oaxacan cuisine
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Oaxacan Cuisine

Explore Mexico’s most diverse culinary region.

By Rebecca Treon

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The southwestern Mexican state of Oaxaca is home to the country’s most diverse gastronomy. Known around the world for its unique contributions to Mexican cuisine, it’s varied both because of its geographical differences and its 16 indigenous cultures like the Mixtecs and Zapotecs, whose dwelling in isolated valleys has preserved their distinctive culinary traditions. Oaxaca is bordered by the states of Puebla, Guerrero, Veracruz, and Chiapas and has a long coastline along the Pacific Ocean, home to resorts like Huatalco. Oaxaca’s capital city, also named Oaxaca, is located in the central valleys region, and is an important tourist destination because of its proximity to the archeological ruins at Monte Alban and its native culture and crafts. But it is the unique and flavorful food that has drawn people like Susana Trilling, Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy to champion the state. Oaxaca’s main staples are corn, black beans, and chiles, and it’s a region that produces coffee, chocolate, and mezcal.

Like most of Mexico, corn is a staple in a typical diet—in fact, one traditional creation myth is that the first humans were made of white and yellow corn and came out of a husk, as seen in murals in Tlaxcala in central Mexico. Domesticated 7,000 years ago, there are 59 varieties of corn in Mexico (the U.S. only grows 6) and it’s so important to the culture that seed banks have been started to preserve the variety. From corn, locals first soak the kernels in a lime solution called cal in a process called nixtamalization, then grind the kernels on a lava grinding stone called a metate.

From the corn flour, staples like tortillas and masa for tamales are made. Another popular delicacy made from corn is huitlacoche, or corn smut, an earthy, mushroomy fungus that grows on the cob and is used as a filling in quesadillas. Tortillas are obviously versatile (think tacos), but in Oaxaca, large, semi-dry tortillas are used to make tlayudas (or clayudas), a sort of Oaxacan pizza topped in refried black beans, tomatoes, avocados, stringy Oaxacan cheese (quesillo), and meat—typically chorizo, tejaso (jerky), or chicken tinga. If it’s cooked over a charcoal grill it is folded in half.

Oaxacan empanadas are similar to a what Americans call a quesadilla, with a variety of fillings like squash blossoms and cactus paddle salad. Tortillas are also the base of enfrijoladas: a type of enchilada made from fried tortillas and a rich black bean sauce made by stewing the beans with avocado leaves (imparting an anise flavor to the beans), and sometimes filled with meat or cheese—its sister dish, entomatadas, is covered in a tomato sauce. Tetelas—a tortilla stuffed with black beans and then folded into a triangle and cooked on a comal, or griddle—are a Mixtec specialty unique to Oaxaca. A memela is a thick toasted tortilla topped in locally made cheese, meat and sauce and are a favorite antojito (snack). Corn masa is also the base of tamales, whether wrapped in a corn husk or in fresh banana leaves, which is the favored way in Oaxaca. In Oaxaca, they are typically filled with mole negro and chicken or black beans. Oaxacans also enjoy some unusual local treats: chapulines, or grasshoppers, are boiled, spiced with chile and lime, and sold in open air markets as a snack. Along the coast, iguana meat is used as a tamale filling.

Oaxaca is known as the birthplace of mole—there are over 200 known types in the state, earning it the nickname ‘land of the seven moles’. Every family has their own version, made by toasting or frying and grinding several types of chili peppers and spices and creating a sauce. Mole is the star of a dish, most often served with meat. Some contain between twenty and thirty ingredients (like mole negro) and are laborious to make, so are reserved for special occasions. The seven main moles of Oaxacan cooking are negro (black), amarillo (yellow), verde (green), coloradito (colored), mancha manteles (tablecloth stainer), chichilo (the pepper used), and rojo (red). Among the ingredients (but not limited to) that may be added to mole: chili peppers, plantains, chocolate, onion, tomatoes, tomatillos, nuts, tortillas, avocado leaves, cilantro, cloves, cinnamon, sesame seeds, epazote, garlic, parsley, hoja santa, marjoram, and allspice. There are entire stores dedicated to mole, where piles of the dehydrated sauce paste can be purchased and reconstituted with chicken broth. Try this Chicken and Fruit in Red Mole Sauce recipe.

Oaxaca is the birthplace of mezcal, a distilled spirit often compared to tequila, made by roasting the heart of the maguey plant in pits. Mezcal making has been a Oaxacan tradition since the colonial period. The plant is related to the agave used in making tequila, but unlike tequila, mezcal is described as having a smoky flavor. Oaxaca is an important producer of coffee, but it’s also one of the few states that cultivates cacao, which has been used in food, drink, and medicinal preparations for centuries. Most cacao produced in Oaxaca is used for drinking as hot chocolate by adding water or milk to a cocoa powder mixture. Mexican hot chocolate is cacao blended with cinnamon, almonds, and other ingredients. A wooden tool called a molinillo is used to create a froth on top of the drink by rubbing the tool between the palms, resulting in a frothy chocolate drink called pozonque. Outside of Oaxaca city, a drink called tejate is made with fermented corn, cacao, and the seed of the mamey fruit and served in cups made from dried and colorfully painted gourds.

Oaxacan cuisine—varied and diverse as it is, has made the state a destination for hungry explorers with adventurous palates. In 2010, the culinary traditions of Mexico were designated with UNESCO status as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity—solidifying what many already know—that the unique food of Mexico is a global treasure. A highly desirable tourist destination, Oaxaca is a Mexican gem. But for those who prefer armchair travel (or can’t get there fast enough) the aforementioned Trilling, Bayless, and Kennedy all have cookbooks on the subject.

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