Holy Mole! Explore the Flavors and Traditions of Oaxaca at La Casa de Los Sabores

People from all over the world travel to Oaxaca, Mexico to experience the local culture, historical insights, and gastronomic adventures. Tasting my way through regional cuisines and dining with locals are my favorite and most delicious way to experience a new destination.  So, if you’re like me…taking a cooking class at Casa de Los Sabores to experience the flavors and traditions of Oaxaca should be added to your foodie bucket list!

Chef Pilar’s Unique Perspective

Casa de Los Sabores cooking classes are led by chef and La Olla restaurant owner, Pilar Cabrera. For more than 15 years she has been sharing her culture and passion for authentic Mexican cuisine. Her twice weekly, half-day cooking classes offer visitors the opportunity to learn secret family recipes and traditional dishes that make Oaxaca so colorful and flavorful.

Chef Pilar offers a different perspective given her background as a food-scientist-turned-chef. She’s also a master when it comes to moles and features one of the seven famous Oaxacan moles as the centerpiece on her menus.

unique flavors and traditions of Oaxaca

Chef Pilar explains the difference between the chili peppers used to make the Coloradito mole sauce by comparing the Chilhuacle Rojo Chile to the Guajillo Chile. Photo by Sharon Kurtz

Mole is one of the most representative dishes of Mexico, especially for major celebrations. Moles come in various flavors and have many ingredients, with chili peppers as the common factor. Mole Colorado is a marriage of chilies, garlic, spices, chocolate, and sesame seeds.  The sauce from this mole is red due to the tomatoes, guajillo peppers, and slight reddishness of dried ancho chilies.  The sauce is slightly sweet, spicy, savory, velvety, and rich.

unique flavors and traditions of Oaxaca

Coloradito de Pollo with Garden Rice topped with sautéed wild mushrooms we purchased on our market shop. This complex mole sauce is a specialty of Oaxacan cuisine, most often served at celebratory occasions. Photo by Sharon Kurtz

Our five-course meal, designed to help us experience the flavors and traditions of Oaxaca, included guacamole as an appetizer, green salad, Colorado Mole with chicken and rice, and dessert.  While many items on the menu are set, Chef Pilar emphasized the importance of improvisation depending on fresh and seasonal ingredients we found during our local market tour.

unique flavors and traditions of Oaxaca

Perfectly ripe avocados mashed by hand in the molcajete mortar with garlic, cilantro, and fresh lime juice make the perfect guacamole. Photo by Sharon Kurtz

Cooking Classes Take to the Market

The classes start promptly at 9:30 a.m. on the rooftop terrace of La Olla restaurant. Chef Pilar meets the excited group of students and shares what to expect for the day. For my class, we began by introducing ourselves. I discovered we were a diverse group of 9 from Canada, England, Australia, and the U.S. But we all had two things in common— our love of food and enjoyment of off-the-beaten-path travel adventures.

Our group trouped on foot from La Olla to the nearby Mercado “Sanchez Pascuas” to shop for the fresh produce for our menu.   As we wound our way through the market stalls, we not only found the usual vegetables and fruits but also discovered an even greater array of mysterious botanical and culinary delights.

heirloom tomatoes - unique flavors and traditions of Oaxaca

This tower of organic heirloom tomatoes, just picked and fully ripe, had the most amazing aroma… sweet with tart overtones. Photo by Sharon Kurtz

We learned so much by experiencing the market with the chef. She introduced us to her favorite vendors for masa, produce, cheese, and other local products. She bought several ingredients for our class (providing us with shopping bags to help carry them). Throughout the shopping experience, she pointed out and explained many things. And like all great aspiring chefs, we smelled, touched, and sampled everything we could including chapulines, the seasoned and crispy fried grasshoppers that are an Oaxacan specialty.

unique flavors and traditions of Oaxaca found in Mercado Sanchez Pascuas

Chef Pilar is a regular at the Mercado Sanchez Pascuas and frequents vendors with the best vegetables and herbs. Photo by Sharon Kurtz

Chef Pilar seeks out small-scale farmers who offer limited quantities of goods rather than visiting the larger, established stalls. She believes the produce and herbs provided by the smaller growers are fresher and she is passionate about supporting them. She found some end-of-the-season wild mushrooms picked the previous day. We visited with the vendor and learned where she harvested them. Before Chef Pilar added them to her market bag, we all experienced the delight of the earthy aroma. We later sautéed them with garlic and herbs for a wonderful addition to our meal.

unique flavors and traditions of Oaxaca - mushrooms in the market

A Zapotec native woman harvested wild mushrooms from the mountainous region close to Oaxaca the previous day. We were able to smell the earthy aroma before purchasing them for our lunch menu. Photo by Sharon Kurtz

Preparing to Cook

Leaving the market with bags full of fresh produce, herbs, and culinary finds, we headed to Chef Pilar’s house. We each donned a brightly colored embroidered apron (that you can find in the local market). Chef’s modern home was perfectly set up for our group cooking class with an open-plan lounge, kitchen, and dining area. There was a light well above the center island to keep it bright. Her personality was evident in the home, with large-scale colorful paintings and folk art reflecting her Oaxacan heritage.

Her two assistants organized the market ingredients on the dining table, now covered and serving as our prep station. They passed out our assigned recipes while Chef explained each of the many ingredients piled before us. She explained the various types of chilies, vegetables, and spices, explaining the historical and cultural importance of each, often reaching back to pre-Hispanic times.

unique flavors and traditions of Oaxaca

The prep table filled with produce, spices, and herbs for our cooking class. Chef Pilar impressed upon us the main theme of Oaxaca food: an uncompromising devotion to fresh, unprocessed local ingredients. Photo by Sharon Kurtz

We enjoyed laughing, chopping, peeling, and sautéing around the large center island in the kitchen. Chef Pilar showed us how to toast the chilies, garlic, spices, and tomatoes on the comal—a traditional smooth, flat griddle—to create the complex “Colorado” Mole sauce, which was the centerpiece of our meal. We added the mole ingredients in layers to the large green glazed earthenware pot and took turns stirring it until it exhibited a rich brown and glistening smooth texture.

Chef Pilar was a delightful host. It was a relaxed atmosphere and we had lots of opportunities to ask questions. We were taught many dishes and techniques in a short time and Chef was eager to share her knowledge with her students. Although we may not be able to purchase all the ingredients in our various home countries, Chef gave us ideas for substitutions.

You can tell she is passionate about cooking as she flitted around her kitchen, directing us to chop and prepare ingredients, all while sharing tips and information. She was organized and, keeping things under watch but allowing us to do our part. Overseeing an array of novice cooks all while imparting knowledge about the history, flavors, and traditions of the regional food—in her non-native English—was no small feat.

unique flavors and traditions of Oaxaca

Adding chocolate to the mole sauce. Photo by Sharon Kurtz

Tequila and Mezcal Tasting with Chef Pilar

Before we could eat, there was one last step. While her assistants prepared the dining table for our meal, we headed to the lounge for a tasting. Pilar explained the difference between tequila and mezcal. Not the cheap tourist bottles many people take home from Mexico, but the good stuff from Chef Pilar’s private stock.

I watched as people unaccustomed to the nuances of mezcal got their first experience sampling the complexities of this magical spirit.  Both tequila and mezcal are made from the heart of the maguey, or agave plant.

unique flavors and traditions of Oaxaca

Chef Pilar is leading a tequila and mezcal tasting before our celebratory lunch. Photo by Sharon Kurtz

Mezcal can be made from more than 30 varieties of agave, while tequila is only made from the blue agave plant. Tequila is produced by steaming the agave inside industrial ovens and then distilling it in copper pots. Mezcal, on the other hand, is cooked inside earthen pits lined with lava rocks and filled with wood, giving the artisanal mezcal a smoky flavor before it’s distilled in clay pots. Both tequila and mezcal are intended to be sipped slowly and savored.

Enjoying the Flavors and Traditions of Oaxaca with Chef Pilar

Finally, it was time to come to the table and enjoy the fruits of our labor.  As we ate, drank, and continued to get to know each other, Chef Pilar told us stories of family recipes passed down from her grandmother. Throughout the flavorful meal, she continued to ensure we all felt welcomed and appreciated.

unique flavors and traditions of Oaxaca

Our Oaxaca Salad was as delicious to eat as it was beautiful. It offered julienned toasted corn tortillas and knots of local string cheese, roasted scallions and mixture of cherry & grape tomatoes on top of a bed of mixed greens with a unique dressing composed of tamarind paste, ginger, chili chipotle in adobo, and honey. Photo by Sharon Kurtz

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Finishing up our meal, we all felt this was much more than a simple cooking class. Our day of shopping, cooking, eating, and sharing a meal together was a warm and magical experience shared by new friends. We had experienced the flavors and traditions of Oaxaca in a way few people ever do.

unique flavors and traditions of Oaxaca

The author dining with her new-found friends at Chef Pilar's home. Photo courtesy Sharon Kurtz

If You Take an Oaxacan Cooking Class at La Casa de Los Sabores

Chef Pilar offers the group classes for 4 to 8 students; however, the class that I took had 9 students and there was still plenty of room for all of us. I was there at one of the busiest times of year—during Day of the Dead celebrations. Chef Pilar holds classes in both English and Spanish. They start promptly at 9:30 a.m. at La Olla and are finished by 2:30 p.m. with transportation back to La Olla.

You can sign up on the website, where the full schedule and a menu for each day are available. I made a partial payment by PayPal in advance to secure the reservation. Classes are $85 US or 1700 MXN Pesos and are all-inclusive (coffee, market tour, transportation, cooking instruction, recipes, mezcal tasting, and all food and drinks). This is undoubtedly a bucket list item for foodies who want to experience the unique flavors and traditions of Oaxaca.

Written by Sharon Kurtz

Sharon Kurtz is a freelance travel writer and foodie based in Dallas, Texas. Her passion is to travel the world and write about it. She looks for unique places off-the-beaten-path to experience the local culture and create lifetime memories. Follow her travels on Instagram @Shar_Kurtz and on her Facebook Page Sharon K Kurtz @sharonkkurtz.

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