Tag Archives: tamales

International Priests Visit Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

The firecrackers call in early afternoon to announce that something spectacular was about to happen in the village later that day. It’s filled with surprises here.  My neighbor Ernestina comes over in the morning to offer me 20 fresh, creamy chicken and mole amarillo tamales for 100 pesos.


Then, later tamales are served for lunch at the guest house where the felt fashion workshop participants assemble.  It is not yet Dia de la Candelaria, when everyone eats tamales. What is going on? I wonder.

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At six-thirty, the young men atop the bell tower ring the church bells. Rosario and Josefina say goodbye.  Where are you going? A la iglesia. To the church, they say.  There’s a fiesta  to welcome 30 visiting priests from Columbia, China, Nueva York (New York), California and India.  I follow the sound of the bells to the church courtyard.

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Nearly the entire village gathers.  I arrive just in time to be offered a fresh, steaming hot tamale, to see the children dressed in Dance of the Feather plumage dancing the re-enactment of the conquest, to hear the band play, and to see banquet tables filled with men who sip hot chocolate and eat tamales, served by traditionally dressed village women.

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I hear that more than a thousand tamales are made that day by the women chosen to the traditional, pre-Hispance Jarabe del Valle dance.  They are part of the church committee that supports the village festivals.

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A master’s of ceremonies talks about cultural exchange, the many Zapotecs from this village who live and work and practice their traditions in towns throughout southern California, and how these priests help people to adapt, acclimate and stay connected to their roots.  The Spanish is sprinkled with a little English to make the visitors more welcome.


Then, the women, holding branches of fragrant herbs welcome the guests to join them for the Jarabe del Valle.  The men, towering above them, move their feet to the rhythm of the dance and catch on quickly.


The band played on.

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Street Food: Perhaps the Best Tamales in Oaxaca

It was one of those perfectly glorious Oaxaca days.


Our walking destination: corner of Calle Armenta y Lopez and Calle Cristobal Colon on the southwest side of the Zocalo.  There on the southwest corner, tucked into the shade of the Parisina building protected from the strong Oaxaca sun, is perhaps the best tamale stand in all of Oaxaca city.


Who says so?  The people who line up everyday starting at two o’clock in the afternoon.  Sometimes the line snakes halfway down the block.  The busiest times are from two to four in the afternoon, when most locals take their lunch.  Eating on the street is a Mexican tradition.

For me, tamales are right up there with Oaxaca’s famed seven moles.  Here at this little corner of heaven is a selection of ten different tamales:  mole negro wrapped in banana leaf, cheese with squash blossom, spicy green chile with chicken, raja chile (sliced jalapeño) with chicken, yellow mole, red mole, spicy red mole, bean, chipil, sweet with pineapple and raisins, and corn kernels.

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Customers are loyal and keep coming back.

Why do you like these tamales? I ask the patient man waiting his turn.  Estan muy rico —  they are very good — he answers, emphasizing the very, and then adds, and they are big.

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Another hears my question and adds, Si, muy rico.  Riccisimo. El mejor de Oaxaca.  The best of Oaxaca.  There is an echo as I hear muy rico repeated among the crowd, like a chant in the round.

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Indeed they are big.  The tamales are wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves depending on the variety, each giving the masa a distinctive flavor. They are plump filled with lots of steamed ground corn, lots of salsa or mole, and either chicken, cheese, pork or herbs.

Note:  Most of Oaxaca corn is organic, and there is social/political resistance to Monsanto and genetically modified versions coming in.  Original corn is  astoundingly flavorful, nutty, crunchy, delicious and nutritious.

It takes the Dueña at least five hours daily to make a fresh batch of each variety which she transports to the corner every day except Mondays.  She is there promptly at two o’clock in the afternoon and closes at eight o’clock at night, sometimes earlier if she sells out.  People gather to wait for her opening.


Today I bought at least one of every variety to take home and serve at a gathering of friends this Sunday afternoon.  I don’t think I could put out a tastier spread!


Special thanks to Stephen for this discovery and introducing me to these delicious tamales.

My confession is that even after a hefty lunch elsewhere, when the Dueña offered me a taste of the frijol tamale with a touch of hierba santa slathered with a picante salsa, I could not resist.  I added my own muy rico y mil gracias.


Candelaria and Tamales Go Together in Oaxaca

Candelaria means tamales in Oaxaca, Mexico. Here in Mexico, tradition dictates that the person who gets the plastic baby Jesus imbedded in the Rosca de Reyes on Three Kings Day, January 6, gets to offer tamales on Candelaria, February 2.  Nearly everyone gets the baby and everyone eats tamales.

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And, it’s not just one type of tamale but two:  One version is a traditional soft masa tortilla stuffed with mole amarillo and chicken wrapped in a green corn husk.

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The second version originates from the tropical coast of Oaxaca where banana trees are plentiful.  The leaf is smeared with the masa paste and stuffed with mole negro and chicken.  Both are then steamed for 30 minutes until cooked.

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The flavors are definitely distinctive, not only because of the different moles.  Each type of exterior package imparts a unique flavor to the ground corn (masa) interior.  Not all make them as good as Reyna!

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A few of us gathered before the Felted Fashion Workshop started for a cooking class with Reyna Mendoza Ruiz.  We happened to schedule it on Candelaria (lucky us), known as Candlemas in England, the interval holiday between winter solstice and spring equinox.

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Of course, we prepared the mole amarillo on the traditional metate from scratch with expert guidance from cooking teacher Reyna Mendoza Ruiz.  This mole is a favorite of Teotitlan del Valle and made for all the fiestas.


As a consequence, we ate these tasty packages for both lunch and dinner on February 2.  So, who’s complaining?

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The rest of the menu included a nopal salad with avocado dressing served in little corn husk boats that we learned to tie ourselves.


A salsa with comal toasted tomatillos and poblano chiles, prepared with a granite mortar and pestle a la rustica — fantastic on crunchy tortillas.

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As we left the kitchen to sit down at the al fresco dining table, each place was set with a small gourd into which was poured a shot of mezcal.  We picked up a lime slice, dipped it in gusano salt, sucked and then sipped.  For chasers, a hibiscus juice or a little Coronita.

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For a look at dessert, a boysenberry sorbet flavored with goat milk caramel, see my Facebook page.

El Sabor Zapoteco — cooking with Reyna Mendoza Ruiz, who offers traditional Zapotec style classes at in Teotitlan del Valle with recipes in English.  Wonderful!

Skip the Hotel and Be Our Experiment

“Skip the hotel and be our experiment.” That’s what my friend Annie Burns wrote to me after I took her up on her invitation to come visit her in Teotitlan del Valle.  “You and Stephen can be the first to stay with Josefina and Magda,” she said.

Annie has a heart as big as Mexico, probably as big as the world. Over the years she has supported women in the village by raising money in order to help them buy a loom or a spinning wheel that would provide a livelihood for them and their families.  Often, the women were single or abandoned by husbands who had gone north to work and never returned.  Sometimes, the money went toward building a composting toilet to improve quality of life.  This time, the situation was urgent.

Ana del Campo at Her Garden Gate

Annie’s friends, Josefina and Magda, had both lost their husbands during that year.  The daughter-in-law –- mother-in-law duo shared the same household as was tradition and were raising Josefina’s three young children together.  They were in mourning. Josefina was in her mid-30’s.  Her husband Eligio, a famed and accomplished weaver, had just died at age 38 from a rare cancer.  Magda’s husband, Eligio’s father, had succumbed just months before. The two women had no way to earn a living since the men were the household income earners.  Neither women were weavers but both were great cooks.

The Fiesta Plate--Christmas Tamales

Annie’s light bulb went on:  Why not start a bed and breakfast?  “Will you do it?” she asked me.   Sure, I said, not having a clue about what that would mean.   The only thing I knew about Teotitlan del Valle was that it was a textile and rug-weaving village.  Since I had learned to weave when I was a graduate student in San Francisco, and I had collected textiles all my life, I was eager for the experience of discovery.

Magda at the Chocolate Cauldron

We arrived a few days before Christmas.  Annie and the Teoti taxi-driver met us at the airport.  During the thirty minute drive, Annie prepared us:  only drink bottled water; only use plastic utensils and paper products until we have Western sanitation practices in place; yes, there is a flush toilet but don’t put paper in it.

When we pulled up in front of the tall aluminum doors and rapped, we were greeted warmly by Josefina, Magda, Eloisa, Willi, and young Eligio.     We later learned that Magda had given up her room and bed in order to house us.  Our nightstand was a kitchen chair.  Our closet was a rope strung wall-to-wall.  A lacy tablecloth was our privacy curtain to cover the door.

From Magda's Bedroom Window

I marveled at the miraculous meals that could be prepared in a simple dirt floor kitchen equipped with only a tiny three-burner stove and small refrigerator.  The papaya were huge, the squash young and tender, and the tamales melted in my mouth.

Then, I realized that Magda got down on her knees and ground her masa on a traditional metate in the courtyard.  She fueled her comal from wood she gathered in the campo just beyond the village.  We enjoyed fresh-made tortillas from that comal that she knelt by on the ground every day during our visit as if it were an altar, fanning the fire to just the right temperature, turning the tortillas with her thumb and forefinger.  I watched as Josefina learned to air-dry dishes and utensils at her outdoor sink, and prepare food with sanitized water.   Annie was ecstatic!  Lo and behold: We did not get sick.  We returned the next year without hesitation to celebrate Christmas and Eligio’s birthday, and after that for Eloisa’s quinciniera.  That was then.

Eligio and Willi on the Bus to Tlacolula with Papa Noel

This is now:  Eloisa grew up, went to culinary school, joined the women in the kitchen and got married.  Willi and Eligio are young men learning to weave like their father and participating in the village recycling education program.  Annie recruited Roberta to build a second-story onto the compound where Roberta would live. The bonus was that a new, large, modern kitchen was added to the patio level, along with real guest rooms and upgraded bathrooms.   The dirt patio got paved; kitchen compost fertilizes squash, chipil, and a kitchen garden.  The planters along the border are lush with full-grown cactus.  And the crowning glory is the new outdoor comal where Magda reigns over the preparing of daily homemade tortillas without having to squat.

Magda at the New Comal

Welcome to Las Granadas Bed and Breakfast.  It is amazing how dreams can unfold.

View From the Rooftop Patio, Las Granadas


Chipil Grows Wild in North Carolina

Jose is with us today helping Stephen in the yard, clearing out the woodshed in preparation for winter, sorting through the detritis of a cluttered garden shed, and making a haul or two or three to the dump.  He and his wife just had a new baby boy, his third, three weeks old.  They named him for the king of birds.  “It’s a Native American name,” he tells me. “Those are my roots.  I am indigenous.”  His high cheekbones and sculpted Mayan-like profile speak to that.  Jose is from Veracruz, Mexico.  It is a place I’ve never been, but he speaks of it fondly.  His parents and some siblings are still there.  He hasn’t seen them since he came to the U.S. some years ago.  I suspect he is not documented, but it’s another version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”  This is his third boy, age three weeks.  All the children were born here in North Carolina and that makes them citizens.  When we talk about this, I can see Jose is proud.  The two older ones, age seven and eight are getting an education and there is hope that there will be work for them that pays a good wage when they come of age.  Not like home.


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We are talking about food.  “Did you know chipil is growing in my garden,” he says to me, more of a statement than a question.  Chipil is a green leafy herb that grows wild in the Oaxaca countryside.  It is plentiful in our village of Teotitlan del Valle, is gathered and sold in the daily market, and used for flavoring much like cilantro.  “I don’t know how it got there” Jose says.  “Maybe a bird brought it in.”    I think, perhaps, or another immigrant in his neighborhood missed this herb so much that he brought it back with him when he returned and the seeds scattered.  I think of how indigenous people use what is given to them from the land — a centuries, millenia old practice.

Ah, chipil, I say.  The aroma of a mint-like parsley comes to mind.  That’s what is used to flavor tamales and squash blossom corn soup, yes?  “Yes,” says Jose, and I see the faraway look in his eyes.  Are you homesick, I ask.  “Sometimes,” he says.  “But, the work here is good and I am happy to be living here.”  We are grateful for his work, too, and for his company.  He is a bright, handsome young man who gives us a hand when we need it most.