Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Week #24 Oaxacan (Mexican)

Lately this "52 Cuisines" project has been heavily weighted toward Asian food--obviously the blog itself has been!--so it's time to visit a different hemisphere for awhile and explore another of Mexico's many cuisines.

The cuisine of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, contains a dizzying blend of indigenous ingredients, like chocolate and peppers, with the Arabic contribution of nuts, raisins and spices brought to the region by Spanish explorers. (Our hemisphere repaid the favor by sending tomatoes, potatoes, corn, chocolate and peppers to the rest of the world. Not a bad trade, I'd say.)

Antequera De Oaxaca is a modest little restaurant on Melrose between Koreatown and Paramount Pictures. This strip of Melrose has tons of great finds, and Antequera is the place to go for Oaxacan food cooked by Oaxacans for Oaxacans. I met Pat for lunch there, and we sampled an array of eats, with an eye toward carrying home plenty of leftovers.

Black beans are popular in Oaxaca, sometimes simply smashed and smeared over a tortilla.
 Pat ordered what looked a bit like a Mexican pizza, a giant, super-thin homemade tortilla topped with the smashed black beans, Oaxacan queso, tomato slices, cabbage and avocado. This is about as light and as vegetarian as a Oaxacan meal can get, unless you opt for a very basic salad. A smart choice if you don't want to fall into a postprandial coma at siesta time. Or if you're constantly training for marathons, like Pat is!
a quartet of memelas
In the memelas the black beans were spread on each of these four masa cakes, then topped with Oaxacan cheese and chorizo (12:00), zingy, flavorful chicken (2:00), pork (5:00) and beef (9:00) and a slice of avocado. A pleasantly warm salsa on the table provided a little extra kick. I appreciated our server bringing the  memelas with this assortment of meat so we could sample them all. The chorizo was surprisingly mild, while the chicken was the one that carried a surprising punch.

The masa cake is a flat bread roughly the size and shape of a hamburger bun bottom, and while it didn't feel at all greasy, toasted on a grill, I'm sure it was loaded with lard, so lush was its texture. Crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, with a nice bit of char from the grill. Okay, so that's not umami--I wonder what it is in the carbony flavor that so appeals? I think I could have eaten an entire basket of masa cake and been quite happy.
 Stew made from goat ribs--all those little bones give the broth extra richness.
I just had to give the goat stew a try. It was tasty and only a wee bit gamy. A generous squeeze lime helped tame it. It came with a roll of fresh, hot tortillas, so I could fish out hunks of goat meat and make my own tacos with fresh onions, jalapenos and cilantro.

Horchata: a rice drink that is lightly sweet and refreshing. This one had pecan pieces and chunks of cantaloupe in it.

While Oaxaca has a diverse cuisine to match its diverse landscape, it's probably best known as "the land of the seven moles" (although there are many more) and we're not talking little animals. This region's cooks are the ingenious souls who took chocolate and made something savory with it.
These don't look like much, but they're the secret to great mole. At 2:00 is poblano, a red chile mole base; at 6:00ish is pepita, or pumpkin seed, and at 9:00 is almond.
A typical mole recipe calls for about two dozen ingredients, but it can contain even more. Making it is understandably a labor intensive endeavor, so you have to set aside a day to do nothing but roast and toast, chop and pulverize and mix, so you can make enough mole to last a really long time. It's fun to do in a group, and the effort is worth it. If you dissolve a couple of generous spoonfuls of one of these pastes in a little broth, you'll quickly create the most wonderfully flavored, richest sauces you can imagine. Pour it over the meat of your choice, or drizzle it over an enchilada or into a taco. It's bliss. Forget the bottled stuff--try making your own mole sometime. Be sure and invite over some eager friends to help share in the chores and the rewards.

I have a trio of moles on hand (they're in the photo above) that I picked up at L.A.'s Central Market, a downtown treasure trove not only of fresh produce but of authentic Mexican eats. The green mole is made of pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and is mildly spicy. The almond mole is redolent of toasted almonds and packs some heat, while the poblano mole is chocolaty-good and contains the heat and smokiness of an array of dried chiles.

There's a more obscure mole called manchamanteles, a.k.a. the "tablecloth stainer," because it's made with lots of charred tomatoes. I've not found this one yet, but I'm eager to try it, with lots of napkins!
Chicken mole tamale: a rich, happy-making treat wrapped and cooked in a banana leaf. This time the mole is on the inside rather than the outside. A squeeze of lime helps balance the richness.

We're not even scratching the surface here on Oaxacan cuisine. There are chapulines--crickets--which were not on the menu the day we went to Antequera De Oaxaca. I had them a couple of years ago on a jaunt to Mexico, so if you want to read about it, check out my blog entry on chapulines and huitlacoche

My colleague and friend Nancy Zaslavsky is passionate about Mexico and its food. If you want to learn more about the cuisine of Oaxaca--and if you want to visit and learn to cook the local specialties--check out her culinary tours of Mexico. She's been carrying guests to Mexico for years now and teaching them to cook authentic Mexican food on its home turf.

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