Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Mary and I just returned from a ten day vacation in Mexico with my parents. We went spent time in a few days in Mexico City, a couple of days in Cuernavaca, and the rest of the time in Oaxaca. There was far too much to try to detail, so I'll go over the highlights.

The market in Cuernavaca has an entrance you'd never guess. Some innocent steps off a regular street lead you down some stairs, around a corner, and past a ton of singing Christmas lights, up more steps, down steps, up steps, down more steps. It was like walking on a serpents' back. You then enter the market - past guys selling live bugs as appetizers. The vegetable stands don't show the food as prettily as the stands in Oaxaca, but the spice stands have very nice displays - often in very nice wooden cases. The entrance (if you could ever find it) and the pretty spices make this market a winner.

The main cathedral in Cuernavaca was also pretty cool. Unfortunately, most of the frescos were pretty badly damaged. However the ret of the church is very simple yet modern. The baptismal pool is huge (the babies could swim laps), and the main altar is in front of a large metal cube that has half a dozen beautiful, modern, red glass candle holders hanging. The podium and actual altar also look like (tasteful) modern art. Worth checking out.

In Oaxaca, Mary and I took a cooking class at El Naranjo. Iliana, the chef, takes great pride in traditional Oaxacan cuisine. Before this class, I never thought I liked mole. In this class we made one of the 7 traditional local recipes, Amarillo. Iliana explained the history of moles, their importance in Oaxacan cuisine, and showed us how to make them. Oaxaca is in the area where there are more varieties of chilis grown in the world - and when you go through the markets - you cannot avoid noticing the prominent role chilis play. The stands in the Oaxaca market have more chilis than the stands in any other markets you'll find in Mexico. Anyway, the class was a bunch of fun - 4 hours of in-depth discussion of cooking. We got lots of hands-on experience with most of the dishes - dry roasting the dried chilis, blending the salsas and the soup. Mary was having flashbacks to sitting in lectures (the stools were remarkably not-comfortable), I was on cloud nine. After cooking everything, Iliana took us on a tour of the market and then the chocolate shop. Then we sat down to a meal of everything we had just prepared - a huge, delicious meal.

Fun food facts: before the Spanish came, the people of "Mexico" only cooked using the methods of dry roasting, steaming, and grilling - they did not cook using fat. The meat used in mole sauce is generally very bland (boiled) so as not to compete with the intricate flavors of the mole sauce. The Amarillo mole is not yellow (amarillo means yellow). The mole negro is not the darkest mole - Chichillo is (mole means black). The cinnamon used in Mexico is not the same as the cinnamon used in the U.S. and Mexico uses 80% of the cinnamon produced by Sri Lanka (the Mexican version isn't as hot, but is more complicated and yummy). The corn meal (masa) is made by cooking the corn with lime - which greatly increases the available protein content in the corn. In Oaxaca, black beans are often flavored with avocado leaves (not your regular avocado - whose leaves are poisonous) which tastes quite a bit like anise.

We later ate an actual dinner at the restaurant, which was delicious and very reasonably priced. Highly recommended. Not quite as good, but very tasty as well, was Grandma's (La Casa Abuelita) on the Zocalo. Both restaurants turned mom and me to moles.

The other high point in Oaxaca for me was the Ethnobotanical Garden. From the current entrance, the garden appears pretty boring. The four of us took a tour right before sunset on a Friday night with a Spanish-speaking guide. I picked up a little bit of what was going on, but not too much. We were all amazed by the beauty of the garden. I decided to come back the next day when an English speaking guide gave the tour. Very much worth the return. The tour lasted 2.5 hours and it zipped by so fast I didn't realize how long I'd been following the guy around. The garden is right next to the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures (worth a visit) and is intimately tied to the museum and the history of the region. The guy who led our tour was personally involved in getting convent and the old grounds turned into the museum/library/garden, and he was obviously proud. Turns out, about 12 years ago, the government was considering turning the whole thing into a high-end hotel and large parking lot. The state of Oaxaca is unique in Latin America in that over 90% of all land is communally owned (i.e. not private), and turning a piece of its history into a hotel would be a slap in the face.

The highlights of the garden tour were all the ways the garden had been organized to reflect the history and art of the region. The layout of the garden is intimately tied to the architecture of the convent, and makes as much use of the archeological findings possible. All rainwater from the convent and church is gathered in a cistern system to water the grounds. Unique and attractive water aqueducts water tie the entire garden together. Neat things I learned during the tour were: the natives made rubber from cactus (Spaniards never saw balls that bounced before), they domesticated squash for the seeds (protein source), several species of cacti (to make fences and dyes), a species of insect, and most importantly they domesticated corn. The insect, Cochineal, is used to die fabric, paints, and cosmetics. The dye is the reason Oaxaca exists: just after the time the Spanish found the dye, it became the most expensive agricultural product in the world, and the wealth brought in by the dye is the reason Oaxaca is the cultural and artistic center of Mexico that it is. It was also too expensive to gather the by slave labor - so the Spanish let the natives keep their freedom and land and simply imposed a tax on their sales - this is the root of the reason that Oaxacan's own over 90% of the land in the state to this date. The natives domesticated three varieties of prickly pear cacti - partially to eat, and partially to grow these insects. The Cochineal were then bred to produce more dye (and less wax). The most amazing feat of domestication is, of course corn - which was bred from a simple grain (with a single row of seeds) into a plant having 10's of rows of seeds around a central cob. And corn is gearing up to be the most important grain in the future: it can be grown at all elevations, and from the equator up through the temperate zones. The guide talked about how people in Mexico want the government to assert their property rights over corn and demand a portion of the profits Mansanto is starting to gain from privitizing corn.

Anyway, the tour was great. The garden is simply beautiful, and very impressive since it was an barracks for the army just 10 years ago.

The trip ended with Mom hunting down a guy selling a painted, wooden burro she seemed to have taken a liking to just before our last lunch. We had a little time to kill before catching the bus to the airport, so we tried to find the seller. No luck. Mere seconds before we hailed the cab, Mom let out a shriek when she saw the guy. Needless to say, she bought the thing and smuggled it through customs.

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