Chances are, the last time you ate Mexican food you didn't prepare those tacos or tostadas at home. Like Chinese, Thai, and Indian food, Mexican meals are wildly popular in restaurants, but few non-Mexicans make them themselves.
Zarela Martinez is doing her part to turn this around. A well-known authority on the food of her native land, Ms. Martinez knows firsthand about the popularity of Mexican restaurants. She has one of her own - Zarela in New York City.
But it's her cookbooks that has helped bring the country's specialities into home kitchens outside Mexico.
Last month, she brought the exotic flavors of Oaxaca to a group of savvy, salivating foodies who converged in Phoenix for the annual International Association of Culinary Professionals.
Located deep in southern Mexico, Oaxaca is a land of dramatic beauty and diverse terrain. It boasts a colorful culture that melds Spanish and Indian legacies. This vibrancy spills into its cuisine, which Martinez considers Mexico's best.
In 1985, she visited Oaxaca for the first time. The trip changed her life - and her palate. "When I tasted fried grasshoppers, a fashionable snack there, I knew I was in a different culinary world," she says.
Raised on a cattle ranch in northern Mexico, Martinez now calls Oaxaca her "spiritual home." In her 1997 book, "The Food and Life of Oaxaca" (Macmillan), she writes: "My culinary awareness has been truly kindled and transformed in the twelve years that I've known Oaxaca."
Dressed in hot pink and black, (she detests chefs' whites), Martinez began her cooking demo by making what she calls the "crown and jewel" of Oaxacan cuisine: mole. She explains that mole (pronounced MO-lay) is a pured sauce created from a combination of ground spices, herbs, and dried chilies. A thickener is always added; bread, pumpkin seeds, or corn. Perhaps the best-known mole contains a particular Mexican chocolate, which Oaxacans make themselves.
Mole is considered a main-dish sauce although it is often eaten as a soup or served with corn tamales or fish. Recipes for mole contain between 20 and 30 ingredients - a daunting list to the 15-minute home cooks in today's kitchens. "But, don't let that turn you off," says Martinez emphatically, "It's worth it!"
We'll take her word for it. But for now, those of us who packed the large Phoenix classroom are content to watch her blend and grind the ingredients for us. The aroma of garlic, cumin, and cloves wafts our way, teasing our palates for the sample we're about try.
Her mother, who is also her mentor, frequently interrupts her monologue from the front row. "That blender's too full, Zarela!" or "Where's the chocolate?" she shouts in a thick Mexican accent. Without missing a beat, Martinez responds respectfully and keeps talking.
Oaxaca is known as the "land of seven moles," she says, adding that it should be "more like 70" because almost every family has its own interpretation.
She also whips up tamales, another Oaxacan specialty. While shuttling between the blender and coffee grinder, (which she uses to grind spices) Martinez speaks of Oaxaca as though she's speaking of her first romance. She calls her cookbook on Oaxacan cuisine a "poem of love," and she urges us to "get better acquainted with our southern neighbor."
Don't go, however, during July when there are two major festivals, she warns. It's too crowded, and besides, the people need your business at other times of year."
We may never experience Oaxaca. But now that Martinez has transported us there with her flavorful offerings, many of us returned home to prepare our own moles and tamales. And with this mole recipe (left) from her book, you can too.
What better day than today, Cinco de Mayo (Fifth of May), a national holiday in Mexico. Throughout the country, the streets are throbbing with people and parades celebrating Mexico's 1862 defeat of France at the battle of Puebla.
But whatever time of year, thanks to Martinez, you needn't venture to Oaxaca to say ol to mole!