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Saturday, June 22, 2024

A Tangy Tour of the Fermented Flavors Flowering in Oaxaca

On a trip to Oaxaca City, Mexico, just before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, my wife Elisabeth and I wondered if we noticed a fermentation trend bubbling to the surface. A handful of health food stores, often catering to foreign visitors, advertised offerings like sauerkraut, kombucha, and kefir on handmade wooden signs next to their front doors.

Two years later on return trips, fermented food was easier to notice, showing up, for example, in the fermented limonada with raspberries, creating a pink, fizzy, funky drink at Filemón y Sagrado bakery and cafe, and I became better at noticing where it appears in traditional foods. 

To learn how much it had caught on, and where I'd find fermentation in Oaxacan cuisine, I called Tony Juárez, an avid fermenter and culinary educator at Instituto Universitario de Oaxaca. I started by asking how he got into fermenting.

“I come from a family of diabetics,” he says, making a global gesture at the ubiquity of sugary beverages in Mexico and around the world. “I wanted something to drink that wasn't going to kill me.”

This was neither the answer I was expecting, nor the most typical way people get into fermenting in Oaxaca, but Juárez explains that there's both a historic use of fermentation here as well as a new strain of enthusiasm. Here in the southern state of Oaxaca, where its capital is essentially the capital of southern Mexico, fermentation and preservation have often been a function of climate and location. Juárez cites local fermenting hot spots like the coastal town of Puerto Escondido and the Istmo region, where the preservation technique not only helps foods and beverages last longer in the hot climate but also enhances their flavors.

In Oaxaca's markets, you'll find stalls with artfully stacked towers of little fish and pink-orange shrimp, both preserved with salt. Street cart vendors sell “curados,” where fruit and sugar commingle and eventually create a boozy-delicious syrup.

Common curados include green mangoes, green plums, and the yellow, cherry-sized nance fruit. Juárez says he uses the green (or unripe) fruit “so they stay crunchy and delicious.” Bartenders at the high-end bar Selva spear a cured nance or two on a toothpick to use as a cocktail garnish, a clever local twist that replaces a maraschino cherry.

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“Historically, we preserved because we needed to eat,” says Juárez, “but now we realize that there's a lot that can be done with preserves and ferments.” Juárez is now selling lunches and ferments like kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha out of his home kitchen with an outfit called La Tropa Mustélida.

“People worry that newer or different foods might take our culinary traditions away, but none of our culinary traditions are in danger,” he says. “This is just new stuff we can adapt and apply to our traditions.” 

I was particularly interested in finding where the current wave of enthusiasm rubbed off onto tradition. Juárez sent me over to eat at Teocintle, a restaurant run by one of his former students, Germán Garcia. While some tony and creative spots in town like Labo Fermento create impressive ferments and serve them as part of an Asian menu, dinner at Teocincle is a Oaxacan meal that simply weaves in these new ideas.

Garcia and his crew of six cooks are all from the Mixteca region of northwest Oaxaca, where fermentation is a way of life.

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After being greeted outside the door by a trio of neighborhood canine rascals, dinner began with a “fermented treat” of chilled chamomile kombucha, served apéritif style in a mezcal glass, a cousin of another drink Garcia does with fermented ginger, salt, and sugar. One of the stars of the multicourse meal was a plate that featured artfully arranged fruit and vegetables, including cucumber macerated in pulque, a gently boozy fermented beverage made from agave. The ripe mango cubes that have fermented for 12 days sit above it, and on top of those are spherified orbs of beet that had been fermented for eight days in water and salt. Elisabeth went nuts for this dish.

During the meal there were also garnachas, pillowy masa discs about as wide as a soda can that often feature shredded meat and are sometimes garnished with pickled purple cabbage. At Teocintle, there were two kinds of masa in the disc, topped with gently cooked cherry tomatoes and pickled radishes.

While some of the higher-end restaurants in town have traded a sense of place for a more globalized Michelin Guide style, this fancy meal has deep local roots.

Garcia gave me a tour of the restaurant’s tiny kitchen with preserved food and ferments tucked onto almost every available shelf. On this day, he was making pan de pulque—pulque bread—where the fermented drink acts as a leavener. In a tiny fermentation room, he had an enormous SCOBY hotel, a giant container housing several semi-slimy pucks of the (here comes the source of the acronym) symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast used to make kombucha. He also pointed out a hibiscus kombucha and ribbons of purple cabbage fermenting sauerkraut-style, perhaps destined to garnish some future garnachas.

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His restaurant clearly caters to food adventurers and is among the pricier establishments in town; it's not a guaranteed sell to the local crowd. “Some people like it and they're interested, and some people aren't interested. It's complicated. But we ferment to help our guts,” Garcia says, pointing at my belly. “It's a good feeling after you eat.” 

For more of a sense of the everyday consumption of fermented and preserved food, I stopped into the city's Sánchez Pascuas market. In the back, food stalls run by Covid-masked grandmothers, aunties, and their families fed locals and tourists food like moles, tamales wrapped in banana leaves, and peppers stuffed with a sweet and savory chicken picadillo. 

I headed to the middle of the market to speak with Elizabeth Gonzales at a stand called Dulces Tolita. In the front corner, she displayed giant jugs of fruits and vegetables like mangos or cooked potatoes, all preserved in vinegar. I asked where the vinegar came from and she smiled, saying, “I make it. We do pineapple and apple vinegars.” When I asked about the batch size, she said it was about 200 liters and gestured nonchalantly at a big trash can for reference.

“People use the vinegars for salsas, marinades, or chileajo,” she says, referencing the vegan-friendly mix of cooked vegetables in a blended chile sauce that's used as a filling for tortas and tacos. Every batch takes a month or two to make, and when they’re done, Gonzales uses them to make a vinegar-soaked subset of snacks called antojitos, such as green plums, green mangoes, cooked potatoes, or a native apple. They are zippy, pucker-y treats, and I came to enjoy them as a pick-me-up for the end of the workday. There's also another local specialty she'll make called piedrazos, where a yeasty and stale-to-the-point-of-hardness bread is dunked into vinegar and served with chiles, pickled vegetables, and perhaps a bit of cheese. (I'd spoken with Tony Juárez about these piedrazos, and he referred to them as “kinda weird but oh so worth it.”)

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Nearby, at the Pan Con Madre bakery, owner Jorge Ocampo dances between traditional ideas and new flavors. He specializes in pastries and sourdough breads, all of which go through a four-day fermentation process that gives everything a pleasing sourdough tang. Even his focaccia, which typically can be made in an afternoon, gets the four-day process.

While there are traditional breads here in Oaxaca, like the football-shaped baguette cousin called the bolillo, the yellow, yolk-rich pan de yema, and the sweet pan dulce, Ocampo considers introducing funkier breads to his customers to be an incremental process.

“Those breads can be good. Pan de yema traditionally uses a bit of yesterday's dough in today's new batch, a bit like sourdough starter,” he says before lamenting: “but Mexicans are tortilla people.”

Ocampo grew up in Guanajuato and studied biology before moving to Oaxaca, where he had an uncle who was a priest living in the hills above town. Ocampo’s bakery has grown through phases and locations, but it's popular enough that demand outstrips its kitchen size, so food comes out in staggered increments throughout the day. The pan dulce is ready at 9, focaccia at 11, baguettes at 12:30, rolls at 1. Due to the four-day ferment, once they're gone, they're erased from the blackboard.

Since starting Pan Con Madre seven years ago, Ocampo has slowly been chipping away at people's perceptions, and even reminding them of the past.

I point out that many of his customers walking in on the day we're talking are tourists and expats, but he knows he's making headway with the locals too.

“Of course there are tourists,” he says, “but there is also the man who walks around selling cigarettes and candy, who comes in once a week for a sourdough baguette because it reminds him of the bread he grew up with.”

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