Handmade in Oaxaca — Page 2
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

Oaxacan mole

It's hard to walk anywhere in the center of Oaxaca in late July and not find artisan stands manned by villagers who have come to sell their creations direct. While half the park is devoted to the mezcal fair, the other half is a temporary artisan fair, each booth marked with the village of origin. After seeing 30 or 40 different ones, all with something different to sell, it's obvious that working with your hands to create something special is more than an occasional hobby in this part of Mexico.

Food Handmade With Care

After spending a week trying our best to sample a fraction of Oaxaca's culinary variety, we stepped into the kitchen at Maria Bonita Restaurant in the historic center of the capital to see how the magic is made. Owner Fernando Martin Sedano is the kind of Renaissance man that makes me feel justified in constantly juggling five or six projects at once. He's the kind of guy who owns a restaurant and can prepare a mean batch of mole, but he also owns a bar, a Tutti Frutti frozen yogurt franchise, and a company that distributes high-end teas and cooking equipment. His former business was a clothing embroidery company. He takes us through the market explaining all the ingredients we'll cook with, but is equally at ease discussing international travel, parenting, and finance—in two languages. He's a consummate host and teddy bear boss, heaping hospitality on his restaurant guests but staying equally loquacious in the hot kitchen.

Oaxaca cooking class

We're hanging out in his kitchen for two days, chopping vegetables and seeing what makes Oaxacan food so special. As in most of Mexico, it starts with good fresh ingredients and then adds layers of complexity from spices and dried chilies. In Oaxaca those layers go deeper than anywhere else, most clearly in the varieties of mole we tried at different places all week, from low-brow market stalls to fancy restaurants with cloth napkins and waiters with bowties. In every case these intricate sauces were a delight.

There are seven major varieties of mole in Oaxaca and we had managed to order five of them prior to the cooking class. At Maria Bonita we learned to make the mole almendrado from start to finish, following lots of steps to cook and blend a very long list of ingredients. My notes are scribbles of onions, garlic, tomatillos, almonds, raisins, sesame seeds, fried bread cubes, plus a half dozen herbs, dried chilies, and spices. We made two kinds of soup—Azteca and Xóchitl—then moved on to garnaches. These are small fat tortillas topped with a meat picadillo mixture and cabbage, the final result being a perfect yin-yang blend of tastes and textures.


Our real handmade dish was extra labor intensive and extra delicious: squash blossoms stuffed with Oaxacan cheese, breaded in a corn meal mixture, and fried. Topped with some green salsa, they were almost worth the two hours it took four of us to prepare a day's supply for the restaurant's diners.

The Great Guelaguetza

There are 16 distinct ethnic groups in the state of Oaxaca, comprising nearly two million people. The annual Guelaguetza dance extravaganza is where they really get to show off their clothing and their moves. Held in an outdoor amphitheater with seats that look down on the city center, the performance has the excitement of a rock concert more than a buttoned-up cultural festival. There's shouting, whistling, and hat waving from the crowd, while a rotating band cranks up the trumpets, tubas, drums, fiddles, and saxophones. Some songs have vocals, some are instrumental, and the variety of the dances is far greater than I had expected.

"Is he dancing with a turkey?"

"Are those pineapples on their shoulders?"

"Look at those crazy hats!"

Oaxacan dancers

My sourpuss teenage daughter was not at all looking forward to the prospect of three hours at a dance performance when we left the hotel, but she warmed up fast when an unanticipated surprise popped up after the first segment. Free stuff! Apparently it's a tradition for the dancers to throw things into the audience (watch out for the flying bread loaves and pineapples!), but that action gets carried all the way up the stands, with young men tossing local coffee packets, sweets, reed fans, and small baskets into the audience. After a whole series of good catches, we had a bag of local loot.

We took the free goodies that came flying our way and combined them with all the souvenir housewares we bought. In the end, maybe it was a good thing we didn't have enough money to buy a carpet in the town of Teotitlón del Valle. We were already packing some black pottery from San Bartolo Coyotepec, three alebrijes, a woven reed mask, four tin hands with mirrors, two embroidered shirts, a bedspread, a packet of mole paste, a tapestry...this is not a place where you leave with just a carry-on. Fortunately we were taking a bus home instead of a plane, so we could carry those two extra bags filled with goodies for our house. Here at the source of Mexico's best handmade items, it's hard to keep saying no.


Oaxaca has an international airport and is also easy to reach by bus from Mexico City or Puebla. See the Oaxaca Tourism website for ideas and events, or see the Guelaguetza Facebook page (in Spanish) if you'll be visiting in the second half of July. See detailed reviews here of the best places to stay in Oaxaca.

Editor Tim Leffel is an award-winning writer who splits his time between the USA and Mexico. He is author of several books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations and Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America. His latest is A Better Life for Half the Price.

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Related Features:
The Other Side of the Yucatan by Tim Leffel
Sidesaddle Girls at a Mexican Rodeo by Tim Leffel
A Journey Through the Land of the Maya by Michael Shapiro
Kishka and Kasha in the Ukranian Countryside by Judith Fein

See other Mexico travel stories from the archives

Read this article online at: http://perceptivetravel.com/issues/1014/oaxaca.html

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