Oaxacan cuisine is a regional cuisine of Mexico, centered on the city of Oaxaca, the capital of the state of the same name located in southern Mexico. Like the rest of Mexican cuisine, Oaxacan food is based on staples such as corn, beans and chilli peppers, but there is a great variety of other ingredients and food preparations due to the influence of the state’s varied geography and indigenous cultures. Well known features of the cuisine include ingredients such as chocolate (often drunk in a hot preparation with spices and other flavourings), Oaxaca cheese, mezcal and grasshoppers (chapulines) with dishes such as tlayudas, Oaxacan style tamales and seven notable varieties of mole sauce.
Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s major gastronomic centres whose cuisine is known internationally Because of its mountain ranges, the state has a number of climates and cultures, which contributes to making the cuisine the most varied in Mexico. The state has coastal areas with seafood, the Central Valley region grows a wide variety of vegetables, and the area near Veracruz provides a year round supply of tropical fruits. It also has seventeen recognised indigenous groups, who contribute their own cooking traditions. The cooking of each region in the state is characterised by local ingredients and to some extent cooking methods. One example is that of the Triques, who are known for their pit barbecuing. However, despite its rich culinary tradition, Oaxaca is a poor state and many struggle to eat decently.
Oaxaca’s dietary staple is corn, which has been Mexico’s for over 7,000 years. Corn is generally dried and ground to create a dough, which is used for a number of dishes including entomatadas, empanadas and tamales. Tortillas are called blandas and are a part of nearly every meal. The main flavouring agent is the chilli pepper, with varieties such amarillos, chilhuacles, chilcostles and costeños, but the most distinctive is the pasilla oaxaqueña chile. Distinctive herbs include hoja santa, often used in chicken, pork, and fish dishes as well as mole verde, along with epazote and a local herb called pitonia. Two well known aspects of the cuisine are the use of chocolate for drinking and various edible insects, especially grasshoppers called chapulines (see below). Lesser known regional specialties include ice cream flavoured with rose petals, and squash flowers found in empanadas, quesadillas, soups and more.
As for beans, Oaxacan cuisine prefers black beans in many varieties: cooked with aniseed and served in the form of soup, as a topping for street food, or with scrambled eggs in huevos con frijoles.
Another distinctive ingredient is Oaxaca cheese also called quesillo, used to make empanadas, tortas and tlayudas.
Oaxacan cooking varies region by region but a number of dishes can be found in nearly all parts of the state. Tlayudas are large chewy tortillas with toppings of beans, guacamole, meat or seafood and cheese. The most traditional Oaxacan tamales are large, wrapped in banana leaves with a mole filling. Other tamale varieties include amarillo (yellow), verde (green), rajas (chilli pepper strips), chepil, elote (fresh corn) and dulce (sweet). In the Isthmus of Tehuantepec there is a variation with iguana meat and along the coast it can contain seafood. Oaxaca is famous for its chocolate, traditionally hand ground and combined with almonds, cinnamon and other ingredients, usually drunk as a hot beverage. Other well known Oaxacan dishes include chorizo oaxaqueño, tasajo, cecina enchilada, cocido oaxaqueño and various sauces such as molcajete, chintextle, borracha, chile pasilla, guajillo y ajo and gusanitos. Besides chocolate, other typical drinks include mezcal, various types of atole, champurrado and various fruit based drinks.
Central Valleys Region
The culinary centre of the state is its capital of the same name, Oaxaca, located in what is called the Central Valleys region. While the dominant indigenous group here has been the Zapotecs since the pre Hispanic period, there has been influence from other groups as well, such as the Mixtecs. The indigenous people of Oaxaca have grown corn, beans, squash and other crops for thousands of years. In rural, especially indigenous villages, households still depend heavily on these foods with few changes in how they are grown, mostly on small plots. The cooking here retains much of its indigenous flavour, such as dishes prepared without fat (unknown before the arrival of the Spanish) and the use of the valley’s abundance of vegetables and herbs especially in its moles. However, as capital of the state, it also received influence from other parts of Oaxaca.
The best known mezcal producing area of the state is here, between the city of Oaxaca and Mitla, along the highway that leads to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Like tequila, mezcal is made with the cooked hearts of a species of the maguey or agave plant but the flavour is very different. It has been described as smoky, and it is usually drunk straight. It comes in several varieties and can contain flavours such as almond, coffee and orange. A related traditional drink is aguamiel, the non alcoholic sap of the maguey plant.
Much of this area’s cuisine can be experienced in its many markets, both in the wide variety of ingredients for sale as well as pre-prepared foods to eat. All markets have areas with food stands. One of the best known of these is the 20 de Noviembre market, filled with food stands that prepare everything from various moles, to hot chocolate with pan de yema bread. It also includes section specialising in meats such as tasajo and chorizo cooked to order and eaten with large corn tortillas, guacamole, and various grilled and fresh vegetables.
Despite the Central Valley’s geographic remoteness, the areas is one of Mexico’s culinary capitals, with its food praised and promoted by many food experts. This promotion has helped to support the area’s tourism industry, with people coming to experience the food. One attraction getting more attention is the “Food of the Gods Festival” in the capital city. In addition to food tastings, there are also cooking classes taught by local chefs. There is also wine and mezcal tasting, chocolate making, a coffee mill tour and tours to archaeological sites and local crafts villages. A number of professional chefs are now based in the city of Oaxaca. This city has a number of upscale restaurants such as La Olla, La Biznaga and Los Danzantes, run by professional chefs but they all work to blend Oaxacan cooking with contemporary. They also all rely on local markets and farms for their ingredients.
Oaxaca is an important producer and exporter of coffee, but the more important drink is chocolate. Oaxaca is one of the Mexican states that produces cacao, along with Veracruz, Tabasco, Chiapas, Morelos, Guerrero and Michoacán. Cacao and chocolate have been used in the state as food, drink and medicine. In the past the cacao beans served as a form of money.
In the centre of the city of Oaxaca, various businesses grind and prepare cacao for hot chocolate drinks, moles, and more. The best known of these businesses is El Mayordomo. Inside, there large mills grind beans that are then mixed with sugar and other flavorings such as almonds and cinnamon. Most of the cacao is processed for drinking. Hot chocolate is prepared with the chocolate mixture with water or milk and heated in a pot or pitcher. Before serving, a froth is created with a special instrument is twirled rapidly by rubbing the handles between the palms. The resulting cacao beverage with the froth is named Pozonque.
Though most chocolate is consumed as a hot beverage, it is also an important ingredient in a cold beverage called tejate. It is made with fermented corn, cacao, and the seed of the mamey fruit. It is traditionally served in dried and painted gourds. Tejate is usually found in the towns just outside the city of Oaxaca. It is similar to the pozol of Chiapas. The drink was previously considered a complete meal. However, tejate is becoming less common and harder to find.
Oaxaca has over 200 known preparations for mole, a complicated sauce based on one or more chilli peppers. However, seven are most notable, giving the state the nickname of “land of the seven moles.” Oaxacan moles require multiple ingredients and long cooking time, and for this reason are traditionally served only for special occasions. Ingredients for moles were traditionally prepared ground on a metate; however today, they are usually made with the help of blenders and food mills, which grind and mix many of the ingredients. Depending on the ingredients, they are toasted or fried then mixed with others to make a sauce that is then simmered. Recipes vary from cook to cook. While chocolate is used in two of the seven moles, it is not the most important ingredient. Oaxacan moles are served with chicken, pork and beef; however, the sauce is more important in a mole dish than the meat.
The name, colour and ingredients distinguish the seven main moles of Oaxaca, called negro (black), amarillo (yellow), coloradito (coloured), mancha manteles (tablecloth stainer), chichilo (named after the main pepper), rojo (red) and verde (green). All of the moles, except verde, can be kept as a paste and cooked later diluted with chicken broth. Mole negro is the best known and most complicated of the preparation, containing anywhere from twenty to thirty-plus ingredients, depending on the recipe.
- Mole negro is slightly sweet, black in colour and contains six different types of chilli peppers, plantains, onion, tomatoes, tomatillos, cloves, cinnamon, chocolate, nuts, tortillas, avocado leaves and more depending on the recipe. To gain the desired black colour, the chilli peppers have to be well toasted but not burnt.
- Mole amarillo contains green tomatoes, onion, garlic, cumin, cloves, ancho chilli peppers, guajillo chilli peppers, hoja santa or cilantro and is garnished with onions, lime and oregano.
- Mole coloradito is brick red in colour and contains ancho chilli peppers, tomatoes, garlic, sesame seeds, almonds, cinnamon and oregano.
- Mancha mantales is red and uses ancho chilli peppers, tomatoes, garlic, onion, thyme, cloves and almonds.
- Another red mole is chichilo, which uses chihuacle, negro, pasilla and mulato chilli peppers, tomatoes, marjoram, allspice, cloves and avocado leaves.
- Rojo is red as its name suggests with ingredients such as chocolate, guajillo chili peppers, onion, tomatoes, garlic, oregano, nuts and sesame seeds.
- Mole verde contains tomatillos, green chilli peppers, onion, garlic, cumin, cloves, ancho and guajillo chilli peppers, hoja santa, epazote and parsley. It has a light and herby taste. Of the sauces, verde is the easiest to create as it does not require the toasting and re-hydration of chilli peppers.
Various insects are consumed in the state including ants and grubs from maguey plants but the best known of these is grasshoppers, called chapulines . Although eaten in other parts of Mexico, chapulines are most popular in the Central Valleys area of Oaxaca. They are an important source of protein in the rural areas and a delicacy in the city of Oaxaca. They have been eaten since well before the arrival of the Spanish and are generally eaten as a condiment, snack food and sometimes the main dish. Their preparation and sale is a full-time occupation for many and an important source of income for many rural families.
Grasshoppers that are consumed are collected from corn and alfalfa fields. They are semi-domesticated, living longer and reproducing at higher rates than those living in wild areas. The harvest season for the insects is during the rainy season, late spring to early winter. This harvest season begins with the hatching of new grasshoppers, called nymphs in English and taste sweet, commanding a premium price. Older grasshoppers tend to have a slightly bitter taste.
Clean grasshoppers are cooked by immersing them into boiling water seasoned with garlic and lime. The most common way to eat them is fresh off the comal and with a tortilla, but they are also eaten fried with chilli powder as a snack (especially with mezcal) and can be found in more sophisticated preparations, in a sauce or mixed with eggs.