Oaxaca was one of those magically intriguing places for me when I moved there in my late 20s. It is a state in southern Mexico known for its cultural diversity as well as its environmental & agricultural biodiversity. Oaxaca has one of the most rugged terrains in Mexico with mountains that abruptly join the sea. Oaxaca’s central valley region is surrounded by the majestic Sierra Madre Mountains and is home to many indigenous cultures. The coastline is home to the famous “Mexican Pipeline”, Puerto Escondido. This place brings many of my favorite things together: excellent culinary traditions, the arts, beautiful mountains and the ocean.
I fell in love with Oaxaca immediately.
I had just begun to experiment with cooking when I moved to Oaxaca City and it was there that my passion for the culinary arts blossomed. The Central Market is the heart and soul of the city. Farmers and vendors travel from all over the state to come and hawk their wares. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to travel for days (on foot) down from the mountains with their crops to sell. Wild mushrooms, heirloom corn varietals, Nopales and Verdolago. The woman from coastal Tehuntepec would come with her coconut treats and seafood. Each week as I walked to the market, I would be engulfed in the intoxicating smells of the chocolatiers stone grinding cacao with cinnamon and spices to create the famous Oaxacan Chocolate.
Each day, I would set out to buy as many new ingredients that I was unfamiliar with and take them back to my apartment to experiment and play with dishes. My landlady at the time was a Zopotec and an herbalist and she schooled me in many herbal remedies. I also befriended the indigenous herbalists in the market and would study with them each week. I learned how to incorporate some of these powerful plants into my cooking.
One of my favorite places to go on my weekly trips to the market was the Casillda juice stand. There they created a plethora of homemade “aguas” and juices. My favorite was horchata (rice milk) with toasted walnuts and cactus fruit mixed in. I also indulged in the spinach, pineapple, lime and orange juice. The family that ran this popular business took me under their wing and included me in all family gatherings at their home from Day of the Dead festivities to the Christmas posadas. There would always be huge feasts with traditional mole and lots of mescal. The mole of Oaxaca is famous all over Mexico and is a very complex culinary sauce with chocolate, almonds, seeds, chili varietals and spices.
My experiences as a young woman living in Oaxaca shaped my life and who I am today. The Oaxacans are diverse and resilient. I am grateful to all the kind-hearted and generous people I met during my years living there.