There are so many reasons why Oaxaca draws me back year after year, but recently, it’s the connections that I’ve made with the people that make me most excited to return. I’ve written a lot about Chef Rodolfo Castellanos from Origen over the years, and my time with him has always ranked as a peak experience.
When I heard last year that Rodolfo was going to be on season 1 of Top Chef Mexico, I nearly tore my hair out trying to find a way to watch it from Canada. I finally figured out how to gain access to the show and watched every episode at least twice. And because I don’t necessarily understand Spanish, I had to make up my own stories of what was going on each episode. Week after week I cheered Rodolfo on from Vancouver. I cheered all the way to the end, because he won! I was so happy for Chef Rodolfo, not just because I know how talented he is as a chef, but also because from what I know from the time we’ve spent together each year I’m in Oaxaca, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.
Since being crowned the winner of Top Chef Mexico, I’ve noticed through social media, that Rodolfo has been busy travelling around Mexico and the US doing events. He’s been so busy that I wasn’t sure if he’d be around when I was in Oaxaca this year. But seeing as I was there for 2 weeks, I was hoping that I’d have the opportunity to spend a little time with him.
A few weeks before my arrival, Rodolfo let me know that he’d be in town when I was. I’d mentioned in one of my emails that if he had any time, I’d love to tag along to one of the markets with him. So when he messaged to ask me if I was interested in going with him to either the Wednesday Etla market or Friday Ocotlan market, I said sure! When he asked which, I said it didn’t matter, that I’d be happy with anything!
I hadn’t really planned on it but ended up crashing one of Rodolfo’s cooking/market classes the next day. In a drunken evening, I arranged a photo shoot with one of (Oaxacking) Omar’s friends , which is a whole other post. During our wandering through the Abastos market, Rodolfo talked about taking me to both Etla & Ocotlan markets. I couldn’t believe my good fortune!
We arranged to go to Etla’s market on Wednesday, but unfortunately, we had to cancel because it happened to be the day before the new Governor was being sworn into office and there were blockades all over town. I offered to cancel, but Rodolfo suggested we meet at the Merced market to have breakfast. While Merced is “my market” when I’m in Oaxaca, I knew that going with Rodolfo would be a new experience, so I eagerly made my way there to meet him.
There are over 8 fondas (family-run stalls) at Merced, but when I go with my gang, we usually end up at Fonda Florecita. I was excited to see where we’d end up eating. But of course, with Rodolfo, it’s not just about sitting down and having a bite at one place, Rodolfo’s interested in sharing the best of the entire market.
We met Rodolfo’s wife Lizette and noticed she already had a bag of sweet bread for dunking in our drinks, (from the same place we go to). Rodolfo said we could choose between Fonda Florecita, which he called “a bit big and touristy” or another place. Of course I needed to check out this other place!
We sat down at Comedor Mary and ordered champurrado (chocolate and masa drink) but before we sat down, he mentioned we’d get empanadas from a whole other vendor. I nearly skipped behind him in joy as we headed to get our empanadas. I love new discoveries!
When all the food was delivered I looked around at all the new dishes we were trying. There were so many things I’d never seen before, never mind even know to order. I felt a bit like I do when I go to a Chinese restaurant in Vancouver and look over at the table next to me only to see that they have things I’d never seen on the menu. I was finally the cool kid in the know sitting at that table, and in Oaxaca of all places!
We met early on Friday to go to Ocotlan which was a whole different experience. Rodolfo and his wife picked me, Jo & Henry (my in-law’s) up and on the way we picked up Omar as well. We drove out into the country and I immediately felt myself sink into the beauty of Oaxaca. The rolling mountains that surround Oaxaca always make me feel like I’m being taken into its embrace and puts a smile on my face. It’s a beauty that’s hard to describe to others, but I don’t mind keeping the thought as my own.
Going to the Ocotlan market with Rodolfo was extra special because it turns out, it was where he was born, so I got to hear many stories about his memories in the area.
Our first stop was the livestock trade. Working and food livestock are bought/sold/traded on Fridays in this market in Ocotlan. While they don’t mind people watching, they definitely don’t get out of the way for you. And I mean the animals!
We stopped for breakfast and before I knew it, there was so much food on the table. I was overcome again with happiness to be brought to a place I’d never think to come and with no thought, have a table full of deliciousness put in front of me.
One of the great things about Rodolfo is that he is generous in sharing the tastes of Oaxaca. When his eye catches something that he believes you should try, it’s only a matter of seconds later that you’ll actually find yourself trying it!
Our next stop on our fabulous adventure was the Ocotlan market, and things were being purchased here and there in a flurry. We walked by a hat vendor where both Omar and Rodolfo bought hats and then because it was a hot day, we stopped for paletas. I took Rodolfo’s advice and got the leche quemada con fresa (burnt milk and strawberry). I was thankful for the suggestion, as I never would have tried it, but the combination together was so good!
I remember the first time I’d gone to a market in Oaxaca almost 10 years ago and I’d seen a woman making tejate by putting her whole arm in the pot stir the mixture. I immediately turned my nose at the whole thing as I was uncertain of the cleanliness of the situation, but if Rodolfo hands you a glass of tejate to drink…
As we left Ocotlan market, I thought we were done for the day, but no, there was one more stop a short drive away in Santo Tomas Jalieza where we were able to catch the Navarro sisters in action backstrap weaving.
But of course any adventure of this nature always includes food, so before you knew it, we were sitting down around their table for a lunch prepared by the sisters.
As I sat around the table, I was overcome with gratitude. I was thankful for the Navarro sisters for opening their home for us for lunch. I was thankful to be sharing it with Jo&Henry, the 2 people who have invited me year after year to stay with them in Oaxaca. I was thankful to Omar, who has not only been such a fantastic resource for all things Oaxaca but also amazing at including me in his plans to take me out throughout my visit. And I was thankful to Rodolfo and his wife Lizette for sharing their time with me to show me the magic of place they call home.
Travelling isn’t about ticking off the sites and monuments, but about gaining an appreciation and understanding of the places you visit. My market days, shared to me by Rodolfo and his wife were days that travellers can only dream of. And for that, I am very grateful.