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Cooking Classes with Nora Valencia, in Oaxaca, Mexico
If you absorb just a tiny fraction of what Nora’s grandmother taught her about Oaxacan cuisine over four decades or so, you’ll walk away with not only a wellspring of knowledge about ingredients and techniques, but also a deep understanding of history and geography. a variation of everything that is Oaxacan cuisine today … and of course completely satiated by the end of your delicious meal.
Oaxacan Nora Valencia delights her students with informative stories and humorous anecdotes peppered throughout her class about her abuelita’s insights into food preparation and ingredient combinations. But she also admits, walking from the market, that hers was a long journey to arrive at a “classroom” environment more than ten years ago: “What my grandmother and mother taught me was not nearly enough. My maturation as a teacher required a lot of research and travel, in the nature of sociological and anthropological research, some chemistry and physics, and even botany. And I always tried to get my hands on as many old books as possible on Latin American foods, and wherever possible on Mexican and Oaxacan plants and herbs and prehispanic recipes. There is one book in particular I still need, called “Conquista y Comida” … maybe you can find it at a local bookstore and let me know.”
The lesson day starts at 9:30, with students meeting and chatting briefly with each other and Nora, in a relaxed informal setting at her B & B, La Casa de Mis Recuerdos. Around 10, taxis arrive to take everything to Mercado de La Merced, one of, if not the most popular of the daily markets in central Oaxaca … for Oaxacans. About an hour is spent in the market, walking from stall to stall, where you learn, variously, about the indigenous origins and history, and current uses, of dried and fresh chilies, nuts, tomatoes, cheeses, breads, an abundance of herbs, and much more. You leave with an appreciation of how Oaxacan cuisine has arrived in the 21st century, as a result of merging the use of pre-Hispanic products and meats, with imports first brought from Spain during the conquest period.
Nora gives an understanding of the difference between products found in the permanent market stalls (most often bought by the sellers of growers or wholesalers with large operations), and that sold by mostly women sitting on the ground who grew the fruits, vegetables and herbs. in their own towns and villages: “We now use the term organic, for what we traditionally called criollo, which is what these ladies sell. But some of the big stalls also have criollo product, so look out for it.”
Nora reveals both here and several times later in the kitchen what ingredients, more easily accessible at home, can be replaced by what she buys in the market such as local varieties of green and red tomatoes, specific herbs, chilies and even. masa: “If you can only buy packaged Maseca brand cornmeal in Oregon, and you’re making tamales, then add some cornmeal to give it the right texture. Feel the difference between the two types of masa that we find here in the market, one for tortillas and the other for tamales. And you may already know, we use a lot of hoja santa in our recipes, and it’s only available in a few states, like Florida, so if you can’t find it, try it. using ….”
Rather than buying everything on this market visit, Nora had already bought most of it the day before, and what she buys on this short tour she leaves at each stall and picks up when we are ready to leave. “Now I’m going to go back to some of the posts to pick up what we bought, so let’s meet in 10 – 15 minutes. In the meantime you can go buy some of those rarer dry chilies to take home, that spicy paste I told you that I like to keep in my purse when I visit the US, and maybe even some Gusano worms that we’ll use to make salsa later. You can buy a string of 100 and wear it as a necklace for customs.” Nora imparts invaluable advice on which ingredients you should be able to take over the border, and what freezes well (ie kesillo and chapulines — Oaxacan string cheese and grasshoppers).
We walk to her nearby home on a quaint paved road, where the balance of the class will unfold. We will spend the rest of the morning and afternoon in her traditional, painted tiled (talavera) kitchen with a central island, and her dining and sitting rooms opening onto a courtyard lushly landscaped with trees, vines and flowering shrubs. A feeling of comfort envelopes you, as you are at home, because in a sense you are, made to feel as welcome as possible. With only one assistant, Minerva, I am amazed at the intensive work that went into the preliminary preparation of some dishes, and more importantly how Nora has to be “on” 100% of the time, and attentive to each of the ten apprentices, ranging in aged from early twenties to late sixties, for over six hours.
Effectively everything is Nora, teaching, directing, reassuring, reminding and correcting. With mostly newbies in this class today, making dessert tamales, one of the two most complex recipes of the day, isn’t as easy as just mixing some dough with pineapple chunks and wrapping it in a corn husk. Three mixtures are prepared, placed in the shells, and then folded in the most sensible way: “I’m sorry, but this will have to be another patchwork, so we will combine two in one, or better, just use an extra shell to hold everything together.” There’s the masa mix, the coconut/milk mix, pineapple/sugar/cinnamon melt, and raisins for starters. “Now see that I don’t spill the water from boiling the pineapple, because I can use it another time instead of just water, to make fresh fruit juice (agua fresca). It’s already sweet and delicious.”
Where a component has been prepared before our arrival, Nora instructs how it is done, such as with the chicken and beef. When there are optional ingredients, Nora not only tells us what we can substitute based on personal preferences, but also explains regional variations. And while we prepare mole amarillo, she teaches a proposal about the deception of seven moles: “Some people think of seven moles because we sometimes refer to seven regions in the state. But if you stop and think, in Puerto Escondido for example, where shrimp are often used to create a supply and like the protein in yellow, shouldn’t we consider this mole a class or variety on its own?”
As we prepare our mole amarillo, we taste as the flavor subtly changes, adding hoja santa, the spice mix, the masa, which, it is explained, absorbs and reduces some heat. Fiery salsa is almost magically converted into a complex mole, a creation that is hard to come by when commercially prepared. “How spicy does everyone like to eat? You know I don’t promise anything, because peppers are like lottery tickets: you never know. I used to say to my grandmother, let me measure, but she would say no, use your eyes, I told myself , that I should not measure. your nose and your mouth to measure.” Nora continues that the same ingredient is often different in terms of intensity, taste, and how it absorbs, such as in chicken … it is not always the same.
While she emphasizes historical and regional contextualization in the use of ingredients, and the resulting variety in recipes, Nora also ensures that technique is properly emphasized in class. She draws participants into hands-on learning, encouraging everyone to contribute to the creation of each plate.
Printed recipe sheets are distributed, but not before the meal is served. Nora believes that it is better for students to first look, listen, participate and ask questions, rather than read and note. As the meal ends, she then reviews the recipes and asks questions about any doubts.
Around 2 pm we are ready to try some mezcal, and then sit down and indulge in our creations:
1) An appetizer of fresh squash blossoms filled with a mixture of requesón cheese,
ham, onion and nuts;
2) Consumé de hoja santa, with squash flower, quesillo, garlic, etc.;
3) Mint rice;
4) Mole amarillo with chicken and steamed vegetables;
5) Garnish of sliced onion in lime juice vinaigrette;
6) Green tomato salsa with gusanos de maguey;
7) Fresh fruit juice of orange, lime and cucumber;
8) Dessert tamales with pineapple, coconut and raisins.
Even Nora’s grandmother would have had a hard time producing such a varied, delicious and complete meal.
Cocina con Nora is located at Aldama 205, Barrio de Jalatlaco, in downtown Oaxaca. Maximum class size is 10. You can register for Nora’s classes by calling (951) 515-5645 or emailing her at: [email protected]
(Website: http://www.almademitierra.net )
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