In Oaxaca: tastes that transcend time

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

By , Contributors to The Christian Science Monitor , Contributors to The Christian Science Monitor

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.

Ruiz grew up in La Raya de Zimatlán, a small town outside Oaxaca, where he learned to cook from his mother and grandmother. A sense of that fresh, earthy, attentively prepared home cooking is evident even in his flashier dishes, such as tacos of thinly sliced jicama root filled with chapulines, or the chiles rellenos de mariscos (seafood-stuffed chilies) on a bed of maracuyá, a tangy tropical fruit that looks like giant caviar. Shrimp, tossed with chili, garlic, and a touch of hoja santa, were perfectly cooked. Desserts, mostly created from local fruits, were excellent; a rich, moist pastel de chico zapote brought out the brown sugary taste of that unusual fruit. The lemonade was perfect.

As avid gastronomes, we jumped at an invitation to go shopping with Ruiz in the sprawling Mercado de Abastos on the edge of town. He's shopped there since childhood and knows the names of many of the vendors, who come from the surrounding countryside to sell their produce: flor de frijol (red bean flowers), hierba de conejo (an herb used for soup), and frijolón (extra large beans) were among the things we'd never seen before.

"Look, I found huitlacoche – out of season!" Ruiz exclaimed at one stall, pointing to a mass of purple-black corn fungus that is prized for soups and quesadillas. He shopped quickly but carefully, checking the quality of each herb or vegetable, not working from a shopping list, but observing what was freshest in the market, and inventing his menu as he went along.

A trip to Oaxaca should include a visit to the Abastos market to see this impressive array of local produce and to experience a centuries-old way of shopping that is a long way from an American supermarket.

Oaxaca is famous for its chocolate, and near the main market, there are several molinos where you can have your own chocolate mixture ground while you wait; it's worth the trip for the aroma alone. Ruiz had recommended Calenda brand chocolate (www.calenda.com.mx), so we hopped a bus to the hills above town to order our own special mix.

The city is surrounded by many pueblos, often famed for a specific craft, where indigenous tianguis (weekly markets) provide a lively glimpse of small-town life. We went to the Zapotec village of Zaachila to see the famed live-animal market, where farmers come to buy a new pig, cow, or goat.

We ate at El Mangalito, a simple, family-run restaurant in a brightly painted concrete box with a rustic, outdoor kitchen in back, and had some of the most enjoyable food of our trip. The sopes de frijol con hoja santa tasted earthy and had a subtle anise flavor.

The main dish was thinly sliced pork rubbed with spices and then rolled into a pinwheel with aromatic greens, wrapped in avocado leaves, and roasted in a pit until tender.

While strolling through the food market in Zaachila (avoiding clusters of live turkeys tied together at the claw), we enjoyed a glass of tejate. We watched this traditional drink being prepared as it has been since pre-Hispanic times: Ground mamey seeds, corn, and cacao and are mixed by hand with water, magically foaming up into a frothy and refreshing drink.

While we eventually did visit a museum or two (not the ruins, however), we felt the most pleasurable sense of Oaxaca in its streets and markets, whether strolling, eating, or just sitting under the arcades on the Plaza de la Constitución.

Oaxaca mixes pre-Hispanic, colonial, and 21st-century characteristics. All of those influences show up in its cuisine, making it a perfect destination for the curious traveler and aficionado of great food.

To find out about visiting Oaxaca, go to: www.go-oaxaca.com.

WHERE TO EAT

Casa Oaxaca (www.casaoaxaca.com.mx) has two central locations, Garcia Vigil 407 (tel. 52-01-951-514-4173) and Constitución 104-A (tel. 52-01-951-516-8889).

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