Back from a three week intensive Spanish course in Oaxaca, and I find I’ve left a little piece of myself in Mexico. Like about ten pounds. It wasn’t just the Montezuma’s Revenge. That lasted for about my first four days and, when it disappeared, I rededicated myself to exploring Oaxaca’s culinary treasures. One of the great things about traveling like a student decades after you were really last a student is that you can now travel the way you wish you could have back when you were counting every peso. I still remember my bread and cheese trek across Europe as a high school student where I was forced to avoid practically all of Europe’s famous foods for fear of tipping my budget over $4.79 per day. On this trip, I was determined to discover personally why Oaxaca is considered a Mexican food heritage site. And I was willing to sacrifice a waistline to do so. Turns out there was no need to pack all those elastic waist skirts. An American who begins to eat like a Oaxacan will, with only a few modifications to that region’s traditional diet, lose weight.
So I made it a point to eat at one of Oaxaca’s top restaurants nearly every day. And by happy accident, I chose the right time to do so. Since I was almost always headed to these restaurants on my own (my fellow students being mostly uninterested or financially unable to participate), I tended to show up for dinner around 6PM, so I could eat leisurely and walk back to my posada while it was still light. Apparently, 6PM is an ungodly early hour for Mexican dinner — a time when only tourists and small children eat. Mexicans prefer their main meal, Comida, at lunch from 2PM to 4PM. Then, Cena (supper) starts sometime around 9PM or even 10. As a 6 o’clock diner, I often found myself the only customer in the restaurant which allowed me to quiz the waiters on food preparation methods and often earned me a trip back into the kitchen to meet and talk to the chef. So I can offer with some authority my impressions of the amazing weight-loss powers of the Lard, Mole and Mezcal Oaxacan Diet.
First the Lard. Yes, they cook with it. No, everything isn’t doused with it. And it isn’t the hydrogenated lard in a bucket you might find in the cheaper Safeway’s back home. Over the past few years, article after article has pointed out that artisanally produced lard, especially leaf lard, used in moderation is a much healther fat than butter and certainly than corn oil. First of all, about 80% of any Oaxacan meal seems to be vegetable or plant based — even though I was consciously ordering meat entrees. For instance, a tamale, where the masa (corn meal) was bound with a little lard, was filled very sparingly with mostly vegetables — squash blossoms, sautéed peppers, beans, with about a tablespoon full of meat for flavor. The result was a tamale about a quarter of the size of what you’d be served in the U.S. — but with ten times the taste. Sometimes an otherwise vegetarian entree was “finished” with about two teaspoons of asiento, lard which has been used to sauté garlic and onions. It adds a huge whallop of flavor for virtually no meat.
And about those moles. These are the complex sauces (from Nahuatl mulli or molli, “sauce” or “concoction”) which are the cornerstones of Oaxaca’s culinary reputation. There are seven famous ones, each with about a thousand hotly debated variations. There is Mole Verde, Mole Amarillo, Mole Rojo, Mole Colorado, Pipian, Amandrado, and the most complex: Mole Negro which is the mole that features chocolate. Each mole features multiple ingredients, many requiring separate and special preparation and each adding its own complex addition to the overall flavor. By the time you are done grinding and preparing up to 23 separate ingredients, the meat you add is just an after-thought. I don’t think there was more than two tablespoons full of meat in any of the moles I ate. But, since fat is a known flavor conductor (for instance, a green bean will taste more “green beany” with the addition of some fat to carry the flavor to the receptors on your tongue), that small amount of meat was crucial to the overall flavor. Needless to say, from the evidence of the woman selling live chickens and ducks in the markets, I’m sure the meat came from free-range sources. The result of all this flavor was that I was immensely satisfied with very small portions.
I need to also say a word about cheese. Oaxacan Mexican food, and I’m told most real Mexican food, is not the greasy cheesy mess that most of us find when we go to a Stateside Mexican restaurant. Oaxacans make a wonderful cheese that is sometimes called string cheese, but bears as little relationship to American processed string cheese as frozen fish sticks do to Thomas Keller’s fancy take on sushi. The cheese is a white cheese and tastes as if it is made from skimmed milk or whey. It is manipulated and manipulated until it is extremely light with no greasy, fatty aftertaste. The taste is somewhat like a cross between an extremely mild Feta, unaged Monterrey Jack and Mozzarella with a texture like slightly cheese flavored clouds. And any dish that includes it, again has only about a tablespoon of it.
Now the Mezcal, but first a word about alcohol consumption with meals. While it’s sometimes unthinkable for me to contemplate a fine dinner without wine, I had no desire for it in Mexico. First of all, there is no real Mexican wine industry — except maybe up north around Tecate. And wine just doesn’t have the right flavor to complement Mexican food. It appeared to be normal to complement your meal with an aperitif of orange, papaya or tamarind juice and drink agua fresca, just plain mineral water or lemon water with dinner. I didn’t see too many people drinking beer with dinner. That seemed to be an afternoon drink and was most often cut with lime juice or tamarind juice and served in a salted glass with a sprinkling of chile.
I discovered Mezcal and its place in a Mexican dinner when I finally stumbled out to a restaurant after eating virtually nothing for my first three days (thanks to the aforementioned Montezuma’s Revenge). I went back to the restaurant La Olla where our group had had our excellent welcome dinner. The waiter and owner recognized me from the group and kept encouraging me to try the day’s specials. I managed to tell them how sick I was and, no, I didn’t get it from their food and that I only thought I could handle a salad at this point. After my salad, the owner brought over a shot of Mezcal with chile and lime, on the house, and told me, if I drank one after every dinner, it would settle my stomach. It did! And that became my traditional dinner pattern. Fruit juice or water with dinner, followed by a shot of Mezcal — the good stuff which is aged in oak for four to six years.
As further evidence of the health properties of The Lard, Mole and Mezcal Diet, I should mention that I really didn’t see any fat people in Oaxaca — at least who weren’t tourists. Most of the people in Oaxaca have quite a bit of Indian blood, so they have that stocky Native American physique, but they aren’t fat. They also walk everywhere, as did I, up to several miles per day and many more miles on weekends as I stomped around Zapotec archeological sites.
Now the pitfalls. Oaxacans seem to have developed a ravenous taste for Pan Dulce, sweet breads. Most of the breakfasts on offer were basically piles of pastries, although my tutor told me that mixed tropical fruits sprinkled with lime, chile and salt was a more traditional choice. I did see numerous street stands selling the same, but as we were cautioned not to eat fruit that we didn’t know was disinfected with idione solution, that wasn’t an option for me. Oaxacan baked desserts were also best avoided as they had no real flavor but dissolved in your mouth into a sticky sugary paste. A better choice were the flans and rice puddings which were typically in portion sizes of about three bites apiece. Better yet, end your meal with a shot of Mezcal. The good stuff, Añejo, which is aged, golden and smoky.
I was convinced that, regardless of what I was eating, the fact that it was clearly organic, locally produced and probably farmed traditionally went a long way toward the tastiness and healthiness of every dish. In particular, anything corn-based had such a wonderfully “corny” flavor that I was sure I was eating product from non-GMO and non-hybridized corn — the kind no one in the U.S. has been able to eat since your Grandmother’s time. But I was stymied in one of my goals which was to come back with Mexican seed corn. My Spanish didn’t extend to quizzing the women in the mercados as to whether the the corn they were selling was treated with lime for Pozole or was seed corn for growing. That was probably due to the fact that most of the women selling corn seemed to speak only Zapotec. I finally asked one of the botanists at the excellent Jardin Ethnobotanico — a beautiful garden featuring all the native and endemic plants of Oaxaca arranged and presented according to their place in human history and culture. In a documentary, I’d heard a Mexican botanist and government agricultural officer explain that Mexico considers corn an invaluable part of the country’s heritage and culture, which they jealously guard against contamination with GMO strains from the United States. Apparently they just as zealously guard against export of their corn, because the guide at the Jardin told me I would need a government permit to take seed corn back to the U.S., even if I wanted to import it for my own, non-commercial use.
I hope my newly honed skills in Spanish will enable me to write a letter to the Mexican Minister of Agriculture. Because I’d love to keep eating the Oaxacan Way.