moles (moh-lay, stew/sauce), banana leaf encased tamales (tam-a-lay, masa/ground corn steamed in leaves often stuffed), tasajo (ta-sa-ho, a dried then cooked meat), nopales (no-pah-lez, cactus), chapulines (fried, limed and spiced grasshoppers)... That is where it's at. One week there and I'm truly humbled by the people, in love with (most of) the culture, and very well fed.
There's much I could and would love to write about this trip, but for your sake, I'll keep the article to a readable length... On second thought, I'll just write two. The first will cover the broader aspects of Oaxaca and it's cuisine, the second will contain everything else!
Oaxaca, one of the poorest of the 32 Mexican states, remains very traditional in terms of food. How? The Zapotec and Mixtec indigenous people make up over 50% of Oaxaca's population, predominantly attributed to communities isolated by the rugged terrain.
Very few of the pervasive American fast food 'restaurants' exist in Oaxaca city, in fact, we only saw one Burger King. Instead what you find are market food courts, family owned Oaxaqueño restaurants, little stands that show up at certain times of day that sell anything from tortas and tacos, to boiled and charred corn, to sweets, jellies and custard-type things.
|Street vendors selling corn show up around 5pm|
The culture in Oaxaca includes a traditional breakfast, lunch is typically a large meal later in the day (around 2 or 3pm) and dinner is a small, light affair.
Breakfasts often consist of black beans, corn tortillas, Oaxaca cheese (a stiff, white string cheese similar to mozzarella) covered in a salsa (sauce) often green or red. Lunch tends to be a heavy main dish like a mole, tamale, tlayuda (t-lie-oo-da, more on these in pt dos) with the usual accompaniments of beans, rice, tortillas and salsas.
|Top: salsa verde covering Oaxaca cheese, w squash blossoms. Bottom: mole negro (black) w chicken, rice, corn tortillas|
As discussed in previous articles, there's no 'right way' to break up your meals. During this trip, I found a big breakfast and big late lunch excellent at providing energy for all the walking/hiking we were doing. After lunch was only light physical activity, often meaning a small meal or snack was sufficient at night. A traditional evening snack of boiled then charbroiled corn cob on a stick went down a treat. The usual fixings included lime, chilli, a light mayo coat and sometimes the addition of shredded cheese.
Many don't realise just how many foods we owe to Mexico: avocados, beans, chocolate, corn, chilli, jicama (a crunchy, sweet, root vegetable), nopales (prickly pear cactus) pineapple, papaya, squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and vanilla.
Mexican Indians including the Mayans, Aztecs and Zapotecs ate diets mainly of corn, beans, peppers, tomato, sweet potato, squash and herbs. Sometimes supplemented with wild turkey, rabbit, deer, and quail. Even today, carbohydrates like corn tortillas, rice and actual corn dominate the diet.
Chocolate, traditionally consumed as a cold beverage by the Aztects as cacahuatl (cacao water). The Maya had a version that was heated which they called chokol (meaning hot) and atl (meaning water). The Aztec word 'caca' was not a socially acceptable to the Spanish as caca means... well, poop, in Spanish. The drinks are aerated with a frothing stick called a molinillo (mo-lin-ee-o, pictured below). And although certain moles (stews) now contain chocolate, in the pre-Hispanic period chocolate was consumed only as a beverage, not used to flavour dishes.
In Oaxaca pt dos (II), strap in for food prep techniques, the food of the future (grasshoppers), mezcal and a few other foods like tlayudas and tasajo.