In Oaxaca, parades are an almost daily occurrence.
Author Bricia Lopez and her son, Eduardo.
When my father moved our family from Oaxaca to Los Angeles in 1994, he told us we would only be there for a year. I was 9 years old then, excited to learn a new language and enamored with the America I saw on TV shows like Saved by the Bell and Full House. I said goodbye to my school friends and the neighborhood kids, telling them I’d be back soon, not realizing that one year would become 25 in the blink of an eye.
Our life in Oaxaca had been simple. My dad traveled from town to town, selling his mezcal. My mom cooked, cleaned, sewed, and tended to me and my three siblings. We spent weekends and holidays at my maternal grandmother’s house in San Pablo Villa de Mitla, a small town an hour outside the city. The long braids my grandma wore every day, each interwoven with a brown ribbon, always smelled of smoked pasilla chiles; her hands were coarse from decades passed in front of the comal, making corn tortillas.
In the 1990s, the Mexican economy was in crisis. Oaxaca, already among the nation’s poorest states, was hit particularly hard, and my father, just one of many Oaxaqueños who sought work in the United States. “We all said we’d leave for a year or two at most,” he admits. “But we got caught up in the American way of life.”
Shortly after settling in Los Angeles, my parents opened Guelaguetza, a restaurant in the heart of Koreatown. Although things were slow at first, the restaurant began to flourish once local paisanos learned that there was finally real Oaxacan food in LA. The money my father intended to save for his mezcal business back home was instead invested in a second restaurant, and later a third, fourth, fifth, and sixth.
Then, in 2008, the Great Recession struck the United States, and our lives were again upended. Over the next few years, my parents shuttered one restaurant after another, until only the original Guelaguetza survived. My siblings and I had grown up there, bussing tables and doing schoolwork in the kitchen. None of us ever played sports or musical instruments, but we were skilled hostesses, servers, and cooks from a very young age. Which is probably why we dreamed of running away to cushy corporate jobs.
The long braids my grandma wore every day, each interwoven with a brown ribbon, always smelled of smoked pasilla chiles.
Yet the moment our mom and dad—battered by the process of closing five restaurants—told us they were ready to retire, my siblings and I realized we were ready to step up. In 2012, we bought Guelaguetza from our parents, and they went back to Oaxaca.
THAT’S THE THING ABOUT OAXACA: You can leave it, but it never leaves you. Known as the “land of the seven moles,” Oaxaca is also the land of the Zapotec, Mixtec, Mazatec, Mixe, and other proud indigenous peoples. Because the Spanish ruled some rugged pockets of the state in name only, its culture remains closely tied to ancient flavors, techniques, and ingredients. Native corn, chiles, agave, and cacao form the bedrock of Oaxaca’s cuisine, as well as its agricultural economy and strong sense of community.
The name my father chose for our restaurant speaks to the soul of Oaxaca. Zapotec in origin, guelaguetza means “to give or share.” It describes an ongoing ritual of kindness, of helping your neighbor no matter how little you may have. The Oaxaqueños who emigrated to America during the 1990s and 2000s brought this spirit of generosity with them, introducing the larger world to something even warmer, deeper, and more complex than mole or mezcal. And it may explain why these unwitting Oaxacan ambassadors are now returning to a state with a burgeoning tourism industry and increased economic opportunities.
Nineteen years ago, Eduardo Ángeles was cleaning carpets in Huntington Beach, California, when his landlord, also a Mexican immigrant, presented himself as a cautionary tale—urging Ángeles to prioritize passion over the next paycheck, or risk winding up alone in a foreign country with nothing to show for his work. Within a month, Ángeles was back in the Oaxacan town of Santa Catarina Minas, helping his father run the family’s mezcal brand. In 2014, the fourth-generation mezcalero debuted his own mezcal, Lalocura, to widespread critical acclaim. Ángeles shrugs off the glowing reviews, and his master distiller title. “At the end of the day, we are all farmers,” he insists.
José Melchor Pérez, who farms tomatoes in the Oaxacan town of San Pablo Güilá, credits a few less-than-happy years in America with his success. It was while picking produce near San Jose, California, that Melchor Pérez first encountered a greenhouse. Today, the agricultural partnership he founded, Daan Llia, claims more than 300 greenhouses that yield approximately 3,000 tons of produce a year. Together, he and the partnership’s other members employ at least 800 local people, 75 percent of them women. What Melchor Pérez really aims to cultivate, however, is hope for Oaxaca’s future. “Kids won’t have to leave anymore,” he explains, “because they can call this project their own.”
Ángeles shrugs off the glowing reviews, and his master distiller title. “At the end of the day, we are all farmers,” he insists.
I could go on and on, telling you about Omar Alonso, who returned from California and founded the tour-guide company Oaxacking, or about Miguel Martínez Cruz and Mario Cruz Santos, who used savings from their stint in the States to establish Ilegales, a pub that serves burgers, beer, and a wide variety of mezcal. But I’d rather you visit Oaxaca and see these things for yourself.
I STILL LIVE IN LOS ANGELES, SO THE time I spend in Oaxaca invariably ends at the airport, with a stop at nearby Alfonsina for my final meal. Jorge León and his mother, Elvia León Hernández, serve customers out of their home kitchen, offering her memelitas and various egg dishes for breakfast before he takes charge at night. A Oaxacan returnee of a different sort, León left for Mexico City, where he cooked at Pujol, one of the country’s most famous restaurants. His tasting menu at Alfonsina reinterprets Oaxacan traditions and ingredients in an incredibly sophisticated way.
It is a beautiful thing to witness, two generations sharing one Oaxacan kitchen.
It is a beautiful thing to witness, two generations sharing one Oaxacan kitchen, combining past and present. And it makes me think about my relationship with my parents and with my 4-year-old son. I almost always bring him along when I visit my mom and dad, which I do often. They live now on my late grandmother’s land in San Pablo Villa de Mitla, in a newly built house, dubbed Casa Elizabeth in her honor.
There, my mother makes enfrijoladas and squash-vine soup, accompanied by tortillas cooked on the wood-fired comal out back. When my father brings the food to the table, my boy digs in with both hands. Will he, too, I wonder, remember his grandma’s hair smelling of smoked chiles?
I want my son to know my Oaxaca—the Oaxaca that embraces the future while honoring tradition, especially the tradition of guelaguetza, of putting other people’s needs before your own. I want him to know that until you understand where you came from, you cannot figure out where to go next. I want his love for this sacred place to run as deep as mine.
Bricia Lopez co-owns the Los Angeles restaurant Guelaguetza with her siblings. Her cookbook, Oaxaca: Home Cooking from the Heart of Mexico, was published in October.
SERVES 4 • Total: 1 hr. 50 min.
This is an everyday dish for author Bricia Lopez’s family. The creamy sauce, similar to a tinga, is rarely found in restaurants in Oaxaca. Rather, it’s more of a dish to be cooked and eaten with loved ones at home.
One 2–2¼ lb. chicken, butchered into 8 pieces and skin removed
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
2 lb. Roma tomatoes, coarsely chopped (5¼ cups)
¼ cup finely chopped white onion
4 medium garlic cloves, peeled
3 whole canned chipotles in adobo, plus 2 Tbsp. adobo sauce
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
3 bay leaves
Mexican crema, for drizzling Warm corn tortillas, for serving
1 Season the chicken generously with salt and ground black pepper, then rub with the mustard. Set aside to marinate for 10–15 minutes.
2 To a medium pot, add the tomatoes and enough cold water to cover them. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have softened and the liquid has reduced slightly, 10–15 minutes. Remove from heat and drain the tomatoes, discarding any remaining cooking liquid. Transfer the tomatoes to a blender and set aside.
3 Preheat a broiler to its highest setting. Meanwhile, spread the onion out on a small baking sheet. Broil, stirring occasionally, until lightly charred all over, 6–10 minutes. Add the garlic and broil 3–7 minutes more, then transfer to the blender with the tomatoes. Add the chipotles and adobo, and blend until very smooth. Place a fine mesh strainer over a large bowl and use a small ladle or a silicone spatula to press the mixture through it.
4 In a large deep skillet or wide pot, heat the oil and butter over medium-high heat. When it just begins to smoke, add the marinated chicken pieces in a single layer and cook, turning occasionally, until deep golden brown all over, 8–10 minutes. Add the reserved sauce to the skillet along with the bay leaves and stir well to submerge the chicken. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to maintain a strong simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is tender and cooked through and the sauce has thickened, 15–20 minutes. Drizzle with Mexican crema and serve with warm tortillas on the side.
Ensalada de Nopalitos con Chile Guajillo
SERVES 4 • Total: 1 hr. 30 min.
Nopales are an essential part of the Oaxacan diet. With a meaty texture and tart flavor, raw, salted cactus paddles retain their natural vibrant color.
1¼ lb. nopales, dethorned and cut into ½-inch squares (4½ cups), divided
3 medium garlic cloves, peeled, plus 1 tsp. minced garlic
¼ cup finely chopped white onion
2 Tbsp. plus ½ tsp. kosher salt, divided, plus more as needed
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 guajillo chile, seeded, cut into thin strips
1 chile de arból, seeded
1½ tsp. Mexican oregano Pinch of freshly ground cumin
1 tsp. distilled white vinegar Freshly ground black pepper
1 To a medium pot, add 3¼ cups of the nopales, the garlic cloves, onion, and enough cold water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook until the nopales turn light green, about 10 minutes, then drain, discarding the cooking liquid. (This first round of cooking removes the goo from the nopales.) Return the nopales to the pot, and add 2 teaspoons salt and enough cold water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then lower the heat to medium-low to maintain a strong simmer, and cook until the nopales are tender when poked with the tip of a knife, 18–22 minutes. Drain, once again discarding the cooking liquid. Remove and discard the garlic, and set the nopales aside.
2 To a medium bowl, add the remaining ¾ cup raw nopales and 1 tablespoon plus 1½ teaspoons salt, and toss well to combine. Set aside at room temperature until the nopales have softened and released their slime, about 20 minutes. Rinse and drain well, then set aside.
3 To a large skillet over medium heat, add the olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the minced garlic, guajillo chile, chile de arból, reserved boiled nopales, oregano, and cumin, and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Stir in the vinegar, cook for 1 minute more, then remove the skillet from the heat. Add the reserved raw, salted nopales and toss well to combine; season to taste with black pepper and additional salt, then transfer to a large bowl and serve at room temperature.
MAKES ABOUT 14 CUPS
Total: 2 hr. 30 min.
The secret to this mole’s pitch-black hue and complex flavor: the deeply toasted and fried ingredients. You don’t want to burn them completely, but you should come close. The process is time-consuming, so think twice before scaling down; extra mole keeps well in the freezer.
1 cup vegetable oil
4 ancho chiles (3. oz.), seeded
6 chilhuacle negro chiles (3. oz.) (or substitute cascabel), seeded
3 pasilla chiles (1¾ oz.), seeded
⅔ cup white sesame seeds
1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. kosher salt, divided, plus more as needed
¼ cup dried Mexican oregano
1 tsp. dried thyme
¼ tsp. whole allspice berries
6 whole black peppercorns
3 whole cloves
One 3-in. cinnamon stick
1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped (1. cups)
6 medium garlic cloves, peeled
¾ cup whole almonds
¼ cup Maria Mexican cookies, or substitute animal crackers
6 oz. ripe plantains, peeled and coarsely chopped (1 cup)
1 medium apple, cored and cut in 1-in. cubes (1 cup)
2¾ oz. fresh pineapple, peeled, cored, and cut in 1-in. cubes (⅓ cup)
¾ cup raisins
2⅓ cups coarsely chopped Roma tomatoes
2 dried avocado leaves
½ cup sugar, plus more as needed
7 oz. Oaxacan chocolate, finely chopped (1 cup)
4½ cups chicken stock
1 To a large skillet over medium heat, add the oil. When the oil is hot, add the ancho, chilhuacle negro, and pasilla chiles and fry, turning frequently, until they are toasted and crispy, 5–7 minutes. Turn off the heat and transfer the chiles to a wire rack to cool completely. Transfer the oil to a heatproof measuring cup and set aside.
2 In a medium pot, bring 8 cups water to a boil. Add the chiles, turn off the heat, cover, and set aside until the chiles are hydrated and soft, about 30 minutes.
3 To a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat, add the sesame seeds and 1 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring frequently, until toasted, about 2 minutes. Transfer the seeds to a medium bowl and set aside. To the skillet, add the oregano, thyme, allspice, peppercorns, cloves, and cinnamon stick, and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 5 minutes.
Transfer the mixture to a mortar and pestle, pulverize until finely ground, and set aside. To the skillet, add the onion and garlic. Cook, stirring frequently, until lightly charred all over, about 10 minutes. Transfer to the bowl with the sesame seeds and set aside.
4 To the skillet, over medium heat, add ½ cup of the reserved oil. When hot, fry the following ingredients individually, until each is deeply toasted and aromatic: almonds (about 5 minutes), cookies (2–3 minutes), plantains (4–6 minutes), apple (3–5 minutes), pineapple (5–7 minutes), and raisins (2–3 minutes). Use a slotted spoon to transfer them all to a large, heatproof bowl as they are finished. Set aside.
5 To a saucepan over medium heat, add the tomatoes and ½ cup water. Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook until the tomatoes have softened, 10–12 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
6 Use a slotted spoon to transfer the chiles to a blender, then add 1½ cups of their soaking liquid. Blend until very smooth. Place a fine mesh strainer over a large bowl and pass the chile mixture through it, pressing on the mixture with the back of a small ladle or a silicone spatula to achieve a fine purée. Discard any solids that remain.
7 Transfer the strainer to a second medium bowl. To the same blender, add the sesame seeds, onion, garlic, ground spice mixture, almonds, cookies, plantains, apples, pineapple, and raisins. Add 1 cup cold water, then blend until very smooth. Pass this mixture through the strainer as well, discarding any solids that remain.
8 Transfer the strainer to a third medium bowl. To the same blender, add the tomatoes with their juices and blend until very smooth. Pass the tomato purée through the strainer as well, discarding any solids.
9 To a large pot over medium heat, add the remaining ½ cup oil. When the oil is hot, add the chile paste and cook without disturbing until bubbly, about 5 minutes. Stir in the seed and spice mixture, then continue cooking 5 minutes more. Stir in the tomato purée, bring to a simmer, then add the avocado leaves, sugar, chocolate, and remaining 1 tablespoon salt. Continue cooking at a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate has completely melted, 8–10 minutes. Stir in the chicken stock, bring the mole back up to a boil, then season with additional salt or sugar as needed. Use immediately, or transfer the pot to an ice bath to cool quickly, transfer to airtight containers, and refrigerate for up to 1 week or freeze for up to 3 months.
Total: 15 min.
Oaxaca’s version of enchiladas, enmoladas are exactly as the name suggests: enchiladas made with mole. And they’re perhaps the best way to use up leftover mole and tortillas.
Set a heatproof platter by the stove. In a large comal or skillet over medium heat, toast twelve 6-inch tortillas until pliable, about a minute on each side. In a medium skillet over low heat, bring 5 cups mole negro to a simmer. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat ½ cup vegetable oil. When the oil is hot, use tongs to dip each tortilla in the oil until it begins to crisp along the edges, then immediately and briefly dip the tortilla in the mole to coat. Fold the tortilla in half twice to form a triangle, then transfer to the platter. Continue with the remaining tortillas, drizzle the enmoladas with some of the remaining mole, then top with crumbled queso fresco, thinly sliced white onion, and cilantro. Serve hot.
Sherry–Tres Leches Gelatina
SERVES 20 • Total: 4 hr. 30 min.
Gelatina is a lifestyle in Oaxaca, where it can be found in all shapes, colors, and flavors. Combined with the creamy tres leches layer, sherry creates a boozy and refreshing Creamsicle-like effect.
¼ cup plus 1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. (2 oz.) powdered gelatin, divided
¾ cup sugar
1½ cups Mexican sherry, or substitute another sweet sherry
2 cups sweetened condensed milk
1½ cups evaporated milk
1 cinnamon stick
¼ tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup half-and-half
1 First, prepare the sherry gelatin: To a medium, heatproof bowl, add ½ cup cold water and 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons gelatin. Stir to hydrate and set aside until it has completely absorbed the liquid, about 5 minutes.
2 In a small pot over high heat, bring 3 cups water and the sugar to a boil, stirring occasionally until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and add the sherry and the gelatin mixture, stirring to completely dissolve. Divide evenly among twenty 5-ounce ramekins. Transfer to the fridge and chill until the liquid has gelled, at least 2 hours.
3 Meanwhile, prepare the tres leches gelatin: To a medium, heatproof bowl, add ½ cup cold water and the remaining 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons gelatin. Stir to hydrate and set aside until it has completely absorbed the liquid, about 5 minutes.
4 To a small pot over medium-high heat, add 2 cups water, the sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and cinnamon stick, and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla and the gelatin mixture. Cool to room temperature, then remove and discard the cinnamon stick and stir in the half-and-half. Retrieve the ramekins from the fridge and carefully divide the milk mixture over the sherry layer. Refrigerate until the second layer is set, at least 2 hours or up to overnight. (If refrigerating longer than 2 hours, cover with plastic wrap.)
5 To serve, dip the bottom of each ramekin in a bowl of hot water to loosen, then invert onto dessert plates and serve cold.