We know the Sunday market (tianguis) in Tlacolula is amazing. When you visit Oaxaca, this is a don’t miss it moment! (Order a map from us to find your way around.) And, if you want the real deal in Oaxaca food, you want to try out one of the off-the-beaten-path traditional cocina de humo comedors operated by one of Oaxaca’s traditional cooks in this market town. A cocina de humo is a complex sensory experience with humble roots in outdoor, wood-fired, comal-based cooking. You don’t have to be a foodie to appreciate what comes off a cal coated clay comal, the essential cooking platter of every traditional Mexican home. This large, round griddle platter can be as big as sixteen or eighteen inches in diameter. It sits atop a fogon made from adobe that is usually thirty-six inches high and fueled with wood. Comales are made wherever clay is found and in Oaxaca they come from San Marcos Tlapazola and in Santa Maria Atzompa.
Cocineras Tradicionales are what they are called. These are women who were born and raised in the culture of home cooking and organic corn, learning from mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. They buy or grow their own organic produce, take the corn their families cultivate to the local mill (molina), and make their own masa using a traditional metate or grinding stone. The corn here is real food, grainy, nutty, crunchy to the taste, filled with flavor and energy. Their salsas are all scratch made in the molcajete. Their menus change based on seasonal ingredients.
Their restaurants are simple outdoor kitchens or ones tucked into the corner of their small establishments that might seat ten or fifteen people comfortably. If you know anything about fine French cuisine, you know that the Great Chefs of France — Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, Georges Blanc — all started in Lyon, learning from mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers, too. The similarities are strong. And, it’s about time that the great traditional cooks of Oaxaca villages are coming into their own.
Here are our recommendations for delicious, real Oaxaca village food in order of our preferences:
Mo-Kalli. Cocinera Tradicional Catalina Chavez Lopez opened a small comedor three years ago in the Tres Piedras neighborhood of Tlacolula up a dirt road on the east side of MEX 190. I went there four times in the month that I discovered it. I took my Zapotec family there and they raved about the moles. The meal is about 250-300 pesos per person and includes an appetizer, entree, dessert and fruit water. Beer and mezcal are an additional cost.
What I love about Mo-Kalli is the selection of moles. Catalina has at least seven ollas (cooking pots) bubbling away on top of her traditional cooktop, filled with (usually all of) Oaxaca’s famous moles: negro, rojo, coloradito, segueza (cracked corn kernels), verde or pipian (green), amarillo (yellow), chichilo (a somewhat bitter taste, served at funerals), and manchemanteles (tablecloth stainer, sweet with raisins and nuts). There is no menu. She brings a sampler of moles to the table that you taste with a crispy tortilla piece. Then, you decide which you want. Catalina recommends which meat (chicken, beef, pork) will go best with each sauce.
I’ve had the mole negro, the segueza and the amarillo, and coloradito. All are superb. The hospitality is out of this world. All the meats are succulent and easy to chew. If you get there, please tell her I sent you!
Nana Vira. Evangelina Aquino Luis, Cocinera Tradicional, does her cooking magic about six blocks south of the Tlacolula Market and is open Tuesday through Sunday. There is an upstairs dining terrace, and a couple of tables and benches on the ground floor next to the outdoor kitchen. We ate there after spending a couple of hours meandering the Tlacolula Market. Parking can be challenging (we do have a car), so the easiest way to get there is to hail at moto-taxi (tuk-tuk) at the corner where the Banamex is located. Eva will call you a moto to get you back to Centro. I had barbecue ribs slathered in a milder mole rojo. The fare here is a bit simpler and the prices are a la carte (no comida corrida). They make and bottle their own mezcal brand, too.
Criollito. Liliana Palma Santos was born and raised in Santa Monica, California, and returned to her family’s native Tlacolula de Matamoros about ten years ago. She and her husband opened this comedor to replicate family recipes passed through generations. They are known for their rainbow (arco iris) tortillas that incorporate three or more types of native corn, including yellow, blue, and red. Only open on Saturday and Sunday, this outdoor kitchen has three tables and can seat about twelve people at a time. I made a reservation, but it wasn’t really needed on the day we went. While Criollito is not technically considered an official Cocina Tradicional, it has all the elements to be included in this category. The three of us were feeling green vegetable deprived, so in additional to ordering tlayuda and mole negro, we started off with a comal stir-fry of broccoli, squash, and nopal cactus paddles! Price was about the same as Mo-Kalli, however did not include an appetizer or dessert.
Many of us love to eat at the market on Sunday and my favorite spot is either Comedor Mary on Avenida Galeana (side street of the church) or to belly up to one of the barbacoa tables inside the market where you can get a goat taco or consume. However, I encourage you to stretch your discovery wings and go find one of these comedors. Start with Mo-Kalli!
What does it mean to be designated a Cocina Tradicional? A Cocina Tradicional, or traditional kitchen, is a Oaxaca government designation from the Secretary of Oaxaca Culture and Art [Secretaría de las Culturas y Artes de Oaxaca (Seculta)], to honor the cocineras who are keeping the ancestral food traditions alive. Most come from pueblos, the villages, located some distances from the city where regional foods and local cooking styles are ingrained in indigenous culture.
In Teotitlan del Valle, the Cocinera Tradicional is Carina Santiago who runs Tierra Antigua Restaurant. It is through her and caterer friend Kalisa Wells, that I learned about the two cocineras in Tlacolula, because they are all invited to participate in foodie events throughout Mexico and the USA to represent Oaxaca at official culinary programs.
Pre-Hispanic Oaxaca Cooking Class with Vicky Hernandez
High up the hill in the shadow of Oaxaca’s famed archeological site of Monte Alban is a humble comedor on a dirt side street down the hillside from a paved access road. Carefully make your way down a curved, steep stairway cut into the hill to find the simple kitchen of Cocina Pre-Hispanica con Fogon where Vicky Hernandez teaches about the origin of Oaxaca food. Simple yet complex, organic and healthy, flavorful and rich with tradition.
Carol, who has known Vicky for years, arranged this cooking class for her daughter and her daughter’s fella. I tagged along. While I used to own a gourmet cookware shop and cooking school, there is always more to learn, especially about the roots of Oaxaca food. Moreover, I remember meeting Vicky six years ago when she taught her first cooking class in Carol and David’s miniscule kitchen on Huzares.
First, what is a FOGON? This is the adobe mud table-height cooking stove fueled by wood and topped with a clay comal (griddle) that is nixtamalicized (coated with white calc so the corn doesn’t stick).
We start the morning at 8 a.m. Vicky picks us up in the Historic Center where Carol lives, hiring two taxis to ferry the four of us and her to Abastos Market first to do the shopping. Central de Abastos is one of the largest market in Mesoamerica. It is a maze, a warren, a hub of everything Oaxaca — food, drink, pottery, clothing, animals and feed. The uninitiated can get lost — easily. It is best to follow an expert like Vicky, who led us to her favorite organic vendors.
On the cooking class menu today are memelas, sopa de guias, quesadillas with squash blossoms, chicken with mole rojo, atole — all traditional pre-Hispanic foods. So we gather ingredients, wending our way through narrow aisles just as the market vendors start to set up shop. The bustling begins.
We are like ducklings and somehow, we end up on the other side of the market only to exit to find the taxis waiting for us on the street. We climb in and begin the drive up the winding Monte Alban hill.
The day is starting to heat up but the hillside shade keeps us cool. We start off with traditional sweet bread to dunk into a cup of steaming cafe de olla (sweetened coffee flavored with cinnamon). On the table are plump cobs representing different pre-Hispanic colors of corn. Vicky asks Becky to choose which color corn to use for the memelas, and Becky points to the red.
Vicky puts the corn kernels into a pot on the charcoal burner and adds calc. Corn needs human intervention to eat. The corn soaked and cooked in calc will soften the hard protective shell, making it edible. Then, the grinding begins. For speed, Vicky uses an untraditional hand-cranked grinder instead of a metate (original stone grinding platform).
We learn that corn soaked in ash is used for corn beverages like atole and tejate, while corn soaked in calc is used for food preparation. We learn that pre-Hispanic cooking translates to using only natural materials: clay, wood, calc and ash, and native plants.
The memelas are the best I’ve eaten, smeared with bean paste and topped with Oaxaca queso fresco (the crumbly local cheese). The corn base is shaped into a huarache (a shoe). The native red corn turns blue in the cooking. It is crunchy, nutty, filled with flavor. Corn and beans combined are an excellent protein source.
For the sopa de guias — squash vine soup — three local herbs are needed: chipil, chipiche and piohito. The base is water to which is added small round squashes called calabacitas that are quartered, squash blossoms (remove the stamens), shredded squash vine leaves, and 2” cut sections of the vine (thick outer strings removed like you do with celery stalks). Nothing of the plant goes to waste. We set about stripping the leaves and flowers from the chipil stalks, careful not to add the seed pods.
Next comes the herb epazote. This very aromatic green is used to flavor beans and squash blossom quesadillas. We use quesillo for this, the Oaxaca string cheese. Don’t be skimpy with the cheese! Vicky tells us epazote is also used as a tea to kill parasites and to eliminate gas and bloating when added to beans during cooking. She a scrambled egg sandwich with epazote and chopped onions is the best.
The mole rojo, the red sauce for the chicken, is started by cooking together roasted, skinned organic tomatoes and two tablespoons of vegetable oil, then adding two cups of chicken broth. Once this is combined and cooked, we add about one cup of mole paste Vicky bought in the market earlier. Later, we eat this slathered over a piece of cooked chicken, scooping up the sauce with pieces of tortilla. Yum.
Kitchen accoutrements are basic: a molcajete to make the salsas, a metate to grind the corn or cacao, a clay olla or cooking pot, a comal (griddle) on which to cook the tortillas. For the salsa to accompany the Sopa de Guias, Vicky puts sliced onion, lime juice, salt and chiles de agua in the molcajete her father made 50 years ago, smashing all the ingredients together. Aromatic and flavorful. If you can’t find chile de agua, you can substitute jalapeño or serrano chiles.
We sit to eat at a table in the humble comedor with views of the mountain above and the city below. The sun is shining and we are satisfied. At the entry, Vicky’s mother prepares an order for customers at the next table. I sip the hot atole. It is the best I’ve ever had, a rich corn liquid punctuated with small particles of floating corn. I ask to take home the corn residue left after squeezing the liquid through the gauze cloth. I’ll use this to add crunch to my homemade, gluten-free biscotti. In Italy, the residue is what makes polenta. Mexico, the source of corn, provides sustenance around the world.
When we finish, we walk to the crossroads a short distance from the comedor and hop on a new Oaxaca city bus that takes us back to the zocalo in the historic center I. 20 minutes. Cost: 8 pesos or 40 cents.
Note: Class is taught in Spanish. If you need translation, Vicky can arrange for a translator to be there with you.
How to find Vicky Hernandez:
Reserve class with linktree — linktr.ee/cocinaprehispanicaoaxaca
Cost: $1,800 pesos per person cash for a 5-hour experience
Highly recommend for great food and culinary education.
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Dining and Lodging, Oaxaca Mexico art and culture
Tagged Cocina Pre-Hispánica en Fogon, cooking, cooking class, food, Mexico, Monte Alban, Oaxaca, pre-Hispanic, tourism, traditional kitchen, travel, Vicki Hernandez