Mexican Cooking Class – Zapotec Style
Using a metate (stone grinding table) is ridiculously hard work! Having spent 7 months in Oaxaca now, I have seen metates in many different traditional kitchens, but I had never considered the strength (and endurance) you must have to use one! Grinding chilis and other spices into a fine paste so they could be used in a mole (mol-lay), I had managed to get a sweat up and half my ingredients were still not pulverised. I will never look at mole the same way again.
After an early morning 30 minute taxi ride from Oaxaca to Teotitlán de Valle, my friends and I sat with Reyna Mendoza in her family compound – El Sabor Zapoteco (the Zapotec taste) and planned out what we would be cooking for lunch in her wonderfully equipped kitchen in the centre of Teotitlán.
We were given round market baskets of woven cane, and walked with Reyna down to the local community produce market to get the rest of the ingredients we would need to make lunch. On our way down the dirt roads, it felt like we were also part of the community as we said good morning to women in traditional Zapatoc dress carrying their purchases home (some on their heads), and congratulated ourselves on choosing to take a cooking class outside of Oaxaca city.
After prying my friends away from the elaborately embroidered huipiles (traditional aprons) for sale, the hand-painted gourd containers and the hot chocolate aerators – not to mention the chocolate and numerous different types of breads on offer, we managed to get everything on our lists (and then the chocolate, the gourds, a couple of aprons)….
We returned to Reyna’s house to help make hot chocolate the traditional way in a green pottery jug on the stovetop – melting the chocolate discs completely before aerating the liquid using a molinillo twirled between our palms to create a wonderful foam layer on the top of the drink. We drank this alongside some of the delicious fresh breads we purchased before we started prepping the menu for lunch; pork enchiladas, quesillo cheese-stuffed flor de Calabaza (squash flowers), and a salad of nopal cactus in a chilli pasilla sauce.
After donning traditional aprons, we started by toasting chilis, green tomatillos and tomatoes on the comal, turning so they would blacken evenly.
We (a-hem, some more than others) ground ingredients for the mole to accompany our enchiladas, stuffed zucchini flowers with quesillo and then egg-and-breadcrumbed them before frying, and chopped nopal cactus pads, onions, tomatoes, and capsicums.
Reyna showed us how to press small balls of corn masa in the traditional tortilla press to flatten them to side-plate sized tortillas, which we then threw onto the hot comal (clay cooking plate) to toast. Unlike the perfectly round ones Reyna demonstrated, we produced the worst-shaped blue corn tortillas ever – as a result of trying to get the thin tortilla off our palms and onto the comal in a single action, we dropped them from a height, the final result as scrunched as a used serviette. No matter their appearance, these were the most delicious tortillas I have eaten so far.
Lunch was served with a cup of locally-produced artisanal mezcal, and our conversation stilled as we focused on our meals. Everything was delicious – made even more delicious due in part to the effort involved in making the dishes ourselves, and our tranquil surroundings in the heart of Teotitlán de Valle.