What to Eat in Oaxaca
by Ron Mader
Barriga llena, corazón contento (A full stomach, a happy
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
Great veggies include nopal and a myriad of
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
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.
Oaxaca is a paradise for those who love corn.
The multitude of options, names and serving times can be confusing.
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
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.
fried with black mole and fresh cheese are called embaradas.
empanada is a large tortilla grilled on the comal, often with chicken
and yellow mole sauce.
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).
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
Teotitlán del Valle specializes in making a dish called
ceguesa, a chicken
stew made with garlic, tomato and toasted corn.
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
a corn-based sweet. It also can be made from tejate (photo).
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
|Usually served with cheese
Very large; often called a "Oaxacan
Oaxaca's traditional energy drink is tejate, 'the drink of the
gods.' This beverage was originally served to the ruling elite of
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)
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
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!
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
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
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.
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
-- 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.
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
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.
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.
Prickly pear cactus! Note that the fruit is called 'tuna' which
is not the same as the atún which swims in the sea.
Species include morado, tabasco (also called roatan), piña,
guineo (also called 'costa rica'), manzano, peron, Dominico, Seda
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
Local fruit include platanos, mangos and plums. Seasonal specialties
include the custard
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
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
Garden, across from the Basilica.
All the stands have a colorful list of available flavors.
Gelatina -- the local version of jello -- is a popular desert.
It's not just for kids! A similar option is nicuatole.
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
Beverages include fruit-flavored drinks (aguas), A
local favorite is almond with prickly pear and squash (almendra
con tuna y chilacayote).
Barbacoa is barbequed meat (typically beef or goat) served
as a soup (consome) or in tacos.
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.
usually refers to cultivated mushrooms, and hongos not cultivated.
Popular chiles (some available nowhere else in the country)
include arbol, guajilo, pasilla, ancho, chilhuacle amarillo,
chilhuacles negro, cascabel and serrano.
Forget about salsa from jars or cans. Buy fresh salsa at the
markets and be sure to try the moles. Blog
Squash is served in soups, vegetable dishes and sweets, such
as calabaza en talacha (see photo).
A local beverage is chilacayote
made from squash and sweetened with honey, cinnamon and brown
is a specialty. Sopa de Guías originates in the Central
Valleys and is made of squash flowers and stems and tasty
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 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
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
Another option are encaladas, a flour pastry topped with egg
white and sugar -- quite famous in Tamazulapan.
Sweets (dulces) include camotes, crystalized sweet potato candy
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
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.
Vegetables marinated in vinegar.
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
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).
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!
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
If you allergic to wheat, Oaxaca has countless corn dishes.
Looking for glutton-free meals is easy.
Oaxaca ofrece una convivencia culinaria.