The famed chef Eric Ripert once told me, “The world’s best chefs come from Puebla.”
But while the world’s best chefs may come from Puebla, a Spanish colonial city in Mexico, the world’s best cook comes from Oaxaca. Abigail Mendoza — who insists on being called a cook, not a chef — is the most famous resident in the Oaxacan village of Teotitlan del Valle, and for good reason.
“She once went to France and cooked for the president,” my guide Lander Irrueste told me. “Mexico was being honored and it was decided that she would represent all of Mexican cuisine.”
Mendoza may be tiny, but her food packs a punch. (Andrew Rothschild)
You would never know it by looking at her. Abigail is roughly around four-foot-eleven — short enough to make me look tall, which I am not — and she is outfitted in full traditional Zapoteca dress, with her hair braided and knotted in a bright pink bow, just like her mother and her mother’s mother before her. The only thing that might give it away are her arms. She makes everything, from a sauce to tortillas, by hand, and her arms are pure muscle.
Mendoza gives new meaning to farm to table: all the ingredients she uses are grown either by her or locally, including all the meat she uses, which is raised on her compound. Everything she does is authentic: none of it touched by any modern convenience.
Her kitchen is an open atrium, surrounded by the house in which her whole family lives. It’s full of utensils that have been used for hundreds of years. The rolling pin is a long stone that weighs around 40 pounds, and it is used to crush leaves, spices, and beans on another stone slab.
The day I arrived, Mendoza decided to make tlayuda, a local dish made with tortillas, beans, cheese, chilies, and meat. It sounded so simple.
Mendoza doesn’t approve of my rolling pin skills. (Andrew Rothschild)
Thirty minutes later, while Mendoza roasted the chilies, I was still trying to get the hang of the stone rolling pin to properly crush the beans. You have to roll the pin but not turn it, keeping it flat against the slanted stone, which is nearly impossible — at least for me. Mendoza probably does it in her sleep. We crushed the chilies and avocado leaves, hand puréed the beans to mush and went on to make tortillas.
Making tortillas is the only time in the kitchen that Mendoza uses a remotely “modern” convenience — a tortilla press — but she still presses them by hand with the device. Even so, Mendoza isn’t particularly happy about it, though she has no choice, due to the number of tortillas she makes daily. (She runs a restaurant down the street and supplies everything there from her home kitchen.) Since she insists on keeping them homemade, it’s a necessity.
So much work, but so tasty. (Andrew Rothschild)
But even using the press is difficult to a newbie. You have to re-knead the corn-flour dough, then crush it once again under a rolling pin, make a patty out of it and then, only after Mendoza’s approval, does it goes to the press. Each flattened tortilla must be delicately lifted from the press and placed a certain way on the griddle, or it will buckle, tear, or bubble. And only perfect tortillas are served in Mendoza’s house. None of mine made the cut. But the tlayuda — which is sometimes called a Mexican pizza, but looks more like a calzone — was delicious, imperfectly formed or not.
Watch the video above and gain new respect for what we take for granted: real, home-cooked food.
Thank you to The Muddy Boot for arranging the visit with Abigail Mendoza.
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