by Mary Luz Mejia
Atop the hidden, alfresco terraza on the roof of La Olla restaurant in downtown Oaxaca, a soft breeze caresses the senses, bringing with it the scent of hand-made botanas. The restaurant’s chef, Pilar Cabrera Arroyo, has gone all out for us tonight. There are mini pork and mole filled tamales, canapés of grilled nopales with lightly charred Oaxacan cheese on top, taquitos with shredded fish and roasted chiles stuffed with pickled onions and cheese. And that’s just for starters. The feast takes on a celebratory tone as we share our meal with some food-world luminaries, including former Canadian Living food editor Elizabeth Baird and twenty-five time cookbook author Rose Murray. They revel in the flavours, textures and complexity of dishes, some of which employ techniques or ingredients that pre-date Spanish colonization. That’s a recurring theme throughout our weeklong stay in this valley city and its surrounding towns. We grind toasted cacao beans the way native Zapotec women used to (and still do in some cases), prepare two multi-layered moles guided by the knowing hands of both Chef Pilar and Chef Susana Trilling at their respective cooking schools, and we lunch with native women in their impeccable, dirt-floor hacienda. It’s amazing to see our group, which also includes a professional chef, open their minds to food preparation styles and an entire culinary history that is centuries older than Mother Sauces and a fine brunoise. Oaxaca boasts some of the best food in all of Mexico, and while we’ve taken a bite out of some of the state’s edible treasures, it’s but a mere carnita compared to the entire cochinita that awaits.