Text and photos by Sarah Ramirez

When I think about Mexico, I think about incredible, picturesque landscapes; an architectural feast of ancient, colonial and modern buildings, as well as vibrant colors and delicious aromas of open-air markets. Every time I return, it’s a chance to reconnect with my family, history, traditional Mexican food flavors and an ever-changing urban ag scene. This year’s trip was 20 years in the making to attend the Guelaguetza in Oaxaca City. Oaxaca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with plenty of history and culture to explore, and the Guelaguetza is an annual indigenous cultural event that celebrates the agricultural bounty of the region.

Like all major colonial Mexican cities, the heart of the city is a vibrant zócalo or a central square that always has two iconic buildings — the cathedral and a government building. In this case, the zócalo is traffic-free, shaded by tall trees and surrounded by elegant portales (arcades) that house artisanal vendors, street foods and restaurants. Most of the old buildings in Oaxaca, including the 29 churches, feature cantera stone, a quarried volcanic rock, and give the buildings a distinct green tint. Most of these buildings were built by hand by indigenous Oaxacans.

Within walking distance of the zócalo, the city has numerous museums, chocolate or mezcal tasting rooms (tequila is a type of mezcal, however mezcal is made from a different type of agave and has a smokier taste), a central library that features workshops and classes, and the popular French-inspired theater, Macedonio Alcala, named after an Oaxacan musician and composer who wrote the de facto anthem “God Never Dies.” You’ll also find convents and monasteries that have been converted to hotels for visitors, such as the exquisite Quinta Real that preserves the archways and fresco of the original convent built in 1576.

Two open-air markets, Benito Juarez and 20 de Noviembre, are near the city center and are typical of Mexican markets. You’ll find vendors of household goods, art, traditional cultural attire, and fresh and cooked foods. Keep in mind that most street food, including that at the market, will be served with salsa. As a tourist, you’ll generally receive the very wise advice to avoid raw salsas and enjoy cooked salsas to prevent any intestinal discomfort. Something else to keep in mind is the fact that many street markets are tailored to local meals. In Mexico, the heaviest meal of the day is what some might consider lunchtime. However, this is slightly later in the day between 1 and 2 p.m. As a result, many markets and street vendors close by 3 p.m.

When we arrived, we began our adventures exploring the zócalo and discovering La Casa de la Abuela (The House of the Grandmother) that makes fabulous tlayudas, a handmade appetizer that could be a meal in itself. Some might describe the tlayuda as a medium thin crust pizza, but that is only in the appearance, not the taste. It’s a large, homemade tortilla grilled on a griddle and topped with beans or mole sauce and other fresh toppings.

By night, the zócalo was alive with marimba ensembles, brass bands and roving musicians who delighted the audience into dancing. We also caught a glimpse at a light show projected onto the side of the cathedral that featured some of the culture, history and mythology of the region.

Since we were traveling with friends and we were new to Oaxaca City, I decided to introduce our traveling friends to Free Walking Tour Mexico. While there are many tourist companies offering bus tours, our walking tour was free, led by a local guide who shares the history, architecture and culture of the city, and some tours are available for an English-speaking audience. Our guide was a local teacher and graduate student leading tours for the summer. During our conversations, we discovered that we had a mutual love of food and food history.

One of my personal goals for this trip had been to take a cooking class and practice some of my skills with new dishes, so I decided to ask this guide if she knew of any locations that offered a cooking class. As it turned out, her husband was a local chef whose specialty was Oaxacan cuisine, but since it was also days before the Guelaguetza started, he and many others who offered cooking classes were really busy. Fortunately, she managed to coordinate a class for us, but it was going to take a couple of days.

In the meantime, we opted to sign up for one of the dozens of tours available by local travel companies. This whirlwind day of sightseeing consisted of visiting a Mezcal distillery to taste numerous liquors. In Santa María del Tule, we visited the incredible “Tule tree” (yes, the same tule that Tulare is named after). The tree is estimated to be more than 2,000 years old, more than 50 meters in diameter and more than 500 tons. We visited the famous weavers of Teotitlán, where the residents continue to use traditional dyes (of flowers and insects). We visited the ancient pre-Hispanic city of Mitla with its famous and well-preserved geometric design. Our final destination was Hierve el Agua (boiling water), what I might describe as natural infinity springs gorgeously situated on the edge of a mountain – a fabulous way to end a day of tourism.

When we finally had a chance to take our cooking class in Oaxaca, we met with Chef Keri Hernandez at Alhóndiga Reforma, a gourmet food market featuring cuisine from around the world. Chef Keri, true to his roots, has decorated his rustic kitchen with traditional ingredients of corn, dried beans, tomatoes, chiles and herbs. For our lessons, he started with the basics – making corn tortillas that we turned into quesadillas and snacked on with a fresh cheese mixed with grasshoppers. Yes, grasshoppers! Grasshoppers are a high protein ingredient whose culinary roots reach back to the pre-Hispanic period. While grasshoppers are common in the cuisine of Oaxaca and Puebla, among others, I have also had grasshoppers and other insect snacks in the markets of Mexico City and Guadalajara.

For our main dishes, we learned how to prepare two types of mole sauces, red and green, which both began by roasting tomatoes on an earthen griddle. He demystified Oaxacan cuisine by sharing that it wasn’t as complicated as people say it is; in fact, the flavors of Oaxacan food are based on a small combination of ingredients that are overlooked or forgotten in a modern kitchen but remain as essentials in kitchens with traditional roots – hierba de conejo (literally translated as rabbit herb but known as Indian paintbrush), hoja santa (holy herb, but known as piper auritum), epazote – all aromatic herbs with indigenous and pre-Hispanic origins.

We pinched, tasted and smelled the herbs. In a market, you might find herbs like these alongside other traditional fresh greens – such as papalotl, berros, huazontle, verdolagas, hoja de platano and other wild and in many cases free greens generally known as quelites. These herbs are so common and essential that you’ll find the tradition of buying and selling more popular ones – epazote, verdolaga or plantain leaves – at our local Vallarta markets or maybe even at a swap meet. These greens give their aromatic scent to a traditional Mexican kitchen and also offer insight into the nutrition sources of pre-Hispanic and present-day indigenous people as high sources of raw fiber, protein, iron and other nutrients. It’s unfortunate that

so many of us of Mexican heritage have forgotten the value and importance of these herbs in adding depth of flavor to our foods or that the use of such herbs has been ridiculed as outdated, backwards or even a source of shame.

Then he taught us to prepare sopa de piedra Alhóndiga-style; literally, it’s a traditional stone soup that he refined uniquely for his location. And, yes, the soup really does have river rocks. In fact, the soup is cold, and it is the hot stones that heat the soup and “cook” the small thin slices of fish and shrimp. While the traditional stone soup is a clear broth with small amounts of seafood and vegetables, the house special of sopa de piedra was a tomato-based broth. The meal, lesson and the company were an unforgettable experience of flavors, colors and adventures.

Of course, being in Oaxaca meant that we had to make a visit to the local markets to taste and purchase our local treats. Everywhere we went – to buy traditional pre-made mole paste, the colors and flavors were vibrant. Anytime we went to the market or walked in the city, we came across the vendors selling Tejate. Chef Keri had explained that Tejate is a non-alcoholic maize and cacao pre-Hispanic beverage that remains popular. The principal ingredients include toasted maize, fermented cacao beans, toasted mamey fruit pits and cacao flower that are ground into a paste and mixed with water, usually by hand. When the drink is ready, the cacao rises to the top to form a pasty foam that has a waxy or oily feel to it.

During the Guelaguetza, more than 25,000 tourists visit a modern amphitheater on a hillside overlooking Oaxaca City. Events and celebrations take place everywhere throughout the city for two weeks, if not longer. Many events are free. The word guelaguetza means “offering” in the Zapotec indigenous language, but it is more than just an offering. The concept behind the guelaguetza is about reciprocal exchange. This is the way that relationships are built, social ties are reinforced and cooperation is maintained through time and geography. The Guelaguetza,

as celebrated today, is a combination of pre-Hispanic celebration of the corn goddess, Centeotl, and the Catholic feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which falls on July 16. Each year, a young Oaxacan woman is selected, based on her knowledge of cultural traditions, to represent Centeotl in the festival.  Group after group, the communities and dancers bring out baskets of bread, coffee, pomegranates and, yes, even pineapple to toss to the cheering crowd. The Guelaguetza itself was a festival for the eyes – full of color and movement. Indigenous communities danced on stage highlighting their traditional attire, music and specialty food.

Given my commitment to sustainable agriculture, I was also looking for alternatives to the tourist locations where I could support local community members. In my search, I came across the Pochote Xochimilco Agroecologico, a cooperative marketplace that brings together families from different regions of Oaxaca to sell artisanal products and foods. As an outsider looking in, I would say that many of these individuals are social entrepreneurs focused on sustainability, holistic land management that restores soil health and community building, but the reality is that most are farmers or people trying to survive in the face of environmental, economic and social degradation. One local woman was offering a lesson and meal of three types of chile rellenos. She offered a traditional cheese-filled chile relleno, a chile en nogada (stuffed pepper with walnut sauce and garnished with pomegranate seeds), and also a ricotta- and chicken-stuffed pepper served with a vegetable broth and your choice of strawberry or mango roll for dessert. Affordable prices for a good cause and supporting an important mission seemed too good to pass up.

While Mexico is generally the land of corn, beans, squash and chile, each region has its own unique flavor that emerges from the history and culture that continues to stay alive despite the changes and challenges that the people and our planet face. Seek these places, people and knowledge out.

As usual, my trip to Mexico culminated by purchasing another cookbook to add to my collection. The latest addition is more than 600 pages of Mexican food and gastronomic history that I’ll be using to inspire the plant-based flavors in my own kitchen. Maybe I’ll even be able to re-create the famous seven-mole plate we sampled our last night in Oaxaca at Los Pacos Centro Restaurant.