Oaxaca - A Must-Visit for Mexican Food Fans
The state of Oaxaca boasts some of Mexico's most exciting and varied cuisine. Its many climates, from tropical coastline to forested mountains, produce an incredible array of fresh ingredients (some pretty unusual!), and the ancient culinary traditions of the 17 distinct indigenous groups who make up the majority of the population are still flourishing alongside new world ideas and modern gastronomic trends, especially in the capital Oaxaca City where I spent a few days exploring (eating!).
Mole (literally 'sauce') is Oaxaca's most famous dish, and justifies it's own blog, but there's much more to Oaxacan food. Here's a round-up of my favourites.
Also known as 'Mexican pizza', tlayudas belong to that crucial concept of Mexican cooking/eating - antojitos, which translates as 'a sudden craving for something' - a feeling you get all the time strolling around Oaxaca as the air is filled with the most amazing smells from street stalls, cafes, restaurants and mercados (markets) everywhere, producing plate after plate of delicious snacks and full-blown meals.
Tlayudas are huge crispy tortillas about 40cm across which are smothered in refried beans then topped with your choice of cheese (both queso de Oaxaca, also known as quesillo, stringy cheese which is a bit like mozzarella, and queso fresco, or 'fresh cheese' which is similar to feta), lettuce, salsa, cecina (pronounced say-see-na, a popular spiced, cured pork that's really thinly sliced), beef, chicken, pork scratchings (chicharron) and avocado. At the table you can choose to add salsa (red and green) and a pourable guacamole.
The tortilla is made with a type of corn unique to Oaxaca, and is baked either on a huge clay skillet, grill or hot coals - the best tlayudas I tried were toasted over hot coals for a delicious smoky flavour and were folded in half to make sure the cheese was melted and gooey, but they're often just served flat like a giant crispy pizza.
Not one for the squeamish, chapulines are little grasshoppers, grilled with onion or chill and lime until crunchy. They're delicious as an appetiser with a cerveza (beer) or mezcal and have a moreish savoury taste - you can find them for sale in Oaxaca's bars and restaurants, and also on street stalls where there's much more variety (size and flavour) for the grasshopper connoisseur! You'll hear the hawker cries of 'chapulines' before you see the mounds of red insects.
We saw families with children collection grasshoppers out in the countryside, plucking them one-by-one from long grass and stashing them in carrier bags - the Oaxacan equivalent of a family blackberry-picking outing!
Flor de Calabaza
Squash blossoms are used extensively in Oaxacan cooking - they can be stuffed or used as a stuffing, or made into soups and tarts. Paired with melted cheese they make a wonderful vegetarian filling for tlayudas or tostadas.
This famous Oaxacan dish consists of roasted poblano chillies stuffed with cheese or other fillings (including flor de calabaza or chapulines!). The stuffed chillies are then coated in a fluffy egg batter and fried until golden on the outside and the cheese is melted. Delicious served with black beans.
Popular across Mexico, pozole is a broth-like soup packed with flavour and textures. The Oaxacan version contains shredded pork, garlic, kernels of hominy (a bit like a big, starchier version of sweetcorn) and is topped with fresh coriander, shredded lettuce or cabbage, onion and radish. It makes a welcome, nourishing change when you're feeling cheesed off and taco-ed out! You'll find white or red pozole, both equally delicious!
Pan de Yema
These light and fluffy bread rolls are a popular breakfast in Oaxaca (or at least breakfast first course - breakfast is a pretty important meal in Mexico!). Made with a dough that's enriched with eggs, gently spiced with aniseed and sprinkled with sesame seeds, they go beautifully with a bowl of hot chocolate.
This Oaxacan dish gets its flavour from tomatoes and ancho colorado chillies, allspice and cinnamon. Thickened with almonds and served with chicken and olives (and quite often yellow rice on the side), it's rich and tangy and very moreish!
The depth and range of food in Oaxaca is pretty extraordinary, with the dishes described above giving just a taster of that variety - in fact, there's so much to try, I'm very tempted to go back and do some more research!