Oaxacan Cuisine

5-7-2015
Oaxaca, Mexico

Day 2 in Oaxaca and I’d decided – after coming up with the idea in San Cristobal – to take a cooking class. First, because Oaxacan Cuisine is supposed to be pretty special, but also just generally to improve my Mexican cooking skills. There are limited alternatives in Edinburgh, so any way to improve the local offering, even if it requires a load of my own effort, is a good thing.

I’d emailed Oscar, who runs the course at Casa Crespo the evening before, and got a confirmation just as I was wandering to bed, so I made my way along to his restaurant for 10 the next morning. There ended up being six of us on the course (which was thankfully in English), all the rest Americans, although all but one with significantly better Spanish than my own! After a bit of a coffee and a chat amongst ourselves, Oscar came in an we talked through which various dishes we wanted to make. He then talked us through how to make tortillas (which it turns out is about a 12 hour process – so he pulled a Blue Peter ‘here’s one I made earlier’) and then we wandered out, first to the local mill to grind some corn (for the tortillas) and then to the market.

We took the (prepared) corn to a miller who ground it into masa, and then wne ton to a market where Oscar showed us loads of the various chillies (which I doubt I’ll get at home), some of the fruits, herbs and other various veg that we’d either be cooking with, or that was key to other local Oaxacan Cuisine. His fruit and veg pail full, we wandered back to the kitchen to get cooking.

Starting to prep the Mole
Starting to prep the Mole

With the freshly ground masa, first up, we made a stack of tortillas, mostly plain but also a few with cheese and squashflowers mixed into the dough, and then moved on to about four variants of roasted tomato salsa (all with the same base, but with mix-ins added to the blend, like cumin, avocado leaves and agave worms!), as well as a salsa verde and a huge batch of guacamole! Then we got into the main bit of the meal: Chile Rellenos stuffed with chicken, squash flower blossom and mushroom soup, cucumber agua fresca to drink, and then the centrepiece of the whole thing: a mole sauce (Fiesta Mole, I think Oscar called this particular one) which would eventually go over chicken, but apparently is best for turkey. The whole thing, we then finished off with prepping Oaxacan chocolate ice cream, which the staff ran through their on-site ice cream machine.

The prepared mole ready to cook and condense down.
The prepared mole ready to cook and condense down.

The course runs for about four and a half hours, including time for them to cook it all up after we prep it, and time to eat it, and costs $65 (US) which, as Oscar then sends on the recipes by email, isn’t all that bad if you have a day to spare learning how to cook Oaxacan cuisine.

The mole is probably the centrepiece of the whole thing: it’s basically just the sauce that goes over the meat – the curry or the gravy to the rest of us! [As a side note, during the course, I had the joy of explaining to one of the Americans the story of the popular Indian dish Chicken Tikka Masala, and it’s not-so-Indian origins!] But the complexity of the ingredients in mole is incredible – even for our ‘quick-prep’ one! (ours was maybe 15 mins prep plus time to cook down) – many moles apparently take a day or two! Ours included quick-fried, dried Oaxacan chillies, plantain, raisins, nuts, seeds, tomatoes and a range of herbs and spices all blended and reduced into a thick sauce (sort of vindaloo consistency – while on that theme – but with less heat and much more flavour!)

The salsas!
The salsas!

Once we’d finished the prep, we left it to the staff at Casa Crespo to cook it all up while we had a beer and a chat on the rooftop terrace. The group was made up of two girls from Phoenix treavelling around the region for a week or two on holiday, a guy from Texas who is going to start a teaching job in New Jersey in September, a woman down from Tucson for a bit of a travel-about and another working towards an anthropolgy doctorate, and so in the region for about six months!

After about a beer, our food was cooked and served up; as always tends to happen with me being a) a glutton and b) a shit photographer, I only got a couple of pictures of the food. Highlights though, by consensus, were the soup (all the more impressive as I’m not really a soup guy) and the ice cream at the end. That said, the mole was pretty spectacular too – although I fear I’ll struggle to recreate it at home… There wasn’t really anything to fault in the menu, aside from the lack of ingredients back in Scotland.

The finished product - Chicken in Mole!
The finished product – Chicken in Mole!

We finished the meal with a short of mexcal (more on that delicious drink later), and then a few of us headed for a sly afternoon pint! After that we all went our seperate ways (I went and had a bit of a nap), but we all met up again later that evening for a couple more, and what (as ever) ultimately descended into a slightly drunken conversation on literture (apparently I need to give Barbara Kingsolver another chance) and politics – where I impressed Laura, the lawyer, with my knowledge of American precedent, constitutional law and the inner workings of the Supreme Court, in light of the Obamacare and Gay Marriage rulings last week (the English accent makes all this more impressive than it would be for an out-and-out American!)

Prepping the chile relleno filling - although a good future burrito filling too!
Prepping the chile relleno filling – although a good future burrito filling too!

The Oaxacan Cuisine course wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind – I’d stupidly been looking to improve my dodgy burrito recipes (although it will help there too!) – but it was a great morning out, some great food, a bit of top compacy and an abject lesson in a bit of slow cooking! Thankfully Oscar sent the recipes by email later that evening. I’ve done a few things on this trip and other wanderings, but this has to stand as one of the best $65 (US) I’ve spent yet!

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