The Pop-Up Food Shops of Oaxaca

Grace Rubenstein

Aurelia has run this little stand for 40 years. She wears pearl earrings and looks satisfied as she digs her bare hands into piles of meat in metal vats over hot coals, serving plate after plate. A young couple across the table has come from Oaxaca city just to eat here.

From Aurelia's puesto, you press past piles of fruits and vegetables to reach the butcher stalls. They're easy to find -- just follow the haze of smoke wafting into the rafters. Sheets of thin-sliced, deep-red beef called tasajo lie stacked on the stall counters; long ropes of chorizo links and stringy tripe hang from bars above them. As a delicate foreigner, it's best to ignore how the butchers busily swat flies off their meat.

Columba, a stout young woman from Tlacolula, cheerfully cuts a small piece of tasajo and tosses it on her grill. Her slim aunt Juanita, at the next stall, does the same with a link of chorizo. When it's done, a bite of the tasajo makes me wish I ate beef more often -- simple, richly flavorful, juicy, and salty (salt is its only seasoning). The chorizo, by contrast, is powerfully spiced and delectably greasy, stuffed by this butcher family with cumin, onion, garlic, cinnamon, and guajillo chili.

Now I've done it. My tongue delights, but my meat-phobic Californian stomach is starting to object. That means it's time for a dose of Oaxaca's best digestive: mezcal. "It kills all your bugs," Jorge had explained earlier this morning. Oaxacans typically drink it before a heavy meal to settle their stomachs. Or anytime, just to get wasted.

Back up the main street and past the church again is Pensamiento mezcal, at No. 9 Benito Juárez. This family operation goes back 70 years. Its name means "thought," an activity that the liquor is remarkably swift at obliterating. Praying for a recovery, I sit on the curb and sip a free sample of their reposado. It's around noon.

Mezcal is tequila-like, as both liquors come from varieties of the agave plant. But mezcal, made from the maguey, is smoky and rougher. To make it, mezcaleros cook the plant with hot rocks in pits in the ground, then crush it, ferment it, and distill it in copper drums. It catches and burns in your throat, yet floods your mouth with flavor.

Within a half hour or so, I feel renewed. My wimpy tummy has been whipped into shape. "Me salvaron la vida," I tell the men running the shop. "You saved my life." They understand.

Further recovery comes with tejate. This non-alcoholic drink predates the Spaniards' arrival in the Western Hemisphere. The sweet, nutty, milky concoction is mixed with bare hands and made from a ground-up blend of corn flour, cacao beans, the seed of the mamey fruit, and a flower called flor de cacao -- a recipe that exemplifies "the alchemy that occurs in the Oaxacan kitchen," Trilling writes in her cookbook, Seasons of My Heart. The mamey oils create a creamy foam on top. Indigenous women sell it from ceramic vats throughout the market. Locals say tejate can cure hangovers, revive the malnourished, and make men more virile (which sounds dangerous when combined with mezcal).

Tejate in hand, this is a chance to take a breather to appreciate the incredible non-edible creations all around -- hand-woven wool rugs from nearby Teotitlán del Valle, Earth-red bowls from San Marcos Tlapazola, and intricately carved wooden molinillos from all over the place. The latter look like a Medieval children's toy, but really they're for frothing cups of supremely Oaxacan hot chocolate.

If you want to see -- and more importantly, smell -- that chocolate being made, press farther down the main street. Beyond the market building, turn left on Calle Santos Degollado, where you'll find a crowd of women jostling for their turn at the mills at Molinos y Chocolates del Valle. Each Oaxacan homemaker has her own recipe, a certain combination of ground cacao, sugar, cinnamon, and almonds. You can sip some, served with a dry egg bread called pan de yema, at any of the barbacoa spots inside the market building. The aroma of dark, toasted cocoa outside the Molinos could make all your cares go away.

There are a few more essential things I must try before I cry uncle. First are the fruits of the comal. The comals are metal griddles several feet wide, fired with wood coals and stained white with powdered lime to keep the masa from sticking. Women working deftly with bare hands cook gigantic tortillas fresh and stuff them with rich fillings to make empanadas or (with cheese) quesadillas. They're all over the market, and any one will do.

I try two classically Oaxacan preparations: amarillo and flor de calabaza. The amarillo, which means "yellow," is really more orange, a thick, mildly spicy sauce of guajillo chili, garlic, onion, cumin, clove, and black pepper. The women mix it with shredded chicken, cilantro, and herbaceous hierbasanta leaf. Flor de calabaza is squash blossom, which grows in abundance here year-round. The cooks combine the delicate, sweet flowers with a tangy string cheese called quesillo and a bitter leaf called epazote to make a quesadilla that approaches perfection.

It's approaching 4 p.m. now, and time is running out. A couple hours from now, the market will vaporize in a blur of hand carts and pickup trucks, leaving Tlacolula just a country town again.

Lining Calle Galeana, along the front edge of the market building, are the traditional diners called comedores. Food-wise, these are the one-stop shops within the one-stop shop, where women with experienced hands make every luscious dish for which Oaxaca is famous -- mole negro, mole coloradito, estofado, tlayudas, and chiles rellenos. This is what I've been working up to.

The street vendors outside recommend No. 5, Comedor Mary. It's bright and airy, with multicolored tablecloths. At the back, a dozen or so thick sauces bubble in white pots on the stove. The chef is Elsa Luis Morales, whose great-grandmother Maria started the business 90 years ago.

I ask for a selection of everything. With pleasure, Elsa sets before me several plates splashed with patches of color worthy of a Mark Rothko painting. First comes mole coloradito, a sweet-hot sauce made from the ubiquitous guajillo chili. As with most moles, it's served with chicken, rice, and an impossibly tall stack of warm tortillas.

The chile relleno, per tradition, is a pasilla pepper stuffed with shredded chicken, almonds, olives, and raisins, and fried in egg batter. Elsa's could be a medal winner. The sweetness of the chicken mix perfectly offsets the pasilla's decisive kick.

But the best -- the best of all in Oaxaca -- I save for last.

With the first few bites of Elsa's mole negro, I'm inclined to close my eyes. The sweetness, spiciness, and smokiness of this almost-black puree exactly equal each other. The numerous ingredients include four kinds of toasted chilies, almonds, peppercorns, cloves, and dark Oaxacan chocolate, but each of them gives up its own identity to the blend. Mole negro tastes like all your best memories -- wood smoke from a chimney on a crisp fall day, your favorite piece of candy as a kid, or a sultry kiss you've been waiting for.

"Making food is making a work of art," Elsa says.

Vendors are packing up their stalls as I walk out, gently coming down from my Oaxacan-food climax. The life-savers at Pensamiento mezcal, though, are still there and offering free samples.

"Drink up!" the lineup of little bottles seems to say; along with legions of villagers lugging wares back to their pueblos, you can take the bus home.

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Grace Rubenstein is a reporter and multimedia producer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Parenting and Edutopia magazines.

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