By Stephanie Rosenbaum with illustrations by Robert Trujillo
Fans of Oakland’s monthly gallery stroll, Art Murmur, know to come hungry. The food-truck row that springs to life on the first Friday of each month has become as much of a community draw as the art itself. Our favorite eats there this season? The vibrantly flavored banana-leaf tamales made by Oliva and Carolina Santos, the mother-daughter team of Tamales La Oaxaqueña.
What makes Tamales La Oaxaqueña stand out? Sitting on the curb with my plate one Friday night, I caught a sweet, leafy, almost tropical scent from the moist banana leaf wrapped around my red-mole chicken tamal. While banana leaves are used frequently in Oaxaca (as well as in Central America), they’re much rarer here, where the corn husk wrappers of northern Mexico prevail. Inside, the layer of masa is almost tortilla-thin, folded around a generous portion of shredded chicken bathed in a savory, sweet-spicy mole sauce.
A week later, Carolina invited me to the commercial kitchen space in East Oakland where she and her mother work. Walking up to the screen door, I could hear salsa music playing and smell the earthy, spicy fragrance wafting from an enormous simmering pot of black mole.
Oaxaca is, of course, the land of moles, and, as with gumbo in Louisiana or chile in Texas, every family has their own strong opinions about what goes into it. As Carolina translated, Oliva told me that she’s been making mole since she was eight years old, learning from Margarita, a family friend who was the best cook she’d ever known, and famous for her moles. “Mole, it’s just part of everyday life,” said Oliva.
Laid out on a bright orange cloth, the fruits, vegetables, and spices for their red mole tell a story of Mexican history. “There’s a very strong presence of indigenous peoples in Oaxaca,” Carolina said, pointing to the Zapotec and Mixtec, two of the region’s largest surviving groups, with roots that stretch back thousands of years. “These cultures, they’re so valuable.” Native chiles sit next to Spanish colonial imports—bay leaves, thyme, and oregano from the Mediterranean; cinnamon, cloves, and sesame seeds brought to Spain by Arab and North African traders. Pointing out the three kinds of dried peppers—guajillo, negro, and árbol—Carolina tells me that they always try to get their guajillo chiles from Mexico; the ones grown in California don’t have the same flavor.
“Mole is something sweet balanced with something spicy,” Carolina explained. Onions, garlic, raisins, and ripe plantains are slow-roasted to concentrate their sweetness. Dried chiles add heat and flavor. Body comes from breadcrumbs and almonds, aromatics from the herbs and spices. The texture is smooth, the flavor punchy but balanced, each ingredient skillfully melded into the whole. For the black mole, rich and intense, the ingredients are roasted until they are almost charred, the chiles cooked whole with their seeds, to produce a sauce that’s smoky, dense, and layered.
It’s a slow, labor-intensive process, and just one of the many steps—stirring up the masa, cooking the chicken, pork, beef, beans and vegetable fillings, making the moles, hand-shaping and steaming—needed to create each of the 300 to 600 tamale they make each week. Part of Carolina’s job at their tamale stand is to explain the whole process, and to get people to appreciate both the art and the artisanal skill it takes to produce such a high-quality street food.
Watching her mother and her assistant Susana lay out squares of olive-green banana leaves, Carolina said, “It feels like we’re really taking it back to the indigenous people, being conscious of the environment. The Indian people knew what they were doing. A banana leaf, what’s more biodegradable than that?”
For more information, email tamalesoaxaca(at)gmail(dot)com or call 510.613.5836.
Illustrator Robert Trujillo is a visual artist specializing in illustration, murals, and storytelling. He loves life, long embraces, and positivity. Learn more about him at https://www.robdontstop.com/