Cooking Classes in Oaxaca

I miss real Mexican food. The hot, the spicy, and the flavour of it. Many North Americans think they “know” Mexican food but most of us are acquainted with its poor second cousin, Tex-Mex. I miss the real deal. This is a story about cooking (and eating) authentic Mexican food.

Two years ago, the intrepid DP and I spent our last week-long Mexican vacation in the city of Oaxaca. We had just been in a car accident in Texas (in which DP’s beloved little Honda Civic was damaged beyond repair and I was merely damaged) and plans were touch and go for a little while as we figured out how to make this vacation work. We were travelling with our good friend Andrea from school and were to meet up with my mother and her friend Muriel in Oaxaca. In the end, we just got on the plane. DP provided the tender loving care and even carried my too-heavy purse for a few days. (Now that’s love!)

Research has always been one of my favourite parts of travel; I love the planning for, and anticipation of, a trip. We’d heard so many good things about Oaxaca but had never travelled to the capital of the southern Mexican state that borders on the Pacific. I had visited the Oaxacan resort town of Huatulco with no less than twenty of my friends and colleagues from school (perhaps we went in search of our lost youth) but I was now looking forward to the slower pace and the cultural events promised by that grand colonial dame, Oaxaca City. A friend who lives in Oaxaca for part of the year recommended a charming B&B called Las Bugambilias and we were not disappointed with our lovely theme rooms, “Violeta” and “Iris”. When I first visited the website for Las Bugambilias, I learned that Chef Pilar Cabrera of La Olla, the restaurant at Las Bugambilias, also owned her own B&B where she offered cooking classes to small groups. (Yipeeee!) It was to Casa de los Sabores that we were headed at 9:30 on a scorching April morning; it was already hot enough to send us scurrying onto the shaded side of the street.

We were a party of five: Mom, Muriel, Andrea, DP and slower-than-normal me. Pilar, who was born and raised in Oaxaca, greeted us warmly and led an informal talk about the day. While we were talking, a group of American high school boys getting ready for their day in Oaxaca. Then I realized that the girls from their group were actually staying at Las Bugambilias with us. (Clever teachers)! DP and I felt immediately at home with all that great high-school-kid-energy! Pilar explained that first we would shop, then cook, and then eat. Perfect! Throughout the day, Pilar often stopped to tell us about her mother and grandmother, both of whom were accomplished cooks in their own right. This was going to be more than a cooking class; Pilar was taking us on a tour of the tastes and scents and stories of both traditional and contemporary Oaxacan cuisines.

Salivating yet?

After handing a colourful shopping bag to each of us, Pilar led us on a short walk to a nearby market called Mercado de La Merced. Each of us had a copy of our shopping list as we were buying the ingredients for our cooking class and the (hopefully) resulting meal. Pili, as she is called, warned us that one should always be open to sorpresas (surprises) at the market; maybe we would find something wonderful for dessert. As we walked, Pilar picked up various fruits and vegetables and described how she might use this in her own cooking. We stopped at a chocolate-making mill where Pilar explained the ingredients that are used: cacao, cinnamon, almonds and sugar. The owner asked if we would like to sample his chocolate. Yes! We also bought some for our mole. We smelled hierba santa and discussed which fruits and vegetables were at their very best today. Pilar admired the mushrooms and added some to her bag. It seemed that we were buying a mountain of food for a riculously small number of pesos. Pilar reminded us that food is much cheaper in the south than in the north of Mexico where DP and I were living.

It was a genuine treat to listen to Pilar as she is a gifted and passionate food-lover and teacher; I had been following along closely when, unfortunately, I slipped up ever so slightly. I couldn’t help myself; I was attracted to these pinatas like a moth to the flame. The pinatas were bright and colourful and whimsical and they appealed (called out, in fact) to my inner child and her new digital camera. My mother quietly reminded me that we were here to learn about food. She may have even cleared her throat.

The Mexican market is a wonderfully chaotic place where all of your senses will be assaulted simultaneously. These markets are not for the feint of heart; no wimps need apply. I’ll be honest here; the bright yellow rigor-mortis chickens threw me off my game a little bit but the rest of the market was like Christmas morning. It was clear that while I bought my groceries at our neighbourhood HEB in Monterrey, much of Mexico was shopping in markets just like this one. This market was not experiencing a renaissance in the same way that Farmers Markets are all the rage at home in Canada (and thank goodness). This market had never been displaced/replaced as the primary place to buy food!

Chiles. My rural Ontario childhood did not prepare me for Oaxaca’s abundance of chiles. What I know about chile peppers wouldn’t fill a postage stamp. Here goes… Although we often think of chiles as a vegetable, we actually use them as a spice. Chiles originated in the Americas where Columbus “discovered” them in the Caribbean. Like all good things (and some bad) the planting and use of chiles spread like wildfire (pun intended). Chiles are still most closely associated with Mexican cuisine. (That’s it. Thank you)! We were looking for dried chilhuacle chilis, dried mulato chilis and dried pasilla mexicano chilis and we encountered stalls with chiles piled so high, one could barely see the vendor herself.

Back at Casa del los Sabores, our now-heavy shopping bags in hand, Pilar provided us with the menu and recipes that would keep us busy and enthralled for the next two hours.
Our Menu:
1) Chicken flautas made with soft tortillas and fried in olive oil
2) Salad with seasonal vegetables including squash blossoms
3) Chicken with mole negro or dark mole (Recipe is listed below)
DP was practically jumping up and down, such is his enormous love for moles (all moles) and the notion that we, ourselves, would soon be mole chefs. (Ha!) We unpacked our groceries and Pilar placed all of the ingredients in brightly coloured baskets so that we could see and discuss what we would use to prepare each part of our meal… and how we would use it.

It was at this point that the cooking portion of our half-day began in earnest. You can see that Pilar’s kitchen is the perfect cooking classroom, spacious and well equipped with an eight-burner gas stove. Pilar runs her delightful kitchen efficiently; no lazing about is permitted on her watch. Each of us was given a series of jobs cutting, dicing, stirring or rolling while Mary, the sous-chef, cut limones and whisked dirty pots and plans out of the way, washing them as fast as we could dirty them. Pilar taught us the food prep and cooking methods necessary for our recipes and if someone finished their task early, they pitched in and helped one of the other cooks.

My mom is a great cook but this Oaxacan meal was, understandably, right off her radar screen. She had never tried squash blossoms although she said she liked them very much. The mole, however, was not her thing. Perhaps the dynamic duo of chocolate and hot chile spices is an acquired taste although it didn’t take DP and me long to acquire it. Mom was enchanted (obsessed) with the aprons we wore for our class and she declared that one of her missions for the trip was to buy a lovely apron for herself. To no one’s surprise, her mission was accomplished.

Finally, everything was ready. We set the table with brightly coloured linens and heavy Mexican glasses adorned with blue rims. For the first time all day, a quiet descended over the group as we tucked into our salad and then, with much anticipation, the plato fuerte (main course) of chicken with mole negro. I kick myself for not having taken photos of our feast; I was, undoubtedly, too busy eating it. This mole shot, from Flickr, looks almost identical to the meal that we made.

Photo Credit for mole: The Gourmetro at Flickr.

Our feast was a celebration of each one of the individual ingredients and what they achieved together. The meal was also a little ode to Pilar, who is an amazing chef and patient teacher. Cheers to the skills and perseverance of five novices on their way to mole city!

For those of you who are feeling adventurous, I can attest to the success of this recipe… just leave yourself a couple of hours.

Pilar’s Recipe for Mole Negro Sauce
The region of Oaxaca in Mexico boasts one mole (sauce) for each day of the week. Mole negro is perhaps the state’s most famous one and is typically served with chicken. (The instructions for the chicken are below.) The sauce takes about 90 minutes to prepare.

4 dried chilhuacle chilis (optional)
8 dried mulato chilis
8 dried pasilla mexicano chilis
3 tsp. lard (or olive oil)
1/4 cup almonds
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup shelled pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup shelled pecans
1/4 cup shelled peanuts
4 slices of egg bread or other semi-sweet bread, torn into pieces
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1/3 tsp thyme
1/3 tsp marjoram
1/3 tsp oregano
4 avocado leaves
2 cinnamon sticks
1/8 tsp anise
3 whole cloves
1/8 tsp cumin
3 whole black peppercorns
1 tomato, roasted
3 tomatillos, roasted
3 cloves of peeled garlic, roasted
1/2 medium peeled onion, roasted
4 cups of chicken broth (from the chicken recipe below)
3 tbsp. sugar
1/2 cup Mexican chocolate
salt to taste

1. Clean the dried chilis with a damp cloth. Open the chilis with a knife by making a lengthwise slit down the side. Remove the seeds, stems and veins. Reserve the seeds.
2. Sautee the chilis in a saucepan in a bit lard, vegetable or olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of the pan) at medium heat. Remove each chili as it begins to change colors and becomes puffy. Place them in a bowl lined with paper towel. If the chilis start to burn, lower the heat.
3. In the same pan, sauté the raisins until they puff up and brown a bit. Set them aside and sauté the almonds, pumpkin seeds, pecans and peanuts together for about 5 minutes. Set aside. Next, fry the dried bread pieces on both sides for about 2 minutes in the remaining oil or lard. Next, fry the sesame seeds until they obtain a deep brown color. (Add salt to prevent the seeds from splattering out.) Remove seeds and sauté the thyme, marjoram, oregano, cinnamon, avocado leaves, cloves and black peppercorns for 1 minute.
4. Roast the tomatoes, tomatillos and peeled onion and garlic in a heavy, open skillet on high. Do not use oil. (If you have a roasting rack that can be placed over a gas range, that will work well. You can also put the vegetables on a foil-lined tray in the oven with the temperature on broil. Keep a close eye, though; tomatoes roast faster than the other items and will likely need to be removed first.) Once the skins wrinkle and the edges are slightly burned, remove. Peel the tomatoes.
5. Place the spices, tomatoes and 1 cup of chicken broth in a blender. Blend until smooth. Pour into a bowl and set aside.
6. Place the sautéed chilis and 1 1/2 cups of chicken broth into the blender. Blend until the mixture becomes a smooth paste.
7. Heat the remaining unused lard/oil at a medium temperature in a deep pot and pour in the spice mixture. Cook for 3 minutes. Add the blended chilis and cook for an additional 3 minutes. Add the sugar and chocolate and stir for 5 minutes, allowing the sauce to thicken. The sauce is ready when you can catch glimpses of the bottom of the pot while stirring.
8. Add the rest of the chicken broth and season with salt. Cook for 3 more minutes over medium heat. Add chicken pieces a few minutes prior to serving.

Make the chicken prior to beginning the mole sauce.
1 whole chicken (or pre-cut chicken pieces equivalent to a whole chicken)
1 onion chopped into quarters
2 garlic cloves
Sea salt to taste
Place the chicken in a deep pot in six cups of water. Add the other ingredients. Bring to a boil at medium-high heat until the chicken is cooked all the way through (a minimum of 30 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken). Reserve the broth for the mole sauce. If using a whole chicken, remove it from the broth after cooking. Cool and cut into serving sized pieces. Reserve at room temperature until the mole sauce is ready.

To see Pilar via YouTube video click here.

Casa de los Sabores
Libres No. 205
Col. Centro C.P. 68000
Oaxaca, Oax. Mexico
Tel/Fax: 011 52 (951) 516 5704
E-mail at:
Website address:


  1. I was surprised to see myself, in our cooking class, stirring the mole. That blog brought back so many good memories. Almost makes me want to go back!

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