In the last few years, you’ve probably heard the name “Oaxaca” come up more and more. The southern state is the heartland of mezcal, the home of some of Mexico’s richest indigenous cultures and the backdrop of a diverse range of destinations from majestic mountains to rugged beaches to the metropolitan capital (also called Oaxaca). But most importantly, at least where we’re concerned, it’s arguably home to Mexico’s best food.
The entire state of Oaxaca has amazing food, and the city has a better street food culture than anywhere outside of (arguably) Mexico City, fine dining that compares to just about anywhere in the country, and markets that rival anywhere on earth.
Here are seven foods and drinks native to Oaxaca you should try on your trip:
If any one dish represents Oaxaca it’s this – which is why the state is known as the “Land of Seven Moles.” Most types of mole are among the most flavorful and complex sauces on earth; they’re also one of the most misunderstood.
Largely because of the way it’s portrayed in the U.S. – where black mole is the most common variety – many Americans think of mole as a “chocolate sauce.” And while several types of mole do include chocolate, it’s one of upwards of 20 ingredients, and far from a defining one. What all moles do have in common: chilies, aromatics and thickeners like nuts and seeds, plus they’re all pureed.
You’ll probably struggle to find some varieties of the famous seven moles, but black, red and coloradito (between black and red) are ubiquitous, while yellow and green are around if you keep your eyes open. Chichilo and manchamentel are tough to find. The best moles are found in the villages outside the city, where they’re usually reserved for special occasions, and cooked for hours upon hours, but the markets in Oaxaca city also have solid mole, and upscale restaurants like Casa Oaxaca and Origen also have excellent versions for those willing to spend some cash.
Walk through almost any Oaxacan market and you’ll find towering baskets of chapulines – small, red grasshoppers. Chapulines are the ultimate Oaxcan snack food. They have a texture somewhere between dried fruit and a Cheeto, and a taste that’s tangy and salty – perfect drinking food.
It can be hard getting over the fact that you’re eating insects at first, but it’s only a matter of time before global warming forces people all over the world to join the Oaxacans in their consumption of bugs. If there’s any consolation in that, it’s it’s grasshoppers are low in calories, high in protein and super sustainable. Plus, they’re pretty delicious once you get used to them.
No, you won’t find single origin, 72% dark chocolate flown in from Africa on the wings of a pegasus; it’s not that kind of chocolate. In Oaxaca, chocolate is something to be drunk, not eaten.
After mixing the raw cacao with sugar and often either hazelnut or almond, it’s ground into a paste. It’s then cooked (usually) with a milk and stirred with a wooden hand whisk called a molinillo. Oaxacan hot chocolate is found all over the city and the state, regardless of temperature, and it’s among the richest, most delicious hot chocolates you’ll ever taste. If you’ve consumed too much, it’s still worth walking into one of the city’s chocolate shops for the free smells.
Another popular cacao drink, tejate is like nothing else you’ve ever tasted. A lot subtler than a hot chocolate, this cold drink is made from toasted maize, fermented cacao beans and flor de cacao (cacao flower).
The white beads of flor de cacao float to the top of the drinks, forming a bland, pasty topping that adds texture to the drink. This pre-Spanish drink is found all over the state.
Silvestres (Wild Mezcals)
By some estimates, there are upwards of 30 types of agave that can be used to make mezcal, and chances are – unless you’re some sort of connoisseur –you’ve only had one of them. The vast majority of mezcals out there are made with espadin, which is the fastest-growing and easiest agave variety to harvest.
Only very few types of silvestre (wild) mezcals are available stateside, and if you can find them, they’re expensive, largely because they have to be made in small batches and some of the agave species take up to 25 years to grow (compared to seven for espadin), making them financially unviable to bottle and sell internationally. But you can find just about any variety of wild mezcal you’re looking for in bars all over the city for incredibly reasonable prices. The flavors and terroirs of each bottle vary wildly.
Used in a wide variety of dishes throughout the region, Oaxacan cheese is arguably the best the in the country – and you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody to argue against it. Kneaded into balls, this fresh white cheese has a texture similar to mozzarella with a saltiness comparable to feta.
As great as it is in quesadillas, empanadas and tlayaudas, it’s delicious on its own – and fun to eat. It’s more or less a non-processed, highly flavorful string cheese that easily shreds apart into floss-like pieces. Your inner child will thank you.
Somewhere between a giant quesadilla and a ‘Mexican pizza,’ these massive tortillas are probably Oaxaca’s most popular street food. Cooked on a comal (a smooth, flat griddle), the tlayuda (which is the name of both the dish and the tortilla itself) is filled with anything from queso Oaxaqueño and flor de calabaza (squash blossoms) to salted beef to mushrooms after being brushed with a healthy dose of pork fat and refried beans. These gargantuan meals are meant for one, but don’t be ashamed to split yours with one (or two) friends if you don’t want to spend the rest of the day in a food coma.