Guias (Gee-uhs) are the vines and leaves of the squash plants that wend and weave their way around the bases of the corn in the ‘milpa’. To make these fibrous vines more palate-friendly, they are chopped first into small pieces before being boiled, to make them more tender. These greens, boiled in water along with herbs, corn husks and onion, are the base of Sopa de Guias.
This humble soup is a perfect example of how little is wasted in Mexico’s culinary landscape. That said, a soup like this has the potential to taste like little more than watery broth with boiled greens – perfectly welcome when prepared and offered with love and humility. As a restaurant patron, however, most of my own taste-tests in Oaxaca left me wanting a bit more for my 80 or so pesos – until I tried the offering at Casa Oaxaca, El Restaurante in Oaxaca City.
In keeping with the style and reputation of the restaurant, the presentation of this soup is more “haute” than the “humble” version Chef Alejandro Ruiz was raised on. There’s no trozo de elote (slice of corn on the cob) to gnaw on, instead the corn kernels have been scraped into the bowl. Delicate golden-orange petals of the squash flower adorn the bowl before the broth is ceremoniously poured over at the table Nevertheless, he stays true to tradition; in his extensive knowledge of the range of herbs of Oaxaca; these along with a small amount of chile pasilla paste, bring warmth and complexity to the simple broth.
Aside from the chocoyotes – dimpled little masa dumplings which generally contain some lard to lighten them up– this soup is traditionally a vegetarian dish. Should a bit of lard be a deal-breaker, ask for them to be left out and enjoy this soup with a tortilla instead.
Casa Oaxaca, El Restaurante
A Gurrión 104 A, Oaxaca Centro
Phone number+52 951 516 8531
Strongly recommended that you call ahead for reservations, or stop in and make reservation in person if you are in Oaxaca
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Kale has been, for a few too many years now, considered the superfood you must eat for good health. How that trend started, I have no idea, but be assured, there are other greens to rival it. Sure, now, you can find it in Mexico, in part because big Agro grows it here in Mexico to meet the demand in US and Canada, and also because the Norte American buzz has created a demand among the food-conscious and affluent (ask an average Mexican about kale (kel) and it won’t register). But who needs it in this country where there were already plenty of fantastic, hearty, and just as “super” healthful greens to be had already?
So let’s leave (my gripes about) kale aside, for a moment, shall we? “Hojas de nabo” (turnip leaves) are a cruciferous green that has been naturalized in Central and Southern Mexico and has become integrated over time into milpa plantings. When you buy this from a regional vendor there’s a very good chance it is grown organically (versus kale from the supermercado) as the milpa is a healthy, biodynamic and sustainable system.
When you refer to ‘Hojas’ de nabo’, you emphasize the desire for the leaves… likely a vendor will understand that to mean the type in the main photo with wide leaves more akin to collards. But by putting the word “Flor” in front of “nabo” (as in, flor de nabo) you can expect the flowering type like broccoli rabe with small yellow flowers, inflorescence like broccoli, and juicy stems.
As “naming” is largely a concept that is agreed upon, it can always happen that in any particular region, farmers have come to know their plants by certain names that may not follow conventions. Just be sure to ask ¿es para comer o para pájaros? (Is it for eating, or is it for birds?) If it’s for eating… just take it home and cook it as you would any other green. It’s all good!
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Little pale yellow chayotitos (also called Chayote Amarillo or Chayote Blanco), are nestled here amidst a variety of greens common to the Milpa, like verdolaga (purslane) to the far left and quintoniles (aka: quelites), which are the greens of any of a number of types of amaranth plants. Chayotito has a mild, sweet flavor with a tough, leathery skin – they need to be boiled whole, and then they can be peeled. Cubed or mashed with butter or olive oil and some salt they are a delicious substitute for boiled potatoes. And, like other chayote, you can eat the soft, flat, almond-shaped seed in the centre.
Where: fringes of markets, laid out on cloth on the floor.
These little yellow “berries” are nances or nanches– an odd little fruit with a funky slightly tart, cheesy taste and dry, somewhat cottony texture, Definitely an acquired taste, which I have yet to acquire. I was told these were brought in from Puebla, a few hours north, as they are not in season in Oaxaca, but there is a demand for them, apparently. For the most part, they are preserved: in liquor (mezcal), in syrup (en almíbar), in ice cream (nieves) but here they are snack-ready– “enchilada” – with a hearty dousing of chile, lime and salt, because when in doubt…
Where: streetside, often from wheelbarrow/ cart
When mango are abundant, and in season, at some point you have to accept that it’s not going to be possible to eat them all when ripe. In Oaxaca, the green fruits are peeled, halved and pitted and immersed in a fruit vinegar, usually made primarily of pineapple peelings. Chile spices things up and these are eaten as a snack. I can think of many ways to use these as a pickle/ chutney as you would see in Indian food, but I haven’t run across them used as a condiment here.
The same green mangos are also simply sliced up and served “enchilada” from bags – again as a refreshing, tartsnack.
Where: streetside carts, or in residential doorways or small shops along with numerous other preserved fruits and vegetables either pickled or in syrup
I was so struck by these pretty bowls of edible flowers, which I found first in the corridor of Mercado Sanchez Pascuas, that I didn’t pay good enough attention to the type of pea that the vendor next to this was shucking. I had at least noticed that they looked starchy and weren’t the bright green of a fresh sweet Spring pea.
Now, I have gone on to find out that these are the the flowers of the pigeon pea, which originated in India and came to Mexico via African and the Caribbean. This would have been in the early days of the slave trade and by now, they are naturalized and are sometimes planted where the soil is poor. The pea itself, even when cooked, contains indigestible sugars, so it’s going to cause you some bloating unless sprouted… but the flower can be used as a green vegetable – blanched quickly and then sauteed with onions and garlic, or added to vegetable dishes, rice or egg dishes and so on.
Where: Look for these sold by vendors who come in from the villages — they set up on blankets or makeshift tables at weekly Tiánguis and some may have a little spot in/outside mercados.
Oftentimes you’ll see that savvy vendors, for the sake of economy, have taken care of some of the labor that can get in the way of preparing certain foods. Yuca is one of many tubers best boiled whole because they are troublesome to peel and they do take some time to cook. So first they are cut into 6in lengths, then into one big pot they go. Cooked, they are easy to peel. Some are cut into sticks and a blob of sweet syrup (‘miel’ can mean corn syrup as well as honey or a combination of the two) is added to give market shoppers a carb-fuelled burst of energy. I took a few whole cooked tubers home and mashed them with salt, pepper and olive oil for a healthier dose of this complex, fibre-rich carb!
Where: At weekly tiánguis, markets and streetside.
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