecue infiltrating your clothes and hair, then this place has some serious charm. Plus you get to rub shoulders with the locals as you share long benches with them eating your handpicked cuts.

The process is super casual. Walk in, choose your cut of meat (sold by the pound) and then choose your veggies (green onions with white bulbs, cilantro, tomatoes, peppers, chillies).

The veggies are shoved in the charcoal grill right beneath your cut of meat, catching the juices. Once ready, the food is brought to you with lots of limes to be satisfied with your fingers (or cutlery if you are more refined). Have your asado platter with fresh avocado, tomato salad and Oaxaca cheese (a mozzarella like stringy cheese, very mild in taste) and it’s hard not too discover a moment of happiness.

Another ingenious use of the charcoal grill is the ttlayuda, another Oaxacan staple. Think Mexican pizza. A crunchy tortilla is covered with refried beans, asiento (unrefined pork lard), avocado, meat (either chicken, beef or pork), Oaxaca cheese, salsa and cabbage. It is uncomplicated and really hits the spot, especially with a couple of cervesas.

Jam packed at Mercado Tlacolula
Jam packed at Mercado Tlacolula

Antioxidant Galore

And let’s not forget the chocolate. James and I wanted to go beyond the mere eating of chocolate - we wanted to understand and learn the process. Surprisingly, we couldn’t find an independent chocolate tour. They all seemed to be part of bigger full day tours. But we quickly learned that the three biggest brands in Oaxaca appear to be Mayordomo, Soledad and Guelaguetza.

We checked out the Mayordomo outfit and unwittingly joined a tour in German. But we needn’t have bothered trying to fit in. We must have stood out like two sore thumbs as the Manager of the store took us aside and gave us a private tour of the chocolate making process, albeit in Spanish.

The basic ingredients of chocolate are cocoa, cinnamon and almonds. You can even ask one of the friendly staff to grind your own combination of cacao, cinnamon, cloves and almonds.

This Little Piggy Went to Market

Negotiating a fair price at the market
Negotiating a fair price at the market

If you can’t speak Spanish and feel like testing your pantomime skills, why not make your own way by collectivo to Tlacolula, a traditional market 30 minutes ride away from Oaxaca. Collecivos are shared vans. It would be easy to take a cab, but it’s way more exciting and fun (not to mention cheap) to hail a collectivo and be squashed next to locals who are carrying on their daily business. As a reference point, the collectivo cost 16% of a cab ride.

Granted, the collectivo probably took us four times as long as a cab since it stops at ad hoc spots along the road to pick up any Tom Dick and Harry. But it was fun being in a rickety old van, stuck amongst the locals even though we felt guilty that our gringo behinds took up twice the seats than an average Mexican.

The Tlacolula market is held every Sunday and is literally an assault on the senses. Colors, smells, noise, traffic, tarps and people everywhere. I’m 160 cm tall and even I had to duck my head beneath the tarps covering the neat collection of goods. Despite the chaos that meets the eye, the market is actually quite well organized and largely grouped according to goods.

I wish we could have taken photos of the women in their traditional costumes. There were so many, and they were varied, but it was clear that the locals came here to socialize and trade rather than pose for photographs. So we had to be content with taking as many mental snapshots as possible.

Getting into Oaxaca

Oaxaca is south east of Mexico City and approximately 6 hours on a very comfortable clean air conditioned bus. Ado runs a fantastic service (I would recommend first class or executive service) at approximately USD$35 a person, with reclinable seats and color TV. If you’re not in a rush and you want to observe the local street life in relative anonymity, I would recommend the bus.

Stunning view from the bus on the way to Oaxaca
Stunning view from the bus on the way to Oaxaca

Ado tickets can be purchased on the day or a few days in advance from bus stations. If leaving from Mexico City like we did, the bus departs from Terminal de Autobuses de Pasajeros Oriente (or “TAPO”) and Terminal de Autobuses del Sur.

Getting out of Oaxaca on a bus is also easy, provided you can find the bus ticket office. The MultiMarca ticket stand is on Avenue Monde Piedad, #11 is right next door to McDonalds (look up for the tiny sign). Paying in cash is easiest, as there are some tricky rules about accepting non-Mexican issued credit cards.

Accommodation

Three months traveling in South and Central America meant that James and I were on a budget. No lavish $500 a night 1000 thread count sheets for us. Instead, El Quijote at USD$111 for 3 nights for a King Room with private bathroom ticked all the boxes.

Run by Emilio and Marta and policed by their friendly cat Safi, this hostel was a clean, safe, secure and well located sight for sore eyes.

Emilio and Marta lost no time in painstakingly explaining the sights, tastes and sounds near the hostel. They seemed really intent on making sure you enjoyed their city and were keen to practically shove you in the direction of the food market (only three blocks away).

And best part of all -- the beautiful roof terrace was the ideal way to wind down after a long day of stretching our stomachs and was a great space to meet new friends.

Wai-Ling Au and James Allingham are two intrepid travelers from Australia whose goal is to inspire your travel bucket list. www.maplesonmounties.wordpress.com

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