Down a bright corridor, full of plants and small pieces of clay and palm trees, a tide of colored paper is stirred in the wind. In the intense sunlight, the vines that come down from the ceiling trace engravings on the white walls as in a shadow theater. At the end of that tunnel, almost to enter the space intended for diners, a lattice of reed simulates the cosmos. Red, yellow, blue almost black ears hang from there, with their dry leaves like petals. A kind of reproduction of the universe where the stars are made of corn. It takes me several minutes to recognize that it is the Teocintle restaurant because it looks like any cozy house in the center of Oaxaca.
Teosinte, ancestor of corn
Toño García, a 26-year-old chef originally from Tlaxiaco, suddenly appears between the tables dressed with clay dishes and decorated with mostly natural elements. He and his friend Azael Jiménez, a 24-year-old chef from Yanhuitlán, founded this space in January 2019 with the idea of using the ancestral techniques of the gastronomy of the Mixtec Oaxacan region to which they both belong. In those places, people raise animals that feed with corn that is not suitable for human use, they take advantage of each grain in that cycle. “In Mixtec cuisine, nothing is wasted, all the ingredients are respected and every last bit is used,” says Toño.
Teosinte is the ancestor of corn later modified by humans. Teosinte is the mother of that corn with which this chef has been intimately related since his childhood. Although in reality, he tells me that they chose the name by chance and, in the same way, Teocintle arose spontaneously when Toño resigned from his job in the kitchen of a restaurant and met Azael. Together they started the inn-style project with dishes in special arrangements that caught the attention of the diners. Today it is a slow food place that opens its doors from 2 in the afternoon to 10 at night in the center of Oaxaca and to which you can only go by reservation.
Behind Teocintle there is dedication in the preparation of food and the wisdom of Mixtec cuisine, but there are also harmonious forms of coexistence: “Work, relax, joy because there is time for everything, they treat you well, you enjoy working”, Toño deepens about the thinking of the Mixtec people while smiling.
The concept of his kitchen is far from the stressful systems practiced in ordinary restaurants and is closer to the loving and patient ways in which it is cooked in the Mixteca. Through the memory of her childhood, we are next to the stove where a “lady makes her mole and has been sitting in her kitchen all day, preparing it.” I see the smoke coming out of the brazier, I hear the noise of the metate when she grinds the seeds, the chilies thunder in the heat of the comal, the ocher and orange colors are mixed in the big clay pot. Toño, then, assures me, “what is luxurious in us is food, to which we spend a lot of time”
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Indigenous food reconnects you with your ancestors
Toño’s relationship with the kitchen dates back to the time when his aunt took him to the fields with a plow as a child. You had to pixcar (harvest), cut grass, peas. In those years, he learned the whole harvest process and to pronounce ko’o: plate in his Mixtec language; xtaa: omelette; ita: flower; and to greet in the language of their tanini ancestors: good morning; tanikua: good afternoon.
Much of her knowledge about gastronomy is attributed to her mother and her intuition: that natural and sensitive ability that allows her to create various combinations of fresh waters inspired by the memories of the native ingredients that her mother used at home: rue, master herb, horehound, pericon, arnica. Ingredients that combine to create water with cocoa and roasted corn, coupled with a touch of cloves and pepper or passion fruit water with fresh coriander. “The idea is to drink natural flavored water or grass with flavor. Offering water to welcome you at home as part of the Mixtec tradition ”, says Toño, and then he hands me a gourd filled with laurel tea with apple as long as water so that we can continue talking.
From that great intuition to combine herbs and foods grown in Yanhuitlán –chepito, Creole coriander, pennyroyal grass, beans, squash, spiny chayote– a creative and eclectic menu emerges that nourishes the heart and appeases hunger. Although at the beginning, Teocintle only had a seasonal kitchen, chef Toño began to investigate and devise combinations of Mixtec-style chileajos to create a five-course menu with different garnishes in each one; dishes that play especially with the principles of Mixtec haute cuisine and with western ingredients. One of them is the tutu wildebeest, a ball of corn tortilla fresh from the comal that is eaten with salt, holy leaf and dried chili. “In Mixtec, the tortilla is smeared with this mixture, it becomes a small ball and they give it to you to eat.” Tutu ñuú means the fresh, the aromatic, the strong of flavor.
Sometimes at breakfast you will find traditional red chilaquiles made with tortilla browned in the sun and bathed in a coastal chili sauce, guajillo and puya, as well as condiments. Others, you can choose holy leaf egg with Chiapas cheese or a sack of wheat tortilla stuffed with beet in soy sauce, toasted sesame, chintextle mayonnaise, a mixteca and Sierra Mixe combination.
Sprouts are also part of this culinary repertoire: watercress, Creole coriander tips, parsley tips and combinations of octopus with adobo paste or chintextle with a touch of aromatic smoke oil; in addition to the variety of bean soups with pithione grass, made according to the Mixtec recipe.
And although in indigenous gastronomy the concept of dessert is non-existent, Teocintle incorporates regional sweets such as ice cream cake, lechechilla empanadas, torrejas with cane molasses, as well as fruits that are first nixtamalized according to the ancient technique used for corn, and then they crystallize, as in the case of very ripe papaya, which is put in lime and cooked in brown sugar, cinnamon, and pepper. Or the special creation of this restaurant: traditional sponge cake made from toasted bean flour, an ingredient that comes from Mixtec cuisine where legume powders such as chickpeas, broad beans and beans abound.
We go through the kitchen where there are jugs, burning comals, red dried chili peppers with their seeds exposed on a tray, metates like pyramids, old coffee mills, jars with spices, dried herbs arranged in a clay plate as if it were an art installation. I realize that Teocintle doesn’t have the pressure of a fancy restaurant, except by Mixtec haute cuisine standards where refrigerated food has no place.
Indigenous food makes you strong and is a resistance
Cooking for me is a landscape, says Toño, like being in my mother’s town when we sowed corn; is to sit in the open air and enjoy the food on the hill, put the stones on the ground, light the fire, prepare the stove, heat the mole of spine there in the clay pots, drink pulque and tepache in that rest that we allowed ourselves when we were going to planting. All those foods that the women carried in tenates, while the men carried the pick and shovel. Cooking for Toño is taking you a lunch of any season of the year from the Teocintle restaurant to the mountains of the Mixtec region where the wind, the smell, and the taste of herbal concoctions enliven your emotions. You drink pineapple pulp water with pea and lemon peel in a gourd or water with macerated medicinal herbs and wake up under the shadow of the mythical Apoala tree, where the Mixtec people were born, or perhaps in a cosmos that shines with corn stars.
This article was originally published in volume 8 of our magazine in April 2020.