Let’s get the awkwardness out of the way shall we?
I know exactly what you’re thinking. So many vowels in one word. And what does one do with that ‘x’? You could spend hours trying to work out how to pronounce Oaxaca but I’ll spare you. ‘Wahaca’ is the phonetic pronunciation, and by happenstance is also a chain of Mexican restaurants in the UK. Clearly the founder didn’t think ‘Oaxaca’ would cut through on the high street.
Oaxaca had been sitting in the periphery of my greedy mind for quite some time. I knew from reading food press and listening to general foodie chit chat that Oaxaca was a True. Foodie. Heaven. Up there with San Sebastian. Bangkok. Palermo. How could a city famous for seven moles be anything but?
I’d tried to squeeze it into a previous trip to Mexico but knew even then that a few days would not do. I’d argue that my ensuing 10 day trip did not quite cut the mustard either but it was at least enough time to eat an extraordinary amount of delicious and unique dishes, many of which can’t be found elsewhere in Mexico.
It would take me days, even weeks, to list all the dishes that need to be tried in Oaxaca. Some have travelled over the border well – enchiladas (although vastly different from the Tex Mex version), tamales, tostadas. Others were brand new to me – tlayudas, tetelas, memelitas. There are so many things you can do with a tortilla it made my head spin; Mexicans are true origamists.
You’d certainly have to start at one of the incredible markets. Mercado Benito Juárez, Mercado 20 de Noviembre and Central de Abastos are all terrific but for a traditional breakfast it has to be Mercado La Merced. My local friend Oscar introduced me to the delights of frothy hot chocolate with pan de yema and its similarly sweet starchy friends. Dip the carby delights into frothy hot chocolate for a sweet kickstart to your day.
Then move onto something savoury such as memelitas (fried tortillas with tomato, chilli, beans and fresh cheese) and enchiladas – not rolled in Tex Mex style but rather layered like a loose lasagne, doused in a green chilli mole and topped with the stretchy Oaxacan cheese I find so addictive. Plus a side of fried beef short ribs for good luck.
My other favourite breakfast, as much for its name as its flavour, was chilaquiles divorciados. Yes that’s right – divorced chilaquiles. A classic Mexican breakfast using yesterday’s tortillas in a nacho-type concoction, the divorced variety keeps those in red salsa on one side, green salsa on the other. Only the fried egg on top crosses the border. Delicious… especially after a big night of drinking mezcal.
Ahh mezcal. Not technically from Oaxaca but it has certainly become the region most famous for this smoky and much maligned sister of tequila. I visited a mezcal palenque where all the magic happens: the agave plants have their spines cut leaving the heart or ‘piña’ – which means pineapple in Spanish and reflects its shape. The piñas are then roasted in a pit (which is where the smokiness and a touch of sweetness come from), crushed into pulp, fermented and distilled twice.
I fulfilled a lifelong ambition by eating not one but two worms from the bottom of the bottle (which are actually larva from inside the agave plant). Classy I know.
Nothing soaks up mezcal like mole. And my obsession with mole goes way back. Whichever of the seven types you opt for you’re in for a treat. I am particularly obsessed with mole negro, the deep black version that gets its kicks from the addition of dark chocolate and various roasted chillies.
I wanted to order it at every meal but managed to look past it a number of times to try its tasty brethren including mole verde, mole amarillo and my (second) favourite, mole colaradito. In fact I learnt how to make mole coloradito (also known as mole rojo or red mole) under the auspices of the very experienced Esperanza.
There’s a reason why Mexicans only make mole for special occasions and that’s because it’s extremely labour intensive – virtually every ingredient needs to be individually fried to gently coax out its best flavour. Hours and hours of work.
No one does street food like the Mexicans and Oaxaca has it mastered. One of my favourite snacks was a quesadilla (or two) made with zucchini flowers (flor de calabazas) and that good old stretchy Oaxacan cheese. They cost a small fortune in Australia (which makes no sense to me as every zucchini has a flower and zucchinis are not expensive when in season) so it was a delight to see them so often for next to nothing.
One of the strangest things I came across was tejate, a pre-Hispanic beverage from the Oaxacan region. It’s made from toasted maize, fermented cacao beans and flor de cacao, a delicious combination.
But it took courage to take that first sip because it looks like something that is seriously past its use by date or has started growing its own mould. I discovered that the white froth is actually the cacao fat and delicious, as is the entire chilled drink. Every market had at least a few ladies ladling tejate into brightly painted bowls made from hollowed out gourds.
One afternoon wandering through the charming town I spotted a sign for tuna ice-cream.
Thankfully it was not some sort of fishy mash up but rather tuna is the bright red fruit of the cactus which makes a delightful iced treat, akin to a gelato. Perfect for a hot day.
Of course no study of Oaxacan food is complete without a nod to the vast range of insects. They are and have always been wholeheartedly embraced by the Mexicans, from grasshoppers to worms and larvae. Sustainable, inexpensive, protein-rich and tasty. What’s not to love?
Chapulines or grasshoppers are the most common of the lot, easily found in fried form and piled high by street vendors. Once you get over the ick factor (which you will as soon as you try a couple), you won’t get over the flavour and crunchy texture they offer. I especially loved them piled high on tostadas with guacamole and salsa. It was the one ingredient that didn’t make it home with me. While I was cocky enough to bring back an entire suitcase of Oaxacan food I could just imagine the reaction I would get from Australian customs if they found Mexican grasshoppers in my luggage. I’m going to have to find me a local source…