A Culinary Journey to Mexico’s State of Oaxaca

“The Land of the Seven Moles”

Mountain ranges crisscross the Mexican state of Oaxaca, creating natural geographic divisions and tropical microclimates. Oaxaca’s unique geography has led to the development of multiple distinct cultures, where local food traditions have thrived for centuries. 

No other state in Mexico comes close to Oaxaca in the number and variety of unique cuisines found within its  borders. In fact, many consider Oaxaca to be the gastronomic capital of Mexico.

Corn and some types of beans were first cultivated in Oaxaca some 7,000 years ago. Through the centuries, and the addition of new ingredients (especially proteins like poultry, beef, and pork) and cooking techniques, most of the original flavors of Oaxacan cuisine remain today. A visit to the massive Mercado 20 Noviembre (market) in Oaxaca City will confirm that.

Some of the foods Oaxaca is famous for, not only throughout Mexico but the rest of the world as well, are:

Mole (MOE-lay) – European and American children can list the names of Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs with ease. In Oaxaca, children can recite the names of the Oaxacas seven moles just as easily. Mole is a term used in Mexican cuisine to describe a type of sauce. The original word is molli, which simply means sauce. Actually, the state has over 200 preparations for mole with seven being the most notable. Oaxacan moles require a lot of frying, toasting, simmering of dried chili peppers, nuts, vegetables, herbs, fruit, and in some cases, chocolate. They are served with chicken, beef, and pork but it is the sauce that is more important than the meat in Oaxacan mole dishes.

The names, color, and ingredients distinguish Oaxaca’s 7 moles: Mole Negro (dark color, 32+ ingredients including chocolate), Mole Amarillo (yellow), Mole Coloradito (brick red), Mole Manchamanteles (red “tablecloth stainer” with fruit), Mole Rojo (red), Mole Chichilo (special chili), Mole Verde (fresh with tomatillos and green herbs). With the exception of the fresh Mole Verde, all can be purchased as pastes and reconstituted.

Queso Oaxaca (kway-S0) – Known as quesillo (kway-SILL-yo) in Oaxaca, is a cow’s milk cheese similar to the buffalo milk mozzarella that was introduced by Dominican friars that brought the Italian string cheese method of making mozzarella with them. It makes a wonderful melting cheese with a flavor more like Monterey Jack cheese than mozzarella.

Chocolate – Oaxacan chocolate is considered some of the best in the world. Cocoa has been used in the state as food, drink, medicine and cocoa beans even served as a form of currency. What makes Oaxacan chocolate so interesting is that hand-ground beans are combined with sugar, almonds, cinnamon, and other ingredients. In Oaxaca, this chocolate is used to make Champurrado, the hot chocolate served with sweet rolls for breakfast.

Corn – Like most of Mexico, corn (masa) is a staple in the Oaxacan diet. Many of the 59 varieties of corn in Mexico (US has 6) originated in Oaxaca some 7,000 years ago. They are known for their soft white masa used in blandasa, tortillas, and many other dishes.

Blandas – Oaxacan tortillas are not only made using the local soft white masa of Oaxaca, but are literally twice the size of a regular tortilla. Blandas are used for any dish needing a tortilla but are also dried to serve as the base for Oaxaca’s famous Tlayudas (Mexican pizza).

Chapulines – Insects have been an important source of protein in Oaxaca for centuries and remain a snacking favorite till this day. Ants and grubs from maguey plants are boiled then toasted-up with salt and some lime to be snacked on. It’s the flying grasshoppers that are harvested during the rainy season, however, that are a Oaxacan passion that has sustained a whole cottage industry.

Caldo de Piedra – “Stone soup” is a seafood stew and gastronomic gem. Prepared only by men, this interesting soup began as an offering of respect to woman by the freshwater fishermen of San Felipe Usila. To this day, the soup is prepared by placing a blazing hot stone from the river bed, heated for 2 hours, into a bowl of water, fish and shrimp, onion and peppers. The stone then cooks the ingredients in about 15 minutes.

Tamales – Oaxacans serve the same corn husk-wrapped tamales as the rest of Mexico. But, like their oversized tortillas, they also make their own special version that is 2-3 times larger and wrapped in banana leaves. With some stewed or shredded meat added to the filling and topped with mole negro, the unique Oaxacan tamale comes to life.

Black Beans – Oaxacan cuisine favors black beans cooked several ways: cooked with anise seed and served like soup, as a topping for street foods like enfrijoladas, refried, or with scrambled eggs in huevos con frijoles.

Mezcal – “Tequila is to wake the living…Mezcal is to wake the dead!” Unique to Oaxaca is Mezcal. Like tequila, mezcal is made with the cooked hearts of the maguey or agave plant. The flavor is very different with a more pronounced smoky flavor. Mezcal is almost always drunk straight and as mezcal aficionados often say, “Mezcal is an acquired taste, but a taste worth acquiring” and “For everything bad, mezcal. For everything good, mezcal.”

Click on RecipesFabulous Oaxacan Dishes to Make
CourseDish NameDescriptionUnique Ingredients
AntojitoTlayudas“Mexican Pizza” – oversized crispy tortillas topped with tomato, beans, string cheese, and black beansQueso Qaxaca
AntojitoEnfrijoladas Soft tortillas dipped in black bean pureeQueso Fresco
AntojitoEmpanadas de AmarilloFried tortillas filled with string cheese, shredded chicken, and yellow moleAvocado leaf
SoupCocina de ColesCabbage and chickpea soupMexican Chorizo
MainPollo en PepitasChicken in pumpkin seed saucePepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds)
MainTamales de Guajolote con mole negroSteamed Banana leaf wrappers filled with cornmeal, shredded turkey, and mole negro sauce Hojas de Platano, Mole Negro
MainPollo con Mole NegroChicken legs in rich mole negroMole Negro
MainManchamantel“Tablecloth stainer” red mole with meats, poultry, and fruitsMole Rojo
MainCecina EnchiladeaMarinated thin air-dried pork ribbonsChipotle in Adobo
BeansFrijoles CocidosOaxacan black beansDried black beans
BeansFrijoles ColadosOaxacan refried black beansEpazote
BreadPan de YemaEgg yolk rolls
BreadBlandas y ClayudasOaxacan oversized tortillasMasa harina
SalsaSalsa Borracha de OaxacaDrunken salsaTomatillos, Mezcal
SalsaGuacachileFrothy jalapeno salsa (no avocado)
SauceMole AmarilloYellow moleGuajillo chili pepper, Ancho chili pepper,
SweetChampurradoHot chocolateMexican chocolate

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