Before we left for Mexico one of the things I wanted to do more than anything else was to take a cooking class with a local chef. Once we decided that we would visit Oaxaca on our trip, I knew that it was there that I wanted to do it. Oaxaca is perhaps best to know for its production of mezcal, a drink similar to, but in our opinion, far superior than tequila, but Oaxaca is also known for its amazing local cuisine. Beyond that, Oaxaca is a beautiful state steeped in the history of its Zapotec, Mixtec, and pre-colonial roots. It’s a city of culture on every level, celebrated for all its crafts. We found Mike’s class through Airbnb experiences, a tool that we’ve used frequently whilst in Mexico. We messaged Mike to confirm that he could cater the class for vegans, to which we got a very welcoming reply, and so we booked. Excited for what the day had to hold, billed as a market tour and traditional cooking experience, we hailed an early taxi from our place in Oaxaca’s downtown over to Mike’s beautiful garden space in the suburbs. He has a large plot of land with an attached kitchen, and just next door he has a space where he’s growing a farm to table allotment. Mike welcomed us in and offered us coffees, we gladly obliged.
We started the day choosing from a series of options to build our menu. Along with the other couple that was taking the class, we decided on a menu that consisted of a traditional corn and vegetable soup for our starter, a green mole with mushrooms and some fragrant rice for our main course and for dessert a traditional cinnamon custard in a hollowed guava fruit. We finished up our coffees and headed out to get the ingredients from the local market. It was fascinating to see that a real locals market looks much the same as the “tourist” ones downtown, only with fewer mezcal stores! Mike gave us a shopping list and left us to pick and choose the freshest produce we could find. He mostly let us pick and choose for ourselves, but came over to give us handy translations and explained what a lot of the veg we didn’t recognise was. One of my favourite new ingredients here in Mexico has to be huitlacoche, a fungus (basically a mushroom) that grows on corn. It has a really distinct flavour that tastes like nothing we’ve tried before! Once we had everything together we headed back to the kitchen.
The cooking started with learning to make tortillas, which we would enjoy later as a mid-morning snack. He put a pile of Maseca (corn flour, but not the type we know in the UK) and made a little well in it. We added a little salt and then some water to the well and started mixing, sort of like when you make a traditional pizza dough trying not to let the water spill all over the table. Mike kept adding water to our dough until he felt the right consistency, it was moist but not sticky. He then showed us how to evenly press them in the tortilla press and cook them. Once they were able to move freely they were flipped and left for a little longer on the heat. We made 10 or 12 between us and we were surprised how easy the whole process was! We’re definitely going to be investing in our own tortilla press! We turned our tortillas into tacos by filling them with squash blossom, huitlacoche, and nopal (a type of cactus) and some homemade hot salsa. There is an amazing taste to the corn tortillas here that isn’t reflected back home in England. You can still taste the corn in them and it really adds another dimension to the flavour. We sat in the garden and enjoyed our delicious mid-morning snack with a glass of freshly squeezed clementine juice. Perfection!
After the tacos had disappeared we started on the main lunch. We cut up a bunch of green tomatoes, garlic, onion and other veggies to take down to the local municipal grinders. We walked down a couple of blocks and when we arrived people were making up some tortilla dough from fresh corn. Our mole was blended and grounded down into a smooth aromatic juice. This was the base that we added some veg stock to and some maseca, and then salt and pepper to taste. To this, we added some oyster mushrooms and some fragrant rice cooked in veg stock blended with garlic.
We also made up a corn soup from fresh corn growing on his allotment, and he showed us some huitlacoche growing on the corn. It was such a lovely experience to be able to walk into the garden and pick the corn husk right off the plant and then turn that into a meal. Something that we never get to do in our little flat in London!
Whilst this was cooking we also made the desert by hollowing out some guava fruits and adding the custard made from coconut milk, corn starch, cinnamon and cranberries along with other spices. This went into the fridge to set until the main was ready.
We sat back in the garden along with Mike to enjoy the food and conversation. Mike told us about his work as a professional chef and his concept with the cooking classes, to try and teach all about traditional food and cook as much from farm to table as possible. We started the meal with the super fresh corn soup. It was really nice to have a change from all the heavy food we had been previously eating. In fact, the whole meal felt this way, it was much lighter than what is served in the restaurants which allowed each ingredient to really shine through. After the soup, we had the green mole with mushrooms and rice. The mushrooms made a perfect replacement for the traditional meat. They had a delicious flavour and a texture, unlike any other meat replacement. To finish off the meal we had the filled guavas. They were fresh, sweet and aromatic from the cinnamon.
The meal left me so satisfied, and I felt like I knew a little more about what a Oaxacan really eats. We sat and chatted for a while longer and the conversation turned to mezcal, as most conversations in Oaxaca tend to do. Mike went back inside and proudly produced a massive bottle of the stuff for us all to try! It was made by a friend of his and was a blend of a few different agaves. It had its signature smoky flavour and was completely delicious, it’s definitely my new favourite spirit. It was the perfect way to end the day. By this point, the clock had rolled on and it was around 5pm. We ended up sharing a taxi back downtown, feeling completely satisfied. We had the best day learning about real Oaxacan cuisine, and we can’t wait to recreate some of these dishes at home! Mike has even been so kind as to send us his recipes, so keep your eyes peeled as we will be sharing them with you very soon!
If you’ve found our tips helpful, or you’ve ever been to Mexico City, we’d love to know! Leave us a comment below, or find us on social media.