Courtesy of generous grandparents, my kids have been treated to beachy getaways since they were tiny, sometimes as far afield as the coast of Mexico. Mr. Mom’s Kitchen and I are lucky enough to tag along. This year though, something was troubling me about a trip planned for Puerto Vallarta. Although we’d visited our culture-rich, south-of-the-border neighbor several times, my kids knew little more of Mexico than body surfing and swim-up pool bars (though I do love a good swim up pool bar). So, I cajoled Mr. Mom’s Kitchen into handing over his hard-earned frequent-flier miles and tacked on a family side-trip to Oaxaca (pronounced Wahaca), a city ripe with history and world famous for its food.
Frankly, my crew was skeptical about this cultural sojourn, particularly since it involved a one a.m. flight out of San Francisco, multiple stops, and a giant layover (that’s what frequent flier miles will do for you). But once we hit the streets of our destination, lined as they are with colonial-era houses, picturesque churches, and vendors selling everything from grilled corn slathered in cheese to paletas (popsicles) in a rainbow of colors, I knew we were onto something good.
I wish I could have taken you with me. It was magical. But I did bring back photos to share, mostly of the food we saw, and tasted, and cooked.
Oaxaca’s famous hot chocolate was top priority. Accompanied by a basket of lightly sweetened bread for dipping? Top ten breakfasts ever.
We’d heard that grasshoppers are common at the Oaxacan table, although I didn’t expect to eat them. But we did, within hours of arrival, fried crispy and served on little tortillas with guacamole. I know, kinda crazy but they were tasty little guys.
Called chapulines, this is what they looked like in the Sunday market we visited in a village outside of Oaxaca city.
A market that was a feast for the senses unmatched by nearly anything I can remember.
And the beautiful children, of every age, selling food alongside their mothers and sometimes all alone. It was sobering for my own children to witness kids their own age spending their day at work instead of at play.
We visited a nearby village to eat at a restaurant recommended by Alice Waters. I’d follow her anywhere, and so we did. Though the food was lovely, it was the cheerful, rosy-cheeked women cooking and serving that touched us most. I wanted to move right into that darling kitchen, and couldn’t get enough of those braids woven with colorful ribbons. I told Virginia she had to grow her hair out immediately.
The ladies set tiny cups of mescal in front of us (minus the kids), the Oaxacan answer to tequila, along with limes to dip in chili and suck before tossing back the booze. Then they fed us bowls of squash blossom soup nearly too pretty to eat.
The question became, how do we cook like this? So we spent a day picking up pointers at a cooking school in the center of Oaxaca. The menu was vast…from chicken mole to rose water ice cream, but we started with that staple of every Mexican kitchen: handmade tortillas. Some were topped with cheese and squash blossoms.
Using this recipe as the foundation.
Roasted Tomato Salsa
The basic ingredients of a salsa are tomatoes, chilies and garlic; in this recipe, the roasted tomatoes add a smoky flavor to the salsa. This is a basic salsa and by just changing the type of chili or by adding extra ingredients like cumin seeds, avocado leaves, cilantro, onion, and vinegar can give it another flavor. You can use fresh, green chilies or dried ones.
2 medium tomatoes (8 ounces)
1 serrano chili
1 clove garlic
Salt to taste
Put the unpeeled tomatoes, chili, and garlic under a broiler or in a piping hot pan and cook until the outside is browned. Peel the garlic.
Put the tomatoes, chili, and garlic and blend until smooth, about 1 minutes. Add salt to taste.
adapted from Casa Crespo, Oaxaca
In the morning, it was time to leave.
Goodbye beautiful Oaxaca
Hello swim up pool bar.