Those of us who live here are witness to the growing worldwide interest in Oaxaca food. Food festivals are everywhere any time of year. Take your pick from mole to salsa to tacos and tamales, and of course chocolate. We have fusion, small plates, tapas and schnitzel. We even have food trucks — something I was used to seeing more of in Durham, North Carolina, than Oaxaca, Mexico.
Innovation is everywhere and we want to try everything. Well, maybe just a taste of salsa de chicatana (or not) and a sprinkle of chapulines on top of a hot, Oaxaca cheesy molote.
If you come to Oaxaca for the annual July Guelaguetza you can go off to explore the Sierra Norte and the Feria del Hongos to be held July 19-20 in Cuajimoloyas. Its an easy day trip from the city if you start early enough. Here you can sample all the wild mushrooms that the rainy season gives forth. They are stuffed into empanadas. Sautéd for enchiladas. Steamed for soup. Ready to take home in their natural state to prepare any way you like them, perhaps tossed into a delicious pasta prepared with butter and garlic. Recently on an upscale restaurant menu, I saw carpaccio de hongos — a deviation from thinly sliced beef or prosciutto, served with squash and a blossom.
Let’s get to the guts of it: Gastronomy and gastroenterology.
There is an underbelly to all this. Delicious food that doesn’t quite settle in the digestive system. This is not isolated to visitors. It happens to long-time residents, too. It happens to locals — people born and raised here! But no one talks about it. We suffer. We run to the bathroom. Our gut gurgles. We emit noxious odors or sounds we try to hide with a cough timed just right. We endure.
We keep eating because being here is all about the food. It’s a subject for discourse, comparison, and enjoyment. Yet, the symptoms of digestive malfunction persist. We may resist taking azythromyacin and opt for acupuncture or aguamiel or a tincture. Anyone have an antacid?
Maybe after a while, in between the pollo con mole negro and the sopa de garbanzo and spicy chileajo con puerco, we can endure no more and seek the advice of a gastroenterologist who sends us to a lab with container in hand. You might not like the results. You may be asked to eliminate all dairy, all beans (gad, how can you live in Oaxaca and not eat beans, for god sake?), all mole, and anything fried. You need to rebalance your microbiota aka your gut bacteria, you are told.
Then, after months of this regimen, life doesn’t change.
Meanwhile, back in the USA, the infectious disease clinic needs a three- to six-month lead time to schedule an appointment. They have little or no interest in responding to the urgency of a Mexican-inspired intestine.
So, you go to another Oaxaca gastroenterologist who says take this pill for two weeks, eat whatever you want and read The Schopenhauer Cure. Your sister, who has experience with digestion, says Drink aguamiel morning and night for two weeks. You do both. There is major improvement. To what do you attribute this? Modern medicine or pre-Hispanic Zapotec folk cure?
Everyone knows Oaxaca chocolate is sublime. The chocolate at Mama Pacha Chocolate Shop is sublimest. I must use the superlative here for many reasons: Unparalleled quality cacao beans to start with, the chocolate is small batch roasted, tempered for hours, resulting in a smooth as silk finish. Different from the sugary, grainy chocolate we use in the villages for mole and hot chocolate. This is EATING chocolate.
Last night, Chef Mario Ruben Ramirez Lopez treated twelve of us to an over-the-top four-course chocolate dinner hosted by Antonio Michelena, founder of Mama Pacha. This was a Pop-Up. A one-night stand. Over in three hours. From appetizer to dessert, the tastes were sensational. Toño provided the chocolate. Mario provided the culinary adventure.
Mario is from Santiago Juxtlahuaca in Oaxaca’s Mixteca region. Cooking is in his blood and honed in Oaxaca city. He is building a name for himself and all accolades are deserved. Keep your eyes open for the next pop-up opportunity to eat what he creates.
This night, our first course was a chocolate tetela. This is a pancake made with masa (corn meal). In our case, the masa was infused with chocolate and the pancake filled with minced beef. The topping was startling: a blood-red beet and white chocolate molé, the beets and chocolate puréed into a flavorful paste that could stand on its own. The dish was adorned with arugula and broccoli flowers.
Mario told us he named this dish Yalitza after the Mixtec actress who starred in the film Roma. The color of the molé is like Hollywood, but it tastes like the Mixtec people, he said.
Okay. What’s next? A soup course poured from a jicara bowl — Chile Atolé Con Chocolate. Traditional atolé is a pre-Hispanic beverage of toasted corn meal and cacao, and sweetened. Mario adapted this to become a savory broth, adding chile pasilla and pouring it steaming hot over a nest of pickled red cabbage and organic corn kernels. Yummy. It had started to rain by then, that early evening Oaxaca summer downpour that turns humidity to fresh air. A chill entered the small workshop space given over to dining room. At that moment, the soup was perfect.
Bellies filling. Pour another glass of red wine. Pass the basket of fresh made sourdough bread from Pan Con Madre. Take a breather. Connect with our table-mates: a U.S. caterer/cook, a Columbian chef, a linguist, a jewelry maker, a food culture guide, a James Beard finalist cookbook writer, visitors from Australia and Ecuador.
From an infinitesimal corner of the space emerges plates of Molé Coloradito with chile pasilla from San Pablo Villa de Mitla. Oaxaca’s Valles Centrales (central valleys) are the source material for our food. Corn, for example, was first hybridized here over 8,000 years ago. The molé puddled on the plate, an underskirt for Oaxaca polenta made with cacao butter and mezcal, topped with whole shrimp and verdolagas –aka purslane.
The ultimate dessert was, of course, a molten Mama Pacha chocolate brownie, topped with quesillo cheese ice cream with fresh mango sauce. The chocolate bits on top were crunchy, sending me to the moon.
Need I say more?
Oh, other than this extraordinary meal was priced at 550 pesos per person, including wine. It’s no wonder why so many visitors are flocking to Oaxaca.
The cuisine here has always been exceptional, delicious, noteworthy and a full-mouth sensation — course after course, from humble street food, to worthy comedors, to elegant dining rooms. Traditional food is evolving into experimentation — taking the basic ingredients we know and love here and giving us one more surprise.
Yes, I agree that Carolina Herrera’s new 2020 resort collection, just unveiled, is beautiful. The collection, the company says, is inspired by Mexican indigenous designs. When you look at the clothes, some of the designs are startling — exact duplicates of textiles made by hand in Mexican villages for centuries. Excusing this behavior because it is beautiful, ignores deeper questions about race, culture, heritage, history. Why don’t we call it what it is? Plagiarism. Stealing. Copying.
Okay. I’m angry.
Outrage is not based on whether a fashion house creates a beautiful line of clothing for it’s ultra-rich clientele nor does the beauty as a subjective assessment, figure into the discussion.
It is based on how and why indigenous people create the cloth they wear, who has authority and power, and who receives recognition and compensation.
Yesterday, Vanessa Friedman, fashion editor of the New York Times, wrote Homage or Theft? Carolina Herrera Called Out By Mexican Minister. It fuels the conversation about cultural appropriation issues, a hot topic today among those of us who respect indigenous people and what they make. Theirs is a history of culture, family, storytelling, spirituality and belief, through cloth as a cultural expression.
Lifting designs out of context violates the very foundation of culture. We have a hard time understanding this in the USA because we are bred in a culture of be more, earn more, get more, compete more. Here in Mexico, culture is based on community, family and ancient rituals. Clothing interprets this.
What fascinated me most was reading the comments from seemingly intelligent, considerate readers of the New York Times. I encourage you to read the comments section. There are over 450 comments. Overwhelmingly, people feel that:
the Herrera designs are beautiful and unique, and in no way resemble the indigenous clothing style of, for example, the Otomi traditional embroidered dress
there are no legal restrictions on design, and runway designs are being copied and mass-marketed everywhere
imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
artists and creatives take their inspiration from wherever they want
political correctness in art and fashion has gone too far
I was surprised to read the responses that confirm that the Western world is either ignorant of or doesn’t appreciate the issues of disenfranchisement facing talented people, who are marginalized with little or no voice and have no legal protections. I am angry that people are blinded to human rights. Someone said, There is no such thing as cultural identity.
But, why should I be surprised? Indigenous design theft is only one more version of the power and wealth imbalance of conquerors with their attendant racism.
Here is what I wrote in the NY Times comment section in response to the Vanessa Friedman article:
Here we go again! This is a recurring theme of the privileged who think that “borrowing” from indigenous cultures is equal to paying homage, respect, and XXX Many of you label cultural appropriation as PC. It’s actually a real problem in Mexico when poor people living in remote areas have no voice to protect what belongs to them. People living and creating in indigenous villages for thousands of years don’t know about PC. They do know that working the cloth takes months. They learned it from their grandmothers and the designs include sacred symbols that have cultural, spiritual and social meaning. There is no context for the designs that haven been lifted and repurposed for the ultra-rich. There is no compensation to villages whose designs have been stolen. These designs are unique. Unlike music or architecture that builds upon what came before. It is different. These are designs copied verbatim. You get thrown out of college for that! Remember? Yes, the CH designs are beautiful – but because the original designs are beautiful. Let’s get it right. Let’s collaborate, not steal. Let’s employ at a fair wage. Let’s justly compensate. This is not about liberal or conservative. This is about doing what is right in the world. I’ve been living part-time in Oaxaca and working with indigenous artisans for years. Their lives are humble, they are generous, and they are concerned about loss of culture because clothing here is identity. We can help, not hinder the cause.
In response to Gail Pellet on my Facebook page, I say:
We have seen here in Mexico with the Isabel Marant case of stealing Tlahuitoltepec designs, that lawsuits don’t work. The indigenous designs are too old to be covered by copyright and patent protection, and are legally considered part of the public domain. However, the patrimony of Mexican pre-Hispanic culture is at risk. Invasion continues in its modern form.
And, in a conversation with Carry Somers, founder of #fashionrevolution on her Instagram page, I noted:
… the luxury brands are stealing our indigenous/native designs without compensation. There is a poverty of ethics in our world.
She says: We need to look to the Nagoya Protocol to protect indigenous knowledge around biological resources and need some comparable protection for indigenous designs. Let’s hope @susana.harp.oaxaca (singer turned senator from Oaxaca) can do something about this.
Please read the NY Times feature, then the comments, and comment, too, if you like. Please don’t comment unless you read the article. Thank you.
January 31 to February 7, 2020, 8 days and 7 nights.
Come with us to explore the Oaxaca we know and love by going deep and personal. We offer you an unparalleled and eclectic cultural immersion travel experience by introducing you to the artisans we believe offer some of the finest examples of folk art and craft the Oaxaca City region has to offer. We know each of them personally and have cultivated their trust and friendship over the years. During our week together we take you into their homes and workshops to investigate and explore why they are makers, who they learned from, the value and importance of continuing their traditions, and the special techniques they have developed to become masters.
$2,795 per person for a shared room (2 rooms available)
$3,395 per person for private room (5 Queens and 2 Kings available).
The city of Oaxaca is a travel destination that is on the map. Her artisan craft, fine and unique cuisine, delicious beverages (from fruit waters to mezcal) and UNESCO Colonial Historic Center receive wide acclaim – and justly so! You’ll sample some of this as we also focus on meeting the masters who weave rugs and clothing, make silver filigree jewelry, ceramics, woodcarvings, lead-free ceramics, and more. Many have not yet achieved worldwide fame but they are equally as talented as those who have, and offer what they make at affordable prices.
Most importantly, we offer the opportunity to meet the makers and support them and their families directly. This is an important mission of ours as we travel into the backstreets of villages where not many have the opportunity to go.
This program is for collectors, lovers of Mexican art and folk art, and anyone with curiosity and an open heart who wants to learn more about Oaxaca, Mexico, and her creative traditions. Even if you have been to Oaxaca before, there is still a lot more to discover and we take you on that path.
We will be a small group of travelers — no more than 12 to 14 people — to give you an intimate and in-depth experience.
Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC and Norma Schafer is
pleased to tell you that Eric Chavez Santiago and his wife Elsa Sanchez Diaz
have joined our organization and will co-lead this tour. They are native
Oaxaquenos, possess a broad and deep knowledge of the region and have years of
experience working with Oaxaca’s outstanding craftspeople. Both are bilingual.
Elsa is an expert teacher and maker of natural dyes. Eric is a Zapotec weaver and
dyer who was born and raised in Teotitlan del Valle. Both have deep roots in
Oaxaca’s artisan communities, are knowledgeable about artisan
made textiles and folk art and know the best of the best.
Elsa, Eric and I developed this itinerary together to present to you for our first Oaxaca Discovery Study Tour.
Day 1, Friday, January 31: Travel day, arrive to Oaxaca City and check in to your hotel. Meet the group for a welcome supper. Please schedule your flights to arrive to our historic center hotel by 5 p.m. Welcome dinner included.
Day 2, Saturday, February 1: We set out after
breakfast for a Oaxaca city meander. This day is designed to give you an
overview introduction to see the best available of Oaxaca’s textiles and folk art.
We have curated visits to some of the finest shops and galleries to discuss,
discern and differentiate quality, and understand pricing. You’ll learn about
Oaxaca’s back-story – history, cultural appreciation, social and economic
forces, craft development and evolution. We will have lunch at a highly rated comedor
that serves authentic Oaxaca food. This is a big walking day. Please bring
comfortable shoes and all your stamina! Breakfast and lunch included. Dinner on
Day 3, Sunday, February 2: After breakfast we travel along the Ocotlan artisan route to explore the Oaxaca State Museum of Folk Art in San Bartolo Coyotepec. We will talk about why this museum is important to Oaxaca craft development. We continue on to meet the maker of amazing carved wood and painted whimsical figures in San Martin Tilcajete. After lunch on the road, we see back strap loom weavers in Santo Tomas Jalieza, and a noted primitive folk art pottery family in San Antonino Castillo Velasco. Breakfast and lunch included.
Day 4, Monday, February 3: After breakfast, we head
out for an overnight excursion to Teotitlan del Valle, where you will enjoy a market
tour and cooking class in a traditional Zapotec kitchen, see weaving and
natural dyeing demonstrations with weavers of wool and cotton rugs and clothing.
We think it’s important to introduce you to indigenous Zapotec history, so we
will loop through their new cultural center. Zapotec civilization was the most
sophisticated in Mesoamerica. Bring your overnight bag. Breakfast, lunch and dinner
Day 5, Tuesday, February 4: After breakfast we travel
along the Pan-American Highway to the apron-making village of San Miguel del
Valle, meet families who design and sew, and take a tour of the historic 16th
century, fresco-walled church. We continue on to San Pablo Villa de Mitla to
visit a dealer in regional antiquities – jewelry and historic artifacts, detour
for a mezcal tasting in Santiago Matalan, and finish off by meeting a flying
shuttle loom weaver who works in natural dyes. We return to Oaxaca in time for
dinner on your own. Breakfast and lunch included.
Day 6, Wednesday, February 5: After breakfast, we travel first to visit the workshop of one of the finest ceramic artists in the region. They are among the last workshops crafting high temperature, lead-free ceramics of unusual and fine-art quality, perfect for gifting, adding to home décor, and serving and preparing some of Oaxaca’s finest recipes after you return home. We then meet up with Oaxaca Eats for a concentrated foodie walking tour designed just for us. Your late afternoon is free to explore. Dinner is on your own.
Day 7, Thursday, February 6: After breakfast, we treat you to a curated expoventa (show and sale) at our hotel with some of our favorite artisans who are from outlying areas. Invited artisans include a Mixe grower, spinner, and weaver of silk garments who works in natural dyes, a noted embroiderer from the Papaloapan region that is 12 hours from the city, a tin-maker, and a weaver from San Juan Cotzocon in the Sierra Mixe. Our favorite filigree silversmith will join us, too, to show and tell about the intricacy of traditional Oaxaca jewelry making – a technique brought to Mexico shortly after the conquest by artisans who learned from the Moors of southern Spain. After the expoventa, you’ll have lunch and the afternoon on your own. We meet together for our grand finale gala dinner. Breakfast and dinner included. Lunch on your own.
Day 8, Friday, February 7: This is your departure
day. Breakfast is included. We will help you make transportation arrangements
to the Oaxaca airport or you may extend your trip (on your own) to explore
other parts of Mexico.
We reserve the right to alter the itinerary based on artisan availability and other unexpected circumstances.
What is Included
7 nights lodging at top-rated accommodations
One lunch includes custom Oaxaca Eats food walking tour
museum entry fees
artisan honoraria for demonstrations
van transportation as outlined in itinerary
complete guide services including cultural and language expertise
The program does NOT include airfare, taxes, tips, travel insurance, liquor or alcoholic beverages, some meals, and optional local transportation as specified in the itinerary. It does not include taxi or shuttle service to/from airport and to/from hotel.
We reserve the right to substitute instructors and alter the program as needed.
Cost to Participate — We offer three options.
$2,795 double room with private bath (sleeps 2). Two rooms available in this category.
$3,395 for a single supplement (private room and bath, sleeps 1). We offer a luxury King or Queen option in this category on first come-first served basis. Eight rooms available in this category.
We are staying in a tranquil small boutique hotel in the historic center of Oaxaca City within walking distance of the Zocalo and other attractions.
Reservations and Cancellations. A 40% deposit is required to guarantee your reservation. The balance is due in two equal payments. The second payment of 30% of the total is due on or before September 1, 2019. The third 30% payment is due on or before November 25, 2019. We accept payment using online e-commerce that can be paid with a credit card. We will send you an itemized invoice when you tell us you are ready to register. After November 25, 2019, there are no refunds. If you cancel on or before November 25, 2019, we will refund 50% of your deposit received to date. After that, there are no refunds.
Notes. When you tell us you are ready to register, we will: Send you a Health Questionnaire to complete and return. We will then send you an itemized invoice when you tell us you are ready to register.
Health Questionnaire: Oaxaca is at almost 6,000 feet altitude and we will be walking a lot, especially on our first full day together. If you have a heart condition, have trouble breathing, have difficulty walking, or have other conditions that would have a mobility impact, please do not register for this program. The health questionnaire requires that you disclose any issues.
Required–Travel Health/Accident Insurance: We require that you carry international accident/health insurance that includes $50,000+ of emergency medical evacuation insurance. Proof of insurance must be sent at least 45 days before departure.
In addition, we will send you by email a PDF of a witnessed waiver of responsibility, holding harmless Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. We ask that you return this to us by email 45 days before departure. Unforeseen circumstances happen! Be certain your passport has at least six months on it from the date you enter Mexico before it expires!
Plane Tickets, Arrivals/Departures: Please send us your plane schedule at least 45 days before the trip. This includes name of carrier, flight numbers, arrival and departure time to our destination.
All documentation for plane reservations and required travel insurance must be received 45 days before the program start or we reserve the right to cancel your registration without reimbursement.
Health Questionnaireand Your Well-Being: Oaxaca is at almost 6,000 feet altitude and we will be walking a lot, some on cobblestone streets, especially on our first full day together. Plus, we will be getting in and out of vans. If you have a heart condition, have trouble breathing, have difficulty walking, or have any other condition that would have a mobility impact, please do not register for this program. The health questionnaire requires that you disclose any issues.
Terrain, Walking and Group Courtesy: We will do some walking and getting in/out of vans. If you have mobility issues or health/breathing impediments, please let us know before you register. This may not be the study tour for you.
Traveling with a small group has its advantages and also means that independent travelers will need to make accommodations to group needs and schedule. We include free time to go off on your own if you wish.
It’s the rainy season here. Thus, Cooking Up a Storm! This week I made two different traditional outdoor grills on the anafre (a Spanish word of Arabic origin, as so many are) — one day was chicken thighs, nopal paddles, potatoes, onions and garlic. A few days later, pork loin that marinated for three days in my extra special made-up, homemade marinade. Nopal is filled with health benefits. I buy my meat in the Teotitlan market from Carneceria Teoti.
You can see these photos on my Facebook page. The results, both times, were yummy. I used mesquite charcoal to give off a smoked flavor, and also local pine wood for fuel. (I learned these techniques from my neighbors.)
Yesterday was Tlacolula Market day. I bought a large bag of about 20 small, red, organic potatoes for 10 pesos. That’s 52 cents. Maybe two pounds worth. A bunch of fresh spring onions, also 10 pesos. A bag of cleaned baby nopal paddles (spines removed). Ten paddles were 10 pesos. Lots of things get sold in bunches of 10 pesos! It’s easy to eat here at home for about $35 USD per week. I had the garlic cloves at home.
I was going to grill all the ingredients, but decided it would be quicker to just boil the potatoes. That’s when I decided, Why not potato salad? Some of you know that a long, long time ago in another land far away, I used to own a gourmet cookware shop and cooking school. I still carry those cooking genes and yearnings with me in an improvisational sense. I like to cook based on what’s available and what inspires me. In Oaxaca, it is a dream come true.
So, here is the RECIPE for OAXACA POTATO SALAD WITH NOPAL CACTUS
2 pounds of small red-skinned potatoes
1 garlic bulb, whole, cleaned and trimmed, stalk and roots removed
2 T. salt
6-8 small nopal cactus paddles, spines removed
bunch of spring onions, cleaned and trimmed
1 to 2 T. grainy mustard
1/2 C. olive oil
1/4 c. Balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
4 quart saucepan filled with water
Metal comal for stove-top searing/grilling
Long metal tongs
Some bowls, a knife, a cutting board
Note: If you are in Mexico, you first want to disinfect all the veggies. (Even the locals do this.) This means ALL fresh fruit and vegetables; it is essential for good gut health. That means soaking the vegetables in 8 drops of Microdyne per liter of water for at least 15 minutes. (Sometimes, with lettuces and chard, I do this process twice.) This food processing takes time and no short cuts allowed. It is not a convenient part of living here, but the quality of the food makes up for it.
First, soak the nopal paddles in a bowl of salt water for 30 minutes. Use enough water to cover the nopal. Use at least 2 T. salt. This pulls the slime out of the nopal. Remove and drain.
Bring water to a boil. Add salt. Add potatoes and garlic bulb. Cook until potatoes are soft. You can test this with a wood skewer or fork. Remove and drain in a colander. Cool to room temperature. Peel the garlic cloves. Skin will remove easily.
Heat the comal on the stove top. This is dry grilling. Do not add oil. Place the onions on the comal and cook, turning at regular intervals with metal tongs until bulb is soft. Do not burn. Remove and reserve until cool. Chop green stems and cut bulbs in half.
Add nopal paddles to hot comal. As they cook and sear, they will turn from bright to olive green. They are completely cooked when the entire paddle is olive green. Remove and cool. Cut into strips and cut again into 1/4 to 1/2 inch cubes.
Combine potatoes, onions, and nopal cactus in a bowl.
Mix the salad dressing together: oil, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. You can add a few tablespoons of water to thin the mixture if you like. Pour over the mixed veggies and toss all ingredients together. Correct the seasoning adding salt and pepper as needed.
Serve immediately at room temperature or refrigerate. Will keep for two days. Serves 6 to 8 people.
Zayzelle: Dress Simply is our new clothing line, one dress, one-of-a-kind, one size fits many, imaginative cloth. Plus, jewelry and an easy-to-wear pullover scarf. Keep checking back for What’s New.
Norma Writes for Selvedge Latin Issue
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
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Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC has offered programs in Mexico since 2006. We have over 30 years of university program development experience. See my resume.
Study Tours + Study Abroad are personally curated and introduce you to Mexico's greatest artisans. They are off-the-beaten path, internationally recognized. We give you access to where people live and work. Yes, it is safe and secure to travel. Groups are limited in size for the most personal experience.
Programs can be scheduled to meet your travel plans. Send us your available dates.
Designers, retailers, wholesalers, universities and other organizations come to us to develop customized itineraries, study abroad programs, meetings and conferences. It's our pleasure to make arrangements.
Our Clients Include
*Penland School of Crafts
*North Carolina State University
*WARP Weave a Real Peace
We send printable map via email PDF usually within 48-hours after order received. Where to see natural dyed rugs in Teotitlan del Valle and layout of the Sunday Tlacolula Market, with favorite eating, shopping, ATMs. Click Here to Buy Map