A few weeks ago, Mexico Cooks! featured a retrospective about the First Annual Encuentro de Cocineras Tradicionales de Oaxaca, encouraging readers to hotfoot it south to the city of Oaxaca for the Second Annual Encuentro. Above is the 2018 poster for the event, which was held from April 25 through 28. The first of these festivals, held in 2017, was marvelous. The 2018 festival was--was--how many superlatives do I get to write? At three weeks post-Encuentro, my eyes still well up with tears just thinking about the impact the organization and organizers of the event, the traditional cooks themselves and their life stories, the huge number of attendees, and the food--the food!--had on me and on everyone I talked to at the event. Memorable is hardly a big enough word for this really fantastic festival, but I can't think of a better one.
My wonderful friend Silvana Salcido Esparza, chef extraordinaire and owner at Barrio Café and Barrio Café Gran Reserva in Phoenix, Arizona, traveled with me to Oaxaca to experience the Encuentro. We got off the plane from Mexico City at midday on April 25, just in time to run to Oaxaca's Plaza de la Danza for the official opening of the event. Were we excited to be on the ground in Oaxaca? Just look at those faces!
We peeked over the wall of the Plaza de la Danza in Oaxaca's Centro Histórico and were astounded by a sea of attendees, everyone packed into the space and already enjoying the 85 traditional cooks' food. We snaked through the crowd, found a couple of seats at one of the packed tables, and cheered the dancing, speeches, and music, greeting friends and making introductions and generally whooping it up.
The food stand closest to the Encuentro entrance belonged to Rosario Cruz Cobos and her hard-working crew. For the entire four days of the festival, her crew of guys built the wood fires that roasted these cochinos a la cubana (literally, pigs Cuban style) but also hugely popular fiesta food from San José Chiltepec in the Papaloapan region of the state of Oaxaca, north and east of the city of Oaxaca.
Silvana waited in line for nearly an entire hour for an enormous serving of the delicious, juicy roast pork with a generous portion of crisp skin. Of course we shared it, as I'm sure many of Sra. Cruz's patrons also did. Half of the order is hidden by large folded tortillas, as is the huge serving of refried black beans. Silvana said, "The wait time in all that smoke was long but the pig was worth it!"
The next dish we tried was chileajo amarillo, prepared by traditional cook Sra. Yolanda Garzón Acevedo, from Huajuapan, Oaxaca, located in the Mixtec zone, north and a bit west of the city of Oaxaca. The fork-tender meat in the chileajo is fried carne de cerdo (pork). The sauce is made with chile guajillo, chile costeño amarillo, oregano, cumin, and garlic, among other ingredients. This dish was so extremely good that I actually ate it twice.
Here's a huge cazuela (deep clay cooking dish with handles) of mole de fiesta (mole for a party!), another dish from the same region. The mole de fiesta was also prepared by Sra. Yolanda Garzón Acevedo of Huajuapan and is one of her specialties. It's sweeter than the chileajo amarillo. Silvana and I couldn't resist sampling both of the dishes--we polished off our shares.
Sra. Ivette Morán, the wife of Oaxaca's governor, tastes the mole de fiesta as cocinera tradicional Yolanda Garzón Acevedo watches to see how she likes it. Was there any doubt? Sra. Morán's eyes all but rolled back in her head from pleasure.
In the market section of the Encuentro, inside the Instituto de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts School) at the side of the Plaza de la Danza, the organizers had mounted a large selection of seasonal products--everything from amaranth products to this beautiful pitaya (cactus fruit). These fruits, about the size of a tennis ball, can be wine red, green, or purple inside. Their consistency is similar to watermelon, they are just that juicy, and are marvelously sweet.
You can't guess, not in a million years, what this is: a tamal oaxaqueño de tichinda. It's a tamal (the singular form of the word tamales--one tamal, two tamales) made with tichinda (sweet-water mussels--shell and all--mixed into the masa (corn dough) for the tamales. The women who make these tamales go out into the water to gather the mussels, then clean them, make the masa, and wrap this tamal Oaxaqueño in banana leaves; these were prepared by cocinera tradicional Sra. Elena Tapia Flores, from coastal San Juan Jimaltepec. Another style is wrapped in dried and rehydrated totomoxtle (corn husks). Both are wonderful. At the Encuentro last year, I ate tichindas en caldo de frijol (sweet water mussels in bean broth), because by the time I got around to that, the tamales were sold out. This year, I was determined to try the tamales.
At the end of the Encuentro's opening day, a sated and sleepy-eyed group of friends gathered on the rooftop patio of another friend's home in Oaxaca's Centro Histórico. Her plumeria (also known in Oaxaca as guechachi, also known as May flower), was in full, fragrant bloom. We breathed in the perfume, drank some mezcal, nibbled a peanut or two, and talked well into the evening.
Next week: Day Two of the Encuentro de Cocineras Tradicionales de Oaxaca. Don't miss it!
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