If Mexican cuisine ranks as one of the world’s great cuisines (it was the first cuisine to receive UNESCO culinary heritage status), it’s certainly aided in part by what goes on in the kitchens of Oaxaca. Oaxacan food: roasted, subtle, rich, layered. Moles, chocolate, tiny avocados that taste faintly like licorice, giant balls of quesillo cheese ribbons, grasshoppers, whopping Mexican pizzas, stunning grilled meats, corn fungus, mysterious herbs like epazote, and more types of chili peppers than you can shake a fire extinguisher at.
This is Oaxacan cuisine.
Oaxaca. Say it with me: Wa-ha-ka. We won’t lie: when we opted to spend a couple of months in Oaxaca, Mexico early last year its cuisine was certainly a major factor in our decision. We used the gourmandish pretext of “We need to discover what Oaxacan food is all about” as an excuse to explore the city and to eat ourselves silly. We took a Oaxacan cooking class to give ourselves background. We cornered our Mexican landlord each time we saw him to ask about his favorite street food stands. Some might say we were obsessed.
I say we were focused.
As friends and readers have made their way to Oaxaca over the last year or two, we’ve sent Oaxacan food information and recommendations in bits and bobs by email. Now it’s time to put it all together to share with you.
Note: Oaxaca, as we use it, will generally refer to the city of Oaxaca, the capital of the Mexican state of Oaxaca, which kindly stretches down to a beautiful coastline in southern Mexico. Oaxacan restaurant and Oaxacan cooking class recommendations are listed within.
If you’d like to skip ahead:
- Oaxaca Street Snacks, Market Meals and Proper Plates
- Oaxacan Moles
- Key Ingredients of Oaxacan Cuisine
- Drinks in Oaxaca
- Oaxaca Fruit and Dessert
Let’s dig in! ¡Buen provecho!
The oft-nicknamed “Oaxacan pizza,” a tlayuda consists of a large semi-dried tortilla, sometimes glazed with a thin layer of unrefined pork lard called asiento, and topped with refried beans (frijol), tomatoes, avocadoes, and some variation of meat (chorizo, tasajo or cencilla, or shredded chicken tinga). It can either be served open, or when it’s cooked on a charcoal grill, folded in half. One is often enough to feed two people. Tlayuda in Oaxaca recommendations: the stand just to the right of the entrance to the Carne Asadas aisle at Mercado 20 de Noviembre. Also, a hole-in-the-wall stand at Mercado de la Merced.
2. Huitlacoche Corn Fungus Tacos
Huitlacoche is a corn fungus, but I prefer the term “corn smut”. Earthy, mushroomy, huitlacoche is also very much a texture play. Make sure to get it fresh, although you can also find it in cans. Canned corn smut, mmmm. This is a seasonal item, but you might be lucky enough to make fresh corn smut tacos like we did at the Seasons of My Heart cooking school in Oaxaca.
Enfrijoladas are essentially fried tortillas served with beans and sauce. The key in Oaxaca is that the beans are stewed with the leaves of the local avocado plant (see more below in the ingredients section). As our Oaxacan landlord’s wife would say, “It’s not real frijol if it doesn’t include avocado leaves.” How about that!
4. Memelas (Memelitas)
A memela is corn round snack or antojito (“little craving”) a little thicker than a tortilla, toasted on a comal (large, flat hot pan) and topped with all manner of stuff: beans, quesillo (local stringy, brined cheese), bits of ground pork with spices or eggs, and various sauces of differing heat levels. Memelas became our favorite morning go-to snack, probably because a local family had a stand set up just down the street. Memela recommendations in Oaxaca: Street stand on Oaxaca (Huerto Los Ciruelos) in San José La Noria neighborhood.
A tetela is a thin stuffed corn tortilla folded into triangle. Check out the tetelas with refried beans (frijoles) at Itanoni on Belisario Domínguez 513, Colonia Reforma, a laid back little place that specializes in the finer and artisanal points of corn masa and all that’s made with it.
I know, I know. Tacos are broadly Mexican food not specific to Oaxaca. But damn if we didn’t get some of the best tacos on the planet during our stay in town. A good taqueria focuses on the meat, but doesn’t forget that the condiments make the difference. Our favorite taco place for excellent meat flavor, tortillas and generous high-value condiments: Los Mero Mero Sombrerudos (Universidad 112, Fraccionamiento Trinidad de las Huertas).
You’ll have your choice of taco meat (they’ll even give you a sample taste of all of them if you ask nicely), including al pastor, carnitas and castillo. Our favorite: the castillo, but you can get a plate with any combination (9 pesos/taco). They prepare the meat on the grill right up front. And if Sombrerudos doesn’t float your boat, there are other decent taquerias Oaxaqueños nearby on Universidad Street.
7. Tamales (traditional, corn husk)
Again, I know traditional tamales are very much a broadly Mexican dish, but get yourself to Oaxaca and check out the tamale recommendation from our landlord (who was also our dentist!). Tamales Mina is a simple street stand that shows up around 7:30 PM on the corner of Avenida Hidalgo and 20 de Noviembre. The grandmother behind the operation has been cranking out tamales for over 20 years (and our landlord swears the quality hasn’t changed). Fillings and sauce are tasty and generous. Today, her children sell the tamales for her at night. Grandma offers seven tamale flavors and all are good, but the mole coloradito and mole verde tamales were our favorites. Come early as a line forms quickly and they sell out quickly.
8. Tamales Oaxaqueños (or Tamales Hoja)
Banana leaf-wrapped tamales. They look like South American humitas, but they are the Oaxacan alternative leaf-wrapped tamales. Tamales Oaxaqueños feature similar fillings to the traditional tamale, like frijol (beans) or mole negro. To me, the leaf keeps the moisture in more reliably than the traditional corn husk. And anyhow, it doesn’t get any more beautiful than these.
9. Beer Snacks
The greatest budget travel tip in the world is right here, people. Go to the right bar in Oaxaca, order a beer for around $2 and eat all night for free. They’ll just keep bringing out more and more goodies, from fish soup to smoked meats to potato salads to endless bowls of nacho chips. But how, you ask? This is the beer snack antojitos culture in Oaxaca. The place you’re likely to hear about most often is La Red, but our favorite was the rooftop of Rey de Oros (Aldama No. 304 location near Mercado 20 de Noviembre). Our preferred Mexican beer for a night of snacking: Victoria.
10. Carnes Asada (cecina, tasajo or chorizo)
Meat-lovers rejoice. Be certain to check out the pasillo de carnes asadas (grilled meats hall) in Oaxaca’s 20 de Noviembre market. It’s a grilled meat saloon. Although busy every day of the week, it’s packed with local families on weekends (especially Sundays).
Pick your meat: tasajo (thinly pounded beef, often air-dried to some extent), cecina (similarly thinly sliced pork), cecina enchilada (dusted with chili powder), and chorizo (Mexican sausage). Vegetarians don’t despair: the roasted vegetables are fabulous, as are the various vegetarian sauces and sides. The stand from which you choose your meat will grill everything for you.
If you are in the Oaxaca area over the weekend check out the Tlacolula Sunday market about 30 minutes outside of Oaxaca and watch the meat get fired up.
11. Goat’s Head Soup
A specialty of the Tlacolula Sunday Market, worth a visit for taste, life and color. Try the goat barbecue (barbacoa) and the goat soup consomme from the drippings. The entire scene is a fiesta.
12. Chile Relleno
Stuffed, roasted fresh poblano peppers. Not native to Oaxaca per se, good rellenos are to be had throughout the various markets in town. What’s even nicer still: some are not dipped and fried in egg batter, but are served naked so you can see the pepper skin and experience the pepper flavor right out front, without the blanket of fried batter.
Mexican turnip or root, sometimes referred to as the Mexican yam. We’d find them served fresh, room temperature or chilled, and crispy as antojitos or snacks, dusted with salt or sugar and chili dust to go alongside a margarita or beer. Our favorite, a somewhat upscale variety we found at La Biznaga García Vigil No. 512.
Not the South American dough pocket empanadas you may be accustomed to, Oaxacan empanadas look a lot like a big memela (but with larger, thinner dough) and are stuffed and warm-roasted on a comal (a large, metal pan used throughout Mexico for cooking tortillas, memelitas, and tlayudas, as well as roasting peppers and other vegetables). Our favorite empanada vendor hails at the local market in San José La Noria neighborhood on Jorge L. Tamayo Castellanos Avenida next to the fire station, but you’ll also find a great selection of empanadas cooked up to order at the Tlacolula Sunday market and Mercado 20 de Noviembre.
Tortillas stuffed with quesillo, covered with a tomato-based sauce and topped with fresh cheese. Simple, hearty, good. A common lunch menu item at stalls throughout the 20 de Noviembre market.
Enchiladas, which you’ll find all over Mexico, are simply tortillas pan-fried with a chile sauce and served with some onion and cheese. Sometimes you’ll find them stuffed with meat or cheese, other times spicy tortillas alone. In Oaxaca, you’ll usually find enchiladas covered in a traditional Oaxacan mole sauce (see below for more on moles).
Chilaquiles is a dish composed of lightly fried tortilla strips or quarters topped with a wide-ranging regional and local variety of stuff not limited to salsas (green salsa verde seemed most common), meat (e.g., shredded chicken), refried beans, cheese like queso fresco or cotija, Mexican cream, and onions. Maybe even an egg. Typically an early day breakfast, lunch, brunch or somewhere in between offering.
18. Hibiscus Horn Cones
Tortilla horns stuffed with seasoned hibiscus (or jamaica, the same reddish-purple stuff of jamaica agua fresca drink fame). Available at La Biznaga (García Vigil No. 512). A change-up from the traditional.
Oaxaca is also known as the land of the seven moles.
“We always say that our mothers make the best mole. But on the Day of the Dead, everyone shares their mole with everyone else so we all know who really makes the best mole in the village,” Yolanda, our cooking class instructor, explained how proper mole preparation is a highly respected skill.
She continued: “You have to burn the peppers and then soak them to remove the bitter. If you don’t take the bitter out of the chili peppers, people will talk badly of you.”
Talk about social pressure in the kitchen.
But what is a mole anyway? It’s a style of sauce made from roasted ingredients that are then ground together and slow simmered to allow the varied flavors to blend and play off one another in a way that no single ingredient might be detected. The result: rich, complex, diverse, complementary flavors.
Oaxaca culinary fame is derived in great part from its seven varieties of moles. You’ll find moles served on top of chicken, meat or enchiladas, as well as tucked inside empanadas and tamales. But not every mole is one that you’d eat every day. Like a party dress, some are reserved only for very special occasions.
19. Mole Negro (black sauce)
This is the most famous of all Oaxacan moles, perhaps because of its complexity and heavy reliance on chocolate. “This is not a mole where you wake up in the morning and say on a whim, ‘I’m going to make mole negro today.’ It takes a lot of time to make and get it right,” Yolanda reminded us. Mole negro ingredients include a selection of dried chiles (chilhuacles negros, guajillo chiles, pasilla chiles, ancho negro (mulatto) chiles, chipotle chiles) with seeds taken out and then soaked in water and blended with chocolate, bread, etc.
20. Mole Colorado (red sauce)
One of the members of Oaxaca’s seven great moles. Mole Colorado (or Mole Rojo) sauce is made with a variety of peppers (pasilla, ancho and others), almonds, chocolate and a host of sweet and savory spices.
21. Mole Coloradito (little red sauce)
Based on market menus in Oaxaca, mole coloradito is among the most popular. Similar to mole colorado, it features a few more green leaf spices along with chiles guajillo, pasilla and ancho, lending it a color slightly less deep than that of the mole colorado.
22. Mole verde (green sauce)
A mole made to show off local herbs and greens, mole verde can feature any number of the following items: epazote, hoja santa, pumpkin seeds, cilantro, poblano peppers, jalapeño peppers, parsley, spinach and nopales (cactus leaves).
23. Mole amarillo (yellow sauce)
Given that this sauce is more often red than yellow, the name always threw us off. Mole amarillo is a less complex mole made from guajillo an ancho chilies that almost looks like a sort of Mexican marinara. What makes it different from the red moles is that absence of nuts, chocolate and sweet bits like raisins.
Moles we haven’t tried…yet
The remaining two moles are more difficult to find in the markets and in the every day. We confess that we did not try them, but wanted to highlight them among the “7 Moles of Oaxaca” and as something to seek out for the food curious among you.
1. Mole Chichilo
2. Mole Manchamantel (literally, tablecloth staining sauce)
24. Avocado leaves (hojas de aguacate)
Not any old avocado leaves, but avocado leaves from the Mexican avocado (Persea drymifolia) that impart a flavor of anise or licorice. This is an important flavor in the Oaxacan frijol (beans). Best toasted on a comal, a concave or flat Mexican griddle. Absolutely unique and delicious, and essential to local Oaxacan cuisine.
25. Avocado Criollo
An avocado where you can eat the skin! Criollo avocados are a local Oaxacan variety that are usually quite small and feature a soft skin that you can actually eat (a bit of an odd sensation, really). Much like its leaves which are used to flavor bean pots and other dishes, the avocado features a subtle anise flavor.
Don’t eat epazote by itself, but be aware that it’s one of fine subtle herbs that makes Mexican food (and Oaxacan food) taste so good. From the Aztec words for skunk and sweat, epazote is that inimitable flavor of pepper, mint and something wild that you’ll typically find stewed into various dishes. Rumor also has it that epazote decreases flatulence. But what would I care? Perhaps that’s why it’s stewed into beans and onions to make frijoles de la olla. Epazote is also referred to as wormseed and Jesuit’s tea, among others.
27. Chapulines (Grasshoppers)
Chapulines: you must try them. Think crunchy like popcorn shells and eaten voluminously like potato chips. Chapulines are ideal on top of a tlayuda. Maybe that’s why when you buy a tlayuda at the Mercado 20 Noviembre, the chapulines vendors will gather ’round.
28. Quesillo (Oaxacan cheese)
We joke that quesillo is like string cheese or mozzarella, but with a bit more of a salt tang because it is brined. At the market, quesillo is often stored in long white ribbons that are wound, unwound and cut like a ball of yarn or trim at a fabric shop. About two meters of quesillo equals one kilo. It’s best to eat or use quesillo fresh, since storing it for any length of time in the refrigerator will alter its consistency.
Wow, Oaxacan peppers! Ancho, poblano, pasilla, chilaca, chile negro — you name it. Some of them go by multiple names. The one best known to Oaxaca is the pasilla chile. But beware, if you come shopping for a particular pepper that you need for a recipe, you ought to come armed with a photo of the one(s) you need, as names are often applied interchangeably. Some are easy-going, some are en fuego. Where to begin? Take a walk through any market (Mercado de 20 Noviembre pepper section will overwhelm) and you will be blown away, almost to tears, by the vast selection of fresh and dried peppers on offer. Each one has its purpose, whether it’s a dried pepper for a specific style of mole a fresh one for stuffed pepper (chile relleno). Habanero peppers are not used as often in Oaxaca as they are in nearby Yucatan and Chiapas.
Chocolate has been a staple of this region since ancient times. It is not usually eaten, but instead is used in drinks and also as a crucial defining ingredient of the cuisine, including in several of Oaxaca’s famous moles. The aroma of freshly ground chocolate literally takes over the streets around the 20 de Noviembre market; this is a hub for the region’s chocolate producers. Be sure to visit Chocolate Mayordomo where chocolates of varying intensity and sweetness are ground from fresh cocoa beans (cacao).
Pork skin. You can certainly try it on its own as a snack, but you might also get it thrown in atop a tlayuda or other dish for crunch and flavor.
32. Hoja Santa
Hoja Santa (“sacred leaf”) is a popular Mexican herb used to flavor various chocolate drinks, soups, stews and Oaxacan mole verde. The fresh leaves, used to impart a faint pepper licorice flavor, are sometimes also used to wrap tamales (see tamales hojas). The dried leaves can be used as a seasoning, but they are more flavorful when fresh.
33. Squash Blossoms (Flor de Calabazas)
If you are hanging out in Oaxaca for a while and have access to a kitchen, try finding squash blossoms at one of the local Oaxaca markets. Take them home and make deep fried squash blossoms, cheese-filled squash blossoms, or even squash blossom soup. Or take the easy way out and find a market vendor who fries squash blossoms with onions and poblanos and tucks them with some quesillo into an empanada or quesadilla.
An indigenous drink (from the Mixtec and Zapotec people) made of corn, cacao, and other unusual bits like the seeds of the mamey (or zapote) and flor de cacao (or Rosita de cacao). As such, the drink is mildly chocolatey and earthy. It feels like it ought to do something transcendental to you. We tried our hand at a couple versions, including at one of the stands in the main hall of Oaxaca’s Etla market.
35. Hot Chocolate
Yes, you have to try real hot chocolate. Even though you may be accustomed to taking it with milk (de leche), try it local style with water (de agua). Wherever you buy it, be certain to ask for it nice and frothy, preferably using a hand-spun frother called a molinillo. A good place to try several types of chocolate is Chocolate Mayordomo.
Though coffee culture suffers south of the Mexican border (it is getting better), it’s alive and well in Oaxaca. So alive and well, I might go so far as to say I’ve had some of the most consistently good coffee ever in my life in Oaxaca. Just check it out and let us know. Best coffee in Oaxaca? We say Cafe Nuevo Mundo.
If you drink beer, you must drink beer in Oaxaca, so you can be a world beer aficionado. Corona? I’m sorry, but I try to avoid touching the stuff. Pacifico and Negra Modelo are OK, but our favorite refreshing go-to beer: Victoria. If you want something different, try Cucapá, a Mexicali microbrew.
Growing up, I always thought of mezcal as dirty, like an outlaw tequila. It was probably the agave worm, which by the way does not appear in all bottles of mezcal. So what is it? I go to Oaxaca and I find the real story (or at least the story told by Oaxaquenos): A smoky, double-distilled roasted mash made from the heart of the maguey plant (of the agave family) called a piña (as in pineapple, which is not surprising as the maguey hearts look like enormous barrel-sized pineapples hearts). Tequila, by the way, is a specific type of mezcal made from the blue agave.
By no means am I a margarita expert, but I certainly enjoyed a margarita (or two) on the rocks in Oaxaca. Blended margaritas are for the beach. I liked the margaritas at La Biznaga.
40. Tuna Ice Cream
No, it’s not what you think. Tuna is the name of the colorful fruit tip of the prickly pear cactus. In and around Oaxaca, you can find ice cream, ice milk and bright slushy-type stuff made from tuna the fruit, not the fish from the sea!
41. Oaxaca Fruit and Juice
I know, I know. You are thinking super lame entry, right? But here’s the deal, the fruit in Oaxaca is excellent and is often quite inexpensive if you know where to look. And if you are lazy, it’s often sliced up for you, ready to eat. Fruit is also a great way to balance out all those heavy foods and to rehydrate. Eat your fruit!
You’ll find the traditional stuff like watermelon, pineapple and a little further afield like papaya or mango on the street or near markets. Check out the fruit stands at the southeast corner of 20 Noviembre market. To go further still, don’t forget to poke around, be curious and check out the following fruit in whole form or in juice: guanabana, zapote, chico, zapote, chamoy and maracuya (passion fruit).
I’m a fruit-by-itself kind of guy, but the Oaxacan locals love fruit cut in a bag and dashed with chili pepper, lime juice and salt. Surprising to some, it’s particularly refreshing on a hot day.
If you find yourself in Oaxaca, you gotta juice. Juice stands abound throughout Oaxaca’s streets and in its markets. One of our favorite juice stands: Jugos Angelita stand at the Sanchez Pascuas market. Try one or two of the cleansing blends, especially after a night of — you guessed it — margaritas.
So that’s it, folks. Get yourself to Oaxaca and explore, eat heartily, and eat well! Anything we missed or messed, leave us a comment!