By Gary Tang
Special to the NW Asian Weekly
When I think of a vacation destination that offers everything a tourist could want, Oaxaca, Mexico springs to my mind. Whether I’m dreaming of escaping to a beach to surf, adventuring up a mountain, scaling ancient ruins, visiting a world class museum, enjoying gourmet food at a five-star restaurant, or saving pesos by dining at an open-air market — Oaxaca can make it happen!
In fact, there are two Oaxacas; that’s the name of the state and its capital city. Over the past couple of decades, my partner and I have been lucky to visit other Mexican destinations — Puerto Vallarta, Yucatan, Guadalajara, and Mexico City. We found that Oaxaca is much less intense than its counterparts to the north.
Touching down in January, a cold draft from up north made our first four days in Oaxaca City unexpectedly cold and I had to buy a new sweater (great excuse!).
Fortunately, the temperature warmed up to normal in a few days.
Oaxaca’s quaint cobblestone streets are great for strolling. The old colonial “Templo de Santa Domingo” and the huge, more recent cathedral creates a charming backdrop for fantastic restaurants — Oaxaca is the culinary capital of Mexico — along with museums, art galleries, and other attractions.
There was no shortage of things to do — we shopped the craft markets, sampled Oaxaca’s famous hot chocolate, booked flights of mescal (a potent liquor made only in the state), had dinner at our favorite restaurant (Catedral) three times, toured a fascinating cactus garden, explored Pre-Hispanic ruins, and were treated to indigenous, ritual dancing in the plaza. We did lots of people watching, too!
Oaxacan cuisine is internationally renowned. Well-known dishes include tlayudas (sometimes compared to pizza, but that doesn’t capture the adventure of this meat-and-veggie-on-flatbread experience); asado — meat barbequed on smoky grills, right in front of the butcher who sold it to you; chapulines (seasoned and fried grasshoppers — all sizes available!), and their legendary, complex, and utterly to-die-for mole (pronounced mole-ay) sauces.
Oaxacans will tell you that there are seven different (very different) moles — not just the dark brown chocolatey one served in most Mexican restaurants up here. You might be surprised to learn that chocolate is not the most important ingredient in any of the moles, and is only added to the more complex ones.
The seven moles of Oaxaca are negro (black), amarillo (yellow), coloradito (colored), mancha manteles (tablecloth stainer), chichilo (a kind of pepper), rojo (red), and verde (green). Served with chicken, pork, or beef, mole is the main event at any feast!
Mole negro is the best known and most complicated of the dishes, with over 21 ingredients. It is slightly sweet, black in color, and contains several types of chili peppers, plantain, onion, tomato, tomatillo, clove, cinnamon, nuts, tortilla, and more depending on the recipe. Oh, and don’t forget the Mexican chocolate!
We left Oaxaca City for a few days to visit Puerto Escondido, a little paradise on the Pacific Coast. That was where I met Gloria Vrios, the young, friendly receptionist at our resort. When I asked about cooking classes, Gloria smiled and said, “I’d love to teach you to make my grandma’s mole!” I quickly agreed and was lucky to have a private class, including a market visit (with snacks). We cooked in the little kitchen in our cabana. Scott, my partner, was forced to evacuate when we scorched the chilies — I have to admit that the fumes were pretty intense. But he came padding back from the pool as our multi-course lunch hit the patio table.
Mole negro has to be black, and you get that by toasting the chilies. The trick is to get them slightly charred, but not exactly burnt. The toasted pepper adds smokiness and intense flavor.
Not to brag — all credit to Gloria and her grandma — but our mole that day won my heart. Scott’s, too!
Gloria impressed me deeply with her passion for Oaxaca’s culture and cuisine. At the market, she explained what each ingredient does and how it nourishes our body, and about ceremonial uses of herbs and other products. She shared stories of sitting in the kitchen while her grandmother cooked everything atop a wood burning stove. I was so glad that my class was not a formal one, and that instead I had made a new friend.
Our 10 days in Oaxaca passed much too quickly. Now let’s see…when can we get back? Day of the Dead would be fun!
Gary can be reached at email@example.com.