Amidst the uncertainty and turmoil caused by the coronavirus crisis, it’s easy for the days to blend together. Yet for many Oaxacans, the weekends are still distinct, mainly because of the pleasurable fin de semana (weekend) meals that allow family and friends to gather, reset and reenergize for the coming week. There is nothing more soothing than informal comfort food, which is often on the menu for these meals.
“Although such food is not complicated to cook, on a Friday evening or a slow Sunday afternoon all you want is to chill and forget about cooking,” says Miguel Mijangos, head chef and co-owner of Ancestral, a traditional Oaxacan restaurant located in the picturesque neighborhood of Xochimilco. As the lockdown moved forward, Miguel realized how much he craved the simple traditional Oaxacan dishes normally found in markets, at small family eateries and street carts – meat tacos, coloradito mole, tetelas (triangle-shaped corn pockets filled with beans, cream and cheese) or huevos al comal (eggs cooked on the grill). “At first I thought this craving was going to eventually fade away, but then these dishes were the first thing that crossed my mind as soon as I got up. It is the food I grew up with, the dishes my mother would cook for us on a daily basis, so I understood how deep they run in my eating habits and probably in my customers’ too.”
Indeed, Miguel is not alone. Santina, my neighbor and partner in crime in culinary adventures, has been craving these dishes as well. “I indulge myself by looking for ‘Oaxacan food’ hashtags on Instagram. Just looking at a photograph of a cup of foamy hot chocolate with a piece of pan dulce [sweet bread] next to it puts me at ease,” she tells me. Since quarantine began, we’ve created a long list of all the dishes we want to eat. Most recently, it was a late-night classic: tlayudas. In an attempt to find a place to satisfy our “corn and bean-tooth,” we searched on Santina’s Instagram account using the hashtags #comidatradicional (“traditional food”) and #findesemana (“weekend”). It was there that we stumbled upon Ancestral, which was offering exactly what we were longing for.
Suddenly it seems like our very recent past is ancient history. Although Oaxaca has been in and out of lockdown, many of the street carts are closed and markets have intermittently shut their doors. Many family eateries have also chosen not to reopen for the time being. “Normal food from the old [pre-lockdown] days,” as Miguel calls it, which was so abundant that most people took it for granted, is no longer easy to find. It feels like ages ago that we could go to the market and have a memela, when it’s only been three and half months. We miss these dishes dearly and want desperately to believe that there are still spaces making them.
“As a staff we realized we all wanted to prioritize the same dishes in our quarantine menu. Yes they are simple, but in the end food is not about complexity, it is about wellbeing and connection,” says Roman, Ancestral’s sous chef. “We want our customers to have the experience of eating comfort or street food options like in the [pre-coronavirus] days, but without them having to worry about hygiene and quarantine measures. We got them covered,” he adds.
“Yes they are simple, but in the end food is not about complexity, it is about wellbeing and connection.”
Currently, Ancestral is offering delivery on the weekends, from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Fridays and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Fridays are all about juicy suadero tacos, plantain snacks and deep-fried goodies. “Who doesn’t want a beer with a crispy tlayuda and spicy salsa while playing cards or watching a movie on a weekend?” jokes Omar, Ancestral’s manager, while he takes my order. On Saturday and Sunday, however, they offer breakfast in addition to the Friday menu. Here we can find Ancestral’s hearty hot chocolate or the salsa de queso, fresh melted cheese dipped in an epazote and tomato salsa, an Oaxacan classic.
The response has been immense, and demand has unexpectedly gone through the roof. “Our customers requests are being heard. Empathy and abundance are key in these times,” says Miguel. And these aren’t just talking points – Ancestral’s portions are generous and their prices affordable. While the range of food on offer in the city is still quite remarkable, not all places are in tune with the economic challenges most people are experiencing. “We want people to be able to remember how it feels to have a nice Friday or weekend evening meal in the city with roommates, family or friends,” says Omar.
The lockdown has changed our perception of food and the way our emotions relate to the things we eat. While in such a situation some might emphasize the importance of being mindful of our food choices, we believe that celebrating the weekend with comfort food is not only a good way to relax, but also a chance to help strengthen ties and reconnect with our community and culture. “As crazy as it may sound, there is something very reassuring about finally eating something you’ve been craving for a long time, especially if this meal is something that brings back good memories. The whole world stops as long as that bite lasts,” says Santina, as she crosses out another craving from our long list.
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