This is my contribution to this month’s #LetsLunch, a virtual potluck on Twitter. This month my friend Grace Hwang Lynch from Hapa Mama is hosting with the theme of “Literary Meals.”
I was so excited when I learned that this month’s theme is Literary Meals– so many of my favorite books featuring food, either as backdrop or character. One of the first that came to mind is Laura Esquivel’s Like Water For Chocolate. In this novel, which is an excellent example of the magical realism that so often brings Latin American literature to life, each chapter includes a recipe for a meal that is featured in the plot. The protagonist, Tita, who is forbidden to marry, turns her sorrows and her emotions into her cooking. A talented cook, her dishes become unintentionally infused with her intense emotions.
The tears she sheds when she bakes the wedding cake for her sister, who married Pedro, her true love, causes the wedding guests to be overcome with a feeling of intense longing:
“The weeping was just the first symptom of of a strange intoxication– an acute attack of pain and frustration– that seized the guests and scattered them across the patio and the grounds… all of them wailing over lost love.”
The bride, her sister Rosaura, fared even worse, vomiting uncontrollably all over her wedding dress.
In another chapter, passionate thoughts for her unrequited love, Pedro, create a mole that is not only delicious but leaves guests feeling euphoric. This brought to mind my own experience with making mole, which involved neither passion nor magic, but the intense emotions of a city that was about to be besieged with 5 months of violent protests. This was Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, Mexico, in the summer of 2006.
“You’re late,” she spat as she glared at me, and threw a chili pepper-decorated apron in my direction. ”And if you had called me last night to confirm your arrival, as I had instructed you to, you would not have worn white.”
Not a promising start to my Oaxacan cooking class, which started the day after we arrived in the fabled Mexican city. But it wasn’t entirely my fault. I may not have called my instructor when we arrived the previous day (I thought the call was a courtesy, not a requirement), but I did do my duty as a conscientious student the evening before. Wanting to make sure I could make it to my class on time, I had located the restaurant where the class was to be held, and traced a route there from our hotel.
The next day, I arose early and left our lodging while my husband and toddlers were still sleeping. I strode off confidently towards the zocalo, a little nervous but really excited for the cooking class. Once I got there, everything looked different.
It wasn’t just the light, or the large crowd of people going about their daily routine and peddlers doing their business. Somehow, without knowing it, we had stumbled into what would end up being a seven month period of protests and violence, resulting in at least seventeen deaths, including that of an American journalist, Brad Will. At the time of our arrival, it had started simply as a local teachers’ strike. Over the next several months the teachers’ strike, which had been an annual event for a quarter decade, escalated exponentially, as other organizations joined in solidarity and reframed the protest into cries for resignation of the corrupt governor.
The zocalo was unrecognizable to me, with barricades set up, large placards being hoisted in the air, and tarps draped across streets, forming makeshift shelters for the ever increasing number of protestors. I didn’t know enough to be scared at the time, though. I was getting more anxious, realizing that I was going to be late for my class because I couldn’t find the landmarks I had memorized from the night before, and the sign for the restaurant, previously visible, was now covered by one of the tarps.
photo via Wikipedia
I also had the preconceived notion that the class might be run on “Mexican time.” Clearly not so.
The rest of my classmates, all other Americans, looked me up and down as I tried to make a space for myself in front of the counter. They had the confident look of students who had not only done their homework, but had read through the syllabus and even begun to write preliminary notes in the margins. I noticed that none of the others was wearing white. I felt self-conscious in my lacy, white cotton shirt, which felt so tropical and Latin to me, and quickly put on my chili-themed apron. (How conspicuous could I be?)
The good student that I am, though, I made up for lost time with my diligence and focus for the remainder of the day. I was enthusiastic as we learned about local ingredients and the fabled and almost mythical history of mole. I was an eager participant as we appreciated the scent of canela, seeded chilies, and juiced limons. As the recipes progressed in complexity from simple salsas, to a classic flan, and ultimately to the intensely aromatic and multifaceted mole rojo, my confidence grew. I raised my hand when volunteers were called up to assist the chef-instructor.
We had a memorable feast, the fruits of our labor, and then set out for a stroll and to tour the local mercado. On our tour, I couldn’t resist showing off what I had learned as we looked at vainilla,chocolate, chipotles, and aguas frescas.
By the end of the afternoon, I think I redeemed myself. I even got a hint of a smile from the chef as we formally shook hands goodbye.
Thankfully, we were safe and our trip ended before the worst of the violence began. We were still able to view a lot of the beautiful Spanish colonial architecture of the old city and visit local workshops where the area’s famous handicrafts are made: fantastical alebrijes, earthy black pottery, hand-dyed and handwoven rugs. We visited local ruins. But we also saw landmarks defaced with graffiti, and were unable to visit the most legendary of ruins in the area, Monte Alban, due to a roadblock set up to stop a large assembly of protestors. It wasn’t until after we returned safely home, and I followed events in the news and in email dispatches from my cooking instructor, that I understood the extent of the situation. Because of the escalating danger that dragged on, my instructor eventually and very reluctantly closed her restaurant. There were no tourists, and therefore no business left anyway. She left her homeland, where her family had lived and cooked for generations, and moved with her family to Texas, where she has embarked in a different direction as a chef-instructor teaching Latin American cuisine at the Culinary Institute of America’s campus in San Antonio. With all that was going on, both in my awareness and under my radar, my memories of that trip are intense, both good and bad.
I have only fond memories, though, of the cooking class that started off like a Mexican telenovela spinoff of Gordon Ramsay’s “Hell’s Kitchen.” Despite my rocky beginning with the chili-tempered instructor, I left feeling so accomplished, having learned to make an excellent mole, which had previously seemed unreachable. Mole makes a romantic meal– rich and spicy, with a sweet, chocolatey depth– and requires enough steps to really prove your love. Just ask Tita and Pedro.
Oaxacan Mole Rojo
There are seven classic moles in Oaxaca. I learned to make this smooth and complex mole rojon (red mole) from Chef Iliana de la Vega at the former Restaurante El Naranjo in Oaxaca City in 2006. I’ve heard that she’s reopened her restaurant, El Naranjo, in Austin, TX. It might be time for a visit.
For the sauce:
1/2 lb chile ancho (also known as chile California)
1/4 lb child guajillo
1 pound Roma tomatoes
1/2 large white onion
8 garlic cloves, unpeeled
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 2 inch cinnamon sitck (canela)
4 tbsp sesame seeds
2 oz pecans
2 oz peanuts (I have substituted other nuts including hazelnuts with good results)
1 tbsp oregano, preferably Mexican or Oaxacan
8 whole black peppercorns
4 whole cloves
chicken broth or water, amount needed
salt and sugar to taste
7 oz Oaxacan or Mexican chocolate, adjust to taste
To serve with chicken:
12 pieces skin-on, bone-in chicken pieces
1/2 medium onion
3 garlic cloves
salt and pepper to taste
1. Remove stems and seeds from the dried chiles, then toast them in a dry frying pan at medium heat. After they begin to release their fragrance, place them in a bowl and cover with hot water to soften, for up to 20 minutes.
2. While chiles are soaking, dry roast whole tomatoes, unpeeled garlic and onion.
3. Heat 1.5 tbsp of the oil in a frying pan and saute the nuts. When golden, add the sesame seeds, oregano, peppercorns, cinnamon, and cloves. Continue to stir until fragrant (just a few minutes), then remove from heat and set aside.
4. Drain softened chiles and place into a blender. Add enough water to allow for blending. When you have formed a paste, strain the paste through fine mesh sieve.
5. Heat the remaining 1.5 Tbsp of oil in a large stockpot and then add strained chile paste. Fry at low heat for 5-10 minutes.
6. Returning to your blender, add in the remaining ingredients (vegetables and nut and seed mixture) and blend until smooth.
7. Add this to the chile paste in the pot, and simmer for at least 20 minutes until the sauce has thickened.
8. Add chocolate and stir constantly until melted and well incorporated into the sauce. Add chicken stock or water and salt and sugar to taste. Bring to a boil. The sauce should be thick enough to cling to the spoon (similar texture to gravy). Set aside until ready to serve.
9. Now, cook the chicken: fill a large stockpot with water, then bring to a boil with salt, onion and garlic. When it is at a rapid boil, add the chicken pieces, reduce heat to low, and let chicken simmer until done (it will float to the top). Remove chicken to a platter.
10. Serve chicken on individual plates and then ladle mole over each piece. Serve with rice and tortillas.
The original version of this story was originally published on Salon.com February 15, 2010 with a recipe for my Red Hot Red Velvet Cake.
Thanks for coming by! If you enjoyed this, please share with a friend and leave a comment! And I’d like to know– how have your emotions affected your cooking?
Please also graze these other Literary Meals from this month’s #LetsLunch:
Chinese Fried Eggs at Hapamama (Revolution is Not a Dinner Party)
Leche Flan at Asian in America (Noli Me Tangere)
Hemingway Hamburger at A Tiger in the Kitchen (from Hemingway’s personal papers)
Oaxacan Mole Rojo at Spicebox Travels (Like Water for Chocolate)
Pop Cakes at Monday Morning Cooking Club (The Folk of the Faraway Tree)
Old Fashioned at A Cook and Her Books (The Great Gatsby)
Orange Tarts at Eating My Words (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)
Eggs for Bren at Glass of Fancy (C. J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series)
Homemade Tagalongs from Freerange Cookies (Posy Simmonds’ The Chocolate Wedding)