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Cooking with Abigail (Oaxaca, Mexico)

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Cooking with Abigail (Oaxaca, Mexico)

Gayla | Nov 14, 2004 10:17 PM

In the late 80s I was a enrolled in a Master's degree program in Latin American studies at UCLA. It was a multidisciplianry progrm with 33 majors, of which we had to choose 3 for our major. I chose History, Anthropology and Folklore. Somewhere, at some point, I clearly remember reading about the Mendoza sisters in Teotitlan de Valle, their cooking and their attempts to introduce people to Zapotec cuisine. Never, ever in a million years did I ever think I'd make it to Teotitilan de Valle, let alone learn how to make mole negro from Abigail Mendoza. But God and the Universe often work in strange ways, and so it was that last month (October 2004) I found myself in Teotitlan de Valle and the Mendoza family compound on a chef's tour/culinary intensive sponsored by Culinary Adventures, which has been owned and operated for the last 20 years by Marilyn Tausend.

There were 10 of us and we arrived more or less around 10 AM for our mole lesson. Like many hispanic households, the Mendoza home is built around a central courtyard with assort porticos for assorted activities. We were ushered into the outdoor kitchen for our lesson on black mole, although alcoves with the looms provided additional fascination, to be explored later.

The first thing you notice about Abigail Mendoza, aside for her short stature, is that she's got a megawatt smile capable of singlehandedly lighting up Las Vegas and a dynamic personality to match. She has owned and operated Tlamanalli restaurant in Teotitlan de Valle for many years - Mimi Sheraton named it her "Best" restaurant in the world last year in Sauver Magazine - a bastian of Zapotec cuisine. It's open for comida only and is an easy taxi ride from the city of Oaxaca.

After the intial welcome of hot choclate made from Abigail's chocolate de metate, she began with the best quality chiles, pliable and fat with seeds. Chile guajillo, chilhuacle negro and chileancho mulato were cleaned, seeded and cooked (moving constantly); toasted but not burned on the comal. Boiling water was poured over the toasted chiles to rehydrate them. (Chile chicostle can be subbed for the guajillo if you can find them).

The reserved seeds were toasted until inky black and then ignited to burn off the volatile oils, and reserved. Raisins, sesame, cloves, allspice, almonds, canela, nutmeg, bread, margerum, thyme, oregano and ginger were toasted on the comal and reserved. We were led out into the central courtyard where there was a communal oven. Criollo (native) garlic with impossibly small cloves and white onions with the green stems still attached were completely buried in the hot ashes of the oven to roast. Back in the outside kitchen, tomatoes and petite tomates de milpa (very, very tiny tomatillos) were roasted and added to all the reserved spices. Mole Negro is laborious, but luckily, alot of this roasting, toasting and reserving can be done days in advance.

With all the ingredients roasted, toasted or otherwise processed, the grinding on the metate began. First the soaked and drained chiles, followed by the toasted spices and finally by the tomatoes and roasted garlic, onion and onions. Chicken fat (yes, schmaltz) was rendered in a large earthenware cazuela to which the smooth paste produced on the metate was added and sauteed. Once the paste was cooked through and the chicken fat incorporated into it, broth was added, in our case, turkey broth. The mole was then left to simmer and reduce for about 2 hours or more.

While the mole simmered we were led up the stairs and across the roof to the area where tlayudas (also spelled clayudes) and tortillas were made for the family's consumption. Abigail demonstrated how the durable tlayudas are pressed and how tortillas are made by hand. Another time consuming process, but one that produces magical results.

Once back on ground level we were treated to a demonstration of how the family cards, spins, dyes and expertly weaves wool. Exquisite weavings ranging in size from small wall hangings to large area rugs were displayed (for purchase; which several of us did), proving that the Mendoza family has far more artistic talent than just cooking. (I did purchase a stunningly beautiful, finely woven, wall hanging from Abigail). They will take credit cards and even arrange shipping for you; there is often a discount for cash purchases.

With food professionals, anticipation is half the battle. After what seemed like an eternity we were assembled in the family chapel that was doing double duty as the dining room. Mezcal was on the table and the meal began with a soup loaded with a local herb called chepil. This was followed by the mole negro with turkey (NOT you standard Butterball) served with rice, beans and deliciously soft corn tortillas. The meal ended with a trio of sorbets in regional fruit flavors.

It's not that black mole is so terribly difficult so much as it is terribly time consuming with attention to detail required. But, oh my, the resulting sauce is a complex melange of hotness from the chiles, spiciness from the herbs and spices and earthy goodness that can satisfy down to the toes.

Who knew nearly 20 years ago when I was studying Mexican folklore that one day I would have the opportunity to learn from the acknowledged expert? Not I, but I would not trade this experience for the world. Do I have any fear about making mole negro (or any mole for that matter), not on your life.

It may not be possible for the person visiting Oaxaca to learn how to make Mole Negro from Abigail Mendoza, but the average tourist visiting Oaxaca can easily eat Abigail's cooking at her restaurant. The restaurant is called Tlamanalli and is located in Teotitlan de Valle and the cab drivers in Oaxaca can find it pretty easily. It is only open for comdia (the mid-day meal). The menu doesn't vary much, but the quality is excellent. A wide selection of the family's weavings are on display and available for purchase.

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