Tag Archives: Travel and Tourism

What is Oaxacan Mole (MOH-Lay)? A Cooking Class with Pilar Cabrera Arroyo

Oaxaca is famed for her mole.  That’s pronounced MOH-lay.  Accent on the first syllable.  There are seven moles that make Oaxaca famous.  The most difficult and complex is  the spicy, chocolate-based mole negro.   The others include estofado (olives), amarillo (yellow), verde (green), coloradito (red), mancha mantelos, and chichilo.

Last week, I had both the good fortune and good sense to finally take a cooking class with Pilar Cabrera Arroyo.  Pilar is the stellar chef who owns and operates La Olla Restaurant at Av. Reforma #402 in the Centro Historico.  The cooking class was held at Casa de los Milagros (corner Crespo and Matamoros).  This is a new location. The cooking school onced located at Casa de los Sabores has moved here to the family-owned bed and breakfast. (A spectacular spot!)

Pilar's Cooking Class Kitchen: The Ultimate!

Pilar describes mole as salsa with masa that is added as a thickener.  Thus, she says, any sauce can become a mole!  Yesterday morning we prepared mole amarillo that uses yellow chiles that are indigenous to Oaxaca.

We found them at the Merced Market where we took a shopping field trip before the class began.  Pilar took us around to her favorite stalls, identifying the best places to buy eggs, cheese, fresh cow’s milk (for the arroz con leche), and we even found huitlacoche (corn smut) to use in the quesadilla botanas (appetizers) we would later make.

As we toured around the market, we sampled chocolate atole, a traditional Zapotec beverage made with corn meal (muy fuerte, my local friends say), and I bought an amulet that locals use to keep the spirit world at peace.

Mirrors and seeds are amulets to hang behind the bedroom door

We shopped for perfect yellow chiles Oaxaquenos and chiles guajillos. The chiles are roasted until they are 90% black.  Then you put them in a plastic bag or covered bowl to sweat so they are easier to peel (I had no idea about this until now).  Many of us gringos wore surgical gloves while we seeded and de-veined the chiles so that our skin wouldn’t burn, removing the skin using paper towels.  (Careful not to put your fingers in your eyes, says Pilar.)  Then we cut them into julienne strips.

Chiles roasting on the gas flame

Pilar’s gas  4-burner gas cooktop is commercial grade (brand name is San-Son). She has another range in the kitchen that also has an oven.

Grilling onions, garlic, tomatoes on the comal

A cast iron comal is used to grill the whole garlic cloves, onions and tomatoes that we will use for the mole amarillo. We use a professional blender instead of the traditional stone metate to combine the peppers, tomatoes and spices.

Classes are are on Tuesdays and Thursdays and you must register in advance through her Web site www.casadelossabores.com or you can call her restaurant La Olla to make a reservation and pay when you get there. Cost is $70 USD and well worth it.  We feasted on a five-course meal, including dessert, mescal and beer.

Oaxaca Poetry: In Front of the Turquoise Door (En el frente de la puerta turquesa)

Saturday, March 5, Oaxaca Women’s Writing and Yoga Retreat:  We did an hour of yoga this morning, stretching and vocal sonorous yoga, then had a delicious breakfast, followed by a three-hour stretch of writing starting out with 20 minutes of meditation.  We listened to each other, then wrote on our own, then returned to read and hear feedback.  This was the result of my first day.  Robin Greene, our instructor, “says wherever you go is where you are,”  and “the universal is the local fully realized” (William Carlos Williams).

In front of the turquoise door

En el frente de la puerta turquesa


You embrace the child you call your

Disappointment.  He did not grow tall

Like his father and

The father before him.


He, the universal pronoun of power,

Authority, belief, gender, origin

Of the species, sky God ravager

of Mother earth.


You bite into the chico zapote soft

Flesh taste like sugary pear

Hard prickly skin disguises

What is revealed beneath.


Morning comes early with the pop

Of a distant crackle of gun powder

Rooster crows, drum beats

A faint glow rises above the mountain.


Awaken to the soiled garments in need

Of washing, the beans that must be cooked,

a child crying for milk,

the planting of new seeds.


Finger tips dark creased sandpaper

Scarred from the heat of the comal,

The tilling of unyielding soil thirsty

From the poverty of rain.


She, arms open to salving wounds, tenderness,

the yield of a bountiful harvest, unconditional.

Everlasting.  The tapestry she weaves

Is this an apparition or real?


Sun rises early and sleep is only for

Those who wait for death.


By Norma Hawthorne, March 5, 2011 (may not be duplicated without permission)

Oaxaca, Wednesday, March 2-4, 2011 — Not Warm, HOT

Is it global warming that makes the temperature so unpredictable these days? Or is my memory of March pasts failing me?  My bags are packed for my flight to Oaxaca tomorrow, but I may need to reconsider!  Temperatures will range from 89-93 degrees Fahrenheit according to the Weather Underground.  That’s HOT.

Pull out the lightweight cotton and linen.  Put away the fleece.  Grab the sleeveless dress.  Ditch the Patagonia black long-sleeve T.  Reconsider the heavy handwoven cochineal dyed poncho.  Add a lightweight sweater instead.  Pack the straw hat or better yet, buy one there.  What about those wool socks?  They will wick-away the sweat, yes, but my feet will be really HOT.  Sandals sound really appealing.

This high desert, altitude 6,000 feet, confuses me.  At night the temperatures will drop like a stone to about 46 degrees F.  Then, there will be a chill in the air and what will I want to wrap around me?  That wool poncho, perhaps?

Weather map of Oaxaca

Check out the map to see for yourself!

How safe is it in Oaxaca, Mexico?

February 21, 2011, Pittsboro, NC — In eight days I’ll be leaving for Oaxaca, traveling solo.  My flights will take me from RDU to JFK to Mexico City to Oaxaca.  (A circuitous route for sure, yet the most economical on the day I decided to buy my ticket.) Am I concerned for my personal safety?  No.

Why? you might ask.  Because traveling to Oaxaca is not a mystery to me.  Because I have done it so many times over the years that it doesn’t phase me.  It is no longer an unknown to be afraid of.  Today, I was at a university lecture delivered by an international expert on Mexican migration and immigration.  When I talked with her afterward, one of the first things she asked me was, “Is it safe in Oaxaca?”  I was surprised by her question, an educated Latina who has traveled regularly to Mexico.  I replied that Oaxaca is so far from the border where the drug wars and skirmishes take place that it is barely touched by this type of violence.  Yet, I am only one voice.

Every day, about 20% of the search terms that come in to this blog are related to the question, how safe is it in Oaxaca?

Next week, 10 women will gather together in Teotitlan del Valle for a creative writing and yoga retreat.  All are traveling solo from various parts of the U.S. — Colorado, Maine, California, Ohio, and North Carolina.  One is Australian who lives in Mexico City. Several have never been to Mexico before.  My goal is to have a discussion with them about this question of safety and why they chose to come to Oaxaca despite the prevailing winds of fear.

There are numerous posts on this blog where I have written about safety.  I have written about Mexico travel safety on Suite 101.  I have interviewed expatriates who live in Oaxaca and families who go there for winter and summer vacations.  I suppose I could be writing about safety daily.  What could I tell people about safety that would assuage their fears?

My husband was in Oaxaca for a while in late January.  He takes buses all over the city, prides himself on getting around using public transport, discovering little out-of-the-way spots where he can study Spanish and people-watch.  The biggest event was a parade of teachers on the Zocalo in front of the government building (the new governor has moved the business of governing back to the center of town where he/it is accessible to the people.)  He calmly observed democracy in action while sipping a beer at the sidewalk cafe.

Can I guarantee your safety?  Of course not!  I can only tell you how it is for me and leave it to you to come to your own conclusions.  And, of course, I’ll keep writing about this because it is important to dispel the fear.

Oaxaca Lending Library — Making Connections for Gringos

A year ago my friend Shannon Pixley Sheppard left Mill Valley, California, to settle in Oaxaca.  She took an early retirement from her career as a librarian and decided to make her way south where life is vibrant and a retirement income can stretch considerably.  She volunteers at the Oaxaca Lending Library which is a cultural center for transplanted norteamericanos (canadienses and estadounidenses).  The OLL also provides important educational support for community libraries that are dedicated to local populations.

I want to share this link with you.  Shannon has just written about some upcoming events that showcase the vibrancy of social and cultural life in Oaxaca.  If you are considering a vacation or an extended stay or even contemplating a move to Oaxaca, this is an excellent reference point for you.

Shannon lives perched on a hillside off Calle Crespo where she has annointed her apartment Casita Colibri.  You can read her posts here!