I know it’s cliché to talk about listening to the sound of the ocean, but I am going to do it anyway. Day 2, I woke up to the sound of waves crashing onto the beach. And it was magical.
It was the beginning of my second day in Huatulco, and the day I was going to try my hand at traditional Oaxacan cooking. I was thrilled, because I love learning authentic recipes and local traditions. And, because I love eating!
To prepare for my day of eating, I started with the chilaquiles (chee-la-kee-lays) breakfast bar at Secrets. If you’ve never had chilaquiles, open a new browser window and search for your closest authentic Mexican restaurant. Go there, order chilaquiles, and return to this blog later. It’ll still be here. Chilaquiles is a dish that starts with a layer of lightly fried tortillas or chips, covered with a rich mole (moh-lay) sauce, salsa, and then crumbles of queso fresca. I like mine topped with slices of onion and fresh avocado, drizzled with fresh Mexican crema and then sprinkled with a little extra queso. (I’m only human, okay?)
So, after my chilaquiles warm up, a few of us headed over to cooking class in the heart of town. The little city, La Crucecita, was founded long before all of the hotel developments along the coast, and still thrives today. The town square is lined with colorful buildings, bright green almond trees, and cobblestone streets. I was taking thousands of photos and looking like a total turista as we pulled up to our destination.
We climbed the stairs of a corner building, up through tangled vines and hibiscus flowers that lined a colorful staircase. I took approximately 50 more photos. We entered Café Juanita, a cozy restaurant owned and operated by a dynamic husband and wife duo, Alfredo and Jane. Alfredo began to tell us about Oaxacan cooking and growing up in Huatulco, and offered us cold beers and cold teas. I won’t mention which one I chose: but let me remind you again that I’m only human.
In the middle of the room, there were a variety of colorful bowls brimming with different types of Chiles. I must confess that before, I thought that chiles came in two varieties…Red and Green. Please don’t judge my stupidity. There are apparently hundreds of types of chiles, all varying in color, size, sweetness, and spiciness, and they are an integral part of Mexican culture and cuisine.
Alfredo explained how different types of chiles create different types of mole sauces. Mole is a Mexican staple, a rich dark brown sauce, made primarily with roasted ground chiles, fruits, and spices and often cocoa. He told us how some moles have over 100 ingredients and take weeks to prepare. For the record, my cooking skills are decent, but I’m lucky if I use any spices besides garlic salt.
Thank goodness Alfredo had already prepared the mole: we were just in charge of the tacos. We started with homemade corn tortillas, which were very different than the soft stacks of white, flour tortillas that I’m used to. Corn tortillas are richer in flavor, and the only kind of tortilla that any self-respecting Oaxacan would eat.
We rolled out the dough and used a tortilla press to make perfect symmetrical circles. Okay, I’m lying. Mine was a lopsided and hideous oval, and absolutely nothing like Alfredo’s sample, but it was delicious. We grilled the tortillas on clay plates heated over the stove, and made several varieties, for tacos, sopes (so-pays), and tlayudas (clay-you-das).
Alfredo then introduced us to Oaxacan cheese, a cheese that is so good, it has ruined all other cheeses for me. This cheese is salty, smooth and mild, and is rolled up into large balls and cut in long pieces when served. Alfredo made a mistake by letting us taste a few pieces of cheese, because I then became addicted. All I wanted was to eat the whole ball of cheese, and Alfredo had to babysit me and the cheese ball, so we could have some left for the recipes.
We stuffed the tacos with crisp hibiscus flowers (truth!), avocado, and fresh pico de gallo (If you aren’t familiar with pico de gallo, it’s a fresh salsa with peppers, tomatoes, onions, and cilantro). We also made a shrimp version, with huge, succulent fresh prawns. I was in heaven, and about to take my first bite… until Alfredo instructed us to sprinkle on the finishing touch. Grasshoppers.
Okay, bear with me. I told myself before the class that I would try anything, and I had to stay true to my word. Before I took a bite of my grasshopper taco, I cringed and mentally prepared to make a scene, dramatically spit it all out… But, alas. They were great! If you had told me they were bacon bits, I would have believed you, polished off 4 tacos, and then asked for seconds. Roasted grasshoppers are a famous ingredient in Oaxaca, and they are served roasted, salted, and sprinkled on a variety of dishes for a little bit of salty insect pizazz.
We also made homemade salsas, with fresh roasted tomatoes and chiles that we crushed with a mortar and pestle. The flavors were phenomenal, and made us all second guess the jarred salsa we’re so familiar with in the states… Sorry, El Paso.
For the sopes, we cooked the tortillas a little thicker, (more like pancakes) and pinched grooves into the top to keep the ingredients in place. Then I got in trouble for eating more cheese. We sautéed a mixture of onions, tomatoes, and garlic, and then spooned this mixture over the sopes, with a little drizzle of mole. We sliced a few pieces of Oaxacan cheese over the tops, and then put all of our creations on a big platter and sat down for our feast, complete with fresh hibiscus margaritas.
We couldn’t have been a happier group, and I even bought a container of grasshoppers to bring back with me to the US. (I haven’t dipped into them yet, but you never know.) I wanted to bring cheese too, but had to draw the line when it came to refrigeration on the flight home.
This experience pushed me far out of my cooking comfort zone. Our hosts at Café Juanita were amazing teachers, and I would recommend everyone checking out their “Chiles and Chocolate Class.” I learned to love mole sauce, to be more adventurous with ingredients, how to make my own tortillas, and how to whip up salsa using fresh tomatoes, garlic, and jalapenos.
I also learned that the best way to stop the severe burning in your mouth after eating spicy foods is by drinking milk.
Overall, the destination provided a perfect combination of incredible scenery, warm people, and amazing cuisine. I felt like I experienced a side of Mexico that few people get to see, and I cherish the experience to this day. This slice of heaven on the southern coast is the perfect place to truly experience authentic Mexico, while surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty. So for now, my parting advice to you, if you are lucky enough to visit Huatulco… try the grasshoppers.