Throughout Mexico culinary experience, one can find incredible food that varies among regions. But no region’s cuisine compares to the amazing and imaginative food that comes from the state of Oaxaca. Known as the “Land of the Seven Moles,” the food of Oaxaca is as rich as its culture and as diverse as its geography. The unique vibrant flair of Oaxacan food has inspired chefs, foodies, and travelers from around the world to flock to Oaxaca, their main purpose being to indulge in the traditional, yet world-renowned dishes.
Oaxaca’s incredible biodiversity and geography gives Oaxaqueños access to a constant supply of fresh, local ingredients; vegetables from the Central Valley, seafood from the Isthmus region, cacao from the Sierra Madre, and fruits from the bordering state of Veracruz. One simply needs to visit the city’s many markets, and get lost among the stalls – stacked high with fresh produce, herbs, chilies, and beans – to realize they are in a place where food is central to culture.
Tradition woven into Oaxacan cuisine has helped preserve its heritage. The passion and technique applied to the preparation of each meal, along with the importance of when and how it is prepared, has led to dishes like mole negro made with over 30 ingredients; tejate, a drink made for gods with a recipe spanning thousands of years; and tamales with their long and arduous (but so worth it!) process.
Oaxacan cooking involves three staple ingredients: corn, chiles, and chocolate. Corn, the foundation of Oaxacan food and culture, was first cultivated in Oaxaca in 4300 BC. From tortillas to tamales to atole, it is an integral part of most every meal. Chiles of all colors, flavors, and heat surface in Oaxaca’s most famous dishes.
Some notable chiles include: Pasilla, which has a hot and smoky flavor; Chile Ancho, which has mild heat with coffee and tobacco undertones; and Chile de Arbol, which has a natural, grassy, and definitely spicy flavor. The hand-ground and spicy Chocolate named after the Nahuatl word “Chocolatl”, was the beverage for kings in Oaxaca, and is a blend of cacao, cinnamon, sugar and, post-Spaniard conquest, almonds. Chocolate, while most commonly served as a drink in Oaxaca, can also be found in different Moles.
Other important and/or common ingredients used in cooking include black beans, aromatic herbs like Epazote, Pitionia, Hoja Santa, meats such as tasajo (thinly sliced flank steak), cecina (thinly sliced and seasoned pork), and chorizo (Mexican sausage), and quesillo (a saltier, stringier mozzarella). And don’t forget about those crunchy chapulines (grasshoppers)!
As mentioned before, Oaxaca is known as the “Land of Seven Moles. ” These seven moles are: Amarillo (Yellow), Coloradito (Little Red), Mancha Manteles (Tablecloth Stainer), Chichil (a red thing), Rojo (Red), and Verde (Green).
“Mole” is derived from the Nahuatl word “molli” (mixture), and the word couldn’t ring more true – moles are a mixture of dozens of ingredients that are cooked and ground together to create a delicious sauce.
Another specialty of Oaxaca are the Tlayuda, made by smearing pork fat on large crispy corn tortillas, placing it on a grill, and filling it with beans, quesillo, salsa, guacamole, and your choice of cecina, tasajo, or chorizo. Top it off with some optional chapulines, and you have yourself one of the best meals in town.
With all of this food and tradition comes Oaxaca’s famed Mezcal, a traditional alcohol made from the sugary heart of the Maguey cactus. The heart is baked, pulverized, and then distilled, resulting in an almost smoky tequila.
There is a common Oaxacan saying that illustrates just how central a role mezcal plays, “Por todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, tambien,” which roughly translates to, ” Mezcal is for the all the good times and the bad.”