Tour de Stage: Oaxaca – Day One
The drive from coastal Oaxaca to Oaxaca de Juarez is famous for its beauty as well as its difficulty. We drove east for six hours the cloud line, deciduous forests, rainforests, marshes, lakes echoing with the sound of waterfalls, birdcalls, wind, and the smell of woodstoves, moist soil and fertile decay. It felt as though the land was communicating to us just how good the food was going to be!
Lunch spot overlooking the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca
Oaxaca de Juarez
The valley that leads into the city of Oaxaca is one of the most important food regions in Mexico. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec is a region of trade; heterogenous cultural heritage from the Olmecs, Zapotecs and Aztecs; and tremendous agricultural productivity and diversity. Istmena cuisine is rich and unique. Oaxacan cuisine is the crown jewel of Cocina Istmena with its multitude of moles, cheeses, antojitos, and distilled and fermented drinks.
El Origen— Our first stage of the trip!
CIA grad Zack Wengeman ’12, originally from Oaxaca and currently a pastry cook at Per Se in New York City, gave us a long list of recommendations for his incredible hometown. We followed his advice and made a reservation at El Origen as soon as we arrived in Oaxaca.
Chef Rodolfo Castellanos of El Origen has a great pedigree that includes experiences in France and the U.S. He was recently chosen the first winner of Top Chef Mexico. But more importantly, everyone we spoke with in Oaxaca praised him as a humble and down-to-earth member of the community. We didn’t think we would do a stage in Oaxaca—it’s technically part of our honeymoon—and we didn’t bring our knives. But Chef Rodolfo’s food blew us away. Once our meal was over, we walked right into the kitchen to plead with them for a stage.
Mondays are a big receiving and production day at El Origen. When the produce arrives from the farm collaboration and markets in Abastos, a famous farming region, the kitchen team is ready to rock ’n roll. The purslane hit the receiving table and we looked at each other and smiled because its Sayat’s favorite braising green. It’s a green we celebrate in our home because it is not only a humble weed but also both a cherished Mediterranean and Mexican ingredient. Purslane is naturally citrusy, tender, and succulent. Depending on the soil, it can also have some salinity. Chef Rodolfo explained that in the region, braise purslane is served with tomatillos and herbs, and serve it with pork. At El Origen, they pick the most tender tendrils and use a generous amount of them for their grilled octopus salad. Sayat couldn’t hide his enthusiasm and explained to Chef, “When my mom returns from the market, purslane is the first thing she cooks. She makes a light stew with beef, tomatoes, and purslane.” What was incredibly humbling for us was that Pedro, one of the interns, spent hours selecting the tendrils and picking out the seeds from the tendrils—a detail that we previously never paid attention to.
Pork with seasonal vegetables, guaje mole, confit pork. Guaje is a pod that grows on a tree native to the Yucatan and the Isthmus.
Engaging the cooks to understand the produce and the dishes was the best way to embrace the concept of the restaurant. Each drew from their upbringing and everyday experiences to explain the techniques, the ingredients, and highly developed final dishes. They all come from the same country sharing culture and language, but their experiences with food was something that they wanted to be very specific about. Alejandro, the fish cook, explained to us that one of the most unique dishes was prepared with the Chilacayota squash, that was roasted, pulled, and dressed with a tomato sauce. Laura compared this local ingredient to spaghetti squash, but Alejandro was very clear that this ingredient was different from any other. The discussion about the nuances of the squash ended when all the Mexican cooks bonded over their disagreement with Sayat. While making a dozen of them, Sayat referred to a “gordita” that is stuffed with sweetbreads as an “arepa”—the Venezuelan equivalent—by mistake and the whole world turned upside down!
While in Oaxaca, never make the mistake of calling a gordita an arepa!
Our family meal with the cooks was simple, calm, and delicious. The interns, cooks, front of house and back of house gathered around a table in the restaurant and ate a meal of soup with chayote squash, a ceviche of tuna and robalo (sea bass) with salsa verde, a guacamole with chepiche (a local relative of papalo).
Thank you Chef Rodolfo Castellanos and the family at El Origen for opening your kitchen to us and showing us incredible ingredients, flavors and techniques. Thank you for an amazing day!
For more food photos, adventures and stories from the travels, visit Sayat and Laura’s instagram at @LauraAndSayat.