A journey to the capital of Mezcal
A reportage to discover the markets, the people and above all the authentic food of Oaxaca.
Eagerness to meet new people, a sense of adventure and power of observation are the qualities, or rather the virtues, that every traveler worthy of the name should possess and always carry with them on their trips around the world - be they near or far, but especially if they’re far. That's when losing our bearings triggers a rush of adrenaline and a sense of excitement that only a distant and unknown place, different from the normality we are used to, can generate.
And that's where the journey truly begins - not when you buy your ticket or plan your itinerary but when something starts moving and stirring inside, not a moment sooner or later. And if the journey is about a product that, by nature, is fermented before being distilled, then we'll have no choice but to get lost in that emotional, satisfying whirlwind. Welcome to Oaxaca de Juárez, the capital of the eponymous state in southern Mexico - a region steeped in sacred Mezcal.
Travelers judge the countries they visit based on different aspects. Yours truly usually does so by interacting with the people, a mirror of the local culture and hospitality more than any social or cultural class. And it's the people of Oaxaca who welcomed us - cheery, smiling, short in stature and with their characteristic lively, lilting Spanish pronunciation.
However, embarking on a journey into the world of mezcal doesn't just mean delving into the - albeit fascinating - botanical taxonomy of the agave species it's produced from. Your gaze can't help taking in everything from the people strolling in Oaxaca's zócalo to its history, from the ancestors of mezcal to the Zapotecs' architecture, and of course the local cuisine, with culinary explorations ranging from traditional and ancestral recipes to grasshoppers and exotic hallucinogens.
When traveling to a foreign country some people visit churches, squares or museums. Your author can’t help walking through the street markets, the soul of every place, where everything happens and the true nature of its people is revealed. Oaxaca has several, but the two every traveler must experience are the older Mercado Benito Juárez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre. The former used to be a square, Plaza del Marques, and was inaugurated in 1894. The roof and doors are made of iron and inside it's home to a daily riot of different traditions and cultures. People buy and eat - countless varieties of chilies and seeds, tortillas, tlayudas (toasted tortillas), totopos (tortilla chips), tamales, cheese, meat and fish, sorbets, tejate (a corn and cocoa drink), regional sweets, hormigas culonas and chicatanas (ants), gusanos de maguey (agave worms), as well as a variety of mezcal, fruits and vegetables and craft products.
Here you will find the famous Aguas Casilda invented by Doña Casilda - a broad range of flavored waters including horchata (rice drink) with prickly pear, chilacayote (figleaf gourd), guanábana (a tropical fruit), guayaba con chía (guava with chia seeds), orange with apple, coconut, grated lemon zest, cucumber with lemon, tamarind.
Not far away, the Mercado 20 de Noviembre features iconic places like the Pasillo de Humo (the smoke alley) as well as traditional inns and shops selling the region's typical bread and chocolate. The smoke alley is an almost mystical place that welcomes visitors with charcoal-fired anafres (tortilla stoves). Both sides are lined with stalls selling meat for grilling: tasajo (dried meat), cecina enchilada (cured meat enchilada) and tripas (tripe), as well as all kinds of legumes as sides, radishes, small onions, nopales (prickly pears), avocado, chilies, lemons. Each market has a rich culinary tradition on offer for the many hungry travelers seeking authenticity in the preparation of dishes, with recipes handed down from generation to generation.
Like all of the town's markets and streets, both have no shortage of locusts - here called chapulines - an exotic food dating back to ancient times. It's fun to see mounds of these insects heaped in wicker baskets on stalls run by ladies who sell them sorted by seasoning and size. It's even more fun to watch Mexicans buy bags filled with large handfuls of them, as here chapulines are used in home cooking as much as in restaurants. Mexican cuisine is widely known to make ample use of insects and chapulines are considered a delicacy, crunchy and rich in healthy flavor. They are extremely characteristic of Oaxaca and a pre-Hispanic treat first mentioned in the Florentine Codex written by Fray Bernandino de Sahagun along with other species of edible insects (96) of the time.
For over 3000 years they have been widely used in the Zapotec, Mixtec and Mayan cultures as remedies against digestive, respiratory, nervous, circulatory and bone disorders. 80% of their body weight is made up of protein and they also contain healthy fats, vitamins A, B and C and minerals like calcium, zinc and magnesium. The people of Oaxaca collect them in quantity along the slopes of the Sierra Madre hills outside the city, before preparing and selling them. Their flavor can be reminiscent of different aromatic herbs such as rosemary and oregano, as well as chicharrones (fried pork rind) or shrimp - the way they are prepared certainly affects their taste. Cleaned and washed, they are placed on a grill and seasoned to taste (there is no recipe) with garlic, chili pepper and salt. They become crunchy and, more importantly, acidic, spicy and very savory. They're sold by the kg and the price ranges between 70 and 100 Mexican pesos. The abdomen and head are the most sought-after parts for the preparation of soups, tacos, panuchos (stuffed tortillas), quesadillas, guacamole and the characteristic tlayudas - large, thin, fried or toasted tortillas richly topped with bean cream, pork lard, lettuce, avocado, beef and cheese. They’re the embodiment of Mexico's culinary and cultural heritage
With the diversity of its eight regions, the different nuances of its 570 municipalities, the influence of its 16 ethnic groups and a rich tradition passed down from generation to generation, Oaxaca really has a lot to tell, to the point that it strongly contributed to UNESCO's recognition of Mexican cuisine as a Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
An excellent example is mole, prepared in as many as seven different variants (nowadays probably even more). It's a sauce combining chili pepper and spices, thickened with a corn mixture and added to various meat and vegetable dishes. Ancient writings reveal that the Aztecs already mixed different chilies with tomatoes, cocoa and spices and called this preparation mulli, which means sauce. With the arrival of the Spaniards, cuisine underwent the natural changes resulting from the meeting of two cultures giving rise to today's mole, widely consumed and considered the banner of Oaxacan cuisine.
Varieties include mole alcaparrado, mole almendrado, mole amarillo de res del Istmo, mole coloradito con ayocotes, traditional Oaxacan mole, mole with chicken and almond stew, mole coloradito istmeño, mole mixteco, green Yucunama mole, just to name a few.
Whether exploring the streets or entering people's homes, you quickly become aware of a whole edible world. We had the honor and fortune of being welcomed into the rural out-of-town homes of the palenqueros - the mezcal producers and their families, where the women (and not just the women) are happy to demonstrate their cooking skills. There are no stoves in sight, just earth ovens dug into the ground and live-fire cooking.
It was at Don Beto's house, who lives with his family in Bramaderos de Porfirio Díaz, that we had the chance to learn about the ancient and extremely traditional preparation of tamales oaxacaños. The word tamal comes from the Nahuatl - the ancient language of the Aztecs - tamalli, which means "wrapped". Commonly sold by women on street corners in many Latin American cities, they are basically made from corn dough with the addition of mole and meat - usually chicken - and steamed.
proudly explained Don Beto's wife Doña Eléna, who prepared them for us on the occasion of an important festival in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe celebrated on December 12, the day of her last appearance on the Tepeyac hill north of Mexico City in 1531.
With or without religious events, everywhere we went we found flavors from bygone days. As guests at the home of another palenquero, Juan Hernández Luis in the pueblo of San Pedro Taviche, we had the pleasure of participating in the sacred preparation of barbacoa de maguey, Mexican bbq cooked in Mother Earth's womb, where a whole mutton is sacrificed.
One of the region's specialties, it's part of Mexico's pre-Columbian tradition. It takes hours and hours of cooking in an earth oven. With us were Juan's sons, Margarito, Agustin and Laurentino, enthusiastically showing us their skill as experienced ancestral chefs:
In addition, tradition dictates that a bottle of mezcal should be placed underneath the dirt layer, so everyone can drink a hot toast before the feast. After a few drops are poured on the ground in honor of "the origin of everything", participants can enjoy this soul-stirring culinary wonder.
Not to worry - if you're looking for more conventional dining solutions, in Oaxaca there is no shortage of restaurants where you can book a table and a sensory experience. Each distinctive yet united by Mexican love and hospitality, three are particularly worth spending time, attention and money in.
Guelaguetza means sharing in Zapotec and is an important value for Mexicans in Oaxaca, one that's deeply cherished in this historic restaurant offering an intense culinary experience away from the city, where you can discover the pure, unspoiled soul of a family.
comments young chef Jorge León, who started working as a cook out of necessity but soon fell in love with the family's rich tangible and intangible heritage.
This magical place is not easy to find. You have to leave Oaxaca's city center and travel to the village of San Juan Bautista la Raya with its unpaved streets lined with houses. In one of these, marked by an almost invisible sign and a black gate, there is a courtyard with a handful of tables. It's Jorge's childhood home, where he now works with his mother Elvia. At lunch they welcome local workers serving generous local dishes like steaming stews and freshly baked tortillas - Jorge's mother is the real expert, and before opening her restaurant she used to cook for her neighbors. Dinner is a five-course tasting menu prepared by Jorge to the delight of gourmet travelers, available upon reservation.
What he prepares and serves depends on what he finds daily at the market in Abastos: chileate (parsley soup), octopus and shrimp tacos with amaranth leaves, the typical moles he uses in culinary experiments like mole coloradito paired with dorado fillet, yucca tamales stuffed with eggplant, tomato sauce with Mexican tea and avocado or a soul-stirring soup made from roasted chickpeas, multicolored beans and chard.
And of course, the ubiquitous mezcal. "It's never missing, for births, deaths and celebrations of life. We have great respect for our land, which has a deep connection to both mezcal and the dishes we serve in our restaurant."
Dining amidst the old trees forming a canopy of leaves and glimpses of starry sky brings peacefulness and a feeling of well-being in a convivial dinner that should never end. From time to time, one of the waitresses walked around the tables carrying incense, as if to purify the moment for the food ritual. More and more stars began to shine, and bite by bite the sacredness of the shared meal was complete.
Oaxaca's gourmet face is Rodolfo Castellanos, 43, born and raised in the city but with extensive training, broad views and plenty of experience around the world. He began training at the Instituto Culinario de México in Puebla, and since then his experiences have led him to work in different places, including the French Embassy in Mexico and Gastón Acurio's San Francisco restaurant La Mar, with chefs such as Joël Garault in Monte Carlo and Traci Des Jardins at Le Jardinier in San Francisco. In 2011, he could no longer resist the call of his native land and decided to return to his beloved city and open his restaurant Origen. But before all of these experiences there was his mother Evelia Reyes, from whom he inherited his broad culinary knowledge and learned everything he knows in the family's home-food restaurant Fuensanta.
says the chef. Hence Rodolfo's deep respect for his land and desire to seek out local product:
he says. Indeed, in Mexico there are 60 native corn varieties, 35 of which are found in Oaxaca (58% of the country's diversity). It's easy to see how this is bound to deeply influence any perceptive cook and serve as a powerful source of inspiration
Corn clearly plays a central role in Origen's menu. Serrano, olotón, bolita, chalqueño, arrocillo, ancho, tuxpeño, pepitilla, zapalote chico are just some of the varieties the chef's team uses and incorporates into their dishes. Their recipes are 100% local yet influenced by Castellanos's French training background and offered in the form of fine dining in an increasingly touristy, busy and modern city center.
Risottos, ceviches, meats and plants are combined with native products that give them a distinctive identity the chef defines with the word Aoaxaqueñar, which encapsulates the huge variety of ingredients found in the region's markets, ranches, farms, crops and waters. One example is the restaurant's signature dish - veal tongue with mashed beans and mole chichilo made from garlic, tomatoes, avocado leaves, cloves, cumin, beef stock and black peppercorns.
Origen has been following its own unique path for 10 years. Just as in Oaxaca each region has a different mole, in this restaurant spices, condiments, herbs and other ingredients are transformed to offer customers a contemporary approach incorporating techniques and ideas that speak of Mexico and the whole world.
A restaurant in the heart of the city center that's all about smiles, hospitality and, most of all, the cuisine of Oaxaca’s Tehuantepec Isthmus region. An isthmus is the opposite of a strait as it has large bodies of water on both sides (in this case, two oceans). The region includes the highest area of the isthmus itself as well as part of the Pacific coast up to Salina Cruz.
In the state of Oaxaca each region has its own typical dishes and the Isthmus is one of the most varied, to the point that it inspired many a local to take their cuisine to the city of mezcal.
Today Aurora Toledo is an authority in Oaxaca but had to come a long way before getting there.
A teacher for 30 years, she has always loved cooking and decided to open a restaurant in her native land, then started a business selling garnachas - typical corn tortillas sold everywhere from street food trucks to restaurants, in different variants with beans, meat, cheese, potatoes and spicy sauce - out of her home, then a coffee bar open only at night, then a larger place only serving regional dishes (there are 8 different cuisines in the state of Oaxaca). Zandunga came nine years later, and now she runs it with her sons Marcos, an architect, and German, a cook.
she says. Part of the restaurant is a mezcal bar, with a counter and communal table where you can eat and drink mezcal or craft beer. Next to it there's a larger space with seating on a charming patio.
But how do you bring together mezcal and food?
goes on Aurora, with her smiling face and colorful traditional dress (in the Isthmus women are always thinking about what to wear, something different other people don't have. Here people are not afraid of color and wear all kinds of clothes. Indeed, Zandunga also has a small boutique with the clothes Aurora, like most local women, used to make when she was young).
What is Isthmus cuisine like? Over the decades the region has been home to several foreign communities including Arabs, Lebanese, Chinese, Spanish, French and different Mexican ethnic groups. Each brought their own products and ingredients into the mix, and these influences resulted in flavors that are mostly sweet and never spicy.
An excellent example is totopo (from the Aztec word tlaxcaltotopochtl meaning thunder-tortilla, as they are crunchy and very noisy to chew), the most important dish cooked in clay ovens (comixcal) - a corn tortilla once only prepared with new corn, therefore available only at specific times of the year. Different from the cheaper regular tortilla, it's of course included on Zandunga's menu, served with fresh tomatoes, onion, spicy sauce, lemon and dried shrimp. Other mainstays are fried garnachas with beef, onion and fermented salad, emapanadas, ceviche, guacamole with chapulines (grasshoppers of the genus Sphenarium widespread in some Mexican states), the must-try tamales with mixed meat, cheese or just chicken and estofado del Istmo, always prepared for weddings with fine veal cuts and slow-cooked fruits and vegetables. Mother, teacher, cook and designer - Aurora Toledo's spirit and taste are reflected in Zandunga, now more than 20 years old and well worth extended, repeated visits.
Throughout this story I have been using the plural form, a necessary 'we' to appeal to one's alter ego for support in times of need such as this - the end of my journey and my farewell to the people of Oaxaca, with whom I've been toasting every day, sharing their sacred mezcal. No one can know which of the goodbyes bid and received will be for good, but one thing is for sure: to leave on another journey, you need to go back home first. Hasta pronto Oaxaca!