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OAXACAN CUISINE

Food in Oaxaca has always been a celebration of life and health. Traditions determined the varieties of corn planted that would be made into tortillas and the corn that would be toasted over coals that would be eaten hot and fresh with a squeeze of limon and a dash of red chile. Different from many areas in the country of Mexico, Oaxaca and its people cherish and maintain their traditions. The food in Oaxaca is the best I've ever eaten and I never felt healthier than I did when living in Oaxaca. There are surprises for all of you who will visit, delights and surprises.

 
BEANS

BLACK BEANS Frijol Negro
Shopping for these little beauties is always an adventure here in Oaxaca. You'll see all sorts of different brands sold in one kilo plastic bags at all of the large and small supermarkets. In one of the neighborhood markets or at Benito Juárez or Abastos you'll find beans sold loose in whatever quantity you need. Always look for the smallest and shiniest beans you can find. These will be the best.

RUNNER BEANS Frijolón
The beautiful huge beans on the left are sold fresh or dried and are often cooked with a big bunch of the flowers seen in the photograph on the right. Oddly enough the flowers are from the bean plant that produces the beans themselves. These two photographs were taken at the tiny everyday market in Cuilapam de Guerrero when we were visiting the monastery.

To see Cuilapam Please Click Here

BEVERAGES -- ALCOHOLIC

Pulque, Mescal and Tequila

Visit La Lonja, to try these fine Young  Mescals to  aged (Anejo) Mescals!s fine beverage just click the photo!Though sold for many years in foreign specialty markets, tequila took a starring position on center stage in the last couple of decades. What had always been a very popular and affordable traditional liquor in Mexico now has priced itself out of much of the local Mexican market. For many Mexicans, tequila was replaced by mescal which is now also claiming a fair share of the international market along side its brother drink, tequila. What many in the lower economic classes may do is move toward enjoying pulque, the most traditional of all alcoholic beverages in Mexico.

All of these beverages are produced from the maguey plant, though there are more commercial and productive varieties and more coveted more difficult to grow specialty varieties and even very coveted wild varieties. If one were to try to distinguish between tequila and mescal by American standards, one could think of commercially produced bourbon and the backwoods produced illegal and still very popular moonshine. Unlike with moonshine, the base maguey plants are not mixed. Each mescal is made with only the produce of one variety of plant. Pulque was the pre-Columbian mildly alcoholic and maybe psychotropic drink. Pulque is also still considered by many Indian groups to have special healing qualities.

Visit La Lonja, to try these fine Young  Mescals to  aged (Anejo) Mescals!  just click the photo!Many years past, maguey plants were taken from Oaxaca to be planted in huge areas in the State of Jalisco where today production of tequila is most notable. Mescal still holds sway in Oaxaca where its production equals about the same amount as the Mexican production of cognac.

When one considers production of tequila or mescal, one has to consider the variety of maguey that will be the basis of the liquor. Domesticated and highly productive varieties include the Espadín, Arruqueño, Mexicano, Tabasiche and Bicuishe. Wild varieties most valued for their rarity or special properties may include the Tobalá, Tepestate and Coyote.

As in so many areas of the world that have not yet been standardized, the making of mescal will depend on the maguey, the water, the cook pot, the fire and the cooks gathered round to make magic happen.

 

 

To Visit La Lonja en el Zocalo for your complimentary taste of this fine beverage just click the photo!Visit La Lonja, to try these fine Young  Mescals to  aged (Anejo) Mescals!  just click the photo!Our thanks go especially to Oaxacan Ernesto Antonio Pérez Gijón who has been dealing with mescal for over 50 years. He is as knowledgable as he is gracious.
BEVERAGES -- NON-ALCOHOLIC

Agua de Nopal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Horchata

Tejate
This is the cadillac of traditional Oaxacan non-alcoholic beverages. It dates from pre-Hispanic times when the Zapotecs ruled this region and the tradition is still strong today. You will see tejate sold in markets all over Oaxaca and only by women as they are regarded as the keepers of the history of this drink. We were given insight into its complexity by an old woman in the Benito Juárez market whose small market stall was mostly devoted to selling the required ingredients for tejate. She gave us the basic recipe, but each one is said to be a little bit different. Here is what she told us:

Go to the market and get the best of these three ingredients.

Basic Tejate Recipe

Nixtamal corn, mixed with ash from the burning of any tree
Rosita de Cacao flowers*, toasted
Cacao beans, toasted
Mammey seeds, toasted

All of these ingredients are mixed and then ground together to make a reasonably stiff smooth paste. The paste is put in the bottom of a huge clay pot at least 18" in diameter. Gradually clean fresh water is added from as high as the woman's arm can reach as she kneads the mixture for almost a half hour. At that time the pot is almost full and froth has gathered on top of the milky mixture you can see in the photograph above. When it is served it can be sweetened by putting some sugar syrup in the bottom of the glass or gourd serving vessel. Probably the best place to give it your first try is at the organic market in Xochilmilco on Fridays and Saturdays. It might be said to be a cool frothy flowery watery chocolate drink.

*Rosita de Cacao flowers have nothing to do with the cacao tree, but have been given this name because they are such an essential ingredient in the chocolate flavored tejate. The flowers retain their scent for years; even those found in burial tombs in Mexico still have their wonderful fragrance. The tree that bears the flowers is called the Funeral Tree with the Latin name, Quararibea funebris. The tree's origin is in the south of Mexico.

BREADS

Breads are baked in all sorts of shapes and sizes in Oaxaca and many are sweet to be dipped in coffee or hot chocolate. Others are used to make the well known Mexican tortas - sandwiches with all sorts of fillings. These days fresh European style breads -- Italian, baguettes, foccacias, whole wheat, pitas, filled, farmers style, or spiced and flavored -- are also widely available in town. All of these fresh bakery breads there are a variety of sliced packaged supermarket breads so you have a lot of options.

 

CHEESES

Quesillo Doble Crema

Cheese of all kinds is an essential part of Mexican food and Oaxaca is one of the best places to still find high quality cheeses.
Quesillo doble crema -- This is a cheese to dream about, much like mozzarella, but with a bit more life and flavor. Whenever we return to Oaxaca we drop off our luggage and make a run to the Benito Juárez market for some tlayudas and a ball of this cheese; not a king in the world has eaten better!!

 

Queso Chihuahua (Menonita or Superfino)

This is a Mexican cheese that most closely resembles American and English cheddar and the best of it is aged in large cheese cloth and wax covered wheels. In Oaxaca it is still sold in the small market on the zócalo. Elsewhere in Oaxaca and in many places in Mexico it is no longer available. It has been replaced by the plastic bag of nationally branded generic cheese called queso chihuahua which you can find at Pitico one of the small local supermarkets. You'll be amused by the translation error,"queso tipo chester," or Chester type cheese.

Queso fresco

This wonderful cheese is most akin to a firm ricotta. It is slightly grainy, dry enough to slice for a sandwich and firm enough to crumble on a taco. In general it can be deliciously and comfortably used as a ricotta substitute in such dishes as lasagna.

 

 

 

Queso Ranchero

CHICKENS

This seems a basic food, maybe not even worth talking about, but it is. In Oaxaca you will find chickens for stewing that will make a broth your old mother would have been proud of. You will also find younger chickens for frying, sauteing or baking. No matter what you intend, you'll find the perfect chicken and it will have a taste only us older folks will remember and you younger folks will learn to love.

Note: Chickens sold here in the markets in Oaxaca probably will not have the hormone residues you are used to. Eat and enjoy!

CHILES DRIED

Chiles are as much a part of Oaxacan cuisine as the cooks who have made Mexican food world famous. Chiles are not just hot peppers; they impart unique flavors along with their heat. Take a look at our A to Z Tropical Garden web site to see lots of good photographs and descriptions of the Mexican chiles we have known well and loved for years.

Click on the link below,

Mexican Chiles

Chile Huacle Negro (left) and Chile Morita (right)

Chile Pasilla Oaxaqueño Mixe

CHOCOLATE

Over the last two decades Oaxacan cuisine has become widely known and appreciated the world over. One of the changes that has resulted in Oaxaca is photographed in the picture on the left -- freshly ground chocolate has become big business.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EXOTIC FOODS

Grasshoppers/Chapulines

 

Maguey Larvae
Red segmented maguey worms, the larvae of the Hypopta agavis moth, called chilocuiles, tecoles or chinicuiles are toasted or fried, given a fresh squeeze of lime and served in a taco. It is said to be a healthy snack, if you can get past their appearance. Luckily I've never seen those for sale in the markets in Oaxaca, but there is another fat, soft bodied one and one half inch purplish larvae sold live in quantities in the Benito Juárez market at certain times of the year that have sent me running. Called mocuiles, these are larvae of the Tequila Giant-Skipper (Aegiale hesperiaris) and a large full basket of these live critters never gave me much of an appetite. I was always grateful they were available fresh for a short period of time. Each of these moth larvae infests the maguey and agave plants used to produce tequila so harvesting them serves two purposes -- the plants must be freed of these pests to produce at their best and once collected it doesn't hurt that these high nutrient critters can be sold for human consumption. Just don't invite me to dinner, thanks.
FRUITS
Limes/Limones seem to me to be the most important fruit in Mexico as they are used to make lemonade, to flavor almost all foods, to enhance the taste of your beer and to cure what ails you. Who could imagine a restaurant table without a small dish of sliced limes. And, these are not the large hard bitter pulpy fruits we are so familiar with elsewhere. They are smaller, juicier, more tart and simply essential to life in Mexico. Because yellow lemons are not generally available in the markets here in Oaxaca, use limes but for any international recipe calling for lemons use about half the juice called for, adding water to make up the difference in liquid.
Mangos
Papayas
 Plantains/Platanos machos
This photograph was taken behind the Abastos market and you can appreciate the quantity of platanos that are sold and consumed each day in Oaxaca. This is a wonderful fruit as it can be peeled, cooked green and served almost like a potato or other starchy vegetable or when peeled and cooked ripe it becomes a sweet side dish or dessert often fancied up a bit with nuts and ice cream.

Plums

Sapodilla Zapote Negro and Zapote Chico or Nispero
These are unusual fruits, the zapote negro seems downright unattractive in appearance being extremely overripe and a bit lumpy because of it. When the deep green skin is peeled back the pulp inside is very dark, hence the name black or negro. The zapote chico is more appealing from the outside and has a nice orangey color inside. If you would like to know more about this fruit here is a good web site to visit:

www.exotictropicalfruits.com/id2.html

HERBS AND FLAVORINGS

Avocado Leaves
These are now used both fresh and dried to flavor a number of foods in Oaxaca, some are said to be traditional some not. Apparently the leaves were used prior to pre-Colonial times to flavor pork cooked over an open fire. Now in some restaurants they are used to flavor black beans. It is a wonderful new flavor, but it does limit the ways in which beans can be used with other foods to make a basic Mexican meal.
Note: Not all avocado leaves may be used. They must be from Mexican criollo trees, as other avocado leaves may be poisonous. Pictured to the right is an avocado from one of these trees. The fruits are tiny, but even the skin is edible.

 

Basil/albaca
Cilantro
This is as common in Mexican cooking as parsley might be in European style food. Look for what is called "criollo"  (kri-o-yo). This is the young cilantro plant, no more than 12 inches tall, and it has a delightful fresh flavor. Older plants are wonderful too, but the younger ones are just that much better.

Cinnamon/canela
Cinnamon is endemic in Mexico and especially in Oaxaca where it is even used as a very traditional flavoring for chocolate. It might even be said that it is difficult to buy chocolate here without the added flavor of cinnamon regardless of what the packaging says.

Epazote
This is the most traditional of black bean flavorings. The leaves are used fresh added to the pot in the last half hour of cooking. Having imparted their distinctive flavor and health benefits, they are always removed before the beans are pureed.

Garlic/ajo
As you can see in the photograph to the right, garlic is an essential ingredient in Mexican cooking as it is in Italy, though you will almost never enter a home or restaurant in either country thinking, "Oh, garlic!" Garlic is used as a flavoring, its use is subtle; it is not considered one of the basic food groups as it is all too often in the United States.
Note: I had heard that garlic was a potent anti-helminthic (anti-worming food) so I asked my veterinarian who was one of the special ones that really cared well for the animals that were his patients (more than for their owners). He said, "Well, if your dog could eat a bushel bag of garlic for a few days running, it might help."

 

Ginger/ajengibre
This is often sold dried to be used in making mole. You can find it fresh so do look around if you like to make Chinese stir fry or other dishes that call for fresh ginger. Do also think about ginger tea.

Hierbas de olor
This is a heady mix of oregano, marjoram and laurel.

Parsley/perejil
Poleo
This is a leafy herb sold fresh in season for making teas that heal digestive problems and as a flavoring in special foods. The tea can also be made from dried leaves.
Note: the fresh branches of leaves dry out very quickly.
Rosemary/romero
Thyme/tomillo

ICE CREAM

MEATS/CARNES

Grilled Beef, Pork and Sausages
Cesina enchilada (spiced pork), chorizo (Mexican sausage), and tasajo (tender very thin sliced beef) are three staples here in Oaxaca. You will find them on almost every traditional restaurant menu, but one of the best places to give them a try is in the 20th of Noviembre market in the center of town.

Click here to take a look.

 

 

 

Specialty Meats Víceras
These are the parts of cows and pigs rarely sold these days in standard American or European supermarkets; you have to look for specialty butcher shops. Here in Oaxaca one corner of the Benito Juárez market is devoted to the sale of these meats and a couple of days a week you'll also find lamb for sale there. As you can see in these photographs, you'll find pigs feet, beef heart, liver and stomach. Of all of these, I find the feet most appealing so below are two recipes.

Maria Guadalupe Pérez Santiago, former restaurateur, kindly gave us two of her recipes for pork feet. They are both delicious.
Beans with Pigs Feet (Patas con Frijol)
1 kilo of pork feet sliced lengthwise and then crosswise into 2" pieces (the butcher will do this)
1 kilo of black beans
1 whole head of garlic
1/2 large white onion
5 stems of fresh epazote (or more to taste)
salt to taste
Pick over the beans to remove any stones or damaged beans and then rinse them. Boil enough water to cover the beans in a big pot with a cover. When the water is boiling add the beans and cook for about 45 minutes at a low boil or until about half done. Add the entire head of garlic, unpeeled, the onion and epazote and of course the pig's feet pieces, cover and bring to a boil again turning down the heat a little. Watch that there is enough liquid to keep everything cooking, but not too much. If you need to add water always be sure it is boiling first. When the beans are done the dish is ready to serve with fresh hot tortillas.
Pigs Feet in Escabeche (Patas en Escabeche)
10 pigs feet prepared as above

1/4 kilo fresh jalapeno peppers cut in quarters lengthwise and then in half
1/4 kilo fresh carrots sliced in rounds
oregano, laurel, marjoram
5 whole cloves and five peppercorns
2 cups white vinegar (500 ml)
4 medium white onions chopped
1 head of garlic unpeeled
a few tablespoons of oil
salt to taste
In a large heavy frying pan heat the oil adding the oregano, laurel, marjoram, cloves and peppercorns, garlic, carrots and onions. Stir over medium high heat until everything is giving up its aroma then add the pigs feet, vinegar and salt to taste. Add a cup of water or so, cover and cook until the feet are done. With sides of beans or rice, a nice salsa and fresh hot tortillas, this will serve 6 or 7 folks.
MOLE

NUTS

Peanuts Toasted

Pecans in the Shell

QUESADILLAS

Quesadillas are freshly made tortillas topped with any variety of ingredients (see the photograph on the right with squash blossoms and quesillo). Once the tortilla and the ingredients have heated the tortilla is folded in half and sealed. In the tortilleria where we took these photographs they had the added feature of taking the cooked quesidilla and putting it in the natural charcoal fired oven that you can see to the left below. These quesadillas are a little taste of heaven!
    

SEAFOOD

As in anywhere in the world these days, you might want to take a little extra care with seafood. The Benito Juárez market has about one third of one its aisles devoted to the sale of seafood -- fish, shrimp and more. Some days it is very appealing and some not. You'll have to investigate to assure yourself that what you are buying is clean and fresh as you do in your hometown.

Shrimp, Dried
Shrimp, Fresh

SOUP
Freshly Made Vegetable Soup Starter Mixes

These days you can find prepared foods, both cooked and fresh, in any supermarket in the States and Europe. In Mexico for years women in markets have been preparing and selling soup bases and vegetables for other dishes as standard fare. Somehow they always look better than what I find back home! Everyday, market women get out their knives, tiny wooden chopping blocks and an assortment of fresh vegetables which are peeled, chopped, broken, sliced, diced or decoratively added whole to small plastic bags which are deftly tied while another batch of vegetables goes under the knife. Always in a hurry, shoppers stop, quickly picking up a bag to bring home as a starter for one of the mid-day meal's many courses, usually starting with soup (sopa).

STREET FOOD
SWEETS
Candied Squash
Sugar Cane
TORTILLAS

Tlayudas de maize blanco, negro ó amarillo
These are very large hand made semi dried tortillas made from white, blue (called black in Oaxaca) or yellow corn. Eaten as they are they have a chewy tough texture; heat them up and eat them as you would a smaller softer tortilla or stuff them full of goodies like black beans and quesillo and then heat them slowly on a comal turning to toast each side. Combine this with some salsa Mexicana and you are in touch with the Gods.

The tlayudas you see on the right are made of blue corn but actually appear more gray than blue. They are my personal favorite.

 

Tlayudas de Harina
These are very large hand made semi dried tortillas made from whole wheat flour. They are not common, but when you see them do give them a try. You won't be disappointed.
VEGETABLES
Camotes
Camotes are a Mexican version of the American sweet potato. As a lover of sweet potatoes I have to say I think the camote is right up there in flavor with the yellow "Jersey Sweet." Here in Oaxaca the camote is boiled and then bathed in honey and sold and served as a dessert. Try baking camotes, serving them as an alternative to baked white potatoes. Be generous with butter and you'll be very happy. You can also think of the camote simply as a sweet potato and use your favorite recipe to prepare them.
Chayotes
Chile de Agua
Cuitlacoche
Jicama
Nopal Cactus Leaves/Nopales

Squash Blossoms

 

 

 

 

 

Tomatoes

 

 

 

 

 

 

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