My wife Rachel and I visited Oaxaca in late December 2010. It was an inspiring visit on many levels. We found delicious, inventive food everywhere we turned; we visited nearby villages that specialize in vibrant, soulful crafts – weavings, pottery, hand-made knives, etc. – it’s a region alive with creativity.
So it shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise when we found ourselves touring the huge installation of unusual sculptures made entirely of large radishes in the zocalo (town square) in the heart of Oaxaca city. “Noche de los Rabanos” (Night of the Radishes) is an annual holiday tradition (on December 23 each year) in Oaxaca and attracts a gigantic crowd of admirers who wait in line for as long as two hours to tour the impressive spectacle. The night we attended also saw a visit from the governor of the state of Oaxaca, which involved stopping holding back all other viewers until he had passed through and making for an even longer wait. Fortunately we squeaked through before he arrived.
There were well over fifty of these elaborate installations in all, made by skilled craftsmen and craftswomen from all over Oaxaca. Many of them depict political uprisings or other events of historical significance. Some render actual buildings in exacting detail. Others are of various animals, farm work, saints, traditional ceremonies and nativity scenes. Then there were oddball ones like a huge dragon, a chessboard with pieces, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and a funny gnome-like fellow. There are also scenes created using dried flowers and corn husks, some of which are included in the photo gallery (link below), but the radishes stand out.
Special red radishes are grown for the event that can measure up to twenty inches in length. What I marveled at was the fleeting, temporal nature of these sculptures. The more elaborate ones take a team of people up to forty-eight hours to create, and they work non-stop in shifts throughout the day and night due to the high perishability factor. Someone is always misting the radishes to keep them from wilting, and of course it doesn’t help that daytime temperatures are quite warm. A first prize winner is chosen and for all their work they get their picture in the local paper. No cash prize, no special ceremony – art for art’s sake! We watched a few groups feverishly rushing to finish in the hours leading up to the event and there’s no question that the reward is in the process, not the end result. There was a joyous, engaged energy coming from everyone involved – lots of laughing, joking and good times. And two years later, a whimsical radish couple grace our NYE poster, bringing with them the spirit of this uniquely Oaxacan event.
Oaxaca is known as the land of seven moles, each of which is distinctly different. Some may include seeds or nuts, chocolate or plantains, as well as a wide variety of new world spices and flavorings. While some moles may be sweet and rounded, others can be spicy and astringent. Although the other ingredients all contribute to the full flavor profile, chiles are certainly the backbone to any mole.
When Comal was still in germination, John, Andrew and I all agreed that the foods of Oaxaca should play an important role on our menu. I don’t dispute that there are delicious and distinctive dishes to be found in all regions of Mexico, but Oaxaca’s stands out as the most developed, complex and soulful regional cuisine.
Above: Chilhaucle Negros grown by Beth LaDove of Modern Farmhouse in San Rafael
For me, one of the most exciting parts of working with Mexican food is my continuing self-education regarding chiles. Each variety brings very distinct elements to any dish, and this is no more apparent than in the realm of moles.
Although some of the chiles used in Oaxacan moles are readily available in the United States, others are elusive. For example, the chilhuacle negro, which is used to make mole negro, can only be found in Oaxaca. None are exported, in fact these chiles will not even be found in markets in Mexico outside of Oaxaca. Likewise with the costeño chiles, used to make mole amarillo.
I’ve found that I can closely replicate the flavors of the chilhuacle negro for the mole negro with a blend of other available chiles, including, mulato, ancho and cascabel. But we are also exploring growing some of these varieties locally. I brought back several dried chiles from my last trip to Oaxaca, and gave some to David Winsberg, of Happy Quail Farms. For those unfamiliar with David, he has a farm down in East Palo Alto, where he grows over 30 varieties of specialty peppers. His life’s passion is to find delicious varieties of peppers worldwide and turn us all on to them. He pretty much singlehandedly put the Padrón pepper on the dinner plate in America.
Above: Sanger duck enchiladas w/mole coloradito
Of the many varieties that I brought him, the only chiles that he had success with were the costeños. Interestingly, we discovered that there is no genetic distinction between the costeño amarillo, and costeño rojo; they grow concurrently on the same plants, and are sorted before they are taken to market. Also, our friend Beth LaDove of Modern Farmhouse had some success growing both costeños and chilhuacles negros for us this year (as well as a very impressive hoja santa plant), and now has seed to go bigger next year.
I have also recently connected with a woman who is bringing in Mayordomo chocolate, which I will be bringing in this week. For anyone who has visited Oaxaca City, Mayordomo has a few shops around the zocalo where they custom blend chocolate and spices in their beautiful vintage hand-crank spice grinders. The intoxicating fragrance can be smelled from blocks away.
I believe that flavors can reflect history, the food memories of a collected people. I have profound respect for the people of Oaxaca, and strive to pay homage through each plate of mole that we serve at Comal.
Dungeness crab may be named after a town in Washington state, but it is hard to dispute that this delicacy is more closely associated with the Bay Area. It is on the signage for Fisherman’s Wharf, and very few tourists who visit depart without partaking.
For those of us who live here, crab is part of the holiday season. The season opens each year right around the week of Thanksgiving, and runs through the spring. And every year, the fishermen hold the crabs at gunpoint until they get the wholesale price that they want. This year being no different, currently the crabs are blindfolded, claws restrained behind their backs. Thankfully, the crabbers are still hard at work in Oregon, providing a steady supply, and a price is expected to be agreed upon this week, ensuring a crab in every pot for Christmas.
Crab is such a part of our local culture that, in 1984, the Giants unveiled an anti-mascot, “The Crazy Crab”. An ugly foam crab with googly eyes, TV ads that season portrayed then Giants skipper Frank Robinson being physically restrained from assaulting the Crab. Fans were encouraged to poke fun at the Crazy Crab, and amid a ninety-six loss season, he suffered under a constant barrage of verbal assaults and thrown beers. He even had his own theme song, “All those fans in Giants land, love that Crazy Crab”, which brought boos and hisses as he scuttled from side to side. Occasionally the Giants break him out for a throwback night, there was a bobblehead night a few years ago, and there is even a fan club supporting his return to glory, called “Rehab the Crab”.
Dungeness crab season coincides with citrus season, which is a perfect pairing. On the menu now, one can find a salad of marinated crab, endive, avocado and Satsuma mandarins. Other crab dishes will surely make an appearance this season, such as the classic soup from Veracruz, Chilpachole de Jaiba. Even if you are an A’s fan, at Comal you can “love that Crazy Crab”.