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Canadian Chefs Get Fired Up About Traditional Cooking in Mexico

Two up-and-coming Toronto chefs learn the diversity of the country's regional cuisines, from mole to mezcal to barbacoa.

Comedor Berthita; Comedor Lucy

Left to right: Chicken two ways at Comedor Berthita; lunchtime at Comedor Lucy.

Kate Chomyshyn opens her palm to reveal a handful of lemony chapulines, grasshoppers fried to a crackle and dusted with chili powder. “I tried these in Ontario and they tasted like a fish tank,” she says, before tossing them back. Here, the grasshoppers are plucked from the stalks of corn harvested in local fields, dried, fried and seasoned, then made into mountainous piles and sold in scoopfuls by women in bright dresses. At the seemingly infinite Central de Abastos market in Oaxaca City, a one-hour flight from Mexico City, there are shoe stalls and backpack stalls, flower stalls, juice stalls and tortilla-press stalls – stalls across several city blocks arranged in a fashion that’s either dream or nightmare, depending on your penchant for organization. Colours and scents spring off the walls in a kind of sensory pinball game.

Traditional Oaxacan cookware

Traditional Oaxacan cookware in the market’s pottery lane.

I’m tagging along with Chomyshyn and her husband, Julio Guajardo, thirtysomething chefs who have made the trip to Mexico before opening their Toronto restaurant Quetzal, the newest spot to be backed by restaurateur and chef Grant Van Gameren (of Bar Isabel fame). The couple first helped him plan and open El Rey, a mezcal bar in Toronto’s Kensington Market. With Quetzal, which they hope to launch by the end of the year, they want to introduce Canadians accustomed to food-truck tacos and burritos to the diversity of the country’s regional cuisines, from mole to mezcal to barbacoa. They’re here to be steeped in the painstakingly careful rituals and sacred knowledge that govern Oaxacan cooking – and to bring them home.

A butcher ties chorizo balls

Hitting the links: A butcher ties chorizo balls with lightning speed at Central de Abastos.

The couple wind their way through the labyrinthine market, like Charlie scampering through the chocolate factory, if Charlie were a master chef with a peso-stuffed wallet. They’re on the lookout for a comal, an enormous, burnt-orange clay stovetop that traditional Mexican kitchens use to cook over fire. Part earthenware stove, part cast-iron pan, it’s known for its ability to cook meat quickly and enrich it with woody flavour from the branches burning below it. It’s the pair’s grand plan to launch Quetzal cooking exclusively over flame, and, if they succeed, their restaurant will be the only one in Canada to have a comal. When they finally find a sturdy specimen, it costs the equivalent of $7.50 (plus $800 in shipping to Toronto). And just like that, their vision comes to life.

Charcoal-seared tuna; Ezequiel Hernández

Left to right: Charcoal-seared tuna destined for corn tortillas with all the fixin’s; taco time: chef Ezequiel Hernández serves lunch.

From the sun-dappled courtyard at the luxe Casa Oaxaca Hotel, we watch two men carry a 66-pound tuna balanced on a banana leaf, like a patient on a stretcher, as gingerly as you can carry 66 pounds of fish. They place it in front of chef Ezequiel Hernández, who runs a seafood stand in Ensenada, Baja California. He’s here prepping tacos for the lunchtime crowd as part of the city’s annual foodie festival, Festival El Saber del Sabor, which draws cooks from all over the country. His knife slices its way down the fish, curving around the spine like the wand of a wizard, leaving no meat on the needle-sharp bones. Three anafres – standing stoves topped with burning charcoal – are overlaid with blackening corn husks. Chomyshyn and Guajardo watch intently as Hernández places the strips of meat on top of the corn, fire licking the husks and searing the tuna, leaving the inside raw. The hulking chef, heavily tattooed and well over six feet tall, lines a row of tacos with satayed rice, cilantro-like chepiche, parsley-like verdolagas and amaranth-like quintonil before placing glowing pink fish on top. The pair accept the plates Hernández hands them and noiselessly hoover what might be the tastiest tacos on the planet.

Chefs Kate Chomyshyn and Julio Guajardo; La Cabana del Tio Vale

Left to right: Chefs Kate Chomyshyn and Julio Guajardo sip mezcal before the barbacoa begins; into the fold: ground-roasted goat tacos at La Cabana del Tio Vale.

Guajardo, like Hernández, is from Mexico and grew up in León, an eight-hour drive north of Oaxaca. He met Chomyshyn at Ottawa’s Cordon Bleu institute 13 years ago and has since brought her to his home country on seven research trips, including one that helped them launch La Catrina, their paleta business, which they ran out of their Saint-Henri apartment in Montreal. (They’re so devoted to Mexican food that even their cat, Tobala, is named after a kind of mezcal, and Guajardo’s thumb is decorated with an agave tattoo.) It’s fitting, then, that after lunch, Guajardo runs back to Hernández with a cup of mezcal to thank him for the meal and the inspiration.

For years, Guajardo and Chomyshyn have wanted someone to show them traditional barbacoa, the art of slow-cooking meat in an underground firepit. That’s how we end up behind La Cabaña del Valle, a highway-side restaurant 20 minutes from the city’s historical district. The owner, a man named Poncho Carrizosa, dressed in boat shoes and palm-tree-printed Bermuda shorts, undertakes the ritual every weekend.

Oaxaca City; Lucia Garcia

Left to right: A cab waits outside the pedestrian-only historic district at the heart of Oaxaca City; roadside attraction: Lucia Garcia serves fresh tortillas to visitors enroute to nearby mezcal distilleries.

On the menu today: a whole goat. Poncho shows the couple how to season the meat with burnt avocado leaves and stuff the stomach with jalapenos, onions, garlic and mint. They toss in vicious chiles de árbol for flavour and for luck – amulets that guarantee the quality of the meal – then wrap the entire package in thick maguey leaves, bundle it into a cast-iron crate and lower it into the fiery depths. Carrizosa draws a cross in the dirt with his finger and says a prayer.

The next morning before sunrise, foggy-eyed and under-caffeinated, we return to the pit and delicately remove the woven mats and dirt keeping the heat in. The air begins to warm. We unfold the maguey leaves, unleashing the scent of softly spiced meat and day-old campfire. The goat is so tender, it’s falling off the bones. We pass around a plate of salted meat and, eventually, breakfast is goat tacos with salsa, crunchy salt crystals, coriander, jalapeno and lime. The meat tastes smokier than it would from an oven, subtly earthy from the subterranean night spent wrapped in herbs and leaves.

Hernandez cooks breakfast

Sunny side up: Hernandez cooks breakfast on the comal.

“We’re going to do it at the end of the night on Saturdays and have barbacoa on Sundays,” Chomyshyn says, though theirs will be made in their wood-burning oven, not a pit in the ground. A few vendors still sell barbacoa from their stalls at the city’s downtown Mercado 20 de Noviembre, but interest in the tradition has waned in Oaxaca, and Poncho is relishing Chomyshyn and Guajardo’s enthusiasm. “The goal of Quetzal is to share as much of the Mexican culture as we can,” Chomyshyn says. “The most beautiful thing about cooking is it’s an infinite amount of learning.”

We peel out of Oaxaca at dawn, ripping our way into the country past icy-blue hot springs and brightly coloured villages bundled into the mountainsides. In the distance, smoke spirals mark the tiny mezcal distilleries that have put Oaxaca on the map recently. Forty-five minutes later, we arrive in the town of Zimatlán de Álvarez, population 11,000, a mass of low, stuccoed buildings and dusty streets. We pull up to an imposing black gate where a tiny sixtysomething woman in a fiery-red embroidered dress and silver-rimmed spectacles brusquely hauls open the gate and offers quick kisses on cheeks.

Ingredients in traditional Oaxacan mole

Pantry raid: almonds, oregano, raisins, cinnamon, onions and garlic are just a few of the ingredients in traditional Oaxacan mole.

This is Juana Amaya Hernandez, the chef at Mi Tierra Linda, a restaurant she opened nine years ago because she wasn’t making much money as a government lawyer. Mi Tierra Linda operates in a huge breezy courtyard – bright Oaxacan tissue-paper flags are strung overhead, and Hernandez’s hydroponic herb experiment stands in one corner. The restaurant’s wooden tables face the kitchen, so diners can watch the mistress of mole at work. She’s become a local celebrity and a teacher to chefs who come from around the world to learn in her kitchen. Last year, in preparation for Noma’s pop-up in Tulum, René Redzepi came to visit. “I put him to work down on his knees doing the grinding,” she says, laughing. Today is no different. Guajardo lays out heaps of ingredients – cinnamon, almonds, chayotes, tomatillos – on plates and Chomyshyn peels dried ancho peppers, their fruit-leather smell radiating from her red-stained fingertips.

The couple scribble down notes as quickly as they can while Hernandez instructs them on technique. There are no quantities here, only lifetimes of family tradition and intuition. “One of the beautiful things about going to a nice restaurant in Mexico is they keep everything so simple. You only see two or three elements, but maybe that sauce has 38 ingredients,” Guajardo says. Sesame seeds crackle like Pop Rocks on the comal, while Hernandez chars plantains on the anafre.

Mole negro chili peppers; Juana Amaya Hernandez

Left to right: Red hot chili peppers: noting the many peppers that make a mole negro sing; Juana Amaya Hernandez commands the respect of chefs who fly in to learn at her comal.

Five hours later, five moles sit like pots of fingerpaint in a row on one of the restaurant’s long tables. Bright ideas are flying between Guajardo and Chomyshyn – maybe they’ll try mole Mondays, maybe they’ll put tongue with mole coloradito on their menu, maybe they can get hellfire-spicy chile de agua at home. Hernandez gestures emphatically at the plates of onions, green beans, queso and chicken dotting the table and signals the start of the afternoon’s mole tasting, from lightest (mole verde and amarillo) to medium (almendrado and coloradito) to dark (negro).

The rich, saucy meal concludes with leche quemada y tuna ice cream – deep fuchsia and white scoops (made with the sweet prickly-pear fruit called tuna, not the fish). Like many items in Hernandez’s kitchen, the leche quemada is made by a laborious process that involves a sacrificial pan burnt permanently black to give the milky ingredients a flavour that’s somehow both acrid and delightful. “In Mexico, there’s a saying – full stomach, happy heart,” Hernandez says, “so make sure you’re full.” Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.


United colours of mole

United colours of mole

1. Almendrado

Briny capers, olives and escabeche jalapeños balance the richness of almonds in this variation, typically served with chicken.

2. Coloradito

Plantain thickens the usual base of fruits, nuts, chilis, chocolate and spices for a savoury-sweet sauce.

3. Amarillo

Made without chocolate or fruit, this bright orange version has a fiery edge unblunted by sweetness.

4. Negro

Charred chili stems and seeds (plus 30-odd other ingredients) impart deep colour and flavour to the darkest mole on the spectrum.

Tags

MEXICO     TORONTO    

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