Oaxaca Feature

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On the Menu in Oaxaca

Food isn't taken lightly in Oaxaca. Traditional recipes, many of which predate the arrival of the Spanish, are passed from generation to generation. Sisters argue over who makes the most authentic version of Grandmother's mole.

Oaxacans don't like change, which may be why restaurants like El Naranjo and Los Danzantes that serve updated versions of classic dishes are inundated by foreigners and ignored by locals. You can imagine the outcry when McDonald's announced it was going to open a restaurant on the zócalo. It didn't take long for the company to rethink its plans.

When it comes to sampling Oaxaca's cuisine, do as the locals do. Oaxaca's markets—and inexpensive eateries near them—are among the most interesting places to sample any of the following regional specialties.

Although the name sounds like an elegant dish, chapulines are nothing more than fried grasshoppers seasoned with salt, tangy chili, and a pinch of lime. You find them everywhere from the fanciest restaurant to the humblest vendor's cart. All sizes of grasshoppers are available, depending on the season; the large ones go down a bit easier if you remove the legs first. According to local lore, one taste will charm you into returning to Oaxaca.

The sweet, white gelatinous dessert called jicuatote is made with milk, cloves, cinnamon, and cornmeal. It's served in tubs or cut into cubes, and is usually colored red on top.

Although you'll find versions of this sauce everywhere in Mexico, mole is to Oaxaca as baked beans are to Boston. There are seven major kinds of moles, so many restaurants ladle out a different one every day of the week. If you've had mole back home, it was probably mole oaxaqueña. Also known as mole negro, or black mole, it's the standard-bearer. It gets its sweetness from chocolate and its fire from peppers, and is featured in every kind of dish.

Another favorite is manchamanteles, which translates as "tablecloth stainer" (it's not as thick as other moles, so it spills easily). Moles aren't always a deep, rich brown. Verde is green, amarillo is a dark, reddish yellow, and coloradito can be different shades of red.

Say cheese, or rather quesillo. The stringy cow's-milk cheese made in and around Oaxaca is soft and nutty. It ends up in many dishes, even those that have nothing to do with Mexico. Hint: that's not mozzarella on your pizza.

Made from the flowers and seeds of the cacao tree, tejate is sweetened with corn, coconut milk, sugar, and spices. The result—white clumps suspended in brown liquid—is served in a painted gourd bowl. The concoction may look deadly, but it's actually tasty and nutritious.

The huge, flat tortillas called tlayudas are spread with refried beans and topped with cheese, salsa, and, if you like, strips of chicken or pork. They're halfway between soft tortillas and crispy tostadas, and they're hard to eat delicately. Put away the knife and fork and break off a piece.

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