Abigail Mendoza Ruiz is the World’s Most Famous Zapotec Chef

Abigail Mendoza Ruiz doesn’t have children to pass down the traditional Zapotec recipes she learned from her family. But she does have Dishdaa ‘ w – a book full of her recipes. “Through my book, I leave mankind and new generations that enjoy traditional cuisine all my knowledge,” she told El Universal. Mendoza Ruiz wants to preserve Zapotec customs while showing that it’s not merely ancient cuisine. That’s exactly what she’s done for nearly 27 years with her restaurant, Tlamanalli. Since opening the restaurant on February 14, 1990 in Oaxaca, Mendoza Ruiz has also become the most famous Zapotec chef.

Her food journey began in the late 60s. Back then, the 5-year-old helped her parents – who harvested corn – in the kitchen with simple tasks. She started removing corn husks and eventually graduated to making tortillas by hand. At first, cooking wasn’t her thing, but it grew on her. And before she knew it, she could make nopalitos with chile pasilla and a pipián made of pumpkin seeds. She learned a lot from her mother, but her aunt also served as one of her teachers. “[My aunt] would tell me: ‘Hija, I’m not going to tell you what to do. If you want to learn, you have to observe.’ I had no other choice.”

With her family’s support, she opened Tlamanalli. And she really took her time (about six years) designing the kitchen and the menu exactly as she wanted it to be – in order to create the perfect place for people to enjoy their time. Along the way, there were also some speed bumps. The first contractor she hired didn’t complete the construction, because back then, women couldn’t commission bricklayers. So she turned to one of her father’s friends for help. “I asked him if he could finish the construction, but told him that he’d have to sign a contract with me, he said that he had no problem with that, because he came from the city and it was more accepting of that,” she said.

Before Tlamanalli opened its doors, she had a little stand next to her restaurant. There, she perfected her recipes. It didn’t take long for the restaurant to take off. Not long after opening in mid-February 1990, Gourmet paid her a visit. A friend warned her not to get her hopes up. With so many people vying to get featured in the foodie magazine, a write-up on Tlamanalli seemed out of reach. In 1991, she received a copy of Gourmet in the mail. “I didn’t understand anything because it was in English,” she said. “But I felt very happy.”

“I dream of her pumpkin seeds roasted with chilies.”

The New York Times followed soon after. On January 17, 1993, the publication explained why its worth visiting her restaurant. “I dream of her pumpkin seeds roasted with chilies, her chicken broth with fresh corn and zucchini blossoms, her Oaxacan moles, the cazuela of white beans and tomatoes and fried white fish,” Molly O’Neill wrote. “And there are addictive sugar-covered almond cookies and intensely flavored papaya, mango and pineapple sorbets to point the diner in the direction of a digestif after the three-hour meal.”

The praise and international attention hasn’t stopped rolling in either. In a 2014 episode of Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain dropped by to try the Zapotec food. In the history of her restaurant, the pre-Hispanic mole – prepared with chile, corn, tomatoes, and yerba santa – has become one of her most popular dishes.

“[Before] they said, ‘How am I going to eat indigenous foods?’”

However, people haven’t always accepted the food. “Now people look at traditional foods because of all the recognition it’s gotten, but no one paid attention to it before. They said, ‘How am I going to eat indigenous foods?’ I wasn’t afraid to show the food’s richness, and it was people from outside of Mexico who gave me recognition.”

Despite bringing Zapotec cuisine into the spotlight, she doesn’t have the government’s backing. “Right now, Oaxaca is only speaking about its food, because we don’t have government support so that we can continue promoting this cuisine,” she said. “We need for them to pay attention to traditional chefs, because we want more people to visit Oaxaca and to spread our food to every corner of the world.”