The fruity chile odor filled my nostrils as I took a sip of the mezcal that Juana Amaya Hernandez had poured for me. I was drinking it out of a chile de agua, a large lime-colored chile local to Oaxaca, its rim dipped in homemade sal de gusano, a spice made with ground agave worms, and it tickled my tongue with its tinny flavor. “This is how we drink mezcal in the countryside,” Ms. Hernandez said.
My friends and I were in the courtyard of a restaurant in the sleepy Oaxacan town of Zimatlán de Álvarez, on a lip-burning two-week trip to get to the heart of Mexican chiles. We were the guests of Ms. Hernandez, 67, a stout woman wearing thick glasses, a colorful dress and earrings made of strings of dried blue-corn kernels. Once a criminal lawyer, Ms. Hernandez had changed course to spend her days at her restaurant, Mi Tierra Linda, steeped in her grandmothers’ recipes.
I spend my days documenting war crimes for Human Rights Watch in Ukraine. But I spend my free time on food — cooking, reading about it, watching TV shows about it and planning trips around it. After grueling trips to the front line, with days spent interviewing dozens of victims of the worst abuses that wars foster, I know I can come home to Kyiv and find some relief in the kitchen, preparing food infused with love, as Ms. Hernandez does.
In 2018, my husband and I visited the Mexican hill town of San Miguel de Allende, where we discovered a museum housing a staggering collection of ceremonial masks. The museum owner said he had traveled to every corner of the country to witness the ceremonies they were used in and then buy them for the museum.
His story inspired me. I had an upcoming three-month sabbatical, a break that Human Rights Watch gives all employees for every seven years of work. I knew food would be part of that chance to recharge, so I began to plan my own journey through Mexico, following not masks but chiles.
One of my earliest food memories is biting into a Chinese noodle dish at a fair in Zurich, where I grew up, and bursting into tears because of the burn. For years, I avoided spicy food. But in my early 20s, I decided enough was enough. So I began to force myself to eat chiles to learn how to handle the heat.
And once I could stand the burn, I began to taste thrilling flavors that had been hiding behind the spice: fruity, sour, bitter, bright or smoky notes, sometimes in stages, sometimes all at once.
I finally made it back to Mexico last February. I enrolled…
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