Eating Oaxaca

Oaxaca, they say, is the culinary capital of Mexico. I was eager to put this to the test.

I am still digesting Mexico City tacos when we arrive and check into our hotel. But my pal Mike rouses me from a brief respite on my bed that could’ve easily turned into an evening in, and we are soon walking the beautiful historic streets of the old center of Oaxaca city.

My first impressions of Oaxaca is that it is too impossibly beautiful, like a Disney set. There are, however, those ubiquitous Mexican staples — street dogs, children begging for money, hawkers of Chiclets, speeding taxis — that keep you grounded in reality.

Oaxacan girl

We arrive at La Biznaga, a popular local eatery, and through Mike’s connection to everyone in town, make it past the obnoxious and utterly unnecessary rope into the restaurant. Seated at the bar awaiting our table, I get my first taste of the most transformative culinary experience I will have here — pulque.

When the quiote (massive flower spike) is removed from a mature agave (which only flower once, then die), the cavity left behind fills with a milky, sappy liquid. The liquid is removed, and it refills again. This process happens a couple times a day, with a good mature agave able to produce this way for up to a year. The fermentation of the sugars actually begins in the plant, and the fresh collected juice is left to ferment further, acquiring a foamy, vaguely sour tang that straddles the borderlands of beer, cider and horchata. On a warm Oaxaca afternoon, it may be the most refreshing thing I’ve ever tasted.

Pulque at La Biznaga

We are tired, I am a bit under the weather. Mike suggests soup. But first, we eat a delicious Oaxacan appetizer called “Las Calendas” — cheese, chiles and other tasty items wrapped in hoja santo leaf — along with a smooth, saline Del Maguey Santo Domingo Albarradas mezcal. I opt for the mushroom soup, while Mike gets the chicken. Our plans for a mole or two are abandoned, as we are now full and tired and must rise early the next day for our epic journey into the Oaxacan mountains to visit Del Maguey’s mezcal palenques.

It was not until Hernan Cortes arrived a few hours north of here in the mid-16th century that anyone from the Old World had tasted one of the region’s great indigenous products — cacao. Oaxaca remains renowned for its chocolate. Our hotel, Caza Azul, in addition to setting us up with straw hats, Oaxaca blue scarves and mezcal, leaves a selection of local chocolates on our nightstands each evening that inspire sweet dreams indeed.

Casa Azul

*    *    *

In Oaxaca, insects are a coming component of many dishes. And not just in the peasant fare, but even in the most upscale restaurants — such as Casa Oaxaca, where Mike and I are having our last meal, a late lunch or perhaps early dinner.

Did we want the ant donut? Or the grasshopper tacos? I was vaguely curious about both, but we settled for the latter.

Our waiter had already ground some small grasshoppers into the salsa he was making in his molcajete, so I figure we’ll stick with the theme. Plus, as squeamish as I generally am about eating bugs, I had sampled chapulines before and they were actually quite tasty. The salsa may be the best I’ve ever had, even though I know full well what the chewy, savory bits are.

 

*

The salsa, opening our meal, is served with a simple variation on the local specialty, tlayuda — a large, thin corn tortilla toasted to a crisp, and topped with whatever has inspired the cook that day. In this case, it was simply cheese.

This is followed by two ceviches — both yellowfin tuna — one encased in a fresh green chili with a sour passion fruit salsa, the other with peanuts, unusual Oaxacan herbs and a serrano chili emulsion. They are both delicious. Grasshoppers, though listed in the menu description, are mercifully hidden in the jicama tacos with huitlacoche (corn fungus) and Oaxacan cheese. It is the best dish of the afternoon, something the likes of which I might expect to find in a Michelin-starred restaurant.

Ceviche #1

Ceviche #2

Jicama, huitlacoche and grasshopper tacos

We share a main course of goat mole. We haven’t eaten much mole during our three days in Oaxaca, so we feel compelled. We are presented a hollowed gourd inside of which rests the mole sauce and some vegetables. The waiter then drops the shredded goat meat into the gourd.

When stirred together, the flavors meld and are indeed good — though, I can’t help but consider, not quite as filled with complexity, story and memory as they might’ve been had the goat been long-simmered in the sauce, versus introduced on the plate.

We finish with a fascinating dessert of passion fruit flan with a swirl of ice cream and some toasted coconut that, remarkably and in the best way, tastes like a typical Mexican street sweet.

Dessert

*    *    *

That night, Gabe — who lives in Oaxaca — leads us out of the quaint historic center of Oaxaca into the gritty regular city, past the requisite farmacias, bars and cheap clothing outlets, across a smog-choked highway to the Abastos mercado, the largest market in town.

It is nearly 8 p.m. when we arrive, many of the vendors have already packed up, some are in the process, but a surprising number are still selling. Here you can find every manner of vegetable, fruit and protein (insects! lots of insects!) — including almost-impossible-to-source-in-the-U.S. items like huitlacoche.

Chapulines at Abastos

In the prepared food section, I find what I have been looking for — moles! I browse and shop and taste, and eventually purchase containers of six of the seven mole variations Oaxaca is famous for to bring home with me: negro, rojo, coloradito, amarillo, verde and chicholo. A few I will send to my mom, too.

Nearby are the insect vendors. I resist the impulse to bring home some chapulines or chicatana ants — a surprise, perhaps, for the wife? — figuring these were ingredients that were of a time and place and likely didn’t translate well to the home pantry.

Dried chiles and cacao

As we leave the market, Gabe purchases a dusty brown fruit of some sort from a guy on the corner. “Have you had this one?” he asks, and Mike and I both shrug. He slices into it to reveal an orange flesh that looks somewhere between a papaya and a cooked sweet potato. The taste is another Oaxacan revelation — sweet, subtle, earthy — the flesh silky and smooth. There is so much to discover here, and I have only scratched the surface.

We end the evening at In Situ, a mezcalaria on a hill heading back into the Centro Historico. A rather daft, Einstein-looking mad-scientist type — who turns out to be the owner, Ulises — is behind the bar, pouring from the hundreds of bottles of mezcal lining the walls, most of which are his own product. Gabe, who Mike calls “The Mayor” and who knows everyone, embraces Ulises and orders a flight of mezcals for us to sample. Mike is mildly put off by the lack of Del Maguey representation — they have only one of his mezcals — though I point out that there is a distinctly self-promotional bent to Ulises’ offerings.

Mike and Gabe at In Situ

It is after nine. Sated and with an early flight the next morning, Mike and I bid farewell to Gabe, who I sense might’ve liked to stay out a bit later. Walking home through the quiet Centro Historico, I look forward to the chocolates awaiting me in my room.

Tucked into bed, as I drift toward sleep and the unavoidable travel day ahead, I think about the smells and tastes of this place. And look forward to getting home, unpacking my treasures, turning on the stove and reliving my own stories and memories back in my own familiar cocina.

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8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. pal-O
    Feb 23, 2018 @ 15:38:36

    Great piece! The photos are outstanding!

    Reply

  2. Andrea Cleall
    Feb 23, 2018 @ 16:51:43

    Sean, that was a wonderful post. I couldn’t comment because they wanted me to sign in and I don’t know passwords etc. Not sure I ever needed them for this site before.

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10

    Reply

  3. carolyn
    Mar 21, 2018 @ 20:45:06

    I know this is going to sound weird, however here goes: Glennis of Doves Today hasn’t posted for a long time and I was trying to research to find out if she is Ok and your blog came up. I have visited her blog for several years, and am concerned. Do you know anything??

    Reply

    • scolgin
      Mar 21, 2018 @ 21:58:39

      Hi Carolyn! Not weird at all, I’m glad you reached out to me. Glennis went through something of a mid-life renaissance a couple years back, as I’m sure you read on her blog. She was in New Orleans getting her masters in creative writing, splitting from her husband, general Glennis 2.0-ing. I haven’t communicated with her in a bit, but keep up with Chris (her ex) regularly, haven’t heard anything worrisome. I think she’s still in New Orleans, not 100% sure. I could forward your note to her if you’d like, just so she knows her blog is missed. Best, Sean

      Reply

  4. carolyn
    Mar 22, 2018 @ 00:47:25

    That would be nice. I’ve never commented on her blog cause I’m not comfortable giving out info, so to contact you was a big step!! If you think she would appreciate my note, please forward, Thank YOU!

    Reply

  5. carolyn
    Mar 23, 2018 @ 02:03:57

    We are now friends on Facebook! Thank you!

    Reply

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