Oaxaca - Food glorious food!

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January 7th 2012
Published: January 7th 2012
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Oaxaca has been a real treat, and two days here was simply not enough, although that's a constant refrain wherever I travel to. The population is around 270,000 and it has a very small town feel to it. The people are friendly, there are many ankle-breaking cobblestone streets and pretty coloured buildings - it's a very inviting place.

One of the things Oaxaca is famous for is its food, and particularly mole, which is a generic name for many different sauces, and so my first priority was to find a cooking class. This wasn't hard to find, and within a few minutes over breakfast we were booked in to the Casa Crespo's cooking class just a few blocks away.

The class started with a discussion of the menu and we were asked to choose what we would like to make. This proved to be to be the most difficult part of the day, as there were so many delicious choices! But we finally settled on a menu and set off to the local market to purchase the ingredients. It was absolutely fascinating. Having Oscar, our guide and chef for the day, was fantastic, as he explained all the different herbs, the many different types of chilli, and various other specialities that were on display. For example, amongst the pastries there was a special wreath-like bread concoction that is prepared specifically for Epiphany, on 6th January, which has small baby-Jesus dolls in it, but it is only eaten for the next two days of the year.

From there it was back to Casa Crespo, which is a gorgeous little restaurant filled with beautiful art, and I later discovered was a very upmarket B&B as well. This was to be our base for the next few hours while we worked our way through the extensive menu we'd chosen. It was very informative as we finally figured out what some of the food we had been eating was! As Oscar said, the tortilla is the base of many of their meals - if it's rolled it's called this, if it's rolled and cooked it's called that, if it's toasted it's this, if it's folded it's that....and so it went on. As we were making one of the dishes Lucy asked if we could use a different type of chilli. Oscar frowned, and said yes, but then it would be called by a different name. That put us in our place, and also helped explain the vast array of choices on offer.

First up we made tortillas. The dough is bought at the market then we rolled them and cooked them ourselves. When they are cooked they sometimes puff up very satisfyingly, which Oscar said means that you are ready for marriage. It may surprise none of you to read that my tortillas did not puff up even by a millimetre!

Then we added some chopped up squash blossoms and herbs to the tortilla dough, rolled them much smaller and thicker, cooked them and they were called something else. Then we made a mole, which had a staggering list of ingredients - so not something easily recreated at home, however not impossible if I really apply myself and can find the ingredients. We also made an easy tomato and chilli based salsa, which can then be used as a base to add other flavours. So then we used that base and made three different salsas: one with fried avocado leaves, one with cumin, and one with algarve worms in it. Sounds a bit disgusting but actually it wasn't dissimilar from anchovy, so naturally I thought it was delicious. We also made quesadillas with a very good local stringy cheese which was incredibly morish, and our choice of flavours. I chose grasshoppers - because where else would I have the chance to be eating them? They were surprisingly delicious and I would order them again in a flash...who would've thought?!

The menu was extensive, on top of the other snacks and quesadillas we had shrimp soup, chicken and tomato stuffed jalapeno peppers, and our mole was served with chicken, and then to finish with a rose-water ice cream. Not surprisingly five hours after we started we were completely stuffed. It was one of the best ever cooking classes I have done, and there are definitely things that I will recreate at home. The food generally is absolutely delicious, with a huge amount of variety. I could eat Mexican food for a very long time without getting bored, which is one big difference with the food in Cuba. While is wasn't as bad as everyone had told me, there wasn't a huge amount of variety. If you like rice and beans, pork, chicken and shrimps you'll do fine. In Mexico however the flavours are fantastic, and I've been very taken with the delicious salsas and the limes that are served with almost everything.

We also had the opportunity to sample the famous Oaxacan hot chocolate, which was flavoured with cinnamon, and served either with water or milk. I chose water, Lucy chose milk, but we both agreed that they were very delicious. Maybe I can sneak in another one before we leave...

Following the cooking class we were surprisingly busy, given that a nap was in order after all that eating. We walked up to some local artesan markets, which included some of the things that Oaxaca is famous for - local weaving and pottery especially. Both Lucy and I were very taken with the goods on offer and both ended up buying some local weaving.

From there it was to the Santo Domingo church just a few blocks away from our little hostel. It didn't look much from the outside, but was incredible on the inside - very ornate, lots of gold, every single surface covered with a beautiful decorative piece. That's my kind of church! Just next door to it is the Cultural Museum of Oaxaca which was highly recommended to us. It is in the area previously inhabited by the monks, and adjoining the church. It was a beautiful building, and the museum itself was very interesting.

For our final day, as well as taking advantage of the fantastic food, we took ourselves off on an adventure to a little local town called San Bartolo. This is where the famous Oaxacan black pottery is from. We were quite proud of ourselves for finding a local colectivo taxi, which we shared with three others. I was happy to be in the back seat and not one of the unfortunate two people squished into the front passenger seat!

Once there all hopes of a quaint little rustic village were dashed, as the local artesan market and town square sat next to a 4 lane highway. However this didn't put us off, and despite the facts our bags are already full and the pottery quite fragile, we both succumbed and bought some things to take home. The quest for the evening is to finish the rum I bought in Cuba and make room for the pots!

While in the village we also found a small shop where they gave demonstrates on how the items are made. This of course made us feel terribly guilty having paid such a small amount for such a labour intensive product. It was also fascinating to discover that the pattern on many of the items is created from a humble bottle-top....

The rest of the afternoon was devoted to the Contemporary Art Museum, which I loved, and a pedicure. Bliss. Plus some research into our next destination. Tomorrow brings yet more adventures - we're flying to Guadalajara and hiring a car to drive to Guanajuato. Cross fingers we make it!

Additional photos below
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One of the courses - stuffed chillisOne of the courses - stuffed chillis
One of the courses - stuffed chillis

This was absolutely delicious, and not impossibly hard to make

7th January 2012

I have wanted to go to this town for decades
We would have loved the cooking class! Love the photos and great writing. Can't wait to meet you!

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