The Oaxacan historical district is built on a regular grid of 100x100m blocks that sprawl from the busy peripheral rings, stretching as far up as the lush hills of San Felipe and limited by the local college on its Eastern side. Every Wednesday I walk from the square where I live towards a square that I love, exactly five blocks, to my weekly solace, a market hidden inside early 20th century brick construction.
Past each of the entrances lays a tall, open space, crowded by some of the more popular businesses and hoards of street vendors, proudly displaying their merchandise out of makeshift posts, wooden boxes and plastic bags. Their announcements are bold, sharp and at times pushy –asking right away what amount you will take, without any ceremonious greeting; yet, deep within the walls of this lively building and hidden in the darkest corner, you will find unique cuisine that runs true to Mexico’s heartbeat.
Right after passing through the main hall, traces of sunlight disappear, leaving only the buzz and glimmer of fluorescent lighting. The air smells strongly of spice and starched clothing as I walk through endless hallways lined with purses and candies. Some of these sellers recognize me from previous times, and wave timidly at the squinty, black-on-black stranger holding a big camera in a quiet, mildly threatening fashion.
Despite this market resembling Kowloon City (for those who remember) more than anything, there is a healthy sense of normality. Customers line up for an order of Tamales, a scoop of almonds, a bag of sweet marzipan or a bowl of foamy tejate, the Mixtecan drink of the gods, and the energizing boost that brings me to the market every week. A woman pours and re-pours the dark liquid in an almost hypnotic trance, blending it with the maize and cacahuaxochitl (cocoa flower) mix at the top.
My coworkers here in Oaxaca have recommended many foods to taste during my stay in Oaxaca. In these last few weeks I have had the honor to be introduced to some of the most unique foods in Mexico, in some instances through interesting anecdotes that have made these delights, well, even more delightful.
As a hostel receptionist, I can say that most of our clientele are local businessmen. One of them, a former assistant to my boss, plopped three bags on my desk on fine afternoon. “Try them! Each bag is a different kind”, he said. After asking about the crunchy stuff before me, he replied: “Chapulines –grasshoppers– Ever had one?”. I instantly grabbed one and shoved into my mouth, not giving my sense of Western “decency” a chance to react. And it was good. A few samples from each bag and a long conversation later, I found out there are three kinds of seasonings for fried grasshopper cooking: spicy pepper, garlic and salt-and-pepper. Oaxaca has a rich tradition with cooking bugs, from mammoth “chicatana” ants to the iconic maguey worms that distinguish mescal (agave liquor) from tequila, two drinks that are often mistaken for each other.
Two of the most popular Oaxacan foods are quesillo and mole, recognized worldwide for their common use in Mexican cuisine. On the one hand, quesillo, or string cheese, is probably one of the few kinds that you will see wrapped into a ball upon purchase; it has a soft texture and mildly sour flavor. It tears similarly to mozzarella and it is most commonly melted on top of meat, enchiladas, empanadas and tlayudas –tortillas served with a rich mix of ingredients in a similar fashion to pizza. And talking about pizza: you will see several businesses offering it the historic district, but do not take it as an insult to your cultural sensitivity; pizza is eaten fairly often by the locals, and prepared by the small –but very dedicated– community of Italian immigrants in town. Mole, on the other hand, is the Mexican sauce by default; it offers a myriad of ingredients that change significantly depending on its color: from cocoa in “black” mole to miscellaneous herbs and chili in the “green” type. Oaxaca is dubbed “The Land of the Seven Moles”, and with reason: at the central market you will find all possible combinations and flavors, sold in big tubs of paste and bags of powder.
Special mentions go to the native cocoa and coffee products, grown locally and a must-have if ever stopping by Oaxaca. In the realm of desserts, the most original ones are the Nieve de Tuna (cactus pear sherbet), Leche Quemada (burnt milk) and amarath-based confections that are guaranteed to surprise the Western visitor. From the pre-Hispanic recipe for Tejate to the 1940’s mezcal worm gimmick, the culinary capital of Mexico has many delights to offer –many a time linked to an interesting story!
“About the Author”
Born in the heart of Castile (Spain), Miguel Llorente is a traveler, writer and filmmaker. In his late teens he jumped across the Atlantic to pursue a career in animated television, road-trip up and down the USA, and fall in love with vintage automobiles. After working for The Simpsons and graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, he moved on to restore antique Mercedes in the Bay Area and produce his own automotive show, Open Roads, in Kansas. He keeps his PanAmerican journal at This European Life.