Oaxaca’s natural food projects have long had a presence in the city, but they are gaining new importance in light of the current coronavirus crisis. In a time of disruption and disconnection, they see themselves as helping to restore the links between humankind and nature.
While the medical and scientific communities are going to great lengths to fight the local spread of the coronavirus and Covid-19, many Oaxacans are also realizing that this is a good moment to recognize that science and natural healing traditions can coexist. It’s something that locals are appreciating now more than ever – all the producers and vendors we spoke to reported a considerable increase in the demand for healing food products in the last few weeks. Although the pandemic has turned lives upside down, with Oaxaca’s normally busy streets now eerily quiet, it has also brought a new urgency to the important task of improving the quality of our food and how we grow it, transport it and process it.
“The future is now,” states Victoria Aguilera, founder of La Sazón del Sol, which focuses on using solar power to prepare and preserve food, in a gentle but firm tone. It’s a sentiment shared by other natural food leaders in Oaxaca. “This is urgent for our planet’s and our own health, both… because, you see, everything is connected,” reflects Johann Mathieu, one of the founders of Micológica 360, a project focused on agroecology, the adaption of agriculture to natural conditions and cycles, not unlike sustainable farming. Flor Heras, the chocolatier behind the brands El Rito and Reina Negra, expands on the idea: “The energy that nurtures our bodies is no other but the earth itself, its products, the producers and the consumers, everything as a whole.”
Traditional Mexican medicine has long emphasized that food, the way we cook it and the mood we’re in when we eat it have great repercussions for our nervous and immune systems, and that the state of our mind and spirit can either weaken or boost our body’s health, and vice versa. “We are used to separating everything, thinking we get our body’s fuel in the supermarkets and our health in the pharmacies and drugstores,” says Victoria.
“When I was very young I had to look after my siblings. We didn’t have enough money to go to the doctor, so I learned from my grandmother how to use herbs to cure indigestion, sooth fever or relieve joint pain,” she adds. Having inherited that knowledge, Victoria knew her path was somehow leading her to the realm of natural health. In the roads surrounding her new home outside of Oaxaca City she found plants she knew were edible and healing at the same time. The signs were clear.
“I joined the Cocina Solar [Solar Cooking] project and started learning more about building sun dehydrators, using solar stoves, using the energy from the bright Oaxacan sun to preserve and cook with the local ingredients at hand,” Victoria tells us. As a renewable energy technician by training and a healer by intuition, she was able over time to develop La Sazón del Sol, a project where she could incorporate and fuse technology, medicine and nutrition.
Nowadays, she produces all sorts of naturally processed foods that cater to modern dietary habits. She offers a wide selection of vegan foods like lentil patties and non-dairy cheese; fermented drinks like kombucha and ginger beer; food supplements with spirulina; energy bars; and “fast food,” like dehydrated soups that can be cooked in five minutes. “Preserved and fermented foods are a win-win: they last longer so we are covered for as long as the quarantine lasts; they are processed with natural techniques, so they are conservatives free; and they are charged with minerals and antioxidants,” she tells us. “When we reconnect with nature and respect her cycles and resources, we reconnect with our bodies, making them resistant and beautiful.”
Micológica 360 is also experimenting with and building on ancestral traditions of using food as a form of medicine and to improve cognitive function and performance. The project was originally established with the aim of fostering food sovereignty – the idea that people, not corporations, should oversee food production and distribution – in the mountain communities of Sierra Juárez in Oaxaca. But perhaps a bit unexpectedly, it morphed into a network of producers and researchers exploring new ways to transform raw foods into extracts, supplements and prepared dishes that are in line with old medicinal traditions but have a more modern point of view.
Johann, one of the co-founders, explains: “For example, in Oaxaca we can grow naturally lion’s mane mushroom. It is true that it tastes like lobster, and that is why we have a high demand for it from restaurants, but nobody knows that in addition to its delicious flavor, lion’s mane can regenerate neurons and improve our decision-making processes. We have developed an extract that can be taken as a supplement, with the proper instructions, of course.”
Sometimes we take food for granted, focusing more on how it is presented and garnished on the plate, or how extravagant or innovative the cooking techniques were, without stopping to think about its properties. “This is the perfect moment for us to change the way we relate to food. We can start maximizing the possibilities of ingredients, treat them with care and efficiency at the same time,” Johann tells us.
Among Micológica’s many products, their precooked risotto with dehydrated shiitake mushrooms is one of the best examples of this approach. Beyond its powerful flavor, Johann says the preserved shitake offers a boost to the immune system, probably more than the fresh version would.
Another ingredient that influences both body and soul is cacao, which also occupies an important role in the history of Oaxaca. “From a scientific point of view, cacao and chocolate are charged with minerals, bromelain, flavonoids and antioxidants that boost serotonin and energy and help fight depression and anxiety,” says Flor, the woman behind the artisanal chocolate shop Rito. “From a traditional and Indigenous point of view, cacao is the food associated with the concept of ‘joyful energy,’ represented by the Mayan guardian of cacao, the Spider Monkey,” she adds.
Over the years, Flor has learned from both experts and her chocolate-making family that food is a blend of chemistry and culture, techniques and intuition. “For me food is a unifier on many levels,” she says. “There are remedies such as infusions or soups that relieve physical pain, but there are also foods that ease the soul.”
A good reminder, as mental health issues threaten to become the second wave of the pandemic. “The information is overwhelming, so it is important to keep our spirits high. Mango and cacao are great for that. Adding some cacao nibs in our smoothies, drinking a cacao infusion or indulging in a decadent spiced mango chocolate after lunch are a pleasant but also caring way for staying healthy,” says Flor. “Cacao has a great healing effect on the psyche.”
The old saying “let the food be your medicine” is more than fitting in chaotic times like these, when our habits are the only thing we can actually control. “The fascinating thing about traditional medicine is that it focuses on the prevention of disease, not [treating it] after. It starts acting before, and never too late,” says Ruth Orozco, co-owner of La Pitaya, a small store in Oaxaca selling local and natural products. “And it understands the connection between body, thoughts and emotions.”
For Ruth and her business partner, Alejandra, establishing networks with local producers is an extension of this body-mind-soul connection. The thinking goes that the more consumers are in touch with local producers and made aware of natural ingredients and food processing techniques, the greater the chance that they will consume high-quality products that prove beneficial to their health. In the end, consumers and producers are walking down the same path: They all want to feel stronger, empowered and nurtured.