Behind the veil of smoke rising from the hot clay plate, Thalía Barrios Garcia roasts dozens of tomatoes in all shades of red with the confidence of a woman in charge of her future. Just 26 years old, Thalía is the owner and chef of Levadura de Olla, one of Oaxaca City’s most exciting new restaurants.
Despite the pandemic – or maybe because of it – Levadura de Olla’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent months, likely due to its healthy menu that suits most dietary styles and, more importantly, its deep roots in cooking styles rooted is Thalía’s hometown: San Mateo Yucutindoo. It’s a remote village in the southern mountains of the state of Oaxaca, a place where the valley’s semi-desert landscapes, an incipient forest, and semi-tropical flora meet, creating one of the state’s most remote trails regions, both culinary and geographical. The name Levadura de Olla – literally “clay pot yeast” – comes from the ferment used in San Mateo to bake bread in clay pots.
From our very first visit, the intricate yet simple flavors of Thalía’s dishes took us into the hidden households of the Oaxacan mountains, where the smokiness found in the salsas and beans blends with the earthy mushrooms and wild herbal notes quelites (local vegetables) and the sweetness of freshly made tortillas. Without a doubt, her food reflects the cuisine and lives of the women in her family who are largely responsible for her daring views. “I was born a woman, and in San Mateo that means learning to cook and being prepared for whatever it means to be a woman. But my story begins before me, with all the women in my family. Most of them were single mothers, so they also learned all the things that men do, like working in the fields and farming,” says Thalía. Her knowledge of agriculture and its cycles runs like a red thread through her restaurant’s menu.
Although Levadura de Olla isn’t just about vegetables, they are the star of most dishes; if present, the meat gets the second place. “In general, meat is not plentiful in San Mateo due to its location and lack of refrigerators, and in my case, vegetables have been the backbone of my life [paternal] grandma’s kitchen She had small children and no husband who would go hunting for a rabbit or other animals. Later, when my mother married my father, she was heavily influenced by this style, although meat was included in some dishes in the family recipes – so I grew up with it too,” says Thalía.
Levadura is reminiscent of the southern mountains and other villages that Thalía brought with her. These aren’t just expressed in the dishes…they’re also present in something more abstract. We can feel it in the spices and their cooking techniques, which revolve around spiciness (not spiciness or pungency) and smoke.
As we ate our way through the menu, we could both hear and taste the young chef’s past and present. We found sweet potatoes, one of the ingredients she learned to love and use thanks to her grandmother, as a filling in levaduras, plump and moist tamales.
Thalía’s passion for food began when her grandmother taught her how to make tamales and later when she attended a workshop in her village to learn how to bake cakes and cook black mole (which is a very atypical dish in her hometown due to the price of chocolate and seeds, which are considered ingredients used only for the Day of the Dead and other special celebrations). However, her occasional trips to the city gave her the ultimate motivation to continue her career – the sight of the Central de Abastos, its hustle and bustle and the sumptuous range of food awakened the entrepreneurial cook in her. “I started a birthday cake baking business in San Mateo because cakes are not common for birthdays up there. Every time I came to town, I would buy baked goods catalogues. I hung the cake pictures above my oven and tried to replicate their height and colors so I could add some extra cheer to people on their special day,” she says.
While Thalía literally brought sweetness to her hometown, she also brings joy and special ingredients and flavors, like edible flowers and purple tomatoes, from her hometown to Levadura customers. The restaurant’s impressive range of traditional drinks is one of its unique qualities. There is no other place in Oaxaca City – and probably the rest of Mexico – where we could find such a wide variety of ancestral beverages brewed and prepared across the state. This includes drinks like ticunchia fermented coral-colored drink made from the juice of Papalometl agave and a plant called trebol, native of the southern mountains bordering the coastal region.
Levadura is reminiscent of the southern mountains and other villages that Thalía brought with her. These aren’t just evident in the dishes — such as a taco made with aerated cheese (a fresh cheese that’s dried in the open air, resulting in an aged flavor and unusual texture). flower the pipe (a succulent edible flower sautéed with tomatoes and a subtle chili paste) — they also exist in something more abstract. We can feel it in the spices and their cooking techniques, which revolve around spiciness (not spiciness or pungency) and smoke.
After successfully baking cakes, Thalía decided to come to the city to study gastronomy. “In the beginning I was very confident. I knew all about corn nixtamalization and making moles, what could go wrong? But I was very shocked when I realized I knew nothing about French (and European) cuisine, which is at the core of my entire career – but I learned,” she says. After a few years, Thalía graduated as a chef trained in European techniques, which deepened her respect for Mexican cuisine. “At first I had doubts about my plain tamales since my co-workers made things like sous vide Meat or hollandaise sauce. But then I realized that Mexican food is unique because it’s less standardized than European food. Both are difficult, but Mexican food is more complex because it’s about being alert with all your senses. think of nixtamal, you can’t follow a single recipe – it all depends on the corn variety. You have to bite the grain, smell it, get to know it before you cook it,” she explains.
The deep understanding of the ingredients of Levadura de Olla is just one of its many gifts. His suggestion of a “non-hierarchical menu” is different. “All dishes have the same meaning. We separate them from other categories that have nothing to do with the typical sequence of “starter, main course” and so on. A soup or a salad is just as important as a meat dish. Everything is sacred, everything is food,” reflects Thalía. The best example is the signature local tomato dish with beetroot puree and cinnamon vinaigrette. Sometimes tart, sometimes sweet, always fresh, the flavors of this powerful dish are so deep and so unexpected that you forget the need for a meat “entree.”
Thalia’s goal of giving vegetables a new position in an industry focused on emphasizing animal proteins is also present in her desire to restore the role of the long-ignored protagonists of industrial—and household—kitchens: women . “I’m not against men. I just want women to reclaim a place that, ironically, we’ve lost. That’s why I want Levadura to be a project where women are the heart and hands behind it,” she says. While Thalía’s tone is relaxed and unpretentious, her driven demeanor is just as refreshing as the tomato dish we just had. It has melted our hearts – and many paradigms too – in a good way.