Oaxaca, a state in southern Mexico, is a food lover’s paradise. I recently spent two weeks exploring the capital city, towns surrounding the area, and Huatulco along the Pacific coast. It was truly an unforgettable vacation and, as most people will tell you once they’ve visited, I can’t wait to return.
Eating is always a priority for me, particularly while traveling, so I took a few precautions to stay healthy. If you’ve ever traveled to Mexico or Central America, you’ve heard warnings about the water like it’s some radioactive substance. I drank bottled water while I was there, but I brushed my teeth with the tap water and our dishes were washed with the water – everything was fine. Some Mexicans also have water delivered to their houses like the jugs we use for water coolers in the states, so that’s fine to drink as well if it’s available. While you’re out, choose drinks that aren’t made with water or ice. As for the food: absolutely be adventurous and don’t lock yourself in formal restaurants. Avoid pre-cut produce or pre-cooked meat that’s sitting out, but if you see a well-kept taco stand or food cart that looks somewhat busy, go for it. You’ll be glad you did. It’s also a good idea to eat yogurt or take an acidophilus pill (the live cultures found in yogurt) every day to maintain the good bacteria in your stomach.
All of the food I ate in Oaxaca was made with fresh ingredients and was minimally processed. By mid-trip I felt so healthy and energized! Most of the food you’ll find in the city is from family-owned store fronts, casual cafe-style options in the mercados (markets), or food carts along the street.
Each morning we ate fruit, drank freshly-made papaya and orange juice, and ate pan dulce (sweet bread) dipped in cafe (coffee), te (tea), or chocolate (hot chocolate). In the picture you can see how the chocolate is processed for the brand Mayordomo. It’s also common to eat memelitas, which are small tortillas topped with beans, cheese, chorizo (sausage with a distinct red color), tasajo (thinly-sliced steak), salsa, and chapulines (mini grasshoppers). My favorite cheese is the quesillo, or queso Oaxaca, which is a string cheese similar to mozzarella in its texture, and is often made into a ball.
Oaxaca is known as the ‘Land of Seven Moles’. These are sauces in a variety of flavors that can be bought as a paste or made from scratch. My favorite is the mole negro (black mole), made with smokey chilies, chocolate, and close to twenty other ingredients that give it a unique and complex flavor. Moles are typically served over a protein and next to rice. As with many dishes, warm tortillas are on the table to package together each bite. I must have eaten six or eight tortillas each day I was there.
Tlayudas (similar to memelitas, but huge and crispy), tamales (see image above) in corn husks and banana leaves, and tacos with a variety of sauces, guacamole (Oaxacan style is a very thin green sauce), and pickled vegetables, are all common meals you’ll find in Oaxaca.
Elote (corn with mayonnaise, cheese, and chili) is becoming a popular dish in the states, but I had to try one from a cart. The chili is very spicy, so ask for un poquito (a tiny bit) if you’re sensitive to heat.
For drinks, mezcal (alcohol made from the agave plant), tejate (a cold maize and cocoa drink, see how it’s made below), and atole (warm drink made from corn flour) are also must-tries while visiting Oaxaca.
And, of course, leave room for dessert! Nieve (ice cream) is similar to a simple frozen cream recipe you might make at home, but the variety of flavors will make you excited to try everything. There are leche (milk)-based and agua (water)-based flavors and favorites include coco (coconut, with actual pieces of coconut in it) and limon (lime).
I couldn’t get into the leche quemada (burnt milk) even though it’s a favorite for many, but it’s often topped with tuna (bright pink prickly pear fruit), which was delicious. Gelatina (jello) is also a popular snack and can be found stacked, cups upside-down and defying gravity, in the mercados.
So, do you want to visit Oaxaca yet? I’ll be sharing my trip through a series of posts in the coming weeks, so I hope you’ll check back for more!