Taste of Oaxaca – Corn

I’ve been spending the last few days since we got back from Oaxaca to take care of administrative things that occured while we were away. In addition I’ve been sifting through our hundreds of photos to choose which ones to showcase here. Given that this is a food blog, and the trip was a short-term culinary study-abroad program, I decided to focus primarily on the food elements of the trip. I thought I’d be able to get everything in one post – it’ll be like writing and reading a novel so I will break it up into smaller sections. I’ll be posting the series over the next few days and weeks.

The study abroad program was through the City College of San Francisco. We spent 2.5 weeks in Oaxaca and participated in various cooking class by local chefs, including Susanna TrillingRodolfo Castellanos and Pilar Cabrera, to name a few. In addition, we had 8 hours of Spanish classes that focused on kitchen or cooking terminology at the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca (ICO) which was quite interesting and useful. The Instituto also arranges side trips on the weekends to must-see destinations outside the city, which we made sure to take advantage of.

Our first full day in Oaxaca was spent on a walking tour of the city with Lucero, who is the director at the ICO. She was extremely knowledgeable and pointed out several places of interest to make sure to visit during our stay, such as the Santo Domingo church with a enormous cultural history museum attached to it, and a Benito Juarez museum. Our tour lasted until around 2-3pm at which point we were absolutely starving. I have a bad habit of skipping breakfast but I quickly learned this was not a good idea in Oaxaca.

In Oaxaca, there are 4-5 meals as compared to our usual 3 meal a day format. There is Almuerzo, which is a light breakfast which might be coffee and a piece of toast. This normally would be first thing in the morning. Next is a second breakfast around 8-9am called Desayuno, which is what we typically would think of breakfast (scrambled eggs, milk, juice, cereal) but in Oaxaca this would include food like champurrado, atole, chilaquiles, eggs (huevos), tamale, chocolate de agua or de leche, pan de yema (egg bread). Next is lunch, Comida, which is the largest meal of the day – but it’s not until 2-3pm. I learned pretty quickly not to skip breakfast here! The next meal is Merienda, which is a late afternoon snack eaten around 6-7pm. I was told by our Spanish language teacher this is typically eaten only by children before they go to bed. Cena is what we would consider is dinner takes place around 8pm. Lucero from the ICO commented that more recently, many people are skipping Cena or eating a light snack of fruits and some bread instead of a full dinner.

Our first day of cooking classes was spent with Pilar Cabrera and her cooking school Casa de los Sabores on corn and corn products. As part of the class, we first took a trip to a nearby market, Mercado Sanchez Pascuas. Across the street from the market is a ‘molino‘, or a mill. One can take your prepared nixtamal and get it ground into masa for tamales or tortillas. Or if one is not so prepared, a kilo of it can be purchased for less than $1 USD. What is nixtamal? It’s corn that has been soaked with lime or cal and cooked. Note that the corn used here in these applications is not sweet corn or table corn like we have in the US that is very tender and sweet. This corn is much denser and starchier and is not so good for eating fresh off the cob.

In the market we saw a huge array of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats (chickens here are very yellow due to marigold flowers added to their feed), cheeses, and traditional sweets such as candied fruits. The pineapples here at this market smelled beautiful – you could stand five feet away from it and smell its fruity fragrance. A few interesting ingredients that are special to this region are huitlacoche, which is an edible corn fungs; chapulines, which are seasoned and toasted grasshoppers of various sizes; and squash blossoms (flor de calabaza), which are commonly used as a filling in quesadillas or in soups or as a garnish. There is also a cheese called quesillo, which is a slightly fermented stringy cheese that’s similar to mozzarella.

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We brought back our newly purchased ingredients to the kitchen and began preparations for making esquites, which is a corn soup topped with chile powder and mayonnaise; memelitas, which are mini versions of a relatively thick tortilla called a memela that comes with various toppings and drizzled with aciento or pork fat rendered from making chicharron or fried pork rinds; molotitos de papas con chorizo, a football shaped fried masa dumpling with a chorizo and potato filling; quesadillas de flor de calabaza con quesillo, quesadillas with squash blossoms and quesillo cheese; pastel de elote, a corn bread/cake sort of dessert item.

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