Prehispanic Cooking Classes in Oaxaca

It was 5 years ago—long before we thought to open our own restaurant—that we met Vicky. She was giving cooking classes with a Spanish language school that I’d signed up with for two weeks. Her class was an add–on, taught entirely in Spanish, of course. For one reason or another Noel and I really took to Vicky and she to us. So of course we thought of her when we returned to Oaxaca to research our cookbook.

This time around she taught us how to make mole amarillo (it’s one of the moles Noel didn’t know), and the masa for tamales. Vicky, by the way, makes the only tamales I get excited about: tamales de cambray—a speciality from the Istmo of Oaxaca.

 
 Vicky teaching Noel just how to mix the masa.

Vicky teaching Noel just how to mix the masa.

 

At the moment, Vicky gives her classes in the Proteccion de Joven in Oaxaca Centro—a non–profit that provides room and board to rural native women who come to the city to continue their education. She is hoping to open her own cooking school and museum of prehispanic cooking tools and artifacts in the next couple of months on the slopes just below Monte Alban.

 
 Vicky holding her great-grandmother’s “mano”—grinding tool that accompanies the metate.

Vicky holding her great-grandmother’s “mano”—grinding tool that accompanies the metate.

 

Actually, this is something she was talking about when we first met her five years ago, so we were happy to see construction was underway. Of course, it doesn’t always work that “if you build it they will come,” so I suggested she get herself listed on Airbnb Experiences, and offered to help her with the process.

Vicky shows her students how to use prehispanic tools, such as the metate (stone for grinding corn) and the molcajete (mortar and pestle). She works with medicinal herbs, many of which she picks from the fields around Monte Alban, and focuses on the recipes and techniques of her ancestors. That being said, she realizes that few people have the time, patience, or ingredients to cook that way, which is why she also explains where you can substitute a blender and pre–made corn flour, or doctor up a jarred mole paste instead of sautéing each ingredient individually. She also only speaks Spanish—a great way to improve yours! She does speak very slowly and clearly and has years of experience working with non–Spanish speakers.

We realized that she could attract a lot more students if she had her recipes translated into English. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the money to pay someone and I don’t have the time. So naturally, I turned to Facebook: I put a post up asking if anyone would like to trade translation services for cooking classes. And here is where the magic happened.

We immediately had two responses. One was from Cristina Potters who writes the acclaimed Mexico Cooks! blog and leads culinary tours of Oaxaca, Mexico City, and Michoacan. The other was from Luis Hernandez who is working on a film project called Nomad Cook, filming traditional cooks around the world. Both are fantastic connections.

And this is one of the things I love about Mexico. It is a bit like a modern version of guelaguetza. I don’t mean the huge festival that happens every July to celebrate the many native cultures of Oaxaca. I mean what Vicky explained as guelaguetza’s true meaning: community work. Traditionally (and still to this day) in many villages, if you had to host, say, your daughter’s wedding, but didn’t have the resources to supply all the food, drink, music, etc, you would go around to your neighbors and ask their help. One neighbor would offer to bring the beer, another tortillas, and so on. And the next year, when your neighbor needed help, you would volunteer what you could. It’s a bit like networking to throw a potluck party, only the effects much deeper, because this kind of community work strengthens important existing ties within a village.

Vicky and Luis have begun working on recipe translations, and will soon be creating a video. Cristine will hopefully will bring her some students. And Vicky and I have nearly completed her Airbnb Experience page (look for “Cocina Prehispanica con Fogón”—Prehispanic Cooking Class over Fire).

Meanwhile, Noel went to a mezcal festival in Puebla (look for Puebla mezcals at El Refugio this season!) and reunited with friends who run a hostel we stayed at last month. As it turns out, the owner of Chante 18 hostel has a mother who makes fantastic dishes from her home town in the Sierra Norte de Puebla, and he is also hoping to connect with Luis to do some video work. It looks like we’ll be organizing a Guerrero–Puebla–Oaxaca cook–off in the next week or two!