Oaxaca is one of Mexico's foremost food destinations. The state's great cultural and biological diversity means that there is a wide range of ingredients and methods of preparation, many of these dating back to pre-Hispanic times. As is the case throughout Mexico, corn is the main dietary staple, and it is served in a seemingly infinite variety of ways. Flavorful moles, fresh herbs, dried chiles, quesillo, and handmade corn tortillas are just a few of the elements that make Oaxacan food so special.
Here are some of the foods and drinks you shouldn't miss on a trip to Oaxaca.
Mole is a smooth, rich sauce prepared with ground chiles and other ingredients. The word mole, pronounced " moh-leh," comes from the Nahuatl “molli” which means sauce.
There are many different types of moles. In Oaxaca, you may hear references to seven moles, but there are in fact more. The seven standard moles are mole negro, coloradito, rojo, amarillo, verde, chichilo, and manchamantel. Mole negro (black mole) is the quintessential Oaxacan mole. One of the ingredients in black mole is chocolate, making this a sauce which is both spicy and sweet. Other ingredients that may be included in the different types of mole include garlic, onion, cinnamon, cumin, cloves, nuts, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, cilantro, tomato, dried fruit, and more.
Mole is usually served over chicken, pork or turkey with rice on the side, but you will find it in other presentations, such as in tamales and enchiladas (alternatively called "enmoladas").
One of our favorite spots to eat mole in Oaxaca is Los Pacos restaurant.
If you want to take some authentic mole home with you, you can purchase mole paste at the market in Oaxaca which you mix with chicken broth and tomato puree to achieve the consistency and taste you desire.
Tamales are made with corn meal dough (called "masa") and some type of filling (either sweet or savory), wrapped in corn husk or banana leaves and steamed. The singular of tamales in Spanish is "tamal."
Tamales are prepared with a variety of ingredients. Types of tamales which are widely available in Oaxaca include rajas (tomato and chili strips), verde, amarillo, and mole negro; these usually contain chicken. Vegetarians can choose tamales de dulce (sweet tamales), tamales de frijol (bean), or tamales de chepil (an herb). These last two are usually served with spicy salsa. Vegetarians should take note that most Oaxacan tamales are made with lard.
Tamales were prepared and consumed in ancient times in Mesoamerica, and also through Central and South America. It is a practical food: Nutritious, filling, and portable, but the preparation is time and labor intensive. Tamales are associated with some holidays; they are a choice food for Day of the Dead, Christmas posadas, and Día de la Candelaria. They're convenient to serve at parties with large numbers of people because they can be prepared ahead of time.
The Oaxacan specialty is tamales de mole negro wrapped in banana leaves. The banana leaves add extra flavor to these tamales. They are served in some restaurants, but the best tamales can be bought from women on the street corners of Oaxaca.
Quesillo (pronounced "keh-SEE-yoh") is a mild string cheese which is produced in Oaxaca. Outside Oaxaca, it is sometimes referred to as queso Oaxaca or queso de hebra. Quesillo is made with cow's milk. The production process involves stretching the cheese into long strips and then rolling it into a ball. The cheese is sold by weight. This type of cheese melts well and is perfect for making quesadillas or, as we'll see next, tlayudas.
Empanadas de quesillo con flor de calabaza (quesillo empanadas with squash blossoms), as in the above photo, are an ideal way to enjoy quesillo.
Queso fresco, a crumbly cheese, is the other type of cheese which is ubiquitous in Oaxaca.
Tlayudas are oversize corn tortillas which are more leathery and have a longer shelf-life than normal corn tortillas, known as "blandas." The word tlayuda refers both to the tortilla itself and the prepared dish. When prepared, tlayudas are spread with rendered pork fat ("asiento") and black bean paste, then covered in quesillo and topped with veggies - either shredded cabbage or lettuce, tomato and avocado, and served with your choice of meat - tasajo (beef), cecina (pork), or chorizo (sausage).
When served as street food, tlayudas are usually folded over and grilled over hot coals. When served in a restaurant they are most often served open-faced as pictured above. Vegetarians should ask for a tlayuda sencilla sin asiento ("sen-see-yah sin ah-see-ehn-toe") to get one without meat or lard.
Sometimes called "Oaxacan pizzas," tlayudas are usually consumed in the evening or as a late-night snack. The most popular place to eat tlayudas in Oaxaca is called Tlayudas Libres on Libres street between Murguia and M.Bravo streets, open from 9 pm until the early hours of the morning.
Spicy grasshoppers may not be on everyone's list of foods to try, but they are a popular snack in Oaxaca. After collecting them in a net, they are cleaned and then either fried or toasted on a comal with chili, lime, and garlic added for flavor. Then you can eat them, either by crunching them one by one or putting them on a tostada or in a taco with some guacamole.
A popular legend says that if you eat chapulines, you'll return to Oaxaca some day. It's certainly worth a try!
Chapulines are a good source of protein and have been consumed in Oaxaca since prehispanic times, but they aren't the only insect that's eaten in Oaxaca. At the beginning of rainy season, some bugs appear that are called chicatanas. They look like large ants with wings. These are toasted, ground up, and prepared in a salsa.
Caldo de piedra
Caldo de piedra, "stone soup" is a traditional dish of the chinanteco ethnic group of Oaxaca and dates back to prehispanic times. This group lives by the shores of the Papaloapan River and developed a special way to prepare their food using river rocks heated in the fire.
To make the stone soup, fish or seafood is placed in a gourd bowl along with a tomato-based broth and seasonings, then a hot river rock taken directly from the fire is placed in the gourd, where it sizzles and cooks the soup in an instant.
A few upscale restaurants in Oaxaca have started serving caldo de piedra, but for the traditional chinanteco version, visit the palapa located on the road out towards Santa Maria del Tule. There a chinanteco family has set up a small restaurant serving caldo de piedra as well as quesadillas.
Barbacoa is meat (beef, goat or lamb) which is cooked in an underground pit. The chile-marinated meat cooks slowly over a period of 6 to 8 hours. The broth is collected in a pot at the bottom of the pit and is used to make consomme which is served as an appetizer. The meat is served with tortillas so each diner can make their own tacos, and in the photo above, with beans and "masita" (cracked corn which is baked in the oven with the barbacoa).
Barbacoa is a special occasion meal customarily served on Sundays, and also at large family fiestas such as weddings, quinceañeras, and baptisms. If you're not invited to a private party you can sample some pit-cooked barbacoa at La Capilla restaurant in Zaachila or at any of many roadside stands or market stalls which sell barbacoa on Sundays.
Dedicated carnivores should also not miss having a meal in the pasillo de carnes asadas (grilled meats hall) in the 20 de Noviembre market.
The cacao tree is native to Mesoamerica and the beans were ground and consumed in prehispanic times as a hot drink, but unlike today the ancients drank their chocolate spicy, not sweet. In the past, the cacao was ground on a metate (grinding stone), but nowadays it's ground in a special mill.
There are several shops on Mina Street (just south of the 20 de Noviembre market) where you can see chocolate being made. The cacao beans are inserted into the top of the mill and a rich chocolatey paste comes out the bottom which is then blended with sugar, cinnamon, and almonds to the customer's specifications. Mayordomo, Soledad, and Guelaguetza are a few of the popular chocolate companies. Just a taking a walk along Mina between 20 de Noviembre and Miguel Cabrera streets you'll smell the intoxicating aroma of the chocolate!
You can purchase Mexican chocolate in bars or balls, which are then placed in hot milk or water and blended to make either "chocolate de leche" or "chocolate de agua." The best hot chocolate is served foamy. To whip up a foam the traditional implement is a special wooden whisk called a molinillo. The molinillo is rotated by holding it between the palms of your hands and rubbing them back and forth. If you can't get the hang of the molinillo, a blender does a reasonably good job.
In Oaxaca hot chocolate is often served with sweet bread, or pan de yema (egg yolk bread). Dunking your bread in the hot chocolate is perfectly acceptable, so don't be shy!
A non-alcoholic prehispanic drink made from ground corn, cocoa, the seed of the mamey fruit, and a flower called rosita de cacao, tejate (pronounced "teh-HA-teh") is both nutritious and refreshing. The dried ingredients are ground together to form a paste which is mixed by hand with water in a large clay basin until a foam forms on top. The drink is traditionally served in painted gourd drinking vessels, or sometimes in plastic cups. When served, some sugar water is added to the tejate (the amount according to the customer's preference) to sweeten it.
Tejate is sold in markets and on street corners throughout Oaxaca. The town of Huayapam is considered the home of tejate and a tejate fair is held there every year during Semana Santa.
The word tejate probably comes from the Nahuatl word "Texatl," which means floury water.