Eating My Way Through Oaxaca

13 Aug

Dried chilies and cooking ingredients in Oaxacan mercado

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.

Mayordomo chocolate machine and worker in Oaxacan market

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.

Mole for sale in Oaxacan mercado

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.

Oaxacan tlayudas and tamales eaten on the street

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 eaten on the street 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.

Woman making tejate in Oaxacan mercado

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).

Oaxacan Leche Quemada and Tuna Nieve

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!


8 Responses to “Eating My Way Through Oaxaca”

  1. Jill August 17, 2012 at 10:39 am #

    I have been enjoying reading about your adventures in Oaxaca. The pictures are beautiful and the food looks amazing! Please let me know if you can share the mole recipe, I am interested in making it.

    • Liz August 20, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

      Thank you! I’ll let you know 🙂

  2. Renee {Eat.Live.Blog.} August 15, 2012 at 3:54 pm #

    Are you going to be posting any mole recipes you picked up? This all looks so amazing, I am definitely ready for vacation there!

    • Liz August 15, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

      I’ll need to get permission for that, I think! But I’ll see what I can do 🙂

  3. Bianca @ Confessions of a Chocoholic August 15, 2012 at 10:00 am #

    I love reading this! Looks like you really had the best time 🙂
    PS – it was so great seeing you last week!

    • Liz August 15, 2012 at 5:21 pm #

      Thanks so much Bianca. It was great seeing you, too – hope to do it again soon!

  4. Amy @Macncheesenpeas August 14, 2012 at 9:03 am #

    All that food looks amazing, especially that ice cream at the end. You are so lucky you got to spend 2 weeks there, it seems like a place with a lot to explore. 🙂

    • Liz August 14, 2012 at 9:24 am #

      Hi Amy, thanks so much for your comment!

      The ice cream was delicious and different from anything I’ve found in the States. Maybe it was because we ate healthy food and walked a few miles a day, but every time I had ice cream I didn’t feel guilty at all (which was good because there are so many good flavors to try!).

      I could easily go back tomorrow for another month and still have new areas of the city to visit. It was a great trip!

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