OAXACA, Mexico (CN) — “Every time I would come to visit there would be a party, and I’d be watching, helping, and learning from my grandmas and my mother, my aunts and sisters,” said Miguel Ángel Sánchez of Azucena Zapoteca, an airy and colorful traditional Oaxacan restaurant about an hour south of the state capital.
The 27-year-old chef belongs to a larger cultural trend being seen in Oaxaca at the moment: he is rescuing the traditional recipes for mole (pronounced mo-lay) and other Oaxacan staples from the negligence of generations past.
To understand exactly how the moles of his progenitors were in danger of being lost requires a look back into the recent history of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, and its relationship to the world beyond its borders. One of the country’s poorest, Oaxaca was drastically affected by the shift toward globalization in the second half of the 20th century.
Factors like modernization, urbanization, and migration altered how Oaxacans saw both the outside world and the customs their ancestors had staunchly developed, defended, and maintained through centuries of colonization. The cultural conquest of globalization, however, would prove to be a threat wholly different from the Spanish priests and conquistadors of the previous five centuries.
“Previous generations that migrated to other parts of the world put Oaxacan culture to the side, and when they came back they brought other customs with them,” said Jorge Bueno, official historian of Oaxaca City. He dates the beginning of this turning away from tradition to the trend of migration in the 1940s and ‘50s, the effects of which began to be seen in Oaxaca when these workers returned home to build new lives for themselves with the money they had saved from working abroad.
“Modernization — everything from television to broad highways and fast cars — had a huge impact on Oaxacan society, and beginning in the ‘60s and ‘70s, people stopped valuing our own culture,” said Bueno.
Because of this, recipes for dishes like the mole negro, or black mole, of Azucena Zapoteca in San Martín Tilcajete were in danger of being forgotten. And when oral traditions are forgotten, they are quickly lost.
However, with the advent of tourism to Oaxaca, visitors from abroad came poking around and asking questions about what people were cooking, building, painting and distilling, and young Oaxacans began to see that there was value in the things their fathers and uncles had turned away from. “You start to realize that what you’ve got right here at home is worth preserving,” said Bueno.
With 570 autonomous municipalities, the most of any state in Mexico, Oaxaca has long been known as a place that fiercely holds to the traditions that make up its wide-ranging set of cultural identities. And while the state is rich with colorful and lively customs — from energetic dances to fantastic woodcarvings to vivid embroidery styles — it’s the food people cook that most strongly ties Oaxacans to the place of their birth. And no other dish is more representative of that connection than mole negro.
Bueno noted traditions like preparing mole negro were usually passed down orally from mother to daughter in the kitchen, “but today we’re starting to see lots of young men showing a passion for cooking.”
This trend is what is being actively fostered at establishments like Azucena Zapoteca.
“It’s a privilege for us as young people to be able to learn about mole and make the recipes of our grandparents,” said Diego Iglesias Hernández, manager of the gastronomical projects of the Jacobo y María Ángeles woodcarving workshop, which opened Azucena Zapoteca nearly 20 years ago. “We’re rescuing their recipes, making sure they’re not lost.”