Oaxaca Cooking Classes

Since Oaxaca is known for its food -- and because we love to cook at home -- long before we booked our first flight we were thinking about taking a cooking class in there. On the way out of San Cristobal, we talked to someone who had taken a "class" with an abuela to learn how to make mole negro, a very involved and iconic Oaxacan dish. Upon arriving we quickly learned about another popular class run by a former US chef that would be far easier to organize and execute.

In the end we chose the latter class for a few good reasons. Although the mole class would have been a really unique story, we're unlikely to use that knowledge at home. I think in our remaining lifetimes, we'd possibly make mole negro two to three times: it's a very time consuming dish, typically only used for special occasions, and Melissa isn't a fan of moles with chocolate in them. Plus the woman only speaks Spanish, so while I'm sure we would have had fun, I wonder how much mole mastery we would have walked away with.
By the way, this is a perfect example of how we struggle balancing a pursuit for authenticity, and simply being practical as we travel. We have no answer for how to achieve this balance, every decision is case by case for us.
Fortunately, the class we chose was easy to arrange and a lot of fun. We signed up one day prior for the once-a-week class, paid in advance (credit cards accepted!) and readied ourselves for an all day experience. On Wednesday, we arrived at the Seasons of My Heart cooking school offices in the Santo Domingo area at 9 AM and started to meet our classmates for the day. From there we all boarded a 15+ passenger van (plus a taxi) and drove to the Wednesday market.

Walking into the day market

Chile and dry good vendor

Some of the outdoor tents

There's a rotating market system in the towns around Oaxaca, so you have to know where to go on any given day of the week to get the biggest market scene (we didn't catch the name of the town we visited). After unloading at the market, we split up our 22 person class into two groups with a market guide each. Our guide was Emily, a native to Oaxaca, with a local mother and British father, and fluent in both of her parent's languages.

The market was about half indoor and half outdoor, and luckily we had amazing weather all day. Starting outdoors, we stopped at several vendors and listened to our guides explanations of their offerings:
  • chiles, beans, nuts, seeds: this vendor had a ton of product and it was really cool confirming how "fresh" dried chiles should look and feel. Sadly, Melissa and I knew a bit more about the chiles than our market guide, which lessened the experience a bit.
  • pottery and kitchen utensils: we saw cazuelas which are earthenware casserole dishes, and lots of green glazed cooking vessels. This is where we first learned about a special chocolate stirring wand, the molinillo or batidor, that you use to either add froth to chocolate drinks
  • limestone and fragrant wood: a tiny woman at the top of the stairs to the indoor part sold fragments of lime for nixtamalizing corn the old fashioned way, as well as some heavily scented pieces of wood for fuel (soaked in sap?)

The limestone vendor lady.
Sap soaked wood to the left, and she'll break up pieces of limestone for your home ground tortillas with the hammer

A part of the outdoor portion under some tent shade

The indoor part of the market looked like the entrance to an important colonial building: broad stone steps and old architecture. We didn't learn what the building used to be, and the market extended far beyond the colonial remnants into a big open warehouse. The indoor part was probably 75% of the market tour and provided 100% of the samples we got that day. Whereas the outdoors had produce, dried goods and some odds and ends, the indoor part had some more of that plus all of the meat, prepared stalls, dairy, desserts, drinks, breads...everything really.

As we progressed through this part we alternated between listening to our guide and trying samples from vendors she knew. Our samples were:
  • Chapulines - much better than we had near the zocalo, less gamey and crunchier. One woman clearly knows when the cooking class days are up because she was pressing samples of tiny grasshoppers into our hands as soon as we entered the indoor market.
  • Flowers - we didn't really sample these but smelled quite a few. One woman in the tour was shocked at how strong smelling and big the magnolias were. Many of the flowers and herbs had semi-medicinal (pseudo?) uses, others were culinary.
  • Raw meats - no we didn't sample these. Fascinating room though, with pig heads, dried meats, spines, full racks of ribs, and lots of chopping going on
  • Tamales - Melissa's favorite stop. We actually tried five tamales varieties at this station, which were all fresh, incredible, and different:
    • Rajas - Melissa's favorite of favorites, sauteed strips of poblanos and sauce folded into the steamed corn meal
    • Mole negro - pretty good but for such an important dish this wasn't a tour de force. I do think this was the best mole negro I had in Oaxaca though.
    • Dulce - a sweet one made with tuna, which is prickly pear from a cactus. When used, it's a red fruit juice flavor. But please imagine how confused we were seeing tuna flavored ice cream every other day for the previous month in Mexico...
    • Amarillo mole - the yellow mole
    • Chicken & Rojo mole - red mole
  • Breads - To no one's surprise, Melissa liked these more than me. The breads were good but nothing any well-breaded person hasn't tried before
  • Quesos - Oaxacan cheese is famous, but there are actually three kinds. We got to try them all at one dairy stop, but I can't remember all the names:
    • Quesillo - the famous Oaxacan cheese, this is what you'd get if you see Oaxacan cheese on a menu in the US. Strongly salted, extremely stringy, like a grown up, more intensely flavorful Mozzarella. You see people separating threads of these all day at street stalls to serve on tlayudas and quesadillas. Delicious, my favorite.
    • Another was a very fresh, soft, milky, grainy cheese -- basically ricotta
    • The last was a harder cheese similar to cotija, which is from the north. Salty and crumbly with a straightforward, savory flavor
  • Nieves - nieves are flavored ices. Our guide bought a plate with a scoop of every nieve flavor they sold at one stall for us to try. Some of the most interesting flavors were:
    • Lima - actually made with lime leaf for a more fragrant and less acidic flavor. Delicious and refreshing; we got this in town a few days later
    • A "burnt milk" flavor that goes best with the "tuna" flavor. Kind of like a roasty, vanilla ice cream flavor. If you think butter pecan you're not too far off
    • Nuez, or nut. Probably walnuts. Great flavor
  • Atole - this is a corn-based drink that comes in many flavors. We got a chocolate one to share as a group. This is basically the same as pozol from Chiapas, but served hot and much thicker. We'd also had a pineapple atole in San Cristobal that was quite different.
  • Someone bought a corn gelatin... dessert thing? It tasted kind of like a milky, corny thick jello. Interesting, none of us know what it actually is or how it's used. The vendors had huge bricks of it and would carve out smaller cubes for individual sale.
Man we had a nice day for this. Looking out from the indoor market

The meat corner. Didn't smell too bad, which is a good sign. Still not for the faint of heart and some vegetarians.

Some of those fresh, extra-yellow chickens for sale at room temp.

A local avocado varietal, it's like 80% seed!

Chocolate atole with the traditional frothing wand

After all this sampling and market touring, we said our thanks and goodbyes to the market guide and loaded back up into the van for the ride to the cooking school. The school is on a ranch in the hills well outside of Oaxaca City. I'm not sure why it's so far away (at least a half hour), but it's a beautiful building in the middle of nowhere.

Shortly after arriving at the school, the chef-owner and instructor, Susanna Trilling, introduced herself to the group. She employs a few local people to help out with classes, who served us a small, late breakfast of chilaquiles (one of my favorite Mexican dishes) with coffee and their house made aguas frescas, including an amaranth horchata (it was OK) and a ginger jamaica.

After breakfast Susanna spoke to us about what her school's mission and the day's menu. Susanna was a chef in the US for years before moving to Oaxaca, starting a few food-based ventures, and ultimately successfully launching the school. They do work with the local communities, such as training elementary school cooks on how to use tofu in student meals, and advocating for lesser known ingredients such as the amaranth (amaranth is a grain so it replaced the rice in their horchata, but we also used amaranth greens in the soup).

A caballero selling home made mezcals and cremas (I presume), no label. Weren't brave enough to buy one of these.

Seasons of my Heart cooking school. Huge kitchen, lots of room and seats; they had a great setup here.

A helper demonstrates toasting dried chiles on the comal

Our menu for the day was five courses, so we split into teams, each responsible for one course:
  1. Fish salbutes - a Yucatecan dish like a tostada
  2. Caldo de hojas de amaranto - soup with tofu "meatballs" and amaranth greens
  3. Ensalada de hojas verdes con jicama, guayaba y pepitas - salad with jicama (out of season so we used apples), guayaba and pumpkin seeds
  4. Mole amarillo de hongos silvestres - mole amarillo with mushrooms or pork and rice
    1. Arroz con chepil - rice with herbs, served with the mole
  5. Budin de elote - basically a cornbread pudding, with mezcal candied orange peel 
For some reason I volunteered for the salbutes without thinking that I'd probably enjoy the mole more. I guess I wanted to work with raw masa and get some practice frying with a trained chef. Melissa joined the soup team -- again to no one's surprise. The salad and rice were really nothing we needed a cooking class for, and the dessert sounded like a ton of work (we are not pastry people, that's what my Mom is for).

The downside to this class was that with so many people, no one ended up doing very much cooking at all and we had to figure out how to organize and work with strangers pretty quickly. It did all work out in the end, we kept busy and made some good dishes. I managed to learn a few tips, even for stuff I've done dozens of times at home (roasting chiles) and got decent at frying the salbutes. Sadly half of my team disappeared early on and grilled the fish so I couldn't have a hand in that, although I was able to try morsels of it straight off the grill.

One of the better choices the organizers made is that they strongly encourage couples and friends to split up into different groups to force new connections. We tend to stick together but had no problem with this and it worked out really well, we met more people and got to experience more of the cooking class collectively. There was one older couple that declined to split up (good naturedly) because the gentleman had very little interest in cooking and was only there because his wife enjoys these classes. They let that one slide.

Frying the tortillas for salbutes.
That's the proper double spatula frying technique and grip

For a few of the most unique and important processes in the meal, Susanna called us over for a demo. We saw a staff member toasting pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds) on a comal, constantly tossing them, while the hottest ones popped and jumped off the heat. Later we went over to the mole station to see them layering each stage of ingredients into the pot and cooking the intermediate result.

After we got through at least half of the prep, the Coronitas (smaller bottles of Corona) started showing up which made me happy since I generally insist on chain-drinking beers any time I deep fry. I believe Melissa had 4, so this may have been the most she's had to drink at a time on the entire trip, neck and neck with the catamaran ride to Isla Mujeres.

We cooked for about two hours, jumping around and trying to help out on neglected dishes and keeping an eye out for the Coronita guy. When it was time to start plating for service, we set up an assembly line with each person adding one layer of ingredients to the salbutes my team was responsible for. I personally fried maybe 40% of the tortillas and waited until the very end to make sure that every salbute got an ample sprinkle of sea salt, because I think fish is just about flavorless without proper seasoning.

Everybody sat down at the tables for dinner, which the support staff served with a bit of help from each course's team. Melissa and I agreed that the salbutes and salad were the best dishes, the soup needed a lot more salt than they were willing to send it out with, the mole was fine but not very yellow, and the corn pudding was interesting but not worth the effort.

The fish salbutes that my team made

This was pretty good; I usually like pomegranate on salads

Mole amarillo with rice pyramids and pork. Not bad

Overall, the class and food were good, but the best thing about this for us was the people. It was a great group of travelers and made friends with almost much everyone there. We think we hit it off with this group so well because it's a different crowd than the normal collection of backpackers. The average person we met on this trip was someone backpacking in their 20's, with a very small budget, and often not much of an established life back home. But when you pay $80 for a cooking class, that kind of traveler doesn't show up, so we met a lot more people like us, who were years into their careers, had more than a $25 a day budget, and may be able to use a Mexican cooking class back in real life.

At the end of class, Susanna and staff gave everyone one of the chocolate frothy stirring wands as a parting gift. We only took one since we had months of travel to go and are unlikely to use it in the first place, but appreciated the gesture (EDITOR'S NOTE: Adam didn't even want to take one.  I took it and said if anyone would appreciate it, his mom - who is QUITE the baker - certainly would.  We gave it to her).

Things we actually learned

  • When charring fresh chiles (we do this a lot), it's best to peel the skins off as much as possible because humans can't digest them. Really hard with tiny habaneros, easier with a big poblano. Personally, it's a fine tuning tip that's not necessary every time
  • When frying salbutes, they should not start to brown at all. None of us mastered this, but the tortillas should puff up like a football and only take 15-20 seconds to cook.
  • A key technique for this mole is to layer ingredients by mixing them in one at a time and cooking each intermediate stage a bit.
  • In some moles, burnt is a necessary flavor component. Chili seeds will be burnt black before being incorporated, and this is not a mistake
  • Mexicans do not each much soy or tofu. Very few know what to do with it.
  • The way to cut an onion for the pickled pink onions in dishes like cochinita pibil is not what you'd normally do. After halving the onion, you lay the half down flat and cut into it radially, as if marking the hours on a (half) clock. This keeps enough of the onion together to make small rings for the pickles.
  • Traditionally, making mole is the responsibility of the woman of the household. Mole negro is at least an all day affair with many helpers, probably two days if you include planning and prep. If you forget steps, your mole may come out very dark red or brown instead of black, and everyone in town will talk about you
  • In one of the chocolate drinks we saw, there are special tools and techniques to reduce the froth in the final product. In others, one of the goals is to have a lot of froth.
A view from the cooking school. It's remote and rustic.

They had great cacti growing on the grounds too.


  1. I am not quite sure what the limestone is used for?
    We would be that couple that sticks together!!
    Looking forward to you cooking us one or two of the things you learned!

    1. Thanks, Mom. Adam can explain everything to you about the limestone :).

      Dad is way more capable than the husband in the couple who stuck together in the kitchen. I was in the group with that couple - they were very, very nice, from Austin, had three sons, the last of whom had just gotten married. The husband had a good time, but definitely was there because she wanted to it (not in a bad way, just in a, hey she really wanted to do this so sure why not, type way). She loved to cook, he loved to eat :).