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OAXACA, MEXICO

What to Eat in Oaxaca
by Ron Mader

OAXACA FOOD WIKI

Barriga llena, corazón contento (A full stomach, a happy heart)
- Dichos

Carmen y Lucia, Mercado Sanchez Pascuas @ Oaxaca 04.2012

FLICKR ALBUM: Where to eat in Oaxaca City


INDEX

aguas - amaranth - barbacoa - beans - bread - carnes asadas - cecina - champurrado - cheese - chiles - chilacayote - chilaquiles - chocolate - coffee - corn - eggs - empanada - escabeche - flowers - frijoles - gelatina - grasshoppers - nieves - nicuatole - ice cream - jello - mezcal - mole - mushrooms - nopal - piedrazo - pinole - salchicha oaxaqueña - salsa - sopa de guiás - squash - sugar - tamales - tejate - tasajo - tlayuda - tuna - verdolaga


LOCAL FOOD

If you want to try the authentic Oaxacan cuisine, you have to give it the time it deserves. This is slow food at its finest. Where to eat? Check out our recommendations.

What's on the menu?

This region offers tasty specialties you won't find elsewhere in the world. Try our favorite restaurants and markets. Signature foods include tamales, tejate, hot chocolate, and at least seven different salsas called moles. There i also a slow drink.

Great veggies include nopal and a myriad of corn dishes.

Indigenous dishes include various insects, of which grasshoppers are the most famous and probably the most nutritious! Other items on the Comida Indígena menu include tejate, tamales, tortillas and cegueza. Local meats included turkey (guajalote) and rabbit (conejo).

CARNIVORES

Carnes asadas are thin strips of grilled meat. include tasajo (salted beef skirtsteak) and cecina (pork). Tasty salchicha oaxaqueña is beef sausage with the best recipes coming from Ejutla.


CORN

Oaxaca is a paradise for those who love corn. The multitude of options, names and serving times can be confusing.

Try the memelas, tortillas topped with lard, crumbled cheese and salsa. Modern incarnations include beans and the option of a layer of tinga (shredded chicken with tomatos, onions and chiles) or potatoes and sausage.

Tortillas, by the way, are called 'blandas' -- a perfect description as Oaxaca also has hard-shell tostada, used to make tostadas ejutecas, a signature dish of the town of Ejutla.

Tortillas fried with black mole and fresh cheese are called embaradas.

An empanada is a large tortilla grilled on the comal, often with chicken and yellow mole sauce.

Tlayudas are even larger than tostadas (30+ centimeters in diameter), usually topped with pork lard, beans and cheese and sometimes cabbage, avocado and tomatoes. Popular name: the 'Oaxacan Pizza.' Tip - If you want a vegetarian diet, ask the waiter to hold the lard (asiento). Wiki

Corn tortillas topped with black mole sauce are enmoladas (photo). If topped with red mole sauce, they are enchiladas.

Strips of tortillas or tlayudas can be prepared as chilaquiles, a traditional dish consisting of dried tortilla chips, broiled with cheese (and sometimes chicken) in green or red salsa.

Street food includes corn on the cob (not sweet like the U.S. variety) and usually basted with lime and chile. Another favorite offerings is esquites, a combination of corn, poblano chili and the epazote herb.

Teotitlán del Valle specializes in making a dish called ceguesa, a chicken stew made with garlic, tomato and toasted corn.

Tamales are a filling (often chicken) wrapped in a corn mixture and steamed in either corn husks or banana leaves. Varieties served with chicken include verde, amarillo, mole and rajas. Veggie options include frijoles (bean), dulce (sweet) and chepil (a local herb). On the coast, iguana-filled tamales are a local favorite. Tamales are usually served in the morning, but frankly they are good for any meal. Wiki



Looking for dessert? Try nicuatole (photo), a corn-based sweet. It also can be made from tejate (photo).

Pinole is a dusty mixture of roasted corn or wheat and brown sugar. Here's a curious fact -- for most people it's impossible to whistle while eating pinole.


Plate

Photo

Served ...

Other remarks

Memela

 

Open

Usually small

empanada

 

Closed

 
Quesadilla

 

Closed

Usually served with cheese

Tlayuda

 

Open

Very large; often called a "Oaxacan pizza"


Plate

Photo

Served ...

Other remarks

Entomatada

 

 

 

Enchilada

Photo

 

 

Enfrijolada

 

 

 
Chilaquiles

 

 

 

TEJATE

Oaxaca's traditional energy drink is tejate, 'the drink of the gods.' This beverage was originally served to the ruling elite of Zapotec society. Tejate is usually served in markets in lovely hand-painted, gourd bowls called jícaras.

Like most Oaxacan delicacies, tejate's ingredient list is complex. The libation is made from corn, roasted cacao beans, mamey seed and rosita flowers (flor cacahuaxochitl). The ingredients are blended in a thick mass, which is gradually thinned with water. Tradition calls for this process to be done by hand and the tejateras' arm does the mixing. (photo) (video)

Variations -- Tejate can also be served as a sherbet, as cookies and as nicoatole. In the state of Tabasco, a similar drink is called pozol and has the consistency of a thin porridge.

FESTIVAL -- The annual Tejate Fair is held each spring in the town of San Andrés Huayapam. The event itself is overwhelming: hundreds and hundreds of tejate makers and a lot of traffic!


COFFEE

Oaxaca is justly famous for its coffee.

That said, many restaurants serve coffee that is considered weak to foreigners. Some establishments (and many homes) serve instant coffee, often Nescafe, which had led many people to joke 'No es cafe!' So if you are a coffee snob and you want to try the market food, consider ordering a tasty hot chocolate.

SHOPPING TIP -- Among the best coffees that be purchased for taking home include Cafe de Maravilla available at the Friday/Saturday Pochote Market and La Constancia (#311) in the Benito Juárez Market.

www.flickr.com

APPETIZERS

For those not familiar with the cuisine, order the Botana Oaxaqueña. This is a crowd-pleasing appetizer plate with traditional delicacies, including thin strips of grilled beef (tasajo), pork (cecina), sausage links (chorizo) and several kinds of cheese, including queso and quesillo. There may be tamales, chiles rellenos and memelas. Grasshoppers are often served on the side.

If you want to opt out of the meat parade, ask for memelas or a tlayuda sin carne.

SPECIALTIES

MOLE

Mole is a rich, smooth sauce. It is usually served with chicken and pork dishes.

In the Náhuatl language of the Aztecs, the word 'molli,' meaning concoction, stew or sauce. Mole was first developed in a convent in Puebla City in the 1680s.

The most well-known mole sauce in Oaxaca is the black (negro) variety, which includes spices and chocolate. Beyond the black sauce, there is red (rojo), yellow (amarillo), deep red (coloradito) and green (verde). Less well known and usually made to order are rarer varieties, such as manchamanteles, castillo, estofado and chichilo. Pipián can be red or green and is made from ground pumpkin seeds.

BUYING MOLE - Many restaurants and markets sell a concentrated version of mole. Just add chicken broth and a dash of oil.

g Mole Wiki

CHOCOLATE

There are a half dozen stores on Mina Street where there is a curious scent of dust, diesel and chocolate. Check out the barrels of cocoa beans -- currency before the Spanish arrived. Oaxaca doesn't grow much cacoa -- most of the beans come from Chiapas and Tabasco -- but it's one of the best places in the country where travelers can purchase chocolate to go with a choice of spices. You can add almonds, cinnamon or vanilla and take the prepared mix back home. There are plenty of places to sample the elixir.

Visit the Mayordomo chocolate bar at the corner of Mina and 20 de Noviembre. Mayordomo was the favorite choice of respondents in our 2005 and 2007 'Best of Oaxaca Surveys.'

A varation is champurrado, a hearty drink made with cocoa and corn.

g Chocolate Oaxaca

GRASSHOPPERS, WORMS AND OTHER INSECTS

Oaxacans eat a lot of insects. Among the favorite bugs are the grasshoppers (chapulines) consumed (legs intact) as a snack garnished with wedges of lime. Best places to sample grasshoppers are featured in our guide to Chapuline Hunting.

Worms (gusanos) have long been used to flavor mezcal. Other dishes are seasonal, such as chicatanas and hormigas de sabores. Such dishes are an acquired taste.

AMARANTH

The amaranth (amaranto) plant was a staple in the indigenous diet before the arrival of the Spanish and has made a recent comeback. Seeds and leaves are edible and the plant is high in protein, folic acid, calcium and iron.

ATOLE AND CHAMPURRADO

Atole is a warm drink made from ground corn. In the Sierra Juárez, atole colorado is a specialty warm beverage, flavored with chocolate, corn and achiote. Champurrado is made with cocoa and corn.

NOPAL

Prickly pear cactus! Note that the fruit is called 'tuna' which is not the same as the atún which swims in the sea.

BANANAS

Species include morado, tabasco (also called roatan), piña, guineo (also called 'costa rica'), manzano, peron, Dominico, Seda and Rombo.

TUNA

You'll see plenty of promotion of tuna -- a favorite drink and ice cream. Be forewarned. This product is not from the sea but the fruit of the prickly pear cactus! It's dark red in color and pleasantly sweet.

FRUIT

Local fruit include platanos, mangos and plums. Seasonal specialties include the custard apple (annona).

BEANS

Black beans (frijoles) are preferred by Oaxaqueños who often add a leaf of the avocado tree during the cooking process for flavor. The beans are used as a topping for tortillas and tortas as well as a sauce for enfrijoladas.

ICE CREAM, SHERBET AND POPSICLES

A great way to cool down is to eat something cold. Oaxaca excels in ice cream (helado), sherbet (nieve) and popsicles (paletas). Keep an eye on the orange Popeye carts that roam the downtown streets. Locals say that it's the best!

Nieves and helados come in a variety of flavors, some easily recognized, others less so. Flavors hard to get elsewhere include burnt milk and prickly pear fruit (leche quemada y tuna), avocado (aguacate) and rose petal (pétalos de rosa). Other traditional flavors include Beso de Angel and Beso Oaxaqueño. If you're less daring, ask for vanilla (sorbete). Not sure which flavor to try? vendors are eager to offer samples.

vendors are found at many city parks. A good place to visit is Sócrates Garden, across from the Basilica. All the stands have a colorful list of available flavors.

JELLO

Gelatina -- the local version of jello -- is a popular desert. It's not just for kids! A similar option is nicuatole.
g Gelatina Wiki

VERDOLAGA

Verdolaga (purslain) is an annual succulent in the family Portulacaceae. It's called Portulaca oleracea and is a native of India and the Middle East. It's a favorite ingredient of Mexican cuisine. Raw, it has the taste of lemon. Wikipedia

www.flickr.com



AGUAS

Beverages include fruit-flavored drinks (aguas), A local favorite is almond with prickly pear and squash (almendra con tuna y chilacayote).

BARBACOA

Barbacoa is barbequed meat (typically beef or goat) served as a soup (consome) or in tacos.

MUSHROOMS

The summer rainy season is also prime mushroom season. One favorite is huitlacoche, aka corn smut, a black fungus used in empanadas. Mushrooms have different names: champiñones, setas and hongos. Setas (photo) usually refers to cultivated mushrooms, and hongos not cultivated.

CHILES

Popular chiles (some available nowhere else in the country) include arbol, guajilo, pasilla, ancho, chilhuacle amarillo, chilhuacles negro, cascabel and serrano.

SALSA

Forget about salsa from jars or cans. Buy fresh salsa at the markets and be sure to try the moles. Blog

SQUASH

Squash is served in soups, vegetable dishes and sweets, such as calabaza en talacha (see photo). A local beverage is chilacayote (see photo) made from squash and sweetened with honey, cinnamon and brown sugar.

Soup is a specialty. Sopa de Guías originates in the Central Valleys and is made of squash flowers and stems and tasty herbs.

SUGAR

Piloncillo is unrefined brown sugar pressed into a cone shape -- the name means little pylon. While not eaten directly, it's sold at the markets and incorporated into many sweets. ara' and two 'caras' are equal to a 'cabeza' (see photo).

BREAD

Bread is served at most meals. When you order a cup of hot chocolate, you'll typically receive pan de yema. For more details about the yolk bread, read Jim Conrad's feature The Bread Baker.

Look for the local favorite -- piedrazo -- a hard-bread softened with vinegar and spices.

If you're looking for a sweet pastry, try the oblea, a thin circular wafer, simi liar in taste to an ice cream cone (see photo). Another option are encaladas, a flour pastry topped with egg white and sugar -- quite famous in Tamazulapan.


CANDY

Sweets (dulces) include camotes, crystalized sweet potato candy (photo).

www.flickr.com

CHEESE

Almost everyone loves cheese! Local cheeses in Oaxaca are abundant and tasty. Quesillo ... queso fresco ... queso oaxaqueño. Requesón is a local version of ricotta used in salads, dips and desserts. For a light meal, cheese can be breaded (queso empanizado) and served in a green sauce. Fresh cheese (queso fresco) is sold in markets wrapped in individual miniature petates which are reused by the cheese sellers.

For international travelers who wish to bring Oaxacan cheese back home, check the current regulations. Refrigerate it well and locals suggest putting in the freezer the night before your flight home.

g Video: Pink Requesón

EGGS

The Dominicans learned that egg white (clara de huevo) was an excellent glue and in the quest to use the egg yolks, invited a number of specialties, including rompope, a Mexican egg nog often flavored with rum.

ESCABECHE

Vegetables marinated in vinegar.

FLOWERS

Flowers are consumed in a number of foods, drinks and desserts. Among the uses: rose petals in ice-cream; bean flowers in mole; pumpkin flowers in empanadas; pumpkin flowers in soup; cocoa flowers in tejate; carnations in preserves, and bougainvilleas floating in horchata (a traditional rice drink).

SOUP

Soups (caldos) include pancita (also called menudo) with tripe. Sopa de Guias is made with squash vines, corn and the chepiche herb. It's typically offered in the spring (April-June).


DINING HOURS

Breakfast hours are generally 8-10 in the morning, lunch from 2-4 in the afternoon and dinners often don't begin until 8 in the evening.

Getting hungry? Consult our where to eat in Oaxaca City!


A FEW WORDS ABOUT VEGETARIAN FOOD

Mexico is NOT known for great vegetarian dining. The tradition and ingredients are plentiful, but in practice the assumption is that visitors want to eat meat. Yes, there are exceptional restaurants and veggie-friendly locals, but meat (carne) is often served. When asking for comida sin carne, don't be surprised if there is chicken. A word about language -- some cook profess 'chicken is not meat,' suggesting that only beef (carne de res) is really meat. The same language extends to fish. My view - shrimp is not a vegetable. If you want to dine meat-less, be specific and insistent.

On the plus side, Oaxaca is known for its famous cheeses. It is easy to order a terrific quesadilla with cheese and pumpkin flower. Another local dish pleasing to vegetarians and carnivores alike is the tlayuda. Most are topped with pork lard, though vegetable lard is sometimes available. When in doubt, go lardless and ask for the dish sin asiento for a true vegetarian feast. My personal favorite vegetarian dish - the Ayuuk

FYI

If you allergic to wheat, Oaxaca has countless corn dishes. Looking for glutton-free meals is easy.

VOX POPULAR

Oaxaca ofrece una convivencia culinaria.


AUTHOR

Ron Mader is the responsible travel correspondent for Transitions Abroad and host of the award-winning Planeta.com website.


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g Where to eat in Oaxaca

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g Oaxaca Food
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g Flor de Maguey
g Pink Requesón
g Caldo de Piedra
b Tasajo - Erick Igari
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