The vastness of Mexican cuisine

Chris had a last-minute desire to take a cooking class while in Oaxaca, so we got lucky last night and got confirmed for a cooking class today at Casa Crespo just a couple blocks away from our hotel. Lo and behold, when we arrived, we discovered that it would actually be a private cooking class since no one else had signed up that day. We started the day having a quiet chat over Mexican hot chocolate and fresh breads with the owner and cooking instructor Oscar, who runs the restaurant, which does only private tasting menus and special events, plus cooking classes. We chatted about things we’d like to make, things I had made previously in the cooking class I’d done eight years ago here, and what we’d accomplish today. We made two different moles, a chocolate-based one that is considered a special occasion/wedding mole, a red mole without chocolate, steamed in wrapped parchment paper with rabbit, calabaza (squash blossom) and Oaxacan cheese-stuffed tortillas, yellow tortillas from fresh masa, squash blossom and squash stuffed tamales, salsa verde (Chris’s baby), salsa rojo of three types: worm, cumin, and avocado leaf, guacamole with fresh mango, shrimp and vegetable soup, and avocado ice cream.

It was so fascinating to learn about all the different Mexican herbs that we never bother or even consider using in the U.S., like yerba santa leaves, squash blossoms or calabaza, avocado leaves (which have an incredibly fragrant and very distinct flavor). But at the same time, it made me a little sad that these things aren’t readily available back home. Even in the Mexican markets that I’ve visited on occasion in Spanish Harlem or in Corona, Queens, when you see things like dried ancho or pasilla chilies, while they are still tasty and delicious once fried, heated, or steeped in boiling water, they completely lack the in-your-face bold fragrance that the ones in the markets here do, and the reason for that is obvious: they’re just fresher here and closer to the source. Then, there are all the ways to prepare the endless varieties of dried chilies: fried in oil, dry charred, steeped in hot water (which I’ve done a few times back home to make sauces like harissa). It was also eye-opening to learn about all the different types of tortillas and tamales: the massive, main-meal-sized Oaxacan-style tamales that are filled with mole and chicken or another protein, thick masa, shaped into a large block, then steamed in banana leaves. Then there are the ones we know better back home, which are more appetizer-sized, just a few bites, with some fresh salsa verde, pork, and masa, steamed in corn husks. Then, there are the tortillas for tacos: yellow, red, blue corn; stuffed with minced herbs or vegetables or blossoms, pure with just soft, supple masa. The varieties just keep going on.

“There are many, many types of tortillas,” Oscar said, smiling, when I asked him how many exist. “Too many to count.”

The vastness of Mexican cuisine, or Oaxacan cuisine in this specific class’s case, never seems to end, and to me, it’s like we’ve just touched the surface. I wish we could be more exposed to this back home and see Mexican cuisine for more than just tacos and carnitas.

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