Oaxaca Mexican Cooking Class: Five Hours of ‘Muy Rico’ Education

In Mexico, ‘mal de puerco’ is how you say food coma, which translates to ‘the curse of the pig.’ That wasn’t quite right for the nine happily overstuffed participants in my vegetarian cooking class from Etnofood in Oaxaca City on Saturday.

We shopped for, cooked and ate many things, but pig wasn’t one of them. 

There were places where pig was supposed to go, like in the memeles, saucer-sized sturdy masa cakes traditionally smeared with pork lard before being topped, heated and served as snacks, or antojitos. Ours instead got a thin smear of tahini that we made in class, toasting several cups of sesame seeds and then grinding them in a molcajete.

Many people call sesame paste ‘tahina’ here, perhaps because ‘pasta de sésamo’ rolls less easily off the tongue.

I joined four 20-something friends visiting from the Netherlands, a California family with Mexican roots in enjoying a full five hours of learning in this Mexican cooking class: how to make a quick peanut mole; how many mango species are available in Mexico (so many), and the names, flavors and uses of several Mexican herbs not named cilantro.

Speaking of cilantro, that was one of three ‘dislikes’ our group compiled at the outset of our vegetarian cooking class. Another said she couldn’t eat many chile peppers without feeling sick, prompting another to say she didn’t like really spicy food. (Que lastima!) Our guide, Martin, gave this last girl a genial hard time by asking her birth order. When she said she was the youngest, he laughed and told us that the pickiest eaters are always the youngest child and the only child. In the end, many complex and texturally interesting sauces from hot to not were on our table, and I was happy for the opportunity of more things to taste.

After gathering to get to know one another at Etnobotany’s airy coffee shop in Centro, we shopped at Mercado De La Merced, a colorful mercado, my favorite in the city because of its manageable size, split half and half between grocery and restaurants. We filled Martin’s open wicker back-basket there with fresh ingredients, supplemented with mangoes from the greengrocer across the street, and headed to a different beautiful space to cook and eat. 

Their kitchen space was large and well-equipped, attached to an airy patio with long picnic tables, where we triumphantly plunked our dishes after two solid hours of prep work and cooking. When I’m traveling, I always love the opportunity to cook, to meet new people, and to eat delicious food. But being on my feet for two solid hours (plus the hour walking to the market) reminded me how physically grueling restaurants can be for the kitchen staff.

Martin was for the most part a kind-hearted rather than a Gordon Ramsey kind of leader, which we all appreciated, though he WAS a task-master who kept things moving, which was good, because we did A LOT in two hours. He divided the jobs among us, flitting from group to group to offer additional instruction and encouragement, and turning lemons into lemonade when need be.

For example, when the masa-kneaders mixed too much water into the dough, he 86’d tortillas and had us double up on pressing out the thicker memeles, which were less likely to stick or tear. And when I griddled all of the Nopales paddles instead of just half, we crossed air-fried cactus fries off the list and added the extra to the memeles topping options. 

I asked Martin what color the cooked paddles were supposed to be: black or brown. He said yellow, with brown spots. In the end, some were perfect and others were still a bit too green. Since I also diiced them, I could see that these less-cooked spots were where they were the most slimy, or ‘baboso,’ a Spanish word that also means snail. I will remember that the next time I cook Nopales, which is the real value of veg cooking classes like this one.

Veg Cooking Class Market Haul:

Huitlacoche (corn fungus/mushroom), fresh corn on the cob, five fresh herbs: hierba santa, cilantro, a different cilantro, mint, and epazote; guavas; freshly pre-mixed masa; long bandages of quesillo cheese, a cheery orange bouquet of squash blossoms; chayote, jicama, fresh de-spined cactus paddles; perfectly ripe tomatoes; huaje, an indigenous pod vegetable shelled like peas; round local squashes with soft skins, raw peanuts and dried chili pods, broccolini, limes, two kinds of mangoes; onions and garlic, so much garlic!

Mexican Cooking Class Dishes:

  • Memeles of varied flavors, all topped with tahini and feathery white strings of melty quesillo queese, a Oaxaca specialty. We made various mixtures to add to the mix, all with mushrooms, onions, herb, garlic and corn. Some versions also included squash and cactus paddles and other added crumbled smoky chile. 
  • Green rice, made mildly spicy with the addition of roasted pulverized poblano and sauteed onions
  • A salad of fresh tomatoes, lime juice, salt, air fried broccolini, carrots (zanahoria) and jicama chunks (A Dutchman, Fred van der Weij, invented the air fryer in 2005, our classmates from the Netherlands were proud to inform us. Martin says the air fryer has really taken off in Mexico, lightening up many traditional dishes.)
  • Three sauces: a creamy peanut mole you could add to literally anything and make it taste better, a mild molcajete sauce of blistered romas, tiny paperless tomatillos softened in water, a milder roasted chile, roasted garlic and possibly some other things I missed; and a gorgeous pico de gallo, which added shelled huajes and diced grilled cactus paddles to the more familiar tomato, onion, garlic, lime & (two varieties of) cilantro. 
  • An ‘agua fresca’ of guava and mint leaves, blended with filtered water and strained
  • Tiny lime-cream filled chocolate skulls handmaid in-house from cacao beans
  • Mezcal samples, (though I didn’t partake, because I had writing to do

I can’t recommend Etnofood’s Mexican vegetarian cooking class more highly. It has been a highlight of my time here in Oaxaca City!

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