Sunday, 31 August 2014

Oaxaca - In Other Words

One of the books I read as background research for this blog was Sliced Iguana: Travels in Mexico (2001) by the English travel journalist, Isabella Tree.  Isabella travelled to Oaxaca, as well as Chiapas, Patzcuaro and the Sierra Madre, where she went beyond the usual tourist/traveller experiences, in an attempt to understand the complex and, apparently, contradictory nature of Mexican culture.  I found her book very informative and entertaining and I would definitely recommend it.

I've come across quite a few new words/phrases, both in Tree's book and elsewhere, as I've been researching about Oaxaca and Mexico.  I've chosen some of these, by coincidence all beginning with the letter 'M', which touch on important areas of Oaxacan and Mexican culture.

México profundo

Benito Juarez, 26th President of Mexico
In many ways, Oaxaca is the very definition of México profundo or 'Deep Mexico'. Something I've learned about Mexico is that, rather than thinking of it as a single, united country, it's more useful to think of Mexico as a patchwork of cultures and experiences, many of which wouldn't conform to outsiders' stereotypes of what Mexico is or should be.

Even the capital, Mexico City, isn't exactly typical of Mexico and, by all accounts, if you want to see the real Mexico, a country of charros (Mexican cowboys), tequila and mariachi music, it's better to go to Mexico's second-biggest city, Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco state.

Oaxaca is the other side of Mexico - a state where 58% of the population is indigenous and where some of the Zapotec, Mixtec, Mixe, Zoque, Mazateco, Chinanteco, Popaloco etc. people don't speak Spanish. An estimated 15% of Mexico's population is indigenous and almost half of Mexico's indigenous people live in Oaxaca.

It's hardly surprising then that Mexico's first indigenous President, Benito Juárez (President from 1858 to 1864) was from Oaxaca.  He famously proclaimed that:

No hay indios en México, somos todos Mexicanos
There are no Indians in Mexico, we are all Mexicans

Whilst it's noble political statement, I can't help thinking he was brushing indigenous culture under the carpet.


Mezcal bottles with worms
Oaxaca is the biggest producer of Mezcal, a distilled alcoholic drink made from Maguey, a kind of agave plant which is native to Mexico and the southern United States.  Mezcal was mostly used in religious ceremonies, before it became another commodity, for sale in duty-free shops all over the world.  The most famous form of Mezcal is tequila, which is made from the 'blue agave' and produced in Jalisco, as mentioned above.

During her travels to Mexico, Isabella Tree spent some time with the Huichol people of the Sierra Madre in Zacatecas state.  Another M word I can share is Mara'akame, a Huichol word meaning 'elder', often interpreted as 'shaman' and Huichol religious beliefs, more than those of any other indigenous group in Mexico, have attracted the attention of people outside Mexico, because of their use of peyote, a cactus that contains mescaline and induces hallucinations and psychedelic 'trips'.

Tree herself consumed peyote as part of a religious ceremony overseen by a Mara'akame and many other Westerners, writers and poets like Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg and Carlos Castaneda, have travelled to Mexico seeking enlightenment and inspiration from this magical plant.

Despite the name, Mezcal doesn't contain mescaline, as peyote does, although people believe that eating the worm at the bottom of the Mezcal bottle will induce an hallucinogenic trip!

For many years, after the 1910 revolution and the introduction of a new constitution in 1917, religion was officially off the agenda for the newly-secular Mexico.  Shortly after his trip to Liberia in the 1930's (see my blog post about this) Graham Greene was sponsored by the Catholic Church to visit Mexico and report back on the Mexican government's secularisation campaign and suspected rights abuses against practising Catholics.  His book, The Lawless Roads, records his experience in Mexico and he was also inspired to write a novel, The Power and the Glory which featured an alcoholic priest.  Not surprisingly, this didn't go down so well with his sponsors in the Vatican!
Interior of church in Oaxaca, by einalem

Despite the lack of official support, religious practice seems to have survived in Mexico and Catholicism has remained in a strong position, where Protestantism has made more inroads in other, traditionally-Catholic countries, like Brazil.  Nevertheless, Mexico's Protestant population has also increased in recent years, especially in far-flung corners of the country, like Quintana Roo and Chiapas.  Mexico's 'other Christian' population currently stands at about 10% (compared to around 40% in Brazil).

It took a while for Christianity to catch on in Oaxaca and these days there are slightly fewer Catholics and slightly more Protestants in Oaxaca than the national averages.  I didn't come across a lot of information about indigenous religious practises in Oaxaca, although I'm sure indigenous religious beliefs still permeate Oaxacan life - my impression was more of a general ambivalence to religion in the state, which perhaps reflects a wider national trend where church attendance is pretty low, even if people are nominally Christian.


LGBT pride in Mexico City by Carlos Mejía Greene
I came across this Zapotec word when I was reading about Isabella Tree's experiences partying with the transsexual community in Oaxaca.  The word muxe (pronounced moo-shey) is believed to have derived from the Spanish word mujer meaning 'woman' and is the word used to describe Oaxaca's 'third sex', i.e. women who were born male.

Another important M word that's relevant is machismo and Mexican men are famous for their macho image, just as Mexican women are supposed to be beautiful, passive and all-suffering.  Oaxaca seems to buck the trend and, in an interesting narrative about her time there, Tree explains how it's the women who are in the driving seat in Oaxaca, not the men.

As well as having a refreshingly open attitude towards gender roles, indigenous cultures in Mexico also seem to take a much more relaxed view of sexuality and are, generally speaking, more tolerant of same-sex couples.  The situation for LGBT people in Mexico is improving all the time, but there is still a long way to go for same-sex couples to be given the same rights as male-female partners and incidents of violence against LGBT people remains pretty high.

Coahuila on the border with the USA was the first Mexican state to legalise same-sex partnerships and Oaxaca saw its first same-sex marriage in 2013. To date, only the government of Mexico City provides any legal framework for a change of gender identity, although states like Oaxaca, with large indigenous populations have tolerated the existence of muxe for many years.

Image credits:

The image of Benito Juarez is from Wikipedia and is in the public domain.

The image of the Mezcal bottles is from the Finnish version of Wikipedia and was shared using the Creative Commons license by Suvi Korhonen (user: Suviko) - you can see more information about the image on its Wikicommons page.  

The interior of the church in Oaxaca was taken by my fellow countrywoman and Flickr member, einalem - you can see more of her Oaxaca photos on her photo stream.

The photo from LGBT pride in Mexico City was taken by Carlos Mejía Greene, a native of the city who now lives in Canada.  You can see more of Carlos' photos on his Flickr account.

Thanks to Suvi, Einalem and Carlos for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons license.  

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Oaxaca - Mexican Playlist

Something I always love about researching for this blog is discovering new music from the places I'm blogging about.  As Oaxaca is the first Mexican state that I've blogged about, I decided to cast my net wide and get a sense of the kind of music that's popular in Mexico as a whole - a bit like I did with Brazilian music when I was blogging about Amazonas.

It's a rather random selection of music I've come across on YouTube or Spotify, I hope you enjoy listening to this playlist as much as I have!

1. Nuestra Cobardia (Our cowardice) by Los 3 Ases (The Three Aces)

From the moment I heard it, this old-fashioned bolero really appealed to me.  You don't see a lot of trios around these days and there's something very quaint about Los 3 Ases.  They formed as a trio in Mexico City's cabaret scene and found a lot of success, touring Latin America during the 1950's.  I guess, as a gay man, I'm always very aware of the hidden LGBT narrative - how LGBT love is so often erased from romantic life and finds itself encoded between the lines of a song.

I don't know if anyone's noticed before, but the lyrics of Nuestra Cobardia are quite suggestive of a forbidden (gay?) love - see my evidence below:

Nos hemos separado, por la falsa razón
(We have seperated, for a false reason)

Yo te quise estrechar, con ilusión besar, mas no podía 
(I wanted to grasp you, with the illusion of kissing, but couldn't)
Te fue imposible hablar, y todo quedo igual, por nuestra cobardía
(It was impossible to speak, so everything stayed the same, because of our cowardice)

I rest my case!  And here's the video from YouTube, so you can enjoy it for yourself:

2. Cielito Lindo (Little Sweetie) by Mariachi Mexico

I'm not sure any song evokes Mexico more than Cielito Lindo, at least for a non-Mexican like me.  I quite like the warm, brassy sound of mariachi music, although it is a bit of a Mexican cliche and I'm sure that listening to too much mariachi music could do some permanent damage!  Originally from Jalisco, the word mariachi is believed to have derived from the French word for marriage,  mariage.

Cliched as it might be, I can't help myself singing along to this, especially the chorus:

Ay, yai, yai, yai, / Aye, ya, ya, yai
Canta y no llores, / Sing, don't cry
Porque cantando se alegran, / Because singing cheers them up
cielito lindo, los corazones / Little Sweetie, the hearts

I'm pasting in the YouTube video so you can also sing along!

3. Entrega Total (Total Surrender) by Luis Miguel

Okay, okay, I'll admit it - I'm a hopeless romantic!  But what would a Mexican playlist be without a bit of Luis Miguel?  Although he was born in Puerto Rico, Luis Miguel has become one of Mexico's biggest ever stars, so much so, that he's often called El Sol de Mexico, the Sun of Mexico.

I particularly liked this track, from his 2004 album Mèxico en la piel (Mexico under your skin), especially the lyrics:

Llévame / Take me
De ser posible hasta la misma eternidad / if possible to the same eternity
Donde perdure nuestro amor / where our love will last forever
Porque tú / Because you
Eres toda mi felicidad / You are all of my happiness

4. Te Perdiste Mi Amor (I lost my love) by Thalia feat. Prince Royce

I've also really enjoyed listening to Thalia, one of Mexico's new superstars and very much a product of the middle-class Mexico that exists in telenovelas - the Mexican dream, if you like.  Thalia was born in Mexico City and has become Mexico's most successful female artists.

I chose this song because I like it, but also because it demonstrates the duality of US-Mexican culture.  A Mexican artist's fame and fortune these days depends just as much on the Hispanic audiences of the US, as their home-grown audience in Mexico.

Prince Royce is a Hispanic artist who was born in the Bronx and whose parents come from the Dominican Republic.  In fact this song is in the Bachata style that is typically Dominican.  I like the fact that Latin American music transcends all of these cultural boundaries and it's interesting that they also throw in a tagline in English, to appeal to an even wider audience.  It's a really nice collaboration!

5. La Zandunga, traditional, sung by Chavela Vargas

La Zandunga is Oaxaca's unofficial anthem.  Sandunga is an obscure Spanish word that means something along the lines of 'elegance'.  It's a traditional Spanish melody that has been given a Zapotec/Mexican theme - that of a young woman mourning the death of her mother.  There are many different versions of this song, but I loved this version by Chavela Vargas, the Costa Rican singer who had such an amazing voice!

6. El Abuelo (The Grandpa) by La Furia Oaxaqueña (Oaxacan Fury)

Finally, after all that heartbreak and pain, I thought I'd include something light-hearted and fun - a song called El Abuelo by the Oaxacan group La Furia Oaxaqueña.  I have a feeling that this is exactly the kind of music you might hear on the streets of Oaxaca city, when there's a fiesta on.  Enjoy!

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Oaxaca - How I made Mole Negro

You can learn a lot about another culture by preparing one of their traditional dishes.  Latin American food has more or less caught on in other parts of the world and most of us will have tried fajitas or burritos at some point.  In fact, I've even made enchiladas before, when I was blogging about Honduras, last year in March.

For Oaxaca, I wanted to try something more ambitious so, after some research, I settled on one of Mexico's most complicated dishes, Mole Negro.  I'd only ever heard of mole (pronounced mo-ley) in US movies and TV series, usually mentioned by a homesick Mexican character!  My main challenge was to conceptualise 'mole' - I had no idea (and I'm still not 100% sure) what a mole should look like, or taste like . . what's its texture should be.

I'll mention at this point that I don't think I was entirely successful at conceptualising/making a mole so, if you're looking for a perfect guide to mole-making, you should probably look away now!  The difference between what I'm doing in this blog and what others do in more 'foodie' blogs is that I'm learning about the culture of the place I'm blogging about, rather than expecting perfect results.  The learning experience is the result, if that makes sense?

Mexican ingredients

Dried Mexican chillies
Mole has a lot of ingredients, usually around 25 different things go into a mole sauce.  It was important for me to put the right kind of chillies in my mole, so I travelled around London trying to source as many authentic Mexican ingredients as I could find.  

My first stop was the Casa Mexico in Bethnal Green but, unfortunately, this shop was closed, even though it should have been open, according to information I found online.  I can't really recommend this shop because of this, although others have given it good reviews.  

Not to worry - wasted journey to Bethnal Green, but I was able to hop down to Borough Market at London Bridge, which is a great place to pick up all kinds of speciality foods.  For my Mexican ingredients I went to the Cool Chile Company and I'd highly recommend this for London readers who are searching for Mexican ingredients.  

Profiting from the Columbian Exchange

Four kinds of chilli
In an earlier blog post, I mentioned the Columbian Exchange which saw new foods from the Americas spreading to Europe and beyond.  My experience making mole involved three traditional Mexican ingredients; chilli, chocolate and tomatillos.  

The chillies were dried and I managed to get my hands on four different types: Guajillo, Mulato, Chipotle and Pasilla.  Most of my experience with chillies to date has involved fresh chillies and it was quite an interesting experience to cook with these dried Mexican chillies, as I got a new sense of the texture of chillies - the fact that they can have nutty, smoky or fruity tastes, rather than simply being hot and spicy.  The texture of the dried chillies was a little bit like worn leather, but they also reminded me, bizarrely, of my youth, when my grandfather would give me dulse, a kind of dried seaweed which is popular with older people in Ireland. 

It's hard to believe there was ever a time when we didn't consume chocolate (believed to come from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word xocolatl - xococ = bitter and atl = water).  I'm a big fan of chocolate, although it's only as an adult that I've tasted 'real' chocolate, the bitter Latin American kind that is best served as a drink or sauce.  I love cooking with chocolate and I was happy to find delicious Mexican chocolate at the Cool Chile Company. I think my mole tasted more of chocolate than anything else - perhaps I went a bit overboard!

Real Mexican chocolate

This was also my first time to prepare tomatillos and I'm still fascinated by this fruit which, although it looks a bit like a tomato, it has a different taste and is surrounded by paper-thin leaves, which you need to remove before cooking.  I like cooking new things, so I was excited about my first experience of tomatillos and I look forward to preparing them again some time in the future.


The recipe

I looked at a lot of mole recipes when I was researching this dish - each one seemed to be more complicated than the last and I was surprised to learn that it would take at least five hours to prepare this dish!  I eventually settled on a recipe from La Cocina de Nathan, which seemed marginally less complicated than the others and I enjoyed Nathan's amusing approach to cooking.  I didn't blacken the tortillas, as he suggested and I also adapted this recipe to suit my own needs.  

Here are the ingredients that I used (I've included the Zapotec words, where I could find them):

For the stock:

Ingredients for Mole Negro
2 chicken breasts - pechuga de pollo/buyu
2 chicken legs - pierna de pollo/buyu
1 bell pepper - pimiento morron
2 onions - cebollas
garlic - ajo
4 tomatoes - tomates/bichooxhe
cumin - comino
3 bay leaves - hojas de laurel
chicken stock - caldo de pollo

Chillies - Chiles/Guiiña

Mulatto chillies - chiles mulatos 
Pasilla chillies - chiles pasillas - pasilla means 'little raisin' and this chilli has a fruity flavour
Guajillo chillies - chiles guajillos
Chipotle chillies - chiles chipotles - chipotle means 'smoked chilli' in Nahuatl language

Other ingredients

Best to prepare the ingredients before cooking
5 tomatillos - tomatillos
1 plantain - plátano/biduaa
2 slices of bread - pan
sesame seeds - semillas de sésamo
handful of peanuts - cacahuetes
handful of raisins - pasas de uva
1 cinnamon stick - rama de canela
black peppercorns - granos de pimienta negra
3 cloves - clavos de olor
chocolate - chocolate/dxuladi (the Zapotec word was also borrowed from Nahuatl language)
corn tortillas - tortillas de maiz/gueta

Making the mole

It wasn't that difficult to actually make the mole - just complicated and time-consuming, there is a lot to remember.

Basically you start by boiling the chicken in water and adding all of the vegetables and other ingredients to make a chicken stock.  I boiled the chicken and vegetables for around 1.5 hours, after which I put the chicken aside and added some of the stock to my mole.  I think this is probably where I went a little bit wrong - as I was trying not to add too much stock, my mole ended up being more of a paste than a liquid.  If I was making this dish again, I would add all of the stock to the other mole ingredients.

Boil the chicken

And the vegetables

Put the cooked chicken to one side

For the other mole ingredients, it's just a matter of frying everything - plantain, tomatillos, half the tomatos, one of the onions, spices, nuts, seeds, raisins and chillies. Once all of the ingredients had been fried (and this took a bit of time), I put the fried chillies and raisins into a pot, covered them with stock and boiled them for about twenty minutes.


Peanuts, peppercorn and cinnamon

Fried chillies releasing their oils and flavours

Fried bread, of the French variety

Fried tomatillos, onion and tomatoes

Sesame seeds

Peanuts, raisins and cinnamon

After that, I blitzed all of the ingredients (except the chicken and chocolate) in my food processor, adding some stock (but not enough) to create a kind of mole paste.  I then put the paste in a saucepan and added the chocolate, bringing this to the boil before simmering for about half an hour.

Chillies and spices in chicken stock

Blitzing the ingredients in my food processor

Heat the mole paste in a frying pan
Add chocolate
Finally, I heated the corn tortillas, put the chicken on top and added my mole paste. This should really have been a proper sauce, but I didn't make it liquidy enough and should have put all of the stock and other ingredients into the food processor in batches.

Mole Negro with chicken and corn tortillas

Nevertheless, it was a fairly tasty meal and I ended up with lots of mole paste which I've been eating on toast ever since - yum yum!

Chicken with mole sauce
Image credits:

All images were taken by me on my trusty Canon EOS 1100D.  Feel free to re-use these images with the Creative commons license:

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