Oaxaca is known worldwide as “the land of the seven moles,” which gives you a pretty good idea of the respect that particular dish commands in the region. Thick sauces made by roasting and grinding up to thirty ingredients in a multi-day process, moles are well worth writing home about—then again, so are the more humble eats served up at street stalls around the city.
Let’s talk basics; chili and chocolate are two of the most important notes in the Oaxacan flavor profile. The variety of chili peppers you find in Oaxaca is staggering, but the most famous is the pasilla oaxaqueña chili. Native to Mexico, cacao beans get combined with almonds and cinnamon to make a steaming cup of Oaxaca’s famous hot chocolate, but are also used in savory preparations like mole negro.
Corn, a staple of Mexican food in general, is also a staple in Oaxaca. When dried and ground, it makes a dough that’s used for tortillas, empanadas, and tamales. Tamales—of which we definitely ate our share—come wrapped up in either cornhusks or banana leaves like the ones shown here, which gives them a subtly sweet flavor.
If you need something a bit more substantial than tamales, look no further than the carnes asadas at the 20 de Noviembre Market. Stalls line two sides of a long, wide hall, where vendors grill your choice of meat and veggies.
More goods news for carnivores: huge sheets of chicharrón, the salty fried pork rinds popular throughout Latin America, are everywhere. Snack away.
Of course if you’re feeling a little more adventurous, chapulines, or grasshoppers, are a Oaxacan specialty. An indigenous dish, they can be boiled with garlic and lime and eaten on their own, or fried in chili powder and used as a condiment.
Another iconic Oaxacan dish is the tlayuda. Thin, crunchy tortillas as big as your plate are smeared with asiento (unrefined pork lard) and refried beans, then topped with your choice of meat, quesillo fresco (Oaxaca’s famous cheese), lettuce, avocado and salsa for something that resembles a Mexican pizza. We ate ours at Tlayduas Libres, a late-night institution in Oaxaca that’s been there for 40 years.
On the beverage front, one of our favorite Oaxacan drinks was tejate, pictured here. Tejate recipes vary, but generally include maize flour, cacao beans, mamey seeds, and rosita de cacao, the flower of the “funeral tree”—a species native to southern Mexico and in particular the town of San Andrés Huayapam, where tejate originated.
Finally, there’s mezcal. A smoky liquor made from the heart of the maguey plant, mezcal is tequila’s more sophisticated cousin. Though maguey grows in a few parts of Mexico, most mezcal comes from Oaxaca, where’s they’ve been making it for centuries. The distinctive drink is just starting to become popular in the US, so look for your hip local bar to start carrying it soon!