I haven’t spent enough time in Oaxaca to make an accurate count but seems like these days there’s a new restaurant or mezcal bar popping up in the centro with the frequency of daytime fireworks (they go off way more often than you think here!)
But restaurant Las Quince Letras, just a few blocks from the Templo de Santo Domingo, has been around for 23 years. I went to lunch with owner Celia Florián, who continues to make her grandmother’s recipes. She’s like a fairy godmother of Oaxacan culinary traditions, leading the Cocineras Tradicionales de Oaxaca and working closely with farmers to supply her restaurant with seasonal products. By coincidence, while I was there the daughter of one of her chilhuacle chile suppliers stopped by to talk about the devastating loss of their crop to a flash storm. She invited her to sit with us so we could brainstorm how to help.
Here’s a brief interview with Celia about changes she’s seen in Oaxacan cuisine and her work outside of the restaurant.
Tell me how things have changed in the Oaxacan dining scene since you opened.
When we opened 23 years ago there were no restaurants around us, but now there are 12 right around us. It’s great, the fact that we’re still here means we are doing something right. We’ve kept offering a daily lunch special, and our clientele hasn’t gone down.
How has the restaurant changed since you opened? Has your food changed?
One thing that’s been drastic is that people are healthier now. I used to have a lot of steamed or raw vegetables on the menu because that’s what I grew up eating, but people always objected to it. And I had a woman in here once that told me I was an idiot because I didn’t overcook her vegetables like she was accustomed to. Now people ask for things with less sugar and want more vegetables, which I think is great.
Tell me about your role with the Cocineras Tradicionales and what that group is about?
We work with women from communities across Oaxaca who know a lot about cooking. They have the taste, the skills, the recipes. They are the ones carrying the traditions from their towns. But it’s hard for them to get access to publicity. We go to events across the country and then they get invited to do things separately and get business opportunities.
What are some of the challenges the group faces?
We often don’t have enough funds to make these trips realistic for women, if an event doesn’t pay lodging and transportation we are on our own to fundraise so that can be a major barrier to including everyone.
Is there anything that you think threatens keeping these traditional recipes alive— climate change or more affordable but less quality ingredients, for example?
I’ve seen women stop using chilhuacle in mole negro because it is more expensive, they use guajillo instead. [Chilhuacle is a chile that’s only grown by 4 to 5 producers now and is challenging to grow, but essential to some traditional mole recipes].
For reasons like that, we support local producers and avoid using a middle man. I think it’s important to support both the producers supplying the ingredients and the people cooking them.
At the time of our interview Las Quince Letras was undergoing renovations in the patio but I got a sneak peek, hopefully you’ll get to enjoy it. The restaurant is good for lunch, prices are mid-range. Visit Las Quince Letras here: http://lasquinceletras.mx and follow the Cocineras Tradicionales de Oaxaca here. Thanks to Andrea for the introduction!