Family Shares Their Oaxacan Tradition Of Giving Thanks In New Cookbook

Nov 24, 2019
Originally published on November 25, 2019 11:36 am

Since making their way from the Mexican state of Oaxaca to Los Angeles in the 1990s, the Lopez family has celebrated Thanksgiving with a mix of flavors and culture: mashed potatoes, beans, turkey and jalapeño.

"We'll probably then have some mezcal to kind of just digest," says daughter Bricia. Her brother Fernando adds, "For the longest time, I thought everybody did that."

Their Thanksgiving dinner also includes green spaghetti in poblano salsa, a black bean puree, and Marie Callender's pies. Bricia says their mother learned to cook American food to celebrate the holiday in their new country, but has always added a Oaxacan flair.

It turns out that Thanksgiving is probably the most Oaxacan holiday in the U.S.; Guelaguetza, the name of the family's Koreatown restaurant, is a Zapotec word meaning "to give and receive."

Guelaguetza is also a tradition that is rooted in Oaxaca's many indigenous cultures, which the family honors at Thanksgiving.

"It really is the place where corn was born, where they find the earliest traces of tomato, where you find the biggest variety of chilies," says Bricia. "I have so much respect for so many women that really have single-handedly preserved hundreds of years of culture through their food and their cooking, because they haven't changed the way they make things for generations."

This generation of Lopezes — Bricia, Fernando and Paulina — continue their family's Oaxacan traditions by running the restaurant they grew up with, the one their parents owned until they retired a few years ago. The restaurant is now celebrating its 25th anniversary with Oaxaca, a new cookbook of the family's recipes.

In the 1990s, Fernando Lopez Sr. emigrated to Los Angeles. It wasn't long before he was selling Oaxacan food to his paisanos. A year after opening Guelaguetza, the late Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold cemented its star on the city's culinary map, calling it the "best Oaxacan restaurant in the country." The cookbook is dedicated to him.

"He was an essential part of not just Los Angeles and many other restaurants but also to my family's success," Bricia says of Gold. "He was always super supportive."

Four years ago, Guelaguetza earned a prestigious James Beard Award. Bricia says the new cookbook she co-wrote with Gold's protege, Javier Cabral, includes the restaurant's signature recipes for smoky mezcal cocktails and rich mole sauces.

"Mole is, I would say, one of the mother sauces of Oaxaca," Bricia says. "It is a combination of a few chilies and spices together. There is a little bit of chocolate in there just to round up the flavors and [add] a hint of sweetness. It really is the perfect balance of salty, sweetness, spice."

But Bricia wants people to know Oaxacan food is more than just mole and mezcal. The cookbook also includes soups, salsas, desserts and tlayudas — sort of bean-smeared pizzas.

A visit to Fernando's home in South L.A. begins with him offering a michelada — a crisp lager mixed with the restaurant's concoction of lime, tomato and spices. He starts by rubbing the rim of a chilled glass around a dish of chamoy, a thick, grainy chile sauce. "It's reminiscent of Mexican candy," he says.

Then he rubs the rim with tajin, a blend of chile, lime and sea salt. He shakes up a bottle of the restaurant's "I Love Michelada" mix, and pours it into the glass of cold beer.

A recipe from the cookbook for frijoles de la olla, or "beans cooked in a pot," a Oaxacan staple.
Quentin Bacon / Abrams Books

One staple of their Thanksgiving feast is a puree of black beans — frijoles made with toasted chilies and dried avocado leaves. Paulina says her mother usually holds the leaves over a flame to char them just a touch. It's the avocado leaves that give their food that quintessential Oaxacan flavor.

"For me, it smells like smoke and chile," Paulina says. "That also gives a little spice hint to the frijoles. It smells like when you walk into a backyard in a town and the ladies are making tortillas, and the wood is burning."

Fernando takes a whiff. "To me it smells like earth and being in touch with nature."

Bricia closes her eyes to breathe in the scent of the leaves. "This is what my grandma's hair always smells like," she says, smiling. "I think the avocado leaf is similar to the bay leaf. And when you roast anything, those smells really heighten."

This Thanksgiving, the Lopez siblings say they're grateful to share their recipes and their culture. The new cookbook is their guelaguetza.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Los Angeles restaurant Guelaguetza is well-known for its regional Mexican cuisine. As it celebrates its 25th anniversary, co-owner Bricia Lopez has written a cookbook. It's of her family's recipes from Oaxaca in southern Mexico. NPR's Mandalit del Barco talked to Lopez, her brother, and sister about celebrating the holidays with food and the Oaxacan tradition of giving thanks.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Since making their way from the Mexican state of Oaxaca to Los Angeles in the 1990s, the Lopez family has celebrated Thanksgiving with a mix of flavors and cultures. Here's how Fernando Lopez Jr. and his sister Bricia describe it

FERNANDO LOPEZ JR: Mashed potatoes, beans, turkey, jalapeno.

BRICIA LOPEZ: We'll probably then have, like, some mezcal to kind of just digest.

F LOPEZ: I didn't know that was, like, just us for the longest time. I thought it was, like, everybody did that.

DEL BARCO: Their Thanksgiving dinner also includes green spaghetti in poblano salsa, a black bean puree and Marie Callender pies. Bricia says their mother learned to cook American food to celebrate the holiday in their new country, but always with a Oaxacan flair. And it turns out that Thanksgiving is probably the most Oaxacan holiday in the U.S. Guelaguetza, the name of their Koreatown restaurant, is a Zapotec word that means to give and receive.

B LOPEZ: It's rooted in indigenous...

F LOPEZ: Tradition.

B LOPEZ: ...Traditions.

DEL BARCO: So their Thanksgiving honors the many indigenous cultures of Oaxaca.

B LOPEZ: It really is the place where corn was born, where they find the earliest traces of tomato, where you find the biggest variety of chilies. I have so much respect for so many women that really have single-handedly preserved hundreds of years of culture through their food and through their cooking because they haven't changed the way they make things for generations and generations and generations.

DEL BARCO: This generation of Lopezes - Bricia, Fernando and Paulina - continue their family's Oaxacan traditions. After their parents retired, they started running the restaurant they grew up in. Their father emigrated to LA in the '90s, and it wasn't long before he was selling Oaxacan food to his paisanos. A year after opening Guelaguetza, the late LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold cemented its star on the city's culinary map. Lopez dedicated the cookbook to him.

B LOPEZ: He was an essential part of not just Los Angeles and to many other restaurants, but also to my family's success. He was always super supportive.

DEL BARCO: Gold called Guelaguetza the best Oaxacan restaurant in the country. Four years ago, it earned a prestigious James Beard Award. Bricia Lopez says the new cookbook she co-wrote with gold's protege, Javier Cabral, includes the restaurant's signature recipes for smoky mezcal cocktails and rich moles.

B LOPEZ: Mole is, I would say, one of the mother sources of Oaxaca - a combination of a few chilies and spices together. There is a little bit of chocolate in there just to round out the flavors and add that hint of sweetness. And, you know, it really is a perfect balance of salty, sweetness, spice.

DEL BARCO: But Lopez wants people to know Oaxacan food is more than just mole and mezcal. The cookbook also includes soups, salsas, desserts and tlayudas - sort of bean-smeared pizzas.

(LAUGHTER)

DEL BARCO: A visit to Fernando's home in South LA begins with him offering a michelada, a crisp lager mixed with the restaurant's concoction of lime, tomato and spices.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS RUBBING)

DEL BARCO: He starts by rubbing the rim of a chilled glass around a dish of chamoy, a thick, grainy chile sauce.

F LOPEZ: It is more reminiscent of, like, Mexican candy.

DEL BARCO: Then he rubs the rim with tajin, a blend of chile, lime and sea salt.

F LOPEZ: That's a tajin. And we'll get our bottle of michelada mix.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHAKING LIQUID)

F LOPEZ: We'll shake it. We're going to add some mix.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAN OPENING)

F LOPEZ: Just add beer. It's that easy. You ready? Cheers.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASSES CLANKING)

DEL BARCO: Cheers.

F LOPEZ: Cheers.

DEL BARCO: One staple of their Thanksgiving feast is a puree of black beans, frijoles is made with toasted chilies and dried avocado leaves, which are charred.

PAULINA LOPEZ: My mom would do it, like, straight in the fire.

DEL BARCO: Paulina holds a leaf over the flame.

LOPEZ: You have to be very careful because if you don't know how to do it, then it'll just get burned. But you - all you want is like a little char.

B LOPEZ: Paulina, Fernando and Bricia say the avocado leaves give their food that quintessential Oaxaca flavor.

LOPEZ: For me, it smells like smoke and chile. That also gives it, like, a little spice hint to the frijoles. It smells like when you walk into a backyard in a town, and the ladies are making tortillas. And the wood is, like, burning.

F LOPEZ: To me, it smells like earth, like - just, like, being in touch with nature.

B LOPEZ: This is what my grandma's hair would smell like on the regular. You know, the avocado leaf has a very - it's similar to the bay leaf. And when you actually rose anything, those smells really heighten.

DEL BARCO: This Thanksgiving, the Lopez siblings say they're grateful to share their recipes and their culture. The new cookbook is their guelaguetza. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.