At Teotitlán de Valle, 25 kilometres outside the colonial town of Oaxaca, at the foothills of the Sierra Juarez Mountains, the covered produce market has filled with shoppers carrying woven baskets. Noticeably, most of the vendors and customers are Zapotec women, a Mexican indigenous group who settled in the area around 1465, making it one of the oldest Zapotec settlements. Gender roles are more defined here than in the cities – most men work the land, women take care of the home and the family, though many are involved in some agricultural and cottage industry actives too. There are women wearing a twisted band of pretty cloth, like crowns atop their heads and bright pinafores or aprons with floral embroidery. Vendors sell canary-yellow squash blossoms, ladlesful of spicy fried grasshoppers, decorated gourds, and in the more formal section: fresh vegetables, an array of baked bread and pastries, honey, pottery, meat and fish. There’s even a small stall displaying the heavy gold earrings that Zapotec women prefer.
Ludivina Vasquez, who’s asked us to call her Ludi, has invited us to shop with her. While she picks corn leaves for the tamales on the menu, chiles for the yellow mole, organic eggs for a “celebration” soup, and grasshoppers to eat with avocado and lard-fried tortillas (chalupas), I buy a few aprons for my mother and a molinillo, or whisk to crush and froth hot chocolate. Oaxaca is especially famous for its hot chocolate houses like Le Soledad, where cacao beans, grown for the past 3000 years since the Olmec times in Tabasco, some 420 kilometres away, are rolled and freshly crushed into a thick paste warm to order. We take our morning loot to Ludi’s house that she shares with her husband Faustino, a 13th generation weaver (the town is renowned for its textiles), his sister, candle-maker Sophia Ruiz and her husband.
We start with a thanksgiving in the family’s prayer and dining room, where portraits of their ancestors hang, together with a growing collection of elaborate candles that Sophia is hard at work on for a religious festival. We hear that Ludi is not accustomed to receiving outsiders too often, and the day unfolds in a casual, and pleasant manner, with a guide translating my stream of questions while we cook. She introduces us to her family and we climb the stairs to the open-air first floor kitchen, where spools of naturally-dyed wool are hanging to dry and onions, other vegetables and drying herbs are stored on racks. Downstairs, Faustino works the loom – depending on the size, one piece may take him a few weeks to complete. A large leaf-shaped hojaldra, a type of sweet bread sits on the table, and we tear pieces off to dip into steaming cups of hot chocolate, that Ludi has made from scratch, crushing the beans into a velvety paste that she shapes into little rounds and stores to harden. This is mixed vigorously in a pot with water, using the molinillo. I start to wish that I bought a bigger one, instead of the dinky-size tourist’s version I selected. I discover that many locals prefer water to milk, and allow the chocolate’s restorative powers to take centre stage.
It’s soon obvious that in this house, and possibly in this community, everything edible, as far as is possible, is made by hand – every corn kernel for masa (dough) to make tortillas, every chile, every spice and grain is crushed and worked by hand. No packet sauces or mole paste from the market, in fact vegetables and meat are usually bought as needed and used fresh, not frozen.
When we start grinding the chiles over the large metate, or grinding stone, a task heavy on the wrists, I spot the electricity points and ask if Ludi would not like to use a food processor. Her features are still for a moment, and then she replies: “Oh no. It’s not the same, the taste is not the same.” The guide laughs, nodding in agreement, but admitting to buying ready made whenever possible. We stir the yellow mole mixture in a green pottery vessel over the wood-fire stove. When it thickens like caramel, we tackle the tamales, first pressing thin tortillas, before filling them with shredded chicken and a smear of mole, folding and enclosing them the way Ludi shows us in corn leaves, which I’m told are superior to corn husks commonly used in restaurants. The tamales rest in pot to be steamed before we eat. And finally, we get to the egg soup, higaditos – an Oaxacan soup Ludi says her family serves on the second day of celebrations, a hangover cure with noted success. Shredded chicken is cooked in a stock (that Ludi made much earlier that morning), with garlic and a little Serrano pepper. Whisked eggs are folded in and cooked until billowy and for much longer than I’ve ever seen eggs cooked before. When enough liquid has evaporated, the ladled soup is served with cilantro and two hand-chopped salsas on the side.
After five hours of shopping and cooking with Ludi (she gets it done faster everyday, without the questions and slow participants), we enjoy lunch with the family in the dining room. I look up at Ludi and Faustino’s ancestors, and give my thanks briefly. But before we take a bite, Faustino raises a small glass: “Stee chee beu!” he says. Salud, we reply. To your good health, and we tackle the local mescal, with brave smiles.