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Oaxaca, Where the Cooking's Hot and Cool

By Judith Weinraub
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2004; Page G01

It was mid-July in Oaxaca, Mexico, and my spirits were high. How could they not be? The air was refreshingly cool, the mountain view from the kitchen was beautiful, and I'd just prepared the best chocolate dessert I'd ever made.

I'd come to Mexico's Etla Valley for a five-day cooking course taught by Susana Trilling, an American chef who's made her base in Oaxaca since 1987. A few years ago, I probably would have headed to Europe to learn more about fine food. But increasingly, cooking enthusiasts, travelers and North American chefs have visited Mexico just as I did for hands-on classes that rival those in France and Italy. And for approximately half the price.

Chef Susana Trilling discussing the menu for the day at her cooking school near Oaxaca, Mexico. (Caren Myers)

A lecture series on fine Mexican regional cuisine at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington almost three years ago had given me the idea. Chefs from different parts of that country came to Washington, prepared their specialty dishes, talked about them and passed around samples. Most of the dishes were new to me, as were some of the ingredients.

Trilling was one of those chefs. A lively expatriate American with two New York restaurants, a catering business and cookbooks to her credit, she's been teaching cooking classes in Oaxaca since 1990 and understands the varied skill levels and reference points of her American students.

But the classes aren't about cooking the enchiladas and quesadillas many North Americans think of as Mexican food. She's not teaching the cooking of the entire country either, which differs from region to region. She focuses on Oaxaca (wah-HAH-kah), one of Mexico's 31 states, where, as in every state, the cuisine varies from region to region. The variations are a result of local traditions, local crops and the history and geography of the area. Geographical influences are obvious: states on the coasts, for example, feature more fish than interior states. Historical influences are significant, too: The most dramatic one was the arrival of the Spaniards, who brought many new foods that eventually became part of local cuisines.

Because of the many different geographical characteristics within Oaxaca -- mountains, valleys and coastal areas facing the Pacific as well as the Gulf of Tehuantepec -- cooking styles vary. Although the unifying factor is the pride Oaxacans take in their food, there are seven distinct regions in the state, each with its own specific geography, each with its own indigenous peoples and each with its own regional cooking traditions: the Central Valleys, where the traditional crops are corn, beans and squash; the high-altitude areas of the Sierra and the Canada, where coffee and potatoes are grown; the coastal areas near the Pacific and the Isthmus with their seafood; the lowlands of Tuxtepec with its sugar cane, bananas and pineapple; and the Mixteca in the northwestern part of the state -- a region with many different landscapes and microclimates.

Our mid-summer class would be cooking dishes from all seven Oaxacan areas.

For the past three years, Trilling's intriguing roster of classes has been held in a modern teaching kitchen at the ranch she and her partner, Eric Ulrich, built about 40 minutes away from Oaxaca city.

There were six of us in the class: one employment lawyer, two television types, an inveterate world traveler, another lawyer-turned-head-of-a-construction-company and me. This time -- uncharacteristically, according to Trilling -- we were all women and all reasonably comfortable in our own kitchens. Now, in Trilling's kitchen, we were plunging into recipes that we not only had never made before but in most cases had never even eaten.

Trilling went over each recipe ahead of time and asked who wanted to make what -- or for that matter, who wanted to take it easy and look out over the valley from one of the hammocks on her veranda. Nobody did.

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