The Food of Oaxaca: Recipes and Stories from Mexico's Culinary Capital

Image of The Food of Oaxaca: Recipes and Stories from Mexico's Culinary Capital
Release Date: 
March 16, 2021
Publisher/Imprint: 
Knopf
Pages: 
256
Reviewed by: 

The Food of Oaxaca: Recipes and Stories from Mexico’s Culinary Capital is right about Oaxaca, if arguably so. Oaxaca really is the cultural capital, the lightning rod, of the central American country. But what makes it so has less to do with any kind of an official, traditional, or even a so-called designation. What makes it so is an attitude.

Chef Alejandro Ruiz, a native son, calls it daring, and that is exactly what it is. Oaxaca is unarguably always at the forefront, pushing the envelope. It is the place where you will find the most refined crafts rightly viewed, exhibited, and priced as delicate art. It is where textiles, pottery, and photography are more individualized, more modern in an organic way that pays homage to the past but creates a future outline of artistic activity.

Of course, food could not be the exception. In The Food of Oaxaca, we are able to follow Chef Ruiz through the kitchens and outside burning pots of his youth, and to experience a much more delicate, sophisticated view of this much celebrated culinary culture expressed as something vital, perhaps, a new food language.

And yet, for all the history and cultural subtext, this is a simple book. The recipes are simple, laid out with little fuss: a tantalizing full color, full page photo, a simple list of ingredients and a description of process simplified to demystify it, as in the recipe for Chile Guajillo Salsa:

3 chiles guajillos

½ cup water

1 clove garlic

1 teaspoon salt

“Stem the chilies and roast them in a pan until the color changes and their smell intensifies, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and pour ½ cup water into the pan to rehydrate the chiles. Soak for a couple of minutes or until skin has softened. in a blender, process the chiles along with the water, the garlic, and a teaspoon salt. When blending, add water by the tablespoon as needed to achieve a thick, smooth consistency. Strain before serving.”

Simple. If you are a control freak in the kitchen and need to know exactly when, at what temperature, and after how long will skin be soft. Or feel that the extra water in the end should have to be in the ingredients list, this is not the book for you. It puts a premium on feeling and tasting and attempting. Not much is exact here. It is not meant to be. There is room for experimentation.

Some recipes do have personal notes about the ingredients, where they may be found, precautions to take when needed. But it is very much only when absolutely needed because common sense and intuition alone will not be enough. In addition, there is a list of the author’s favorite Oaxacan restaurants, complete with photos and personal reviews of each. There is also a comprehensive glossary and index to complement the beautiful full color photography for each of the 75 plus recipes, as well as advice on how to get the most out of the book. 

Those recipes include favorites like Mole Coloradito, Mole Negro, Agua de Lemongrass, Deep Fried Whole Fish, and Bean Tamales, as well as fresh versions and interpretations such as Looms of Cacao, Mangos Sweetened in Chile de Árbol, Rabbit in Oregano, Ceviche-Stuffed Chile de Agua in Passion Fruit Salsa, and Tacos del Carmen Alto.

Where the book might fall short for some is in the stories it promises in the subtitle. The stories here are not so much stories as they are a sort of running commentary, snapshots of memories, a sharing of the culture that author/Chef Ruiz grew up with, much like in the following passage:

“Mixe grandmothers say that when the end of the world comes, our pots and comales will attack us in revenge for having burned them while we lived. The only implement that will week for us is the metate, the stone on which corn and other ingredients are traditionally ground, since we feed that one all our lives.”

So MFK Fisher it is not, nor is that the book’s true intention or expertise. It is, instead, a cookbook, and quite good at it. A beautiful one that takes the cooking and the culture that informs it seriously, and that aims its best efforts at helping you create delicious food you will actually be able to eat, and enjoy, in the end.