An inside view of Oaxaca's culinary bounty
An American expat entrepreneur guides cooks and food enthusiasts through the frenetic markets and flavorful kitchens of southern Mexico.
OAXACA, MEXICO (FORTUNE Small Business) -- Of all of Mexico's attractions - white sand beaches, majestic ruins, the afternoon margarita - my favorite must be the mercado.
Humble, ubiquitous, and utterly intriguing, it resembles an American supermarket about as much as a tamale does a hamburger. Even the conquistadors were charmed. Writing home about the New World, they filled their accounts with what they had seen and tasted in the great Tenoch-titlan mercado: fried crickets, avocados, gopher, frog, and bee tamales, not to mention the cacao bean.
Today the market remains a spot where the ancient and modern coexist side by side, a place where a wizened Aztec grandmother may hawk homemade tortillas next to a teenager selling a bootleg DVD of The Fast and the Furious. It is, as Susana Trilling says, "the heart of Mexico."
She would know. For the past 15 years, Trilling has been teaching the secrets of Mexican cuisine to novices and seasoned chefs alike. An American born in Philadelphia to a Mexican mother and Russian father, she owns Seasons of My Heart, a cooking school housed in a bougainvillea-shrouded ranch outside Oaxaca, and also stars in a PBS television series of the same name.
I recently joined Trilling for a session, along with Howard Greenstone - the co-partner of Rosa Mexicano, a small chain of upscale Mexican restaurants based in New York City - three of his chefs, and a pair of Seattle lawyers, among others. Like all Trilling's courses, which can be as short as a day or as long as two weeks, ours began in the market. Naturally.
Standing on the sidewalk outside the entrance, wrapped in a traditional Mexican rebozo, Trilling outlined a few ground rules. If you want to take a picture, ask first. Many natives believe a camera takes away a piece of the soul. If you want to eat something, ask Trilling first. Having eaten at most of the stalls, she knows the ones that are safe (gastrointestinally speaking).
First we visited Cara, an older woman with long, dark braids, who was kneeling on a white cloth. Arranged around her were piles of seeds, nuts, and herbs. There were no signs. If you wanted to buy something, you pointed, and she wrapped it up in a plastic bag.
Trilling reached into a bucket and fished out the long stem of a plant with spiky green leaves.
"Poleo, the drunkard's herb," she said. "It's stewed in a tea and used for curing a hangover." The chefs, who had stayed out late the night before, perked up.
Next she scooped up a handful of flat, oval seeds. "These are from the oaxe tree," she said. "You eat them when you have amoebas or parasites."
I put one in my mouth. It had a pleasant nutty taste, like roasted pumpkin seeds without the salt.
"What are those?" I asked, pointing to a pile of small crimson balls that looked like the peppercorns sold in fancy food stores in New York City, where I live.
"Squash seeds dipped in rat poison," Trilling answered.
Yikes! (It turns out the poison stops rats from digging up plants.) I told Trilling I'd been to Mexico many times, but stuff like this scared me away from the market. I expected her to chastise me for being a paranoid gringa, but she was sympathetic.
"You need someone to show you around," she agreed. Having visited this market for so many years, she knows the vendors and has persuaded them to purify their water.
"Nobody drinks the water here," she said. "It's a myth that Mexicans have immunity. They have to boil it too. Look for the garrafón," she said, pointing to one of the big blue bottles of water at some stalls. "That's a good sign."
Next she ordered breakfast - vegetable and chicken tamales in banana leaves and spicy pork empanadas - all of which were passed around. The flavors were rich, intense, with just the right amount of smokiness.
"This is the best thing I've eaten since I've been here," a chef said, staring at the empanada. "Why is it so good?"
Trilling smiled. "This is what the food is about here," she said. "They're getting up at three in the morning to make those tortillas fresh. It's street food, but they put more care into it than anything you get in restaurants where they're cooking what they think foreigners want."
Greenstone, 47, nodded. He has encountered the same issue in his restaurants, which cater to a clientele that might order tamales (made with the highest-quality chorizo) as an appetizer but expect something grander for the entrée. As the Rosa Mexicano chain has expanded from its original location on Manhattan's Upper East Side (this year it will open its eighth location, in New Jersey), it has had to struggle with the problem of authenticity vs. practicality.
When his culinary director left last year, Greenstone and his partners found themselves at a crossroads. Should they stick with traditional Mexican cuisine or try for something edgier?
"I went to Mexico City to interview all the hot young chefs doing nuevo méxicano," Greenstone said. "But like all 30-year-olds, they want to set the world on fire. They're using soy and ginger, but that's not what Rosa Mexicano is about. You start messing with this food and you take the soul out of it. What Susana is doing is very authentic."
He offered her the job of culinary director, and she accepted. The timing was perfect. The worker protests that erupted into riots in Oaxaca in 2006 had slowed tourism, so she now had the time to travel to the States to help Greenstone develop menus. Here was a way to keep her school while expanding her audience.
Finding a Calling
Taking the position was like a circle closing for Trilling, who is in her mid-40s. Twenty years ago she, too, was one of those young chefs in Manhattan, eager to set the world on fire. She was about to sign a deal with some investors when she realized she would rather be teaching.
Having fallen in love with Oaxaca on a vacation, she moved there and found herself showing Mexican women how to make pizza, brownies, and spaghetti bolognese. As she got to know them, they would tell her about family recipes handed down through the generations, including the region's rich, chocolatey sauces - the "seven moles of Oaxaca." When Trilling wrote her book, she drew on those recipes but also traveled to the surrounding villages and cooked with the women who lived there.
The geography of the area, sometimes called the Tuscany of Mexico, protected the purity of its cuisine. The fertile valley and temperate weather made farming easy, but the mountains made access difficult and kept out other cultural influences.
"This," she said, "is the land where nothing is wasted and nothing changes." That was clear in the market, where we watched a woman and her son and grandson spend the morning churning ice cream by hand. The chefs were half delighted (the prickly-pear sorbet was excellent) and half appalled.
"We have a $5,000 machine that does that in 15 minutes," one said.
Once we arrived back at school, Trilling discussed the dinner we were about to cook and shared some practical hints:
She asked for volunteers to cook each dish - tetelas (red-bean-filled pastries), salad, soup, rice, mole, and cake. I wanted to cook the mole, a macho dish requiring 31 ingredients and the heavy-duty incineration of chilies. But all the male chefs shot their hands up, so I let them fight it out.
Salad and rice seemed boring; the appetizer sounded like more work than necessary. That left the cake and soup. A Chicago chef said he'd bake the cake. I figured working with a pro like him would be like playing tennis with Serena Williams. Intimidating to say the least. So I volunteered for the roasted pepper soup.
My teammates were a former executive from New Hampshire and a Seattle attorney. As we chopped onions, Trilling made suggestions and alterations - lower the heat on the onions; add chicken broth, not beef. An assistant took orders for cervezas, and I solved the mystery of roasting peppers: You've got to let the skin blister until the whole thing is black before peeling it.
Leaving our peppers to "sweat" in a covered bowl, I wandered outside to watch chilies roasting over a wood fire. Even though the male students had volunteered, the person actually doing the task was Lorenza, a middle-aged Mexican woman who looked as if she'd been doing it her whole life.
One of the men, an Argentine graduate of a prestigious culinary school, observed raptly as the chili smoke spiraled into the bright-blue sky. The trip, he said, had been a revelation.
"I heard of the comal," he gestured to the ceramic dish that held the chilies, "but I've never seen one. We use stainless steel in the restaurant." What really amazed him, though, was the complexity and intensity of the food itself: "Until you're here, tasting the flavors, it's hard to imagine."
Emboldened by my education, I returned to the market alone the next day. I picked up some tiny, skull-shaped chocolates created for the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday, and I loaded up on a bag of dried blood-red chilies. I passed, however, on the poisoned squash seeds - and in recognizing them, I felt a wave of satisfaction.
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