What Is Oaxacan Cuisine? – Eater

What Is Oaxacan Cuisine? – Eater

What is it about Oaxaca? How is it that in this sprawling southwestern Mexican state, something as simple as a memela — a thick, oval tortilla made from ground masa and crisped up on a comal — can taste so otherworldly? The same holds true for a basic bowl of black beans. Or a blistered empanada — which in Oaxaca is a broad, quesadilla-like turnover made of masa and filled with squeaky quesillo. Or a cup of thick drinking chocolate mixed with just water and whisked till foamy, and so on. Somewhere in the post-meal euphoria fueled by teosinte, Theobroma, and capsaicin lies the secret to understanding Oaxaca’s food culture and what sets it apart from the rest of Mexico and other cuisines around the world. Here, then, is a very basic outline of the cuisine of Oaxaca, a cooking tradition admittedly too enormous, ancient, vibrant, and varied to be contained in even a book, let alone in an article. But we’ve compiled a few of the essentials to fully appreciate Sazón Oaxaqueño.

Round memelas cook on top of a clay comal with white cheese on top.

Memelas with bean spread and quesillo cooked on a comal.

The Background

From Indigenous influence to la cocina de autor, here’s some crucial context.

Oaxaca is a state of roughly 4 million people. And while its central city of colorful colonial-style buildings and mountainous terrain is the most well-known, more than half of the population lives in one of the state’s 10,523 rural villages along its green valleys, arid deserts, foggy mountains, and tropical coasts. The wild herbs and naturally organic fruits and vegetables found in the state’s many microclimates are everyday staples of the country’s thriving Indigenous populations that continue to shape the state’s diverse cuisine and culture today.

In fact, 16 of Mexico’s total 68 recognized Indigenous groups are based in Oaxaca. Some groups, like Los Mixes, who are proudly known in Oaxaca as Los Jamas Conquistados, were never conquered by Spain, and their foodways remain untouched by the European ingredients that weave through so much of Mexican cooking.

Oaxaca’s prevalent Indigenous identity and the off-the-grid lifestyle of many rural villages — unique places where wood fire and earthenware cooking vessels are still the norms — have made the region largely resistant to the rapid globalization happening in the rest of Mexico. While the lack of infrastructure is partly the result of government neglect and a culture of discrimination, which have forced many of these communities to become self-governing, it all manifests in a kind of cultural resilience that gives primacy to the food sovereignty of Indigenous communities and makes handmade, heirloom ingredients the glorious default.

That classic memela’s superpower comes from its masa, which likely comes from one of Oaxaca’s many varieties of nonhybridized, nixtamalized maize that is heirloom by default — not by marketing. It comes from the thin, nutty layer of asiento, Oaxaca’s caramelized paste made from chicharrón drippings, which is made by a person whose family has been making it for generations. The milky queso fresco sprinkled on top, too, is the work of one of Oaxaca’s many local cheesemakers who completes the task entirely by hand. And the miltomates (heirloom tomatillos) or tomatoes de riñon in the thick salsa come from seeds that have been saved and passed down for centuries. It’s Oaxaqueños’ superior dedication to quality and ingredients that add up, and you can taste it.

Food is inseparable from life in Oaxaca, and every milestone comes with its corequisite dishes. When you get married, you eat higaditos (an egg-drop chicken soup in tomatillo broth), and when someone passes away, you eat a pasilla-spiced beef stew and then pan dulce with drinking chocolate. Oaxacans’ dutiful preservation of these traditions has led to iconic recipes that have survived the test of time.

While this staunch commitment to tradition remains, in the state’s dense urban zones like Oaxaca’s self-named capital city, cocina de autor (modern-style fine dining) restaurants are repeatedly landing on “best of” lists throughout the Americas. Today, Oaxaca has become a bona fide global travel destination, and as such, the demand for luxurious restaurants with engaging menus grows every year. But for Oaxacans, home cooking is as revered as haute cuisine, as are the Coccineras Tradicionales, women cooks, who are so often at the helm of the family kitchen as well as the state’s informal economy of food stands and street stalls. These mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and daughters are the vital keepers of Oaxaca’s flavors.

A basket of fresh green chiles.

Fresh chiles as well as dried are a foundation of Oaxacan cooking.

A woman pulls strings of quesillo to top memelas.

Quesillo is an unpasturized cheese that has a stringy, squeaky texture.

The Elements

Despite vast culinary variances among regions, these six fundamental flavors are the consistent building blocks of Oaxacan cuisine

Fresh chiles, like chile de agua, are much more than a spicy garnish in Oaxaca. They’re roasted, doused with lime, and served with raw onion as a side dish in many Oaxacan establishments. Recently harvested chiles are most often sold in massive piles at open-air markets, while dried chiles, also found in open-air markets, are more like fruit leather or plump dried fruit than the tough, brittle chiles you find in the U.S. Two of the chiles unique to Oaxaca, and particularly special to Oaxaqueños in the Valles Centrales, are pasilla Oaxaqueña, which is preserved through smoke instead of dried, and chilhuacle, a popular regional chile that packs deep ​cacao and tobacco-like flavors. A simple tomato salsa made with either of these chiles has nearly the same complexity of a great mole (see below).

One of the world’s first domesticated corn varieties was found in what is now Oaxaca dating back to 4200 BCE. To say that corn is the source of life in Oaxaca is an understatement. Oaxaqueños live, eat, drink, and breathe corn, which is found in dishes from stews to desserts. Farmers save seeds that have been passed down for centuries and preserve the depth of flavors found in heirloom varieties. This deeply ingrained knowledge of corn keeps evolving to this day. Maize is so integral to the way of life in Oaxaca that every single community — rural or city — will have community grinders, where locals pay a small fee to grind fresh nixtamal for their household. People usually grind it fine to make chewy picture-perfect tortillas or rough to make atole or tamales.

There are roughly 25 bean varieties growing in Oaxaca — 21 of which are wild. Beans are the foundation of many of Oaxaca’s comfort foods, like enfrijoladas, which are similar to enchiladas but with a sauce made from pureed black beans instead of dried chiles, or crisp tlayudas (see below), where beans add a satisfying layer of flavor and creamy texture. Garbanzos are cooked and candied in panela (unprocessed brown sugar) to become the topping for Oaxaca’s regional variation of arróz con leche (rice pudding). Oaxaca’s original convenience food is a filling, almost-instant soup made from toasted ground black beans and hot water known simply as sopa de frijol. As with chiles, most dried beans that you will find in Oaxaca’s open-air markets are fresh, from the most recent harvest, which makes them quicker to cook and rich in flavor.

The pride and joy of Oaxaca is undoubtedly its quesillo. Not to be confused with its pasteurized American counterpart known as Queso Oaxaca, which is more like Monterey Jack, quesillo is an unpasteurized and briny firm cheese somewhere between fresh mozzarella and string cheese. The Spanish introduced cows and dairy to the Mexican diet, and today quesillo is the star ingredient in Oaxacan empanadas, where it melts just enough but retains its delightfully squeaky texture. It is usually pulled apart by hand into fine voluminous strands, and a little goes a long way. Aside from quesillo, you’ll also find queso fresco used in abundance, crumbled as a salty finishing cheese, as well as a slate of other soft, fresh, and creamy varieties.

A hand reaches into a pile of mixed green herbs.

Fresh herbs like epazote, papalo, and more lend their heady perfume to many Oaxacan dishes.

Wild Herbs
Oaxacan cooks don’t shy away from big flavors, and they are generous with the use of pungent wild herbs and strong spices. The peppery, root beer-esque perfume of hoja santa emanates throughout the state, and you can find it sprouting from front yards and on restaurant rooftops. Its root beer-like flavor and smell are the main aromatic element in many chicken stews, soups, moles, tamales, fish dishes, cheeses, cocktails, and more. Other herbs, such as the eucalyptus-like poleo, are the secret ingredient in an earthy pot filled with black bean paste. Avocado leaves, both fresh and dried, are used instead of bay leaves to add their anise flavor to long-cooked chicken and lamb barbacoa. Spices like cumin seeds are used so often in everyday cooking that it’s common to find them at the marketplace still green, having been harvested that same week.

The relationship that Oaxaca has with fire, and smoke in particular, is a special one, bordering on obsession. Sometimes fire is the cooking method; other times, a flavoring. But generally speaking, if a dish hasn’t been toasted, roasted, smoked, and charred, is it even Oaxacan? For instance, Oaxaca’s most popular ice cream is leche quemada, made from whole milk that’s allowed to burn on the bottom of the pot on purpose, providing a pleasing bitter smokiness. There is a variety of hard quesillo that’s smoked with local wood until it is completely brown on the outside and intensely smoky in flavor. Mezcal relies on deep wood smoke for its notorious flavor, as does barbacoa, and dried chiles, like pasilla Oaxaqueño, are also smoked to develop a long-lasting finish. There is a mole — chichilo — made from the ashes of tortillas.

A mountain hut sits in the sunlight.

Regional variances in altitude and climate contribute to the diversity of the cuisine found within Oaxaca.

A server carries trays of shrimp cocktail on a beach.

Mariscos in the Costa town of Puerto Angelito.

The Regions

Each of Oaxaca’s eight regions has a cuisine all its own — and each is worthy of its own tome. Here are just a few highlights of how flavors and textures migrate across the state.

El Valle
The cuisine in Oaxaca’s Valles is the most celebrated in Oaxaca; you can find almost every regional Oaxacan ingredient in this region. Oaxaca City is located in this region, so it is the Oaxacan food style that most visitors are familiar with. This region excels in all the classics: mole, tlayudas, enfrijoladas, nieve, bread, chocolate. It acts as the “center” of Oaxaca, since the state’s capital is located there. The constant flow of visitors keeps the food and drink scene exciting, with new restaurants and cafes opening regularly.

El Istmo
Due to El Istmo’s proximity to not one but two coastlines, the cuisine of this intensely humid part of Oaxaca incorporates an abundant amount of dried fish, salted fish, and smoked seafood. The isthmus region is also famous for the robust use of butter, eggs, and cheese since a lot of livestock is raised in the area. Sample the huge variety of isthmus breads, most of which come fortified with cheese and butter, and the custardy potato casserole of sorts known as Papa Ismeña, with a whole egg baked right in.

La Costa
Like the rest of coastal Mexico, Oaxaca’s Pacific shores are spoiled with incredible seafood. An unparalleled array of fresh fish is whipped up into all sorts of ceviches, cócteles, and aguachiles, or simply fried or grilled whole. The Indigenous and Afromexicano influences along the coast result in unique offerings such as tamales de tichinda, or mussel tamales — a full handful of mussels, still in their shells, folded into red chile masa and steamed in a corn husk.

Tuxtepec and Papaloapan
This region flanks the Veracruz border, and as such its cuisine is highly influenced by comida Veracruzana and Cuban food, heavy with Caribbean-forward flavors like lime and garlic and tubers like yucca. You’ll often find that dishes here — like the famous wood-fired lechon with crispy skin — are served with fried plantains in addition to tortillas.

Sierra Norte
The Spanish never conquered the area of Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte, where the population is still largely Indigenous, mainly of Mixe and Zapoteco descent. Here you’ll find pre-Hispanic tortillas made from potatoes, and fluffy tamales made of fresh corn, not nixtamal, as well as local beans. The Sierra Norte’s pulque — the fermented sap of the century plant that is Mexico’s original form of alcohol — is more acidic than elsewhere because of the colder weather’s effect on fermentation, as well as general terroir. Or try what’s considered to be the drink of the gods, tepache rojo, which features pulque, corn, cacao, and crushed red annatto seed all fermented together.

Sierra Sur
Oaxaca’s Sierra Sur is a sweeping, cinematic landscape dotted with pine trees, thick fog, and homes perched on the sides of mountains. Foodwise, this translates into the foraging of many wild mushrooms of all colors, textures, and flavors. It’s cooler here, and warmth comes by way of locally grown coffee and fiery mezcal infused with medicinal herbs. The Sierra Sur municipality of Miahuatlán de Porfirio Díaz is known for its spicy tabiche chiles, one of the 25 chile varieties that are endemic to Oaxaca; they’re primarily used locally in a yellow mole with beef, though they’re also a favorite of fine-dining chefs in Oaxaca City.

La Mixteca
Oaxaca’s Mixteca region is desert-like and perpetually arid. The most famous dish from here is undoubtedly Mole de Caderas, a stew-like version of mole traditionally made with goat and eaten out of a clay pot. Goat meat is widely consumed, as are semillas de guaje, potent-tasting seeds from a local guaje tree that are endemic to this area.

La Cañada
This northern region is most well-known for its contribution to the world of Oaxacan sweets and desserts, including the famed nicuatole, a gelatin-like dessert made from milk and corn. Candied papaya, fig, and a regional spin on Oaxaca’s famous caramelized chewy milk candy, jamoncillo, but made with pepitas, are also big here. On the savory side, La Cañada’s regional food style is heavy with Indigenous-influenced dishes that are dependent on game meats like rabbit and wild turkey, and the velvety moles here are more like stews, such as chileatole and tesmole, both thickened with nixtamal.

A large round of masa has red sauce and herbs, cooking on a comal.

The makings of a Oaxacan empanada, which is folded over similar to a quesadilla.

The Dishes and Drinks to Try

Just as you could never sample all the incredible dishes in Oaxaca in a single vacation, the cuisine of the Valles Centrales region alone would take you more than a handful of trips to fully explore. Here, though, is a solid list of the fundamentals to get you started. Note: Oaxaca’s culinary culture is a living thing, and these dishes are constantly evolving. As you eat and drink your way through the state, keep an open mind — these staples vary widely across regions.

Mole is still Oaxaca’s most well-known and omnipresent dish. It is the thing you want to eat as soon as you get off the plane, and its myriad flavors are what you’re likely to miss most when you leave. A saucy mixture with endless permutations, mole is generally some combination of chiles, seeds, nuts, vegetables, and other ingredients all ground together and served with meat or vegetables or tucked into a tamal. There’s a different mole for every occasion in Oaxaca, from an estofado made from pickled jalapeños that comes together in minutes to a chowder-like segueza made with chunky ground corn.

A tlayuda is an oversize dried tortilla layered with asiento (chicharrón paste), beans, quesillo, minced cabbage, and either chorizo, tasajo (thinly sliced grilled beef), or cecina (thinly sliced, chile-rubbed grilled pork). The topped tortilla is charred until crispy over an open fire and eaten open-faced or folded over with lots of salsa — even better from a street cart after hours.

Memelas are considered the breakfast of champions in Oaxaca, but like so many other Oaxacan staples, they can be enjoyed anytime of day. Like tlayudas, memelas also come topped with asiento (bean paste) and some queso fresco. For breakfast, try a memela topped with eggs and as much fresh salsa as you can handle.

Barbacoa de chivo or borrego
Barbacoa in Oaxaca is a brothy affair with lots of spices and dried chiles coating meat — usually goat or lamb — that’s been slowly roasted, typically in an earthen pit, until it is fall-apart tender. It is traditionally eaten for breakfast and served with a large pile of soft tortillas to soak up all of the juices. Don’t hold back on the raw onion and the lime for garnish.

a pile of crispy fried crickets.

Insects such as chapulines are an important part of the traditional Oaxacan diet.

a wide brown bowl of frothy chocolate.

Chocolate is mixed with hot water and whisked until foamy for a traditional morning or evening drink.

Imagine a utopia where cacao is treated with the same respect as coffee and is available virtually everywhere. This is Oaxaca, where hot chocolate is a daily staple, made in the traditional Indigenous manner: with water, not milk, and whisked with a wooden molinillo until a frothy foam forms. Many Oaxaqueños consume it for breakfast or as a post-dinner drink during sobremesa — the precious time for post-meal socializing. You can also ask for it served cold over ice in some coffee shops for a break from the summer heat.

Pan de yema
Pan de yema is a dense yeasted roll enriched with egg yolks and topped with sesame seeds. It is similar to Oaxaca’s seasonal pan de muerto but without the spices or orange zest. It is meant to be eaten with — and aggressively dunked into — chocolate or coffee until it’s saturated, soggy, and utterly delicious.

Chapulines, or grasshoppers, are a significant protein source in Oaxaca. They are sold in open-air markets, either plain or dried, to be prepared at home. You can also find them as a snack, fried until crispy and seasoned with dried or fresh chiles and garlic. They taste great in a taco or by the handful, especially with a squeeze of fresh lime. For an entry-level sampling, try blending some into a salsa for a boost of umami flavor.

Not to be confused with the empanadas of South America made primarily from wheat flour, Oaxacan empanadas are large half-moon-shaped quesadillas made from fresh masa and quesillo. Try the popular empanadas de flor de calabaza (fresh squash blossom), one of Oaxaca’s most beloved seasonal staples.

Aguas frescas
The variety of aguas frescas available in Oaxaca matches the bounty of fruit found growing throughout its diverse geographic regions. The sweet, infused drinks range from horchata dyed pink with cactus fruit syrup to agua de chilacayota, made from a fibrous squash that is left intact. There are even aguas frescas made with blended lime leaves and blended coconut meat.

Trace any Oaxaqueño’s lineage enough and you will find someone in their family who either makes mezcal or grows agave. Once viewed as a poor substitute for tequila, mezcal has in recent years become one of the biggest economies in Oaxaca. This economic interest, however, has also brought a wave of outsiders who’ve exploited the agave, the land, the history, and the mezcaleros. When drinking, ask questions: Who owns the brand? Are there any Oaxaqueños who have equity in it? Are they giving back to their employees and paying fair wages? It’s only by asking these questions that Oaxaca will grow its mezcal industry.

Tejate, which has its origins in this part of Mexico, is one of Oaxaca’s most revered beverages. The toasty, milky (but dairy-free) beverage is made from toasted corn, cacao, sugar, rosita de cacao blossoms (a wildflower with notes of caramel), and the pit of a tropical mamey fruit. It is painstakingly whipped by hand, and the naturally occurring plant-based fat from the mamey seed creates a silky froth that is prized for its buttery texture. Tejate’s origins predate the Spanish conquest and used to be reserved for special ceremonies, like when the first crop of corn was planted for the season. Now it’s a refreshing everyday drink for many Oaxaqueños, most often served chilled inside a halved, dried gourd (jicára).

Before beer was introduced from Europe, the sweet fermented sap of the century plant (agave) was Mexico’s first form of alcohol. The texture ranges in viscosity and cloudiness depending on the fermentation time — but typically, the longer the pulque sits, the thicker it becomes. To create pulque, the towering flowering tree in the center of a mature century plant is chopped off, after which the nutrient-dense sap collects at a rate of one to two liters every three to four days. When the sap is fresh, it is called aguamiel, and it’s believed to have medicinal properties.

two hands hold a cup of creamy pulque.

Pulque is served throughout Mexico and made from fermented, not distilled, agave.

Bricia Lopez is the co-owner of the James Beard Award-winning restaurant Guelaguetza and author of Oaxaca: Home Cooking From the Heart of Mexico. Javier Cabral is the James Beard-Award winning editor at L.A. TACO and the Co-Author of Oaxaca: Home Cooking From the Heart of Mexico. Juan de Dios Garza Vela is a photographer specializing in food and travel. When he isn’t doing photo work he also does illustration work and murals. Based at the moment in Guadalajara, he can’t imagine life without tacos.