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Posts Tagged ‘culinary traditions’

Oaxaca recently won the Food and Travel Reader Award 2018 in the category of Best Gourmet Destination in Mexico.  At last, the rest of Mexico, not to mention the world, is acknowledging what Oaxaqueños have long known — the eight regions of Oaxaca offer some of the best, most complex traditional food in the world.  From street food stands to food fairs to restaurants, I am almost never disappointed!  Here are a few of the traditional dishes I’ve had the pleasure of eating in the past few weeks.

Higaditos in Villa Díaz Ordaz – Oct. 28, 2018

The first is Higaditos from Señora Cristina Cruz — an additional reason blogger buddy Chris and I returned to Díaz Ordaz for the Festival del Pan de Muerto.  We have tasted many versions of this egg/chicken dish, but we agree that hers is the best — never mind that she has a smile that could light up the world.

Mole de Caderas at Las Quince Letras – Nov. 7, 2018

When chef Celia Florian announced that her restaurant, Las Quince Letras, would be featuring Mole de Caderas for a month, mi amiga (and cocinera) Kalisa and I made a beeline.  Mole de Caderas is a traditional Mixtec dish from Huajuapan de León, Oaxaca and nearby Tehuacán, Puebla.  It is made from the hip (cadera) and the spine of a goat that has been fed a salt-based diet to give the broth a unique flavor.  It is only served during the fall, when the goats are made to make the ultimate sacrifice — and was absolutely delicious!

Tlayuda with tasajo at Tlayudas “El Negro”

And, finally, Oaxaca’s celebrated tlayuda — it and pozole are my favorite Oaxaca comfort foods.  Neighbors and I decided to try out the newest location of Tlayudas El Negro on Independencia near Crespo.  As you can see above, I ordered one with tasajo (thinly sliced beef) and garnished with the aromatic and flavorful herb, chepiche.  Yummm… I will return.

What can I say?  I feel so lucky to have landed in this culturally rich and seriously delicious corner of the world!

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Along with much-needed rain and sparkling green cantera, tropical storm Beatriz also brought the one-day-a-year appearance of chicatanas (aka, tzicatana, tzicatl).

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What, you might ask are chicatanas?  They are giant flying ants that emerge with the first rains of the season — and by giant, I mean about 4 cm from the head to the tip of the wings for the females.  (As in much of the insect world, males are smaller and wingless.)  Known by the Nahuatl long before the arrival of the Spanish, they were mentioned in the 16th-century Florentine Codex which talked about the tzicatana living below ground and cultivating fungus to eat.

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By this morning, the rain had stopped and when I returned from an early errand, I found chicatanas — queens (wings) and soldiers (wingless with vicious front pincers) — crawling around on my terrace and balcony.  There were probably many more earlier, but I had been in a hurry and hadn’t noticed.  By 10:30 AM they were gone.

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Oh, and have I mentioned that they are a delicacy and a great source of protein?  I’ve had chicatana salsa and chicatana mole several times.  Below is Mole de Chicatanas I sampled during the Mole Festival in 2014.  It’s from the Sierra Sur region of Oaxaca and made with chicatanas, pork ribs or loin, chile costeño, peanuts, and much more.  It was yummy (and I was a picky eater as a child!), so I had it again at last year’s festival.

If you won’t take my word, check out this Bizarre Foods episode set in Oaxaca.  (Chicatanas start at 1 min. 40 sec.)  By the way, these are the dreaded leaf-cutter ants.  However, it is the much smaller workers who can strip a tree overnight and are the bane of gardeners here.  At least their queens and soldiers are good for something!

Post script:  On a somber note, tropical storm Beatriz also brought flooding, mudslides, more downed trees, collapsed roads, and a current death toll of three.

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The rainy season has come and with it, the emergence of chicatanas (also known as, tzicatanas) — a pre hispanic insect delicacy in this corner of the world.  My first experience with these giant “flying ants” was at the Oaxaca airport five or six years ago, where I was greeted with, what can only be characterized as, an infestation.  They were flying through the terminal, crawling on the floor, and being chased by toddlers to teens, as adults watched in amusement.  Since then, I’ve come to know and even love these little critters — especially in salsas and mole.

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Two years ago, I awoke to my own infestation on the terrace.  However, yesterday morning only a lone female chicatana put in an appearance.  Darn, just when I’d actually considered gathering them up like these children and attempting to make chicatana salsa!

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Can you believe it?  It seemed that no sooner had last month’s Oaxaca Sabe culinary adventure concluded, than the seventh annual Saber del Sabor: Festival Gastronómico 2015 kicked off.  This past Friday, the Plaza de la Danza was tented and decorated for a buffet dinner prepared by cooks from the eight regions of the state of Oaxaca.

For only 300 pesos (approximate $18.50), one could feast on a mind-blowing and waist-expanding galaxy of gastronomic delights.

Menu inauguacion Saber del saborThe dinner seeks to recognize and promote Oaxaca’s traditional cuisine.  Always a highlight are the maestros of barbacoa, who brave blistering heat and eye-stinging smoke as they turn and tend the spit-roasted piglets, lambs, and chickens.   Alas, this year by 8 PM the line was too long and I elected to miss these always succulent and mouth-watering delights.  However, I was in no danger of starving!

Of course, the chefs were the stars of the show and young and old alike savored their creations.

This year El Saber del Sabor is honoring two regional chefs:  Young chef, Ixchel Ornelas from Tlaxiaco, in the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca and Teotitlán del Valle’s own, Abigail Mendoza, who has done so much to promote and bring respect for Oaxaca’s traditional indigenous methods and flavors.

The festival continues with lectures, workshops, and gourmet meals prepared in the kitchens of Oaxaca’s top restaurants by celebrated chefs from all over Mexico — as well as a couple from Spain and the USA.

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As if Thursday’s Thanksgiving of 2 turkeys, 2 styles of stuffing, 2 kinds of cranberry sauce, 2 types of potatoes (sweet and garlic mashed), and 2 desserts (pumpkin pie and chocolate cake) weren’t enough….  Believe it or not, Friday night, eating was again on the minds of neighbors (and co-Thanksgiving Day cooks) David and Marilyn and I, as we walked over to the Plaza de la Danza for the kickoff cena (dinner) of Oaxaca’s annual El Saber del Sabor gastronomy festival.

The transformation of the Plaza de la Danza began on Wednesday.

By Friday night’s dinner, it had morphed into an elegant banquet hall, with an open air rotisserie pit.

Fifty traditional cooks from the eight regions of Oaxaca offered guests a sample of the culinary wealth of the state.

The results were dazzling and delicious.  All for only 300 pesos (a little over $20 US)!

On a clear cold night, with the Basílica de la Soledad looming above, there was also mezcal and music to warm body and spirit!

Following Thursday night’s inaugural banquet, the festival moves to Oaxaca’s upscale restaurants and other venues where, along with workshops and lectures, seventeen renowned chefs from around Mexico will be offering specially created gourmet menus.  El Saber del Sabor closes tomorrow afternoon with a tribute to chef Pedro Ortega of Grupo Estoril, accompanied by a comida prepared by Ortega and three other distinguished chefs.  Yummm…  Alas, at 1500 pesos, it’s a little too pricey for me.

In previous years, El Saber del Sabor was held in late August and early September.  I don’t know why this year it was moved to the end of November, but I do know Friday night was a little chilly for an outside venue and, for gringos, it was way too close to Thanksgiving — the gluttony was almost (but not quite) too much!

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The rainy season has definitely arrived in the city, bringing several hours of lluvia every night for the past five nights.  The first rains of the season also bring (drum roll, please) chicatanas!  Early this morning, I went out onto the terrace with my coffee to be greeted with these not-so-little insects.  Flying (into my hair, eeek!) and crawling all over the place!

Female chicatana on blue oilcloth

Female chicatana on a very wet table.

What, you may ask are chicatanas?  They are giant flying ants that emerge with the first rains of the season — and by giant, I mean about 4 cm from the head to the tip of the wings for the females.  (As in much of the insect world, males are smaller and wingless.)

Male chicatana on wood deck

Male chicatana on the deck.

This occurs early one morning each year and lasts only a few hours.  My first experience with them was a couple of years ago, when I arrived at Oaxaca’s airport for my 8:30 AM flight one May morning, to find, yikes(!) an infestation of insects.  I had no idea what they were, but nobody seemed to mind, and kids were running around collecting them.  The answer came after I boarded the plane and began talking with a Oaxaqueña across the aisle.  She explained that the arrival of the chicatanas was a much-anticipated event because they are a delicacy.  As the video below documents, they are soaked, cleaned, toasted on a comal, ground, seasoned, and made into a salsa.

According to this post in a Chicago based culinary chat site, it has been almost “500 years since Bernardino de Sahagun reported to Europe on the tzicatana [chicatana in Nahuatl] in his Nueva Historia, from its divine associations to its swarm ethology (mirroring the movements of the Aztecan armies) to its apparent deliciousness to the Nahuan-speaking people in the region.”  And, long before that, tzicatanas were mentioned in the Florentine Codex.

Female chicatana on her back

Female chicatana doing the back stroke on the table.

By 9:30 this morning, they were gone.  However, should you find yourself in Oaxaca during a brief visit by the chicatanas, here is a recipe for Chicatana Salsa.

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A couple of days ago, above the Plaza de la Danza, a mound of sand and a pile of bricks.

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There were guys doing the heavy lifting — bricks on their shoulders and buckets of sand in hand — carrying load after load down the ramps and stairs to the plaza below.

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The sand was spread and leveled and the bricks were carefully laid in a herringbone pattern.

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What were they up to?  Preparing a barbecue platform for last night’s gastronomic festival, El Saber del Sabor Oaxaca 2013, opening night buffet.  The entire Plaza de la Danza was tented, tables and chairs were set up, lights were strung, and by yesterday afternoon, all was ready.

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Last year we missed out on the barbecue — spit roasted lamb and pork — it looked and smelled divine, but the line was too long and then it was gone.  This year, we were not to be denied and so our strategy was to be first in line.

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That meant standing for at least 20 minutes in front of the newly constructed barbecue at the Cuenca station, where we had plenty of time to study the menu and salivate, as smoke from the BBQ permeated our clothes and burned our eyes.

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José Domingo Cruz Cobos from Tuxtepec did not disappoint.  I can’t even begin to describe how succulent the meat and how crispy the skin.  It was well worth the wait!

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However, this was only the beginning.  Cooks from the other 7 regions of Oaxaca were also there, preparing their signature dishes.

Aurora Toledo of Zandunga restaurant with chef and evening honoree, Patricia Quintana.

Aurora Toledo of Zandunga restaurant with chef, teacher, author, and the evening’s special honoree, Patricia Quintana.

Gluttony makes for a hazy memory, but in addition to the above, I had mole negro and tamalitos from the famed Mendoza sisters of Tlamanalli in Teotitlán del Valle, garnachas from Aurora Toledo of Zandunga in the city, and ???  Oh, and then there was wine, mezcal, and a cajeta flavored paleta for dessert.

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All this, and much, much, much more for only 350 pesos (about $27 US).  It was a lovely and delicious night.

And for those with deeper pockets, multi-course lunches and dinners with wine and mezcal pairings are being prepared by the top chefs from all over Mexico, at select restaurants throughout the city, including Alejandro Ruíz of Casa Oaxaca and Jose Manuel Baños Rodriguez of Pitiona, each recently named to Latin America’s 50 Top Restaurants.

¡Buen provecho!

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Thursday night was the kickoff event for the 5th annual El Saber Del Sabor (literally, the knowledge of flavor) Festival Gastronómico Oaxaca 2012.  Early in the day, the Plaza de la Danza had been tented and turned into a colorful banquet hall.

Interior of large tent decorated with multicolor tableclothes and papel picado on ceiling

A couple of the evening’s chefs arrived early and were cooling their heels, waiting to begin doing what they do best.  Hmmm… what’s with the bricks on top of the cantera?  (Stay tuned!)

2 chefs sitting behind brick platform

By 9:30 PM the tables had filled and cooking was well underway.

Young man in chef's toque sauteeing bananas.

Casa Oaxaca chef and event host, Alejandro Ruiz Olmedo circulated, greeted old friends and fans, and was interviewed by a crush of press.  Cameras and microphones were omnipresent — good for publicity, bad for navigating the aisles en route to food!

Chef Alejandro Ruiz Olmedo talking to a table filled with people.

To begin the evening and ready the palate, wines, beers, aguas, and (of course!) mezcals were offered.  We sampled a couple of mezcals from El Jolgorio and all I can say is, Wow!  (BTW, that’s a good, “Wow!”)

Bottles of El Jolgorio Mezcal on a table.

The festival seeks to promote and protect Oaxaca’s traditional cuisine and to inspire innovation.  For this evening’s event, we were invited to sample an incredible range of appetizers, side dishes, main courses, and desserts from 23 cooks, representing the 8 regions of Oaxaca.

A bowl of a stew surrounded by platters of limes, rice, cilantro, and onions.

I think I must have tasted at least 30 dishes — and this was late at night.  Needless to say, no breakfast for me the next morning.

Serving pans of food.

And, remember the bricks?   My favorite sight of the evening were the little piggies roasting on bamboo skewers over red and white-hot coals.  The tag line for the festival is, “tierra, fuego y cocina” (earth, fire, and kitchen).  Yes!!!

Roasting pigs on bamboo skewers over hot coals.

From the Plaza de la Danza, the festival moves to restaurants throughout the city, where 36 renowned chefs from all over Mexico have come to prepare innovative cuisine that pays homage to Oaxaqueño foodstuffs and traditions.

A big “thank you” to Henry and Rosa (Amate Books) for inviting me to share such a delightful and delicious evening!

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