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In Oaxaca: tastes that transcend time

Fresh, seasonal Oaxacan cuisine has roots deep in the past.

By Jim JohnstonContributors to The Christian Science Monitor, Nicholas GilmanContributors to The Christian Science Monitor / July 23, 2008

Street food: A vendor in Oaxaca, Mexico, sells tlayudas, a snack made of beans, cheese or meat, and other toppings folded inside a corn tortilla.

Nicholas Gilman

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Oaxaca, Mexico

We arrived from Mexico City ready to explore Oaxaca. Ruins of pre-Hispanic cities, impressive colonial architecture, world-class museums, and a thriving contemporary art scene drew us to this capital city in southern Mexico. A large and varied indigenous population provides a colorful backdrop of traditional culture: Handicrafts, music, and dance are strong elements here.

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We'd heard a lot about the food, too, and discovered that, from bare-bulb street stalls to chandelier-lit dining rooms, there's a range of eating experiences in Oaxaca that make it a great culinary travel destination.

Contemporary Oaxacan cuisine has roots deep in the past. Pre-Hispanic ingredients such as corn, tomatoes, beans, and chocolate plus a variety of chilies along with foods and spices brought over during the Spanish colonial era, are essential to Oaxacan cooking. The famous "seven moles," tlayudas, tamales, and other antojitos (corn-based snacks) are some of the best-known items on a Oaxacan menu. Fish and seafood from the coast, pork and turkey, insects such as chapulines (crisp-fried grasshoppers) and gusanos (grubs), and unusual herbs such as hoja santa and epazote (known for their strong flavors), form the basis of a traditional diet. An insistence on fresh, seasonal ingredients and a sparing use of lard and cooking oil give Oaxacan dishes a welcome light touch.

Nestled in the corner of a stone wall by the church of El Carmen Alta, we ate tlayudas, Oaxaca's most popular street food. Doña Gloria and Doña Catalina disagreed over how many years they have been making these crisp, satisfying antojitos at this corner – somewhere between 18 and 22. Tlayudas look like medium-size pizzas as they are being prepared: A thin disc of corn dough is cooked on a comal (clay or metal griddle), spread with a layer of refried beans, topped with grated cheese or meat such as chorizo (sausage) or tasajo (salted, pounded meat), garnished with salsa and lettuce, and then folded in half.

You will find tlayuda stands all over town, especially around markets and neighborhood churches, open until well after dark. Tlayudas cost between $2 and $4, depending on the filling.

We ventured out of the historic center to the restaurant Itanoní for their degustación de maices – a "tasting menu" of heirloom corn. This antojería and tortillería (where you can buy handmade tortillas to take home or order antojitos) looks like an inviting country kitchen, complete with a hand-built, wood-fired oven.

Different types of corn are used for the masa (dough) of tacos, quesadillas, tamales, and memelitas (fried masa with meat or other fillings). Best of all was the tetela espirituosa, a triangle of corn filled with beans, requesón (a fresh cheese), and the fragrant hoja santa. A delicious and refreshing agua de limón y hierbabuena (lime and mint drink) was served in a glass pitcher.

The high point of dining in Oaxaca came when we met chef Alejandro Ruiz, who runs the kitchen at Casa Oaxaca, an elegant boutique, hotel, and restaurant. Our pre-trip research found Mr. Ruiz to be the most talked-about chef in town; we soon discovered why.

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