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  • Writer's pictureAlison Bailey Vercruysse

Fire cooking in Oaxaca

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

No stove or oven to cook food? We learned all you need is a fire and a comal to make the famous cuisine of Oaxaca.


La Casa Azul (The Blue House) sat among manicured gardens, mature trees and clean streets nestled in the Coyoacan neighborhood in Mexico City. Home to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera for twenty-five years, La Casa Azul showed how Frida lived, entertained, painted, and died.


The bright yellow and royal blue kitchen inside the house did not have an oven, only gigantic pottery bowls and open cubbies underneath the counter. I thought the stove and oven must be missing but then, learned at a cooking class in Oaxaca that a wood fire was all that was used.





Frida’s grandmother hailed from Oaxaca called Land of the Cloud People. Her signature fashion on the cover of Vogue magazine in 1937 featured traditional Tehaunatepec clothing marked with elaborate embroidery, long skirts and loose colorful tops. Despite her enduring pain due to a tragic bus accident at the young age of eighteen, Frida looked perpetually bright and cheery something that also extends to Oaxacan cuisine.

Photo by Nicholas Murray, Frida on the Roof Deck of Nick's Flat, 1946


In Oaxaca, we signed up for a hands on cooking experience through AirBNB. We were driven fifteen minutes outside the city center to a gated compound of a chef named Miguel called Quinta Brava whose family had been there for five generations. The compound contained a beehive, vegetable garden, small farm animals, two fluffy large dogs, citrus trees, and a large outdoor covered dining area set in the middle of a vast green lawn.

The bee house on the garden side was covered with a parasol to keep the bees from getting too hot. It being December, the mandarins on the trees were ripe for the picking, and that’s just what my son Asher did when we were not busy cooking or eating.


Attached to the the back of house was a vast outdoor kitchen. Two wood fires were burning with a large pottery plate or comal sitting over the fire. The smoke billowed up with scents of caramel and spice from the peppers and onions browning.


After we set a menu, we set off to the neighborhood el mercado (the market) and el molino (the mill) which were in close walking distance.

First, el molino to grind the pre-soaked heirloom corn to make masa for the tortillas. Second, el mercado to buy squash blossoms, cilantro, tomatoes, handmade string cheese, avocados, nopales, and fungus that grows in corn husks called cuitlacoche (pronounced QUEET-la-coh-chay).


The Meso-Americans believed humans were born out of corn. A staple food for the millennia, the corn kernels come in a rainbow of colors. At one of the top restaurants in the country Criollo, making the corn tortillas by hand takes center stage.




Back at the Quinta Brava, we made memelitas, quesadillas, a mole sauce to go with the main coarse of chicken legs and a soup. First up homemade corn tortillas with the freshly milled masa. A gold ball size ball of masa is pinched off, rolled and put between 2 circles of non stick material on a wooden tortilla press. Close the lid, press down the lever, once and then twice and the tortilla was ready to grill.


For the quesadillas Oaxacan style, the fillings were pressed into the tortillas on the second pressing such as the vibrant colored squash blossoms, and then filled with more squash blossoms, onions and bits of string cheese. Then, it was folded into a geometric shape or pocket and grilled on the comal. until the cheese is oozing and little bubbles appear on the outside. These are not the same boring quesadillas served in typical American Mexican restaurants. I bit into a square one, a seeminlgly simple food tastes delicate, creamy inside with a nutty mildy sweet outside.



Miguel showed us in this video how to make Tetela. Memelitas were also new to me - open faced masa spread with choice of toppings. We used asiento (pork lard with the bits of the carnitas from the bottom of the pan), more squash blossoms and string cheese. The right off the grill corn tortilla was pinched round the outside to form a lip for the toppings to sit inside. The toppings were layered in the middle. I didn’t really like the asiento. It tasted too gamey to me. Memelitas did give me a open edible plate to explore different topping options without being fried.


All photos except as noted are by Alison Bailey Vercruysse.


P.S.

To enjoy Oaxacan food in the United States, go to Republica or their sister restaurant La Fondita in Portland, Oregon. Republica was voted the Best Restaurant of 2021 by Portland Magazine. La Fondita serving breakfast and lunch opened on May 6, 2022. The bakers make inventive pastries available throughout the day like the guava and cream cheese empanadas or the chorizo and potato empanada.


Bring a little bit of Oaxaca to your own home, organic masa to make tortillas is available to purchase from Three Sisters Nixtamal directly or New Seasons Market sells it in the cold tortilla section.


Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and other Mexican Modernist painters are currently on exhibit through June 5, 2022 at the Portland Art Museum.


To take Miguel's cooking class at Quinta Brava on your next visit to Oaxaca, click here.




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