How To Shop A Oaxacan Market Like A Pro — With Bricia Lopez Of Guelaguetza
We love shopping for food. We love it so much that here at LAist, we're on a quest to explore every kind of grocery store, market and mini-market in Los Angeles.
We've visited Armenian markets.
We've visited Korean markets.
We've visited Indian markets.
We've visited Thai markets.
Next stop, Oaxaca, and we couldn't ask for a better culinary ambassador than Bricia Lopez. Along with her siblings, she runs Guelaguetza, the Oaxacan restaurant her parents opened in Koreatown in 1994.
Lopez also does a million other things. She recently launched Mama Rabbit, a mezcal and tequila bar in Las Vegas. She co-hosts Super Mamás, a podcast about parenting. And just this week ,she debuted Oaxaca: Home Cooking from the Heart of Mexico, a cookbook she co-wrote with Javier Cabral, the editor of L.A. Taco and taco scout for The Taco Chronicles. The book is her attempt to share the ingredients, stories and the flavors of her native Oaxaca.
In Los Angeles, the Oaxacan community is concentrated in three main hubs: Koreatown, South L.A. and the Palms neighborhood of West L.A.
Lopez took us to Corredor Oaxaqueño Market, a small store on the corner of Pico Boulevard and Queen Anne Place in the heart of Koreatown for this tour of Oaxacan cuisine and culture.
——> FRUIT AND VEGETABLES <——
"You can just slice them up and eat them. These are a little too green. You would probably wait a little longer for them to ripen. What I look for in a plantain depends on what I'm going to do with it. If I'm cooking it, I'm looking for brown spots, something that can cook very easily in the stove. If I'm going to put it in a salad or eat it as a snack, then I look for a nice yellow color with a few spots here and there, so it's sweeter."
PLATANOS MACHOS (LARGE PLANTAINS)
"These are the big plantains. With bananas, brown spots generally mean they're about to go bad but with these plantains, it means they are perfectly ripe and ready to cook, bake or fry. We make molotes, a stuffed corn appetizer, out of these. You put them over an open fire and toast them with the skin on. You can also put them in the stove. Once the skin pops, you open them up, scoop out what's inside and shape them into something that's almost like a torpedo. You cut a slit in them and put some frito (pureed fried beans) on top. Then you close them up, fry them and serve them over crema and cheese. They're delicious."
CHILES DE AGUA
"Chiles de agua are the precious jewel of Oaxacan chiles. These are the chiles you would use to make chile relleno asado in Oaxaca. I think they sell them by the piece because that's how they're sold in Oaxaca. Their flavor is completely different from most chiles. It's spicy and really hard to describe. You roast them over an open fire. The skin will blister then you peel off the blistered part. You'll end up with a chile that looks like the raw one but it's tender and looks wet. Cut off the stem but keep all the seeds. You can cut the chiles into strips or chop them up. Grab some onions and dice those too. Stir them together with lemon, salt, a bit of oregano and the chile strips. Let them sit for about five minutes. It becomes like a salsa. You can also put it in a molcajete with roasted tomatoes and it'll be the most amazing salsa in the world. This is the secret to all Oaxacan salsas, the chile de agua."
"Oaxacan avocados are about as big as baby mangoes. You can actually eat them with the skin still on. They are packed with flavor but they have a very short lifespan."
MARACUYA (PASSION FRUIT)
"Maracuya is passion fruit and it's great for making aguas frescas or paletas."
"This is another fruit you can use to make ice cream or agua fresca. You can put it in your atole to give it a different flavor. Mamey is also beautiful. It has a big seed in it and some people say it's great for your hair. Mamey is sort of like a cantaloupe but it's milkier and more dense."
"It's also called chico sapote in Oaxaca, where you'll find a lot of ice cream stands that make and sell chico sapote ice cream."
MANGO CRIOLLO (BABY MANGO)
"This is something you would typically see if you go Tlacolula, one of the major cities in Oaxaca. People preserve these mangoes, sometimes in a spicy vinegar solution, and sell them in a bag with chili powder on top. They're called mangos en vinagre."
PITAYA/TUNA (CACTUS FRUIT)
"Pitayas are tart and sweet and great. It's what gives horchata from Oaxaca its distinct flavor and beautiful pink color. They're brown and about the size of a tennis ball. You want to carefully shake off the burrs. Then you cut them in half and scoop out the insides. You can eat them raw or make a puree. For Oaxacan horchata, you cut up some pitaya and boil it with sugar and water to make a pitaya simple syrup. When the horchata is made, you put cubes of cantaloupe and crushed walnuts on top. Then you just finish it off with the pitaya simple syrup. You have the white horchata, the orange cantaloupe, the crunch of the walnut and the beautiful red syrup. You can also find pitaya in ice cream. It's called tuna. People get freaked out because they think it's tuna fish ice cream but pitaya and tuna is the same thing."
"You would use this for agua de tamarindo, which is another type of agua fresca. You could also make a tamarind sauce or a tamarind syrup. Tamarind is very, very tart but we balance it with sugar and it becomes this beautiful tart and sweet flavor."
"This is sort of like a plum. In addition to raw, you'll find ones that have been preserved in a mix of water, piloncillo, cinnamon and anise. They are so good."
"This is a very small fruit, about the size of a cherry, and there's a pit in the middle. It comes from a tree. You can preserve them in different ways or you make ice cream out of them. Some people even make nance-flavored mezcal."
"It looks like a watermelon but it's a squash and you can use it to make agua fresca. It's called agua de chilacayota. You open it up, cut it into quarters and boil it with the rind still on. Once it gets tender, you open it up and add piloncillo (more on that later) and cinnamon. Some people use anise as well. You blend it up and strain it to make agua de chilacayota. You leave the skin there for flavor when you're cooking it but you strain it before you serve it. You actually want to eat the fibrous strains. The seeds are also delicious. It's almost like a meal on its own when you have that drink because you eat it with a spoon. Around Dia de los Muertos, you make candy chilacayote. It's the same process but you let it cook longer so it caramelizes and you just scoop it out."
FLOR DE CALABAZA (SQUASH BLOSSOMS)
"This is a common ingredient in Oaxacan quesadillas. You rinse the squash blossoms, pat them dry, add a bit of Oaxacan cheese and close up the tortilla. If you're making a quesadilla, it will wilt inside the quesadilla. You can also make a soup out of it, like you would with any other squash. There's a dish called guias, it's a wild squash soup but you don't use the actual squash, you only use the vines. You boil them into a broth then add the leaves to enhance the flavor."
NOPALES (CACTUS PADDLES)
"In Oaxacan markets, you can buy the full paddles. You can also buy packages of them already sliced into pieces and ready for a salad or some other dish. Nopales are versatile. You can roast them over a fire, put them in tacos, use them as a side dish. You can actually juice them too, blend them in with your green juice in the morning for medicinal purposes."
——> HERBS <——
HIERBA SANTA (SACRED LEAF)
"There are two herbs that I think define Oaxacan flavor. The first one is hierba santa. This is what you need to make the best caldo de pollo (chicken soup) ever. You also use it in mole verde, in all the moles, basically. And in soups. It's great in egg dishes. If you're making fresh masa, you just put some hierba santa in your tortilla. You cook it, then put an egg on top and it's delicious. This one here is dried but hierba santa is mostly used fresh. It grows almost like a weed and you can find it in any Oaxacan garden."
HOJA DE AGUACATE (AVOCADO LEAF)
"This is another mother herb for Oaxacan cuisine. This is what you would use to give your black beans that secret Oaxacan flavor. When people eat beans from Oaxaca and they say, "I don't understand how your beans taste so different," it's because of this herb. It is a must in our black bean paste, the paste we spread on our tlayudas. It is why our tlayudas taste so different. You almost always use hoja de aguacate dry, the same way you would use a bay leaf."
"My dad told me something when I was in Oaxaca not too long ago and it totally made sense. He said that people in Oaxaca use their dry oregano, almost the same way we here in America use ground pepper. I know a lot of cooks in Oaxaca who keep a bit of dry oregano next to their stove and use it to finish their dishes. You place a bit of oregano between your hands, crumble it up and sprinkle it on sauces, roasted chiles and salads."
"This is dried hibiscus. You use it to make agua fresca, syrup, paletas, desserts, tacos, you name it. The most common way to have it is as an agua fresca. You boil the flowers, drain them, reserve the liquid, then dilute it with more water. It's tart so use sugar or syrup to sweeten it to your liking."
——> DRINKS <——
"Chocolate atole is one of my favorite breakfast drinks in Oaxaca. It is a combo of hot atole and chocolate. What makes it so different is the deliciously sweet cacao foam that sits on top. That foam is made from these cacao disks. You pour cold water over them and whisk them with a molinillo until they are fully dissolved and a thick foam is formed. The key to preparing these is to use cold water and a clean bowl with zero traces of any kind of fat or oil. When you drink it, you have this experience where it's cold, sweet and foamy on top then hot, warm atole in the bottom. It's really, really good."
"These small coconut seeds are one of the key ingredients in tejate, a cold, nutritious drink made from corn, rosita de cacao, sugar and coyul (or mamey seeds). You cook the corn, roast the rest of the ingredients then grind them all together. This creates a thick paste that is diluted with water, sugar and ice. It is an experience and one of the most popular drinks in Oaxaca."
"Oaxaqueños have a very special relationship with the way they drink their coffee. You can boil either water or milk on the stove then drop in a spoonful of this ground coffee. After 5 to 7 minutes, you strain it over your cup and that's it. In certain parts of Oaxaca, brands like Nescafe and Cafe Legal have taken over but today there is a resurgence of Oaxacan-grown coffee."
"In Oaxaca, you can get about a pound of these fresh cacao beans for $8. To make chocolate you toast them, not in an oven but over fire in a comal or in a non-stick skillet. After you toast them, you peel them and grind them with sugar, toasted almonds and toasted cinnamon to make your own hot chocolate base. When I visit Oaxaca, I love going to places where they make the hot chocolate base in front of you, then drinking a warm hot chocolate and eating bread while talking to people. It's amazing. The chocolate is ground in a metate with fire underneath so the cacao beans melt and get ground up with all the other different ingredients."
"If you're from Oaxaca and you miss having a nice cup of chocolate, this is what you get. The thing about Oaxacan chocolate is that you can actually make it out of milk or water. People mostly drink it with water. So you warm up water, drop in a chocolate tablet, which I'm sure they have here, allow that chocolate to melt, grab a whisk and whisk it together until you see foam."
TE DE LIMON (LEMONGRASS)
"We don't cook with lemongrass but we make tea with it."
——> BEANS & MORE <——
"I love that you can find an array of beans in Oaxacan stores. In Oaxacan cooking, we use black beans the most. They make the most delicious frijoles de la olla."
"We've got a few different kinds of maize here. Maiz molido is ground up corn, similar to corn meal. Maiz quebrado y tostado is toasted and has a coarser texture. You would use it to make a mole called segueza or for granillo for your atole. Maiz tostado is simply maiz that has been toasted and not ground. It makes delicious tortillas or atole. Segueza is a type of mole that has bits of tender cooked corn in it, which happens because the corn that has been cooked inside the mole."
"In Oaxaca, people toast garbanzos, grind them up and use the flour to make garbanzo soup. You fry onions in a saucepan in vegetable oil and add water. After it comes to a boil, you pour in this flour dissolved in lukewarm water and cook the soup until it thickens. This soup is typically eaten with a tlayuda, hard boiled eggs and a tomatillo salsa."
TLAYUDAS (LARGE CRISP TORTILLAS)
"These big tortillas are 100% corn. They are cooked in a big mesh steel square, which helps give them their unique texture. They're not quite hard, not quite soft. Sometimes people rehydrate them by splashing water on them and putting them in a plastic bag or putting them on the stove over an open fire. I also use these to make chilaquiles."
——> MEAT, FISH & DAIRY <——
TASAJO (DRIED BEEF)
"This is a meat that's a lot like carne asada. It's a specific cut and only Oaxacan butchers do it. We have in-house butchers at Guelaguetza that do this. You can either fry or grill it."
CAMARON SECO (DRIED SHRIMP)
"There's this chile paste from Oaxaca called chintextle. You make it by toasting chiles, shrimp, herbs and spices and blending them all together in a food processor (or a molino, if you have it). It is the most amazing salsa. You put that on a tortilla and that's it. Dried shrimp is very popular in a lot of dishes from the isthmus of Oaxaca. Another easy way to incorporate it is to roast it, mince it and use it in your pico de gallo. It elevates the flavor in an unbelievable way."
CREMA (SOUR CREAM)
"Cacique's Salvadoran crema is my favorite sour cream. It's not Mexican but you'll usually find it in Mexican stores. Cacique's Crema Mexicana is lighter while the Crema Salvadorena is tangier and heavier on the cheese side. I love the Salvadoran cream. Anything that calls for sour cream or any sort of cream, that's what I use, unless I'm having a dessert. If I'm having strawberries and cream, I'll use Crema Mexicana."
——> SWEETS <——
"Cajeta is a thick, dark caramel made from sugar and goat's milk. It is almost always used in traditional flan recipes. This brand is super iconic and a must in every Mexican household."
"Piloncillo is essentially packed dark brown cane sugar. The name comes from the shape of its packaging. This is heavily used in the fall season. We use it to make candied squash for Día de los Muertos, to sweeten our atoles, to make cafe de olla and to make ponche during the holidays."
JAMONCILLO (CARAMEL FUDGE)
"This is a candy made with piloncillo. Sometimes it has nuts or coconut flakes on it."
——> BAKED GOODS <——
PAN DE YEMA (EGG BREAD)
"This is a fluffy egg bread similar to challah or brioche."
"This is a roll with chocolate and cinnamon inside. It's like a miniature little loaf with a curl on top. They actually cook them in sardine cans."
A SIMPLE MEAL
"Here's what I would do return to L.A. from Oaxaca and I miss my house. I grab a pack of crisp tortillas and aciento, a pork rind paste. People always mistake it for lard but it's not. Although it's derived from pork, it has a little bit of crunch in its texture. I would get some chorizo or tasajo. I would definitely grab nopales, chile de agua, onions and avocado. I would heat up my tortilla, slather it with aciento and put it over fire so it gets toasty. I would put some queso fresco on top. Then I would grill my tasajo and put that on top. I would do exactly what I told you with the chile de agua and some avocado, and I would be the happiest person in the world."
——> HOUSEWARES & MORE <——
"Smaller jicaras — bowls made of gourds — are made to drink mezcal. The larger ones are used to drink tepache, a fermented pineapple drink. The medium and larger ones are used to drink tejate, a drink made out of cacao flower and corn."
"This is a wooden whisk that you put inside one of those green clay jars called jarros de barro verde. You pour in water and chocolate then put it on the stove under medium or high heat. You allow the chocolate to dissolve in the water. Then you get a molinillo and you whisk it. To do that, you put the handle of the whisk between your hands and you rub them together to create the foam. You can put these jars on the stove and they won't shatter."
"Cantaros are generally used to store and/or sell aguas frescas. The one in the middle, you usually use it to pour mole, to cook up a big guisado or to make tejate."
"I think Gap sells one of these purses for $60 now but you can come here and buy it for a lot less. You'll find many of these in the Mercado de Abastos in Oaxaca. They are primarily made by women who are in prison and do this for work."
You can visit Corredor Oaxaqueño Market at 4475 W Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, 90019.