Forty-eight hours is not enough time to see, much less eat Oaxaca. Considered one of the two “kitchens of Mexico” (the other being Puebla), Oaxaca is one, giant, walkable culinary encyclopedia, every corner a page, every meal a story. The thought of mastering even a slice of its culinary variety is dizzying.
And yet, that is all the time that I had in Oaxaca on a short stop-over last June. When we arrived in the city (he from New York, I from Puebla), my friend Adam and I hit the ground eating. And we did not stop until we left, literally hailing a cab for the bus station from our table as we finished our last meal in the city.
The food in Oaxaca is like the food of no other place. At once crude and refined, it is a distillation of wordy history into pithy sentences with just as much meaning. Be not fooled by its simple appearance. There are no abbreviations in the lexicon of Oaxaca’s culinary language. There is only depth, only complexity, and only flavor.
Doña Ofelia Toledo Bacha Pineda is a doyenne of Oaxaca’s culinary legacy. Described as a culinary anthropologist, she specializes in the culinary history of the Istmo region of Mexico (the isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrowest strip of land in the southern half of Mexico, comprising the largest portion of the state of Oaxaca).
Adam had visited her restaurant, Yu Ne Nisa, in the city’s Colonia Reforma district before. He insisted that we go. I’m glad we did.
We found Doña Ofelia in her kitchen, a colorful room with tubs of dried chile peppers taking up half of the spartan real estate, with two other cooks, both women. Her restaurant was just as modest, a spare, L-shaped room with tables dressed in festive pinks and pastel greens. The front of the restaurant opened out onto the sidewalk, where there were a few more tables.
We were offered a rainbow of moles and snacks. Undecided, we simply asked the cooks to send out their favorite dishes.
We were brought a basket of round tortilla chips – totopos – dimpled by the fingers that pushed them up against the wall of the clay oven in which they were cooked and crisped. There was cheese, of the fresher variety, crumbly and salty. And there were delicious little garnachas, miniature sopes topped with a mixture of ground pork, melted onions, and cheese.
One of our tamales had a tomato-ey meat and mole filling, the other was mottled with chopped, green tops of cambray (a local variety of onion). Both sported a beautiful, waxy sheen that only lard makes possible.
But these snacks and others – like little pastry pockets filled with pulled meat (miniature empenadas) – were just teasers for Doña Ofelia’s mole negro, a chocolate-colored gravy that tasted of dried fruit and nuts, chiles and meat. As good as everything else was, her mole was, by far, the highlight of our lunch. High in umami, it was a carousel of flavors that sent sweet chasing salty, bitter chasing acid, and smoke chasing fat; around, and around, and around, it went so quickly that getting off it was hard. I was compelled to go back, and back, and back, and back for more. We couldn’t get enough of it, lapping it up with such focus that we barely paid attention to the chicken that it dressed.
On one plate, there was simply a thigh, with the leg attached. On another, were two enchiladas, filled with pulled chicken meat and topped with a dusting of cheese and slivers of raw, white onion, which, somehow paired perfectly with the mole. They were both terrific, in part because they both were swimming with that amazing sauce.
When we told her how much we loved her mole negro, Doña Ofelia, who is very proud of her food (as she should be), praised us for our discerning taste (I’m still trying to figure out if the praise was for us, or for her), but lamented that we didn’t get to try her mole amarillo. We must have it, she insisted. Reaching for her purse, she snapped her fingers and one of her cooks came out of the kitchen. Handing the woman some money, Doña Ofelia instructed her to go to the market immediately to buy a specific weight of yellow tomatoes (a specific varietal that she described as pear-shaped).
We returned the next day as promised, first to a round of totopos – this time, served with breaded cheese patties that had been fried until the crust took on a golden crisp. And then a fantastic plate of “shrimp rice,” tangy with tomato and immensely xian with the flavor of shrimp (specifically, the flavor of dried baby shrimp, which takes me back to my childhood – I knew it as sha pi growing up). The rice was topped with a plantain, split and fried until caramelized on the outside. Like the rest of Doña Ofelia’s food, the flavors were stacked and shingled carefully, each one distinct – the nuttiness of the rice, the mellow sweetness of the plantains, the brininess of the shrimp, the acidity in the tomatoes – yet part of a complex whole. As with her mole negro, the experience of tasting so many flavors in quick succession in this rice dish was addictive.
Doña Ofelia’s mole Oaxaqueño amarillo appeared as a steaming bowl of thick tomato broth, more orange than yellow, as its name might suggest. This mole was really a soup, not a gravy or sauce. In fact, it tasted like tomato soup, its tanginess hanging on a slow-blossoming heat (the way that the heat developed in this soup reminded me of the way that the spiciness of black pepper builds in hot borscht). In the mole was a strip of lean, beef rib meat. It was garnished with two epazote leaves. This was tremendously comforting.
We sat and talked with Doña Ofelia for quite some time after our last lunch at Yu Ne Nisa. Her speech was steady and deliberate, extremely thoughtful. She told us how she made her mole negro (there were too many ingredients and steps for me to remember or repeat here). More importantly, she sold a couple of kilos of her mole negro paste to me and taught me how to prepare it at home, which I happily did for a couple of dinner parties with friends. Her instructions were simple and precise, and the mole I produced was faithful to the original.
Why was Yu Ne Nisa completely empty both times that Adam and I ate there? Doña Ofelia’s food is amazing, a collection of traditional Oaxacan dishes made with a high degree of care. If you’re chasing authenticity, you’ll find it here. For the Oaxaca-bound, I highly recommend it.
Here are slideshows of my two meals at Yu Ne Nisa:
[gigya src=”http://www.flickr.com/apps/slideshow/show.swf?v=71649″ width=”400″ flashvars=”offsite=true&lang=en-us&page_show_url=/photos/ulteriorepicure/sets/72157630068362046/show/&page_show_back_url=/photos/ulteriorepicure/sets/72157630068362046/&set_id=72157630068362046&jump_to=” allowFullScreen=”true” ]
[gigya src=”http://www.flickr.com/apps/slideshow/show.swf?v=71649″ width=”400″ flashvars=”offsite=true&lang=en-us&page_show_url=/photos/ulteriorepicure/sets/72157630078494814/show/&page_show_back_url=/photos/ulteriorepicure/sets/72157630078494814/&set_id=72157630078494814&jump_to=” allowFullScreen=”true” ]
Yu Ne Nisa
Colonia Reforma, 68050
+52 (951) 515-6982
Photos: Doña Ofelia’s mole amarillo; a shelf in Ofelia’s kitchen; Doña Ofelia in her kitchen; shrimp rice with plantains; Yu Ne Nisa from the street.