Interview By Soll Sussman
Diana Kennedy’s latest book, Oaxaca al Gusto, is an intensive exploration of the fascinating southern Mexican state that she first visited more than 45 years ago. Subtitled An Infinite Gastronomy, the book, published this fall by the University of Texas Press, features about 300 recipes from Oaxaca’s varied regions.
Sitting down at Austin’s Fonda San Miguel for a chat with Edible Austin near the start of a fall promotional tour that would exhaust even a much younger author, the 87-year-old Kennedy says this detailed, gorgeous book will be her last. But by no means, she’s quick to add, is she through with her research and fascination with Mexico’s cuisines, cultures and charm.
Edible Austin: How would you describe what’s special about Oaxaca and this book?
Diana Kennedy: What is special about Oaxaca is, first of all, the topography and the number of cultures there. And if you look at the topography, you realize there are a lot of microclimates. It goes from the hot coastal plains on the Pacific side way up into the very mountainous regions of the north of the state, with very deep valleys, predominated by the central valleys where the city of Oaxaca is.
EA: So each microclimate tends to . . .
DK: Produce other chiles, for instance. There are chiles in Oaxaca that are not known elsewhere.
EA: So even the chiles are distinctive?
DK: Yes, and the use of the different herbs—local herbs. Oaxaca is highly regional.
EA: Could you talk about chiles, generally, and chiles rellenos?
DK: There’s a whole chapter about chiles in the book—at the beginning. They are the pillars of the Oaxacan kitchen—chocolate, corn and chiles. I mean, take the recipe from the Isthmus, where there are chiles pasillas de Oaxaca, which are smoked chiles filled with a very elaborate filling—beef and pork, dried Oaxacan or Mexican oregano leaves, a small plantain, pitted green olives, capers and vinegar, among other things—then fried in a batter, and eaten like that, almost like a snack. And the same chile is stuffed with almost the same type of filling but used as a main dish in a tomato broth in the central part of Oaxaca. There are many, many types of chiles rellenos.
EA: Is Oaxacan cuisine something you’ve been exploring since the start?
DK: I’ve been exploring and including Oaxacan recipes since my first book, The Cuisines of Mexico, which came out in 1972. I’ve been [traveling] in Oaxaca ever since; the first time I went was in 1965.
EA: Do you have any recollections of particularly arduous or unusual travels?
DK: Millions of stories. Somebody told me there was a festival . . . of a certain type of palm . . . and that trip started in the valley, right up into the mountains and going through various landscapes, dropping down into tropical areas and up again . . . in the most awful muddy conditions. I didn’t have a shovel; now I always take a shovel wherever I go when I’m in the car. It had been raining all night. When we got there, we had our cots and sleeping bags in a granary where the rats were running around. It was very drafty and awful. The driver knew the road very well. Road! It was an unpaved track around the mountainside. I have a photograph of the car when we arrived—absolutely covered in mud!
EA: Quite often you would drive yourself?
DK: I drive everywhere except in the mountains. First of all, if anything happened to the car, you needed somebody to tend to it. And secondly, I have vertigo. And some of those unguarded edges just drove me mad. They drove me mad anyway, even as a passenger.
EA: You have said on numerous occasions this is your last book. Do you feel like you’ve covered everything you’ve wanted to cover?
DK: Oh, no. Are you kidding? I’d like to make a pact with the devil. I’m very old. No, I don’t think I would do another. What I’m going to do now is direct my attention to the uses of the edible wild plants, whether they be flowers, fruits, leaves, roots—whatever.
EA: You’ll be traveling to do that?
DK: Especially in indigenous regions where they still use things like that—and many people manage to survive on wild plants, and they’re very, very healthy.
EA: From ’65 to now, has it been harder to track some of the indigenous, some of the special things you find in Oaxaca?
DK: Not in Oaxaca, no. Elsewhere in Mexico, very much so. Not so much the indigenous things as food in general. The changes—especially the new seeds that people are bringing out. Maybe they produce bigger fruits or bigger chiles, but they are losing some of the flavor that originally existed. When you see both the American and Mexican producers of, say, tomate verde—tomatillo—huge and very light in color, that alone is making a change. It’s distorting the flavors of the original thing.
EA: People might be surprised to learn that, in addition to being a writer and a historian of Mexican food, you’re also a photographer.
DK: I don’t count myself as a photographer. I have an extremely good camera. . . . I had . . . now I’ve gone digital. But I must confess I have a very good Nikon digital camera—not a terribly powerful one—and I put it on automatic and it has to do its stuff. But . . . one of my photographs that you’ll see on one of the title pages—of all the avocados—ain’t bad!
THE CHILES OF OAXACA
An excerpt from Oaxaca al Gusto, published by University of Texas Press
Oaxaca is famous for its multicolored moles, but not so much for the array of chiles that lend their colors and tastes to those moles. A stand selling dried chiles in the market is an intriguing sight, and although they sell quantities of the better-known ones from other parts of Mexico, the chiles from around the state of Oaxaca stand out from the rest, identifiable by their unique colors and shapes: red and yellow costeños, from the coast, as their name implies, perhaps more difficult to distinguish from the red and yellow onzas from the Sierra Norte; the black, red, and yellow chilhuacles; and red chilcosles from La Cañada, to name but a few.
. . . The preeminent fresh chile used in the Central Valleys is the chile de agua. A typical one is about four inches long and about one inch across the top. The color varies from medium to light green, which changes as it ripens to an orangey red; however, it is mostly used while still green. Charred and peeled, it is either stuffed, covered with beaten egg and fried, cut into strips and macerated in lime juice as a relish, blended in a cooked sauce, or ground with other ingredients for a table sauce. I am told that until recently, it was also used dried for sauces, but that preparation is not commonplace these days. —Diana Kennedy
CHILES RELLENOS OAXAQUEÑOS
Oaxacan Chiles Rellenos
Fresh chiles de agua are the most commonly used for this recipe, with the dried chiles pasillas in second place. The former look innocent enough but can be very picante; therefore, some cooks recommend, after charring and peeling the chiles, letting them soak in lightly salted water, with a little vinegar added, for about ½ hour. If you prefer to stuff the pasillas, choose the largest ones. In preparing any chile for filling, make sure the top holding the stem is intact.
Makes 12 chiles for 6 portions
12 chiles de agua or 12 large
dried pasillas from Oaxaca
3 c. picadillo
Vegetable oil for frying
4 large eggs, whites and yolks separated
Salt to taste
Flour for coating
3 c. tomato broth
To prepare the chiles de agua: char, peel and make a slit down one side of the chile, leaving top intact, and carefully remove seeds and veins. If using pasillas, heat for a few seconds on a comal over medium heat to soften. Make a slit down one side, leaving the top intact. Remove seeds and veins. Cover with warm water and leave to soak until soft, about 15 minutes. Do not leave them too long in the water; strain.
Fill the chiles with enough of the picadillo to make them fat, but making sure that the cut edges meet and cover the stuffing.
Heat the oil in a skillet; it should be about 1¼ inches deep.
Beat the egg whites until they hold their shape; they should not slip around the bowl, but neither should they become too firm and dry. Add salt to taste and the yolks, one by one, beating well after each addition. Pat the flour around one of the chiles, coat with the beaten egg, and carefully lower it into the hot oil. Turn the chile after a minute or so and continue frying until the coating acquires an even gold color. Drain and continue with the rest.
Serve the chiles bathed in the warm tomato broth.
CALDILLO DE TOMATE ROJO (TOMATO BROTH)
Makes about 3 cups
1¼ lb. tomatoes, toasted
1 thick slice medium white onion, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1 T. melted lard or vegetable oil
Approximately 1 c. broth from the stuffing meat
Salt to taste
Put a few of the tomatoes into the blender with the onion and garlic and blend well. Gradually add the rest of the tomatoes and blend again to a fairly smooth mixture.Heat the lard in a wide pan, add the tomato mixture and cook over medium heat until well seasoned and reduced and thickened slightly, about 5 minutes. Add the broth with salt as necessary and continue cooking for a further 5 minutes.
Makes about 4½ cups
3 T. melted lard or vegetable oil
1 medium white onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1¼ lb. tomatoes, finely chopped
3 black peppercorns, crushed
3 cloves, crushed
½ t. dried thyme or 1 t. fresh leaves
½ t. dried marjoram or 1 t. fresh leaves
1 T. dried Oaxacan oregano leaves or ½ T. Mexican oregano
2 Mexican bay leaves or 1 bay laurel, finely crumbled
½ c. raisins, roughly chopped
20 almonds, skinned and roughly chopped
1 T. large capers, roughly chopped
10 green pitted olives, roughly chopped
3 c. meat (pork, beef, chicken or mixture), cooked, shredded and chopped
Approximately ½ c. reserved meat broth
1 T. pineapple or other fruity vinegar (optional)
Salt to taste
2 T. sugar, or to taste
Heat the lard in a wide pan or deep skillet and fry the onion and garlic until translucent. Add the tomatoes and fry over fairly high heat until reduced and thickened.
Stir in the herbs, spices, raisins, almonds, capers, and olives and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes. The mixture should be fairly dry. Add the meat and the rest of the ingredients and continue cooking until all the ingredients are well combined. The mixture should be moist, not juicy, and shiny.