Holy Mole: Cooking Class with Reyna Mendoza Ruiz by LeeAnn Weigold*
“I’ll stir. You chop,” Susan said. She loves stirring because it’s so relaxing and sensed that in my wired state, I needed some chopping to keep my hands busy. Reyna had persevered with my jumping around like a five year old in the local mercado, asking a million questions, while she meticulously examined each item to be purchased, at it’s freshest best, for our class this morning.
The shopping ingredients included what we needed to prepare mole rojo. The recipe belongs to Reyna’s family and has passed down through generations. Mole Rojo or Red Mole is used for wedding luncheons and smaller fiestas, just right for an intimate dinner with good friends.
Susan (photo left) and I both jumped at the chance to take a Oaxaca cooking class given by Reyna Mendoza Ruiz, a Zapotec woman expert in her craft. I met Susan at the Lifting Your Creative Voice: Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Workshop in Teotitlan de Valle. We became instant friends when we discovered a shared love of cooking, entertaining and, of course, eating. The thought of dazzling my friends with a real scratch mole would not be suppressed, but the ingredients list had always scared me away.
The fire crackled under the comal, which is a ceramic plate like a pizza pan, while a warm smoky aroma swirled in the outdoor kitchen as we worked. Perfect in her efficiency, Reyna taught us to roast chiles, onion, garlic, almonds, sesame seeds, cinnamon and herbs just enough to release their flavours. She brushed the roasted ingredients one by one into a large bowl with a handmade whisk. Susan and I had trouble with this simple task. It was foreign to us. The fire died exactly as the roasting finished.
Reyna ground garlic and salt in a mortar and pestle to coat the chicken before simmering. Now that the roasted ingredients had cooled we went to the metate. This metate was a wedding gift to Reyna’s grandmother. It is a downward sloping concrete square about the size of a patio stone. It curls up slightly at the bottom forming a shallow dish shape. A stone rolling-pin, called a mano de metate and as smooth as marble from years of use, rolls over the ingredients making a paste. As Reyna worked grinding the ingredients and adding a little water, we began to notice the smell of the chiles, garlic and other ingredients as they took on a new life.
Reyna made Susan and I both do a little grinding on the metate to get the feel of it. I had sore arms the next couple of days, after only about five minutes of grinding with the rolling-pin. Reyna showed no sign of fatigue and shared with us that young women begin working on the metate at age ten. Normally, she would grind five times this much for her family. Her calm beauty, loving smile and smooth brown skin disguise the strength beneath.
With the mole paste ready for cooking, Reyna scraped it into a handmade, clay pot and added some boiling water. The mole would simmer for twenty minutes or so before adding the chocolate, made from scratch by Reyna’s mother the previous day. With mole bubbling and Susan happily stirring, we began to prepare the stuffed pumpkin or squash flowers. This was like winning the lottery for me, all my favorites in one menu and the same cooking class. What luck!
Once the flowers are stuffed with fresh, salty, Oaxaca cheese called quesillo, breaded and pan-fried to a yellow brown, we finished the Pico de Gallo. This is a cross between a tomato salsa and a guacamole, with Reyna’s special twist. She buys smallish salt cured shrimp in the Mercado and freshens them in water before roasting them on the comal until the skins are slightly browned. Just before serving, she squeezes a lemon over the shrimp and stirs them in into the mix. The flavour dances on your tongue and races around in your mouth. Mmmmmmm.
With the chicken cooked, we moved to the round table adjacent to the kitchen, which had been set with blue and white, hand-made, hand-painted pottery on a woven table cloth of blue, orange and yellow, a tapestry of colour and aroma. Reyna’s family watched and giggled from their outdoor living room as we sat down, and a young boy who had been lurking shyly on the fringe of the kitchen all morning came a little closer. Javier, he introduced himself. They wanted us to be pleased with our meal.
Reyna poured us a shot of mescal in a small dried gourd, which had carved plants and animals around the upper edge. It fit perfectly between my thumb and forefinger. The mescal had a smoky, slightly sweet taste. She arranged the chicken and mole on the plate and we helped ourselves to fresh tortillas and the pico de gallo. Delicious doesn’t even begin to describe either the food or the experience. If you even get a chance to do this, don’t pass it up!
*I invited LeeAnn, a participant in our Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat, to write about her cooking class experience. LeeAnn was born in Toronto, Canada, and graduated from St. Lawrence College in Kingston, Ontario. She now lives half the year in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Mexico and the other half on Quadra Island, British Columbia, with her husband Mike. They are retired salmon fishermen who love to sail, play golf, and stay warm! LeeAnn took all the photos, except for the one of her at the metate, which Susan shot.
Easter Week Begins: Lunes Santo or Holy Monday in Oaxaca
Lunes Santo or Easter Monday is celebrated with reverence in the Oaxaca village of Teotitlan del Valle where I am living. This is a day of prayers and offerings, of procession and peace. The week before Easter, known as Semana Santa in Mexico, begins on Palm Sunday. After a 7:30 a.m. mass, the volunteer church committee begins the procession followed by the townspeople. A key figure is the Centurion, represented by a young boy dressed in Roman soldier garb, and riding a beautiful horse. They are followed by a contingent of boy-soldiers, the legion of one hundred.
There are thirteen stops along the processional route where villagers in the procession stop to worship, take refreshment, and rest. This is Teotitlan’s tribute to the pilgrimage along the Via Doloroso, Way of Sorrows and the Stations of the Cross. The altars may be ornately decorated with tapetes or handwoven rugs, which the people of Teotitlan del Valle are famous for weaving.
If Lunes Santo is about the solemnity of Easter, it is also about honoring infants and toddlers who are dressed like angels and represent the promise for new life and new beginning.
Many women wear purple, the color of royalty, symbolic of Jesus as king.
Both men and women carry lit beeswax candles, and a designated man at each stop hands out roses to the worshipers to lay before the altar.
The aroma of copal incense and chanting fill the air, along with the sound of the village band out in front of the procession. At each stop, they take a rest too, then start up again as signal for the time to start walking again.
It is a hot day and those who are not carrying umbrellas to shield them from the sun seek the shade along sidewalks where buildings cast longer shadows. I picked up the procession in Section Three of the village, where I met up with friend Ernestina and her daughter Guadalupe, who we call Lupita.
People here have a strong commitment to their families, their beliefs, and their desire to continue traditions that are centuries old and more, since most of Mexican Catholicism blends with the mysticism of pre-conquest indigenous practices.
And, who can resist the resting stops with delicious offerings: tamales, locally made ice cream, and drinks. Today I had the most delicious bean paste stuffed tamal flavored with avocado leaf and a tamale with mole rojo and chicken. Each person in the procession got a plate of three at each stop! Thanks to the women who do the cooking and the men who serve and each family who supports the community.
Then to quench thirst, the pilgrims are offered hibiscus flower juice (agua de jamaica) or atole, a corn, water and chocolate drink, special for celebrations and served in hand-painted gourds. Children and adults alike loved the nieves, the Mexican flavored ices. Today we had tuna and nuez (tuna is the fruit of the nopal cactus and nuez is nuts) or lime sorbet with mamey ice cream, with a cookie to top it off.
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Posted in Cultural Commentary, Teotitlan del Valle
Tagged Easter, Holy Week, Lunes Santo, Mexico, Oaxaca, Semana Santa, Teotitlan del Valle, usos y costumbres