From Lesley: Today I’m running a guest post from Dolores Wiarco Dweck, whom I met in Oaxaca last year. She really impressed me with her passion for Oaxaca’s cuisine and culture, and the research project she’d created to specifically learn about local cooking classes. Here’s more from her.
My love affair with Mexico’s culture and cuisine began in early childhood when I visited Acámbaro, Guanajuato, a small town known for its bread, with my family every summer.
There was a bakery on almost every corner. My favorite was the pan de Acámbaro, an oval-shaped loaf of bread that is similar in characteristics to Jewish challah — slightly sweet and a little dense, with raisins. We ate it with fresh butter and a little bit of sugar sprinkled on top, or nata.
My passion for Mexican food eventually led me to do my master’s thesis research on culinary tourism in Oaxaca. Last summer, I traveled to Oaxaca and worked with five cooking school instructors to learn about their individual enterprising skills in promoting Oaxaca as a culinary destination. I took more than 15 classes, learned new dishes and returned home with a love for indigenous Mexican cuisine.
Here are five Oaxacan cooking schools I particularly enjoyed visiting. Each one provides a hands-on experience for travelers interested in exploring a new culture through food.
1. Alma de Mi Tierra, with Nora Valencia
Alma de Mi Tierra’s cooking classes are $75 and promote authentic dishes of Oaxaca, and recipes passed down from Nora’s grandmother as well as some of her own creations. They begin at 9:30 a.m. and end by 3:00 p.m. Classes are hands-on, taught in English or Spanish in her quaint home kitchen, and include printed recipes, a local market tour, a mezcal tasting, and a four-course sit-down meal. Menus typically consist of a salsa, an appetizer, a soup, a main entrée, an agua fresca, and a dessert.
- Nora’s friendly nature, bubbly personality, and historical insights allow students to learn about Mexican food, mercados, and the origins of various ingredients in a fun and interesting way.
- The cozy Mexican-style home kitchen offers an intimate experience for small groups.
- Family recipes (green mole) and Nora’s own creations (Khalua gelatin dessert) are an absolute treat.
2. Casa Crespo, with Oscar Carrizosa
Classes at Casa Crespo are $65 and take place Tuesday through Saturday at 10:00 a.m. and on Sundays at 11:00 a.m., and last approximately four hours. Oscar focuses on ingredients and techniques from Oaxaca’s eight regions, with an emphasis on easy replication of dishes at home. Students receive morning coffee, a tour of the Sanchez Pascuas organic market, recipes (emailed after class), unlimited beer or mezcal, and a group meal.
- Oscar provides great explanations of different ingredients during the market tour, providing insight into the ceremonial uses of herbs and other products.
- Classes are relatively short, which leaves time for other afternoon activities.
- While the classes are quick, the variety of salsas and other menu items made is expansive. The menu typically includes several appetizers, at least four salsas, a main entrée, homemade ice cream, and agua fresca.
3. Casa de los Sabores, with Pilar Cabrera
Casa de los Sabores group classes are $75 and take place from approximately 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. They are led by chef and La Olla restaurant owner, Pilar Cabrera, and offer the opportunity to learn secret family recipes and traditional Oaxacan dishes. The price includes all materials, a tour of Mercado de la Merced, hands-on instruction, a mezcal tasting, and a five-course meal – an appetizer, salsa or guacamole, soup or rice, mole, dessert, and agua fresca.Highlights:
- Pilar offers a different perspective given her background as a food scientist-turned chef – plus she’s a master when it comes to squash blossom soup and desserts.
- While the menus are set and based on different moles, Pilar emphasizes the importance of improvisation depending on fresh and seasonal ingredients found during the market tour.
- The class includes an intimate and educational mezcal tasting and explanation led by Pilar before the meal.
4. El Sabor Zapoteco, with Reyna Mendoza
El Sabor Zapoteco focuses on traditional Zapotec dishes and culture. The six-hour cooking classes are $75, and are available on Tuesdays and Fridays from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. or on other days when requested with advance notice. Classes include roundtrip transportation to and from Teotitlán del Valle (students are picked up at their hotels), a local market tour, homemade hot chocolate and sweet bread, a hands-on cooking class in Reyna’s outdoor home kitchen, recipes, and a sit-down group meal that includes appetizers, entrees, dessert, drinks and mezcal.
- Reyna’s calm demeanor can put anyone at ease in the kitchen, and it’s wonderful to learn from someone in the Zapotec community.
- The market tour in Teotitlán del Valle offers insights into Zapotec village life.
- The outdoor kitchen is great – students use traditional tools such as a clay comal (flat griddle used to roast ingredients), a metate (large stone tool used to grind maize, chocolate, or dried chiles and spices for mole), and a molcajete (stone pestle and mortar) to make salsa.
5. Seasons of My Heart, Susana Trilling
Seasons of My Heart’s regular classes are $85 and take place on Wednesdays from 9:00 a.m. to approximately 6:00 p.m. They include roundtrip transportation from a designated pick-up location in downtown Oaxaca, a tasting tour and light lunch at the Wednesday Etla market, a lecture on Oaxacan cuisine by Chef Susana Trilling, and hands-on preparation and consumption of a five-course meal.
- Susana’s approachable personality and larger group classes offer opportunities to socialize and meet new people interested in cooking.
- This beautiful and spacious cooking school is located in the open countryside and has a good mix of modern and traditional cooking tools and appliances.
- The Etla market tour is incredible – students taste a ton of regional foods such as nicuatole (pre-Hispanic corn and sugar dessert), egg bread, hot chocolate, various tamales, ice creams and desserts that they might not otherwise taste while in Oaxaca.
Dolores Wiarco Dweck, known by her nearest and dearest as Lola, has a great appreciation for Mexican cuisine and culture. Lola’s culinary mentors include her relatives and friends as well as some of Mexico’s great chefs and home cooks. She preserves and shares her favorite recipes through Lola’s Cocina.