Thanks to new restaurants like Comal, Bay Area interest in the cuisine of Oaxaca is perhaps higher than ever. But if you want to try the region's seven traditional moles, down shots of mezcal (tequila's smokier, lesser-known sibling), and munch on the fried grasshoppers known as chulapines, why not go to the source?
From December 22 to 30, Food First, an Oakland-based nonprofit food policy think tank, will lead an educational tour of Oaxaca that will allow participants not only to celebrate Christmas in Southern Mexico and eat traditional meals prepared in the homes of local farm families, but also hear firsthand about the challenges facing Oaxaca's campesinos and diverse indigenous peoples.
According to Tanya Kerssen, a researcher for Food First, the trip is tailored to appeal to a wide range of interested parties — academics, activists, and all-around food nerds.
For the past two years, one of the extensions of Food First's food justice work has been the series of "Food Sovereignty Tours" that the organization has co-sponsored — which has included tours to Bolivia, Cuba, the Italian countryside, and more, all focused on the idea that people should have the right to determine their own food and agricultural systems. Each tour is co-organized by a Food First representative and a local guide, who set the itinerary and take turns leading group discussions.
Kerssen herself was the Food First coordinator for the first Food Sovereignty Tour to Oaxaca, which took place last year, also during the winter holiday. Together with Oaxacan activist Juan de Dios Gomez — whom she called the "heart and soul behind the trip" — Kerssen put together the schedule, the orientation materials, and the thick packet of texts participants are given to read in preparation for the trip.
All in all, it's an expedition that can seem daunting if you're just looking to have a straightforward tourist experience.
"I think the trips are really fun, but I'm also a super nerd," Kerssen said. She stressed that the Oaxacan tour isn't physically taxing, but that it's intellectually stimulating and can be somewhat emotional, especially when participants have a chance to talk to local farmers and community leaders about their struggles.
"It is tourism in a way, but in another way, I'm introducing you to my friends and colleagues and partners," Kerssen said. "And by the end of this they'll be your friends and colleagues and partners."
This year's trip will include tours of rural open-air markets and a family-run palenque (mezcal production facility), a cooking demonstration led by a local community member, and something called The Night of the Radishes, an exhibition of amazingly intricate sculptures carved from giant red radishes.
Kerssen acknowledged that the cost of the trip — $1,750 per person, not including airfare — isn't insignificant. But much of the expense, she said, is due to the fact that Food First fairly pays all local contributors — the guides, the translators, and the families who are hosting meals in their homes.
That said, prospective participants are encouraged to apply for a scholarship, which could take $300 to $600 off the total price of the trip. For more information, visit FoodSovereigntyTours.org or call Food First at 510-654-440, ext. 223.
Holy Land Sold
A longtime favorite in Berkeley's Elmwood neighborhood has closed suddenly: Holy Land Restaurant (2965 College Ave.) had its final day of service two weeks ago, according to owner Niso Mizrachi. Taking its place will be a new Indonesian eatery called Padi Restaurant.
A popular purveyor of Jewish and Middle Eastern foods, Holy Land had been open at its Berkeley location since 1997. But Mizrachi said keeping the business afloat has been challenging the past few years — a result of what he feels is the City of Berkeley's overly lax enforcement of zoning regulations, which has allowed restaurants to open in former retail spaces and other buildings not previously zoned for food. The resulting glut of competition has, in his view, made it difficult for restaurants in that neighborhood to remain profitable.
Mizrachi isn't sure what his next step will be, but he stressed that Holy Land's original Oakland location (677 Rand Ave.), run by his daughter, Miri Levy, will continue to operate as usual. In fact, the restaurant is now open seven days a week, though what those Saturday hours mean, in part, is that the restaurant is no longer under kosher supervision — a necessary business decision, Levy told me.
Although Holy Land's closure occurred with no warning, it has apparently been in the works for some time. Jimmy Sujanto, the owner of Padi, said he first found out about the College Avenue location a few months ago, when he saw that Holy Land was for sale. According to Sujanto, the sale was finalized just last week, with the gist of the deal being that he has taken over the lease on the space and inherited all of existing equipment and furniture.
Padi is Sujanto's first restaurant venture, though he has decades of restaurant and food industry experience, most recently as the head of a catering business well known in the Bay Area's Indonesian community. Specialties at Padi will include Indonesian fish cakes and Sujanto's homemade beef meatballs, the latter of which are served in a clear broth with rice noodles and greens.
Because the restaurant is already equipped and doesn't require a major remodel — and because Sujanto already has all of the necessary permits — turnover will be quick: On Wednesday, October 24, Padi will have a soft opening from noon to 9 p.m. On that day, everything will be 30 percent off.