Vol. 52, In Mexico: Sounds and Food in Oaxaca
I have friends here in Oaxaca who are constantly hosting friends from the States. One of the things they end up doing for their guests is interpreting the sounds of Oaxaca. It is interesting how we become so deeply accustomed to every facet of our lives—visual, rhythmic, verbal, sonic—that sometimes we don’t realize how full of sounds our lives are. Recently we were making altars for the Day of the Dead in the living room of my friends’ home. A long-high pitched whistle drifted into the room and the woman who I was talking to—a visitor from Seattle—swiveled her head away from me. The movement was almost beyond her control. She was just intensely intrigued by the sound. "You want to know what that is?" my friends asked her. "Yeah, it’s kind of eerie," she said. "Steamed bananas, look out the window." The guest looked out the window and saw an older man pushing a steaming cart down the street.
The long, high-pitched whistle of the steamed banana man is not to be confused with the differently nuanced, long, high-pitched whistle of a guy on a bike who rides through neighborhoods blowing his particular whistle. I thought he must be some type of repair person, but every time I’ve seen a man on a bike with that type of whistle, he’s empty handed. No tools, no goods for sale. My friend told me those are mailmen. I have since seen men on bikes delivering the mail. Maybe after they’ve delivered the mail they ride around the neighborhood offering to pick up outgoing mail. (But that’s a foreigner’s guess).
My mother, who is newly arrived, was stopped one day by the sound of a cow mooing from the street. "What is that?!?" asked my mother. "It’s the gas truck," I told her. "They recorded the sound of a cow mooing." In Oaxaca (and in lots of other countries), gas is generally not pumped into the homes. It is delivered in metal canisters, which are hooked up to your gas line. Gas is crucial, of course. Without it, you can’t cook and there won’t be any hot water for your showers. So unless gas is included in your rent, you listen for that electric moo when you run out of gas. Then you run out and stop the truck, so they can switch your empty canister for a full one.
In Salvador, Bahia, the men on the gas truck clanked on the canisters to announce their arrival. Here in Oaxaca, the sound of clanging metal is reserved for the garbage truck. In el Centro, where we live, there are lots of tiny streets. The garbage trucks don’t bother going up all the little side streets. I suppose they’d get stuck and hold up traffic. So they drive down the main streets clanging on metal and people come rushing out of their homes with their trash. If you live on a side street, you really have to rush because the truck won’t wait and you don’t want to get stuck with your trash. The men on the truck don’t come for the trash. Each person has to hand the trash to one of the garbage men, or they have to put it on the truck themselves. My friend described a scene of residents who had to climb on top the truck—where the recyclable items go—to secure their newspapers and cardboard boxes.
One last very important sound is the yell of aguuuaaaaa. No one in Oaxaca (well, no one I know, perhaps only people who have no choice) drinks the tap water. Everyone drinks bottled water—which is not spring water, by the way. It’s purified—some say it tastes like chemicals. So when you hear that yell, you run out to switch your empty five-gallon bottle for a new one. If you live in a place with strange acoustics, like I used to, you end up running out of your house five or six times because you hear the men yelling from all the surrounding streets and you think they’re on your street.
In my last apartment, I lived with the sounds of other animals, in addition to the noises that filtered in from the street. The buzzing of bees that flew in by mistake, the dry fluttering of a huge moth hitting its wings against the skylight while trying to get out, the nighttime click click click of the geckos talking to each other on the kitchen ceiling. No matter where you live in el Centro you are a stone’s throw away from a church. When we first returned to Oaxaca, the church bells sounded especially close and especially cruel. First the bell would clang with no rhythm around 6 am. It sounded as if the bell ringer was clearing the bell’s throat or something. Then, just when I was drifting back to sleep, the bell would start its regular duty of ringing every hour (and sometimes on the half hour, too). I suppose I’ve gotten used to the clanging bells. I don’t hear them in this new apartment, but my mother says she does.
Another sound I seem to have tuned out is the sound of firecrackers. During my first trip here (from March to June) there were celebrations all the time. In Oaxaca, every good party, parade, or march is accompanied by firecrackers. Often there is no light that accompanies the firecracker. It is simply an explosion of sound meant to announce the party. From March to June, the city was abuzz not only with parties, but also with marches. I saw at least six marches in a period of three months—who knows how many more actually took place. The marches ranged from small—a group of 20 people marching from the rural outskirts to the city to demand the investigation of their family members’ deaths; to medium—approximately 500 people representing farmers and other rural laborers petitioning the government to share some of the benefits that the city of Oaxaca retains; to humongous—thousands of teachers shutting down traffic to kick off their annual (as I understand it) strike for higher wages. The teachers’ union requires all its members to participate in the strike. So teachers from all over the state of Oaxaca pack some food and clothing and literally camp out in the central square until the government agrees to their demands. They build a tent city that looks like a shantytown—which is bad for tourism—weeks before Guelaguetza, Oaxaca’s biggest celebration (in other words, exactly when the government can not afford to have them there).
In May, I went with my friend to her hometown of Juchitan, a city in the region of Istmo. There are seven regions in Oaxaca. Each region boasts its own style of dress, dance, and cooking. The Guelaguetza is a huge celebration of Oaxaca’s cultural diversity. Dancers wear traditional dress and present their region’s dances to huge crowds. Before I knew about the regions, I identified the dresses from Juchitan as something I wanted to own. There is a range of traditional outfits, but the one that I find most beautiful is a hand-embroidered huipil (top) and skirt with flowers in vibrant colors on darkly colored velvet.
The purpose of the visit to Juchitan was to celebrate my friend’s niece’s third birthday. The birthday party consisted of lots of food, lots of talking and lots of visitors. But before the party in the house, we went to the church where my friend’s niece was blessed for her birthday. I was excited to see the number of women in beautiful traditional dresses in church. I got to see the range of embroidery styles as seven or eight women were decked out from head to toe in traditional hand-embroidered dress. After getting over the beauty of the outfits, I was surprised to see two young women in elaborate white wedding dresses standing up front with my friend’s niece. Two weddings were happening at the same time as the little girl’s three-year-old blessing. I suppose it’s more affordable for some folks to get married during a regular mass rather than reserve the church and hire the priest to say a ceremony just for them.
In Juchitan, I saw lots of food that reminded me I was supposed to be reporting on the tastes of Mexico. The night after the birthday party we went to the zocalo so that I could taste bupu, a traditional drink. Bupu means foam in Zapotec. The drink is a chocolate looking liquid covered with a white froth. Not to be confused with tejate, which is another chocolate-looking beverage, but with a different taste. The bupu has a strange combination of tastes. A little boy and I agreed it had a slightly prune-y flavor. I couldn’t finish the whole bowl. Traditionally beverages are served in little half gourds, which are sometimes painted a beautiful brilliant red and decorated with painted flowers. I’ve seen pictures of women who use the cups for drinking bowls and they also wear them on their heads to shelter themselves from sun. I was hungry, so my friend guided me to eat garnachas. Garnachas are small corn tortillas stuffed with chicken and cheese, then the whole thing is fried. The garnachas were quite tasty. I also enjoyed the spicy mix of pickled cabbage and carrots that are served with the garnachas.
The next morning we had tamales for breakfast. Apparently, even tamales have their own regional flavor. Tamales are made from some type of corn meal and stuffed with cheese, chicken, or meat—or served plain. After they’re stuffed (or not) they are wrapped in banana leaves or corn husks and steamed or boiled (I’m not sure which). The result is dish of softly cooked dough. I was told that the tamales of Juchitan are sweet. They were wonderfully sweet and so good that I had seconds. It sort of tasted like steamed corn bread. My friend and her family ate heavy cream on the tamales. They also snacked on chicharron—huge chunks of boiled pig skin, which is then deep fried until it is light, airy, and crunchy. Also on the table for breakfast were the staples that rounded out every meal we had in the house in Juchitan—queso fresco, tortillas, and Coke. There are two main types of Oaxacan cheese: queso fresco and quesillo. The queso fresco is wet and crumbly and served in a huge mound that can be kept in the refrigerator for up to a month. The quesillo is the famous Oaxacan string cheese. It is sold in big balls and the cheese is unwrapped in long flat strips. It’s white, stringy like mozarella and very salty. My friend from Juchitan is also very proud of totopos, a particular type of tortilla that is hard, thin and crunchy with holes in it, rather than soft and flexible.
After breakfast, my friend took me to the market to find a huipil of my own. On the way to the clothing section of the market, we passed the food section. There was a mind-numbing array of fruits available as well as some colorful foods I was unfamiliar with. Someone was selling sweets that consisted of bananas or prunes in a thick, sticky red sauce. The big exotic dish of the region is iguana. At the market we saw live iguanas tied together, waiting to be sold to hungry customers. We saw big bowls of iguana stew, complete with chunks of iguana—the dark, scaly skin still clinging to the meat. Some of the iguana stews featured whole iguana eggs.
Soft, wrinkly turtle eggs were also on sale in the Juchitan market. The sale of turtle eggs and products made from turtles is outlawed in Oaxaca because the turtle population has become endangered. We visited a turtle conservatory in Mazunte on the south coast of Oaxaca state. There they educated us about their mission to bring the turtle population back to the extent that the beach is once again alive with turtles during mating season. They begged us not to purchase turtle products and especially not to eat, buy or otherwise support the sale of turtle eggs.
During this trip down to Mazunte, we had the best juice ever. It was called Paraiso—paradise. I don’t remember which fruits were in it, but it definitely lived up to its name. Also, in Mazunte I had the best soup I ever tasted at a little beachfront restaurant. As dining experiences go, it was pretty grungy. First the restaurant had chickens and a rooster, which sometimes jumped up on the tables—thankfully not our table, but I can’t be sure they had not just been roosting on the table before we arrived. Then there were some nasty looking beach dogs circling us. Their red eyes, scabby fur and skinny frames could make anyone want to throw up. To add insult to injury, the mosquitoes were TEARING US UP. It was nightfall—the wrong time to be out without major repellent. The mosquitoes were so bad in Mazunte that as soon as night fell people would start burning bonfires in the middle of summer to keep them away.
Why, you might ask—with so many negative deterrents—were we having dinner there at all? Well, the restaurant had been recommended to us and we were tired of eating in the same place for breakfast, lunch AND dinner. We were staying in an eco-hut with dry latrines and no kitchen. We HAD to go out to eat. So while we were sitting there waiting for what turned out to be the best soup ever, we saw the strangest scene. A bedraggled looking man who was paralyzed on one side dragging a grown up burro and a baby burro across the beach. At one point, one of the burros deposited a hunk of excrement in the sand. I just knew the man was going to leave it. But he didn’t. He found some one to hold the burro’s leash, dragged himself to someone’s restaurant, borrowed a shovel and cleaned up the shit with his one good arm. Then he put a cigarette to his lips, lit it, and started back on his path of dragging the burros down the beach. It looked like some kind of existential drama. Or like the last scene of a five-hour drama about how a bad man gets his just desserts in the end. I imagined him in a white suit with a cigar in his mouth—the owner of plantations, factories and many many many slaves. Then, his life unravels and due to his mishandling of the people around him, he ends up on a beach in a dirty little hippie town, dragging a burro with the one side of his body that stills functions properly.
Anyway, I can’t remember the name of the soup. It had a spicy, thin red broth, but it wasn’t a tomato broth. The soup had rice and chicken, and before it was served they threw fresh tomatoes and avocado into the soup. I was in heaven. I have since had a soup that reminds me of it, so I’m starting to suspect that it was Sopa Tlalpeño (or something like that).
[Side note: my mother is in the kitchen and she just yelled "ouch." She stuck herself on the stem of a mandarin orange. Upon closer examination, she is completely surprised to discover that the stems have thorns!]
Back in Oaxaca, my friend was wondering why they don’t sell real juice in the stores. All the boxed juice has sugar added, it doesn’t really taste like juice. It tastes like a juice drink. One couple’s solution is to buy boxed juice and mix in fresh juice. But there is so much fresh fruit available in Oaxaca that it is cheaper and fresher for folks to make their own juice at home. One of my favorite things to do is stop by the super busy juice stand at the market near my daughter’s school for a fresh juice. They have so many juice mixes. The Jerry, for example is, watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple and honey. The Anti-Flu is guava, pineapple, something else, and honey. They have pitchers of the most popular juices at the ready—orange, papaya, grapefruit, pineapple, beet, as well as a mix of celery, parsley and pineapple—because they have a steady stream of customers from early in the morning until 1 p.m. when they close.
Another favorite market activity is the weekly organic market that happens on Fridays and Saturdays at the Pochote space. We eat tacos with greens, mushrooms, and flor de calabaza (pumpkin/squash flowers). It’s a rare opportunity to eat vegetarian Mexican food. Though I also make sure to pick up a wonderfully seasoned emu sausage made by a German transplant who also makes other organic meats and sauerkraut.
Oaxaca is a restaurant town, so there are lots of places to go out and experience Oaxacan cuisine. Also, there is the fabulous invention of comida corrida. Restaurants create a fixed menu including soup, salad, main course, and dessert for anywhere from $3-$5. That makes eating out quite cheap. Up until recently, one of my favorite restaurants in Oaxaca didn’t have a comida corrida. I still managed to eat my way through most of the menu. Some of the tasty things on the menu are the sopes: a thick small tortilla with a black bean spread stacked high with chicken or manta ray, tomato, avocado and sprinkled with parmesan cheese. Lots of wonderful fresh salads. An amazingly tasty spicy mushroom soup (which I only ate a few times because I realized they cook it with bacon). Pastry cones filled with sautéed hibiscus flowers that actually end up having a meaty consistency. A very rich experience. A nice salmon bathed in a mouth-numbing dry chile sauce. And the sinful grilled chicken breast stuffed with cheese and served with green mole (pronounced mol-Ay).
Mole is big in Oaxaca. There are red moles, green moles, black moles and brown moles. A mole is a thick, complicated sauce that contains many many many ingredients painstakingly prepared and combined. One mole might have tomatoes, onion, oregano, garlic, chile, almonds, cloves, peanuts, raisins, and chocolate. I had my first experience of mole with a chicken and mole dish. When it came out, I was shocked. My chicken was covered in and sitting in a puddle of a thick black sauce. BLACK. I don’t eat a lot of black food. The sauce has a really thick, earthy taste, almost like dirt. I know that I’ve been here a while because I’m starting to acquire a taste for it. My friend, who also doesn’t really like the flavor, told me mole is much better in the village.
In this case, the village is Teotitlan del Valle. Teotitlan is a weaving village—rugs, wall hangings, shawls, bags. If you were born in Teotitlan, there is a huge chance that you and everyone you know will be somehow involved in the weaving trade. My friend goes out to weave on her friend&srquo;s loom. For a week she lives in a huge house with chayote and pumpkin vines, lemon trees, chickens, pigs, and a slop bucket. There, the people are probably making mole for their own personal purposes and not to titillate the tourist tongue, so perhaps they can take extra time mixing it up just right. Or maybe the recipe in the village is just better than the recipe in the city.
Anyway, when I started my journey in Vera Cruz, I had no idea what type of culinary ride was in store for me. I knew that I had stepped into a brand new culinary world when the coconut vendor on the beach asked me if I wanted lemon and chile on my coconut. I had never heard of such a thing. I had eaten coconuts on the beaches in Brazil, Trinidad, and Jamaica and no one was squeezing lemons for that experience. I have since learned that Mexicans eat lemon and chile on everything. I can’t find Cheetos without chile on them. All the chips come with some kind of chile or chile-lemon flavor. On the street, there are lots of fruit stands/carts that have: jicama, watermelon, mango, cucumber, and other fruits for sale. The fruits are cut into chucks and put into cups. When someone buys the fruit, the vendor squeezes lemon on it and sprinkles it with chile. I loved the lemon chile cucumbers, but I wasn’t crazy about jicama. Another time when I went to the beach, my friend pulled her food out the bag. Last thing she pulled out was some apples and a bag of chile. "What’s the chile for?" I asked her. "The apple," she told me as if I should have known better.
In Vera Cruz, I was learning about Mexican food in a friend’s kitchen. She made some tasty memelas—simple small tortillas with lard (I though it was butter!), red sauce and queso fresco. Another day she fried up some banging fish. Yet another day I showed up just as they were digging in to some take-out. Chiles rellenos and chicken barbacoa. The barbacoa was chicken coated in red seasoning, wrapped in a banana leaf, then, I assume grilled on the grill. I wasn’t all that impressed, the seasoning didn’t seem to sink down into the meat, but the chile rellenos were calling my name! The chiles were just hot enough and filled with cheese. Eating them was like receiving a sure sign from the universe that me and Mexico were going to get along fine.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam
FOR THE RECORD
I did a brief little interview with Farai Chideya on Ed Gordon’s News and Notes program, which is broadcast on NPR. Take a listen here: