Mastering Mexican cuisine at a cooking class in Oaxaca
If you’ve travelled to the Southern Mexico city of Oaxaca, chances are you’re pretty into your Mexican food. The region of Oaxaca (pronounced ‘Wa-ha-ka’) is one of Mexico's foremost gastronomic hotspots, known for its seven varieties of ‘mole’ sauce, its chocolate, cheese, mezcal (a liquor similar to tequila) and even its chapulines (dried grasshoppers) – a great source of protein!
While local Oaxacan food is based on staples dating back several millennia – think corn, beans and chili peppers – the region’s unique and varied geography, along with its multitude of indigenous cultures make for a vast collection of traditional dishes.
To better understand these unique flavours and techniques, your best bet is booking a cooking class with the delightful Nora from Alma de mi Tierra Cooking School.
We started by exploring one of the local food markets where Nora guided us around and explained important local produce including what each one was used for in traditional cooking. There aren’t any giant supermarkets in Oaxaca, so everyone shops at the local market, getting the best regional produce coming straight from local farmers.
I had plenty of time to sample fresh juice, shop around the market and pick up some Oaxacan speciality dried chilies to take back home.
We were then whisked away to Nora’s beautiful casa (home) where it was time to get down to business: a fun and hands-on cooking class.
The day I attended Nora's class the menu consisted of fresh and light ceviche snapper with mango; a fiery salsa borracha; corn soup with squash blossoms (Nora says a soup is the base to every good Oaxacan meal); a Chichilo Negro mole made from chili and spices, beef, vegetables and corn masa dumplings (a recipe passed down from Nora’s grandmother); and fresh mango mousse.
The whole experience took around six hours including sitting down to enjoy the meal with Nora and my fellow emerging chefs. Nora keeps the classes small and intimate – I was one of six participants.
Working my way around Nora’s kitchen I learned how to prepare chili peppers (there’s a technique for smoking them on a hot plate to awaken the flavours essential for the mole and salsa).
Nora explained Mexico's obsession with chili. “Mexican’s love chili because it ignites endorphins in the brain and makes you happy – the spice is an addiction!” she said.
After a few hours of chopping, stirring, cooking, tasting and inhaling various aromas it was time to sit down and enjoy the fruits of our labour. First, by partaking in a few sips of organic Mezcal, a classic Oaxacan aperitif (pre-meal drink).
As I got to know my fellow foodies around the table we started exchanging local restaurant recommendations. I also got to learn the secrets behind Nora’s kitchen and the love of cooking passed down through the generations of her family. As Nora says: “If you want to eat well, you need to learn to cook well.”
Mission accomplished. Nora sent me on my way with a belly full of Oaxacan delicacies and a printed copy of all recipes from the day to master at home.
If you’re interested in learning about the traditional methods of producing mezcal including how it’s fermented, smoked and distilled from agave plants, the mezcal-man-about-town is Canadian-expat Alvin Starkman. Google him for the low-down on his excursions.