When I booked my ticket to Oaxaca, all I knew about the city (which turned out to be a state too- doh) was that it was the culinary epicenter of the country and home to Mole: one my favorite sauces since I went with my Spanish class in high school to a Mexican restaurant in Cleveland Ohio (supppps autentico!). I had also heard rumblings of artisanal Mezcal productions, but since I’ve never been able to tolerate hard liquor I paid zero attention to the alcoholic side of things (spoiler: I may have had over 30 types of mezcal in a period of 12 days, stay tuned for the results). AFTER I booked my ticket, I soon learned that I would be arriving just days before Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), and that Oaxaca City held one of the largest celebrations in the entire country. With these three #basic nuggets in my brain, endless warnings from family and friends to watch out for bad hombres (I know, don’t get me started), a belief I would gain 300 pounds since most of the Mexican food I’ve ever eaten is greasy cheesy and heavy, and a perception of Mexico that had been shaped by American television and movies and one visit to a resort town 4 years ago, I packed my pup and my way-too-heavy and way-too-many suitcases.
Well, as mostly happens in life, wasn’t I in for quite the surprise.
I stepped out of our van and into a town that felt like Spain and Italy had a baby and raised it a small countryside village with Zapotec soul. The vibrant colors of the street art and boldly painted buildings, the air permeated with the luscious smells of chilies and corn, and the humans that walked down the street and interacted with such warmth even with an ocean of language and culture between us, immediately all came together in a completely unexpected way that turned my expectations on their naïve American head. We arrived with a few days to explore before the city flooded with foreigners (we didn’t see a single tourist for three entire days) and before the streets began to burst with Dia de Los Muertos preparations (more about that in a later post of its own), and I am so grateful because we were able to experience the daily Oaxacan life and food before the chaos ensued. All of us fell madly in love with the city, with it’s mix of old world charm and hipster vibes, it’s marriage of street vendors and markets with Brooklyn-style cafes, mezcalerias, and restaurants, and are all convinced it will be the next hot boho travel destination within five years. Throughout our trip we ate at market stalls, on street corners, in hipster restaurants, in fine dining, in cooking schools, and in Oaxacan’s homes (you MUST take a food tour into the country side with Traditions Mexico for this, it’s amazing!) and had our minds blown by the diversity and depth of real Mexican food. And while I could write pages on the wonders of tortillas alone, or a pen a novel on chilis, I’ll distill it down to these essential new tidbits I learned about Oaxacan gastronomy:
Oaxacans love their bugs.
You’ll find bugs at every market fried, plain or seasoned, and chilling in heaping baskets and on almost every single restaurant menu from street vendor to fine dining. The most common trio is Chipulines (fried mini grasshoppers that almost always top your guacamole whole, are ground and sprinkled as seasoning, or are just tossed with lime, garlic, salt, and chili powder, or are just chilling at your table as an appetizer); Chinicul or Gusano Rojo (worms that are often ground into salt for mezcal or cocktail rims); and Chicatanas (flying ants that are a delicacy as they are only found 2x per year). And while everyone I ate with lost their minds over how delicious these little critters were, and yes, they are beautiful as a highly sustainable high-protein food source that could feed the world, as a vegetarian I just couldn’t crunch on something that used to walk (or jump) around and look at me in the eyes. I’ll just have to take my friends’ word (and moans of pleasure as they downed their guac) for it.
Mole is life (and not just your typical chicken and mole negro combo).
Mole is a wildly complex sauce that when done right takes a serious amount of time, care, ingredients, and muscle to create. To make a proper mole, a mélange of nuts, seeds, chocolate, chilies, fruits, spices, aromatics, thickeners, and vegetables are individually roasted on the comal over charcoal, mixed together in just the perfect proportions, and then either hand ground on a special rectangular u-shaped mortar and pestle (for small batches and when you have more time), taken to the mill (for those big party sized or for selling at the market batches), or tossed in a blender (for those new-agers or impatient folks like me). At the farmers’ markets, there are entire stands devoted to mole making ingredients (genius, so you don’t have to hunt all over the place- old school one-stop-shopping). The markets also sell the giant molcajetes used for blending and grinding and ALL the mole pastes that many swear are as good as homemade.
There are Seven traditional moles in Oaxaca (and thousands of variations), and each of the seven boasts a unique flavor profile and intent for specific dishes. (Fun story: I once got in a heated argument at a Oaxacan restaurant in Los Angeles because I wanted to try all their seven moles, but because I’m a vegetarian, I wanted to pair them all with my cheese quesadillas not their meat mole tasting menu. They would NOT have it and could not get across to me what I now realized during my time in Oaxaca, that certain moles just are not traditionally meant for cheese or plant-based dishes. It made me deeply sad that I couldn’t try them all so I had to order this crazy expensive meat mole platter and just eat the moles with tortilla chips). Despite traditions, the cooks in Oaxaca were much more generous and allowed me to pair their moles as I pleased, and traditionalists be damned – each mole is fantastic with vegetarian food.
My hands-down favorite (and most of my crew’s as well) mole was Coloradito (which roughly translates to “a shade of red), a deep brown-ish red mole that’s secret ingredient is the mashed plantains that are added to the mix. I also think it’s a great gateway mole for those who have never tried the sauce, or don’t think they like mole since they’ve only had the intense dark Mole Negro. I ate Colaradito at every chance I had, learned how to make it at our incredible cooking class at Chilhuacle Rojo, and even licked a couple plates and fingers along the way to savor the last drops.
(for a deeper dive into Mole- check out this article from Saveur, it is a perfect story of Oaxacan mole exploration, read it for all the spicy deets!)
I hate Oaxacan tostadas (and may have caused a fight because of it).
So, this is going to be a super American paragraph, but Oaxacan tostadas are just not my thing. Back in the states (and as I later learned, in Mexico City), tostadas are thick like a hard taco shell, super crunchy, and an amazing sturdy base for any number of toppings- and I love them to pieces. Oaxacan tostadas, on the other hand, are baked not fried, incredibly thin and without much crunch, and if not eaten IMMEDIATELY after cooking, IMHO, have the texture of cardboard. Over the course of our stay in Oaxaca, I tried them often, as they came in lieu of tortilla chips with your salsa, and just could not get past the feeling that they tasted really stale. One of the first times I tried them, we were at a hipster food hall where a friend ordered some really delicious nachos served on really crunchy tortilla chips, and my order of delicious guacamole came instead with the stale tostadas. I kindly asked for a side order of the delicious crunchy chips that lay under my friend’s mile high nachos, and I was refused. This led to a lengthy, awesome, and quite heated discussion with the chef about the nature of tostadas, traditions, corn varieties, different cultural palettes, and food tourism. In the end, I understood the nature of tostadas and and agreed to disagree on their taste (or lack thereof), much to the embarrassment of my companions that I couldn’t just eat and be quiet. It wasn’t until several days later when I consumed an entire basketful of deliciously delicate yet fresh and crunchy tostadas and learned that my problem wasn’t with the tostadas themselves, but with the need to eat them immediately after cooking, and that that chef that night (and all the street vendors and casual restaurants) had just had them sitting around all day. For my own good and everyone around me, I just stopped eating them so nobody would have to hear me waxing poetic about texture in cooking #sorrynotsorry
Oaxacan cheese is the OG packet string cheese, and it’s glorious.
Someone from Kraft must have jacked the idea for their single-serve string cheese from a Oaxacan Grandmother. This salty, hand shreddable, beautifully textured, flavor-packed cheese is shaped into thick ropes and then wound into huge balls of heaven. In the market, you ask for the weight you’d like to take home, and the cheese monger unwinds the appropriate amount, snips the rope, and then rewinds into a smaller more manageable ball. The texture is denser than a mozzarella and borders on Halloumi, where it can be manipulated and cooked without fully melting, retaining an almost shredded meat or chewy texture. It’s served (semi) melted in quesadillas, shredded and warmed in tortas, blocked and grilled, or wrapped in leaves raw and served as appetizers…which leads me to my next thing…
Hoja Santa is truly holy.
Translated as “Sacred Leaf”, this large herbatious heart-shaped green beauty (from the peppercorn family) has an extremely complex and hard-to-describe flavor reminiscent of shiso with notes of anise, pepper, citrus, spice, and sassafras. The Oaxacans use it in moles, soups, tamales, quesadillas, egg dishes, and one of my favorites: blanched and wrapped around Oaxacan cheese. Throughout our trip, every time one of our crew would exclaim love for something on their plate (besides one hater, I’m talking about you Yvonne), we’d find out shortly thereafter that the dish had Hoja Santa all up in it. On my final night in Oaxaca, I had by far the most mind-blowing preparations at Casa Oaxaca, El Restaurante (where I had the best meal of the entire trip to date, even better than the fancy tasting menu at Criollo). The hoja santa was blanched, then layered thickly atop some black refried beans, then topped with thinly sliced radish, avocado, cilantro, and a red chile sauce. And just so the universe could prove me wrong, it was placed neatly on a perfectly crunchy blue corn tostada. Gotcha.
A Torta a day keeps you rich and full.
The prices in Oaxaca were beyond cheap, our two bursting tote-bag market hauls usually cost less than $10 and our fanciest 7-course tasting menu from a Michelin Star chef was around $50 per person without alcohol, but the best values were found at the street vendors and traditional small family run restaurants, were you could walk out stuffed like a pig for less than $1. Our favorite torta place served the most insanely delicious sammies with perfect fresh baked bread and your choice of fillings, then pressed on the griddle and served piping hot for a whopping 63 cents. After eating there, my friend Kim said she would be completely happy eating only tortas for the rest of the trip, and she almost did, and I went back three days in a row to stuff my glutinous gluttonous face.
Traditional Oaxacan food is pretty damn healthy.
Perhaps the most mind-opening part of our culinary exploration was the nearly non-existent presence of oil (case-in-point: tostadas). According to our brilliant culinary instructor Jose at Chilhuacle Rojo that traditional Oaxacan (and Mexican as whole) cuisine trends on the side of Vegan because animal products like butter, oil, cheese were only brought over by the Spanish when Mexico was conquered. And due to the extreme poverty of the region, meat was a luxury most could not afford on the regular. In almost all the food, moles, and sauces we cooked and ate throughout our trip, there was rarely anything greasy or fried and the food on the whole was fresh, healthy, and light. I only had to be rolled out of the city because the food was so delicious that I ate 4x the amount I usually do, not because I was weighed down by fat and grease.
Juicing is not just for yogis and hipsters.
You can’t walk a block or turn a corner at the market without running into a tiny local stall or cart slinging freshly made juice. Now this isn’t your cold-pressed served in an eco-glass bottle with a bamboo straw ten buck kind of juice, instead it’s just a vendor with a couple of old blenders whipping up fresh tropical fruit, root vegetables, and sometimes even ginger, turmeric, hibiscus, and moringa and handing it over in a plastic bag or plastic cups for less than $2. And it’s glorious. Then there’s the fruit carts with giant overflowing deli cups of freshly chopped fruit spiced with lime, salt, and chili. And the agua frescas at every restaurant, waters flavored with seasonal fruits. And then just the epic fruit you can take home for pennies. It’s easy (and cheap) to fill your body with goodness to offset all the cheese.
Mezcal is my soul drink.
Ever since post-college when I started drinking wine and craft beer and figured out that drinking didn’t have to be a get-sick black-out endeavor (seriously, from just one drink- my body does not know how to process any hard-liquor, much to the chagrin of many of my mixologist friends and bourbon and cocktail enthusiast lovers), I have been cold turkey on any of the hard stuff. So, obviously, I approached Mezcal with extreme caution. I knew I couldn’t spend time in Oaxaca, the Mezcal mecca which boasts craft distilleries and thousands of agave varieties, without at least a few sips. Also, during Dia de Los Muertos, Mezcal is a huge party of the customs and celebrations. It is customary to carry a bottle of Mezcal to share with strangers (we got to speak to many happily intoxicated Oaxacans on the street who we exchanged shots with, learning some hilarious customs and bonding along the way) and to offer visitors to your family’s alters a shot or two or three. We also visited agave fields and Mezcal distilleries and sat face to face with the family producers sharing the deep rooted history and their passion for the craft. So, needless to say, I figured it would be offensive to say the least if I didn’t at least try it. And well, somehow, a few tastes turned into a few sips, and a few sips turned into a few shots, and a few shots turned into a few cocktails, which PRAISE ALL THINGS HOLY, never once got me sick or cause anything other than sheer happy hilariously warm fuzzy giggly drinking sessions (dare I say it, the only thing close to it is microdosing on magical fungi). Not only are the artisanal batches incredibly nuanced, smoky, and with endless flavor profiles, something about the way Mezcal is made (anybody have ideas for me?? Moonshine also has a similar effect) agrees with my chemistry and as it has given me the gift of being able to order a cocktail at a bar after 15 years of being the one who just gets a beer, I have an overwhelming urge to shout its praises from the rooftops!
So, amigos, if you’re contemplating a trip to Mexico, save your pesos and book a trip to Oaxaca. If you can, come for Dia de Los Muertos (end of October/first week of November) and enjoy one of the most dramatically special celebrations I have ever laid eyes upon. And either way, use the tidbits I unearthed, fall in love with mole, and check out these must-visit spots while you’re in town: