A Taste of Oaxaca:
Delighting in the Unfiltered Display of Life
“Un chocolate caliente, por favor,” I say in a poor imitation of a Spanish accent to the waiter. Despite the heat, he’s impeccably dressed in a crisp white shirt and black vest. Thankfully, he seems to understand what I mean, for he nods and leaves, and I feel safe with the promise that my hot chocolate will arrive momentarily.
It’s a hot January day in Mexico’s gastronomical capital city Oaxaca (pronounced Wa-ha-ka). Sitting alone in café Mayordomo with a front-row view of local life in the vibrant Zocalo–the heart of the city– shoe shiners are hard at work, families out for their Sunday stroll, and workers making preparations for the dancing that would take place later that evening. The cheerful sound of an Oaxacan tune filters through the air.
I wait in anticipation. This is my first time in Oaxaca and in all my planning and research, I discovered one thing that overshadowed even the beauty of the colourful, colonial-era architecture and impressive ancient ruins: the food.
So far, I have already indulged in plenty of local cuisine. I spent the morning wandering through El Mercado de la Merced - a must-do if you visit Mexico’s foodiest state. The market is a culinary dream. In fact, it’s hard not to lose yourself in the sights and fusion of smells flooding your senses. In the first moment, there is the unmistakable whiff of cilantro. Then the air is perfumed by the greasy, mouth-watering scent of sizzling chicharrón.
Between crowds of fellow shoppers and cries of “empanada!” and “Señorita!”, I passed woven baskets of dried chilies, tables full of yucca shrubs, stacks of dark chocolate, balls of quesillo cheese, and slabs of sizzling grilled meats. There is tequila, fresh bread, and an array of spices. There are glasses of aguas frescas (refreshing beverages made from fruits and water); there are brilliantly coloured regional fruits and vegetables and heaps of yellow squash blossoms. But most importantly, there is so much life. It flows all around, sweeping you into a world of colours, smells, culture, and an unapologetic explosion of energy.
The inviting aromas and friendly smiles from the vendors beckoned me forward. It was the realness of it all, the unfiltered display of Oaxaca in its brightest and boldest state of being, that I loved. From hanging animal innards to bright shades of giant mangos, it is all there on display. Touch us, smell us, taste us, the food seems to beg. I happily acquiesce.
For lunch, I tried crunchy chapulines (yes, grasshoppers!) and chicken generously smothered in mole, a thick, flavourful sauce made with as many as thirty different ingredients. The state of Oaxaca is actually known as “Land of Seven Moles,” with each state offering a unique variety of the celebrated gravy-like sauce. Mole Negro (black sauce) with its chocolate influence is perhaps the most popular of the seven. The taste is complex and mildly sweet, redolent of onion, garlic, cumin, dried chilies, and even the taste of cinnamon.
Then, on a plastic bench, seated elbow to elbow with locals and tourists alike, I devoured a Tlayuda for dinner. Known as crispy Oaxacan pizza, it consists of a large tortilla garnished with a variety of toppings from tomatoes, avocados, refried beans (frijol), and some form of meat: chorizo, tinga, tasajo. Each bite was rich and layered, and even though it was arguably enough to feed two, I was hungry for more.
And so, I carried on in my quest to consume as much cuisine as possible. At Benito Juarez Market, I washed down my dinner with Tejate, a traditional drink that was once drunk by Zapotec royalty in pre-Hispanic times. Cold and refreshing, with a slightly earthy flavour, it’s made from cacao beans, toasted maize, and cacao flowers. I also couldn’t resist a banana-leaf wrapped tamale, the Oaxacan alternative to the traditional tamale which is typically wrapped in corn-based dough. There are no shortage of options for fillings: salsa verde, mole negro, rajas con queso. On recommendation from the grandmotherly vendor, I try mole de pollo (chicken). It is moist, rich, and filling; I am not disappointed.
Rousing me from my daydream of the afternoon’s culinary adventure, the waiter returns with a forest green jug of steaming milk. With style and precision, he begins to stir the milk using a wooden whisk called a molinillo, before tipping it into the white mug in front of me without spilling a single drop. The most immaculate hot chocolate, whisked to perfection, sits before me.
“Buen provecho,” says the waiter.
The first sip is one I will never forget. Warm and delicious, it is flavoured with a combination of roasted cacao, cinnamon, and hot milk. The liquid seeps through my body like an elixir of happiness and I find I am once again losing myself in the beauty of new places, unknown faces, and a world different than my own. Twilight is setting in. The breeze, though still warm, has a slightly cooler caress to it. Although I am by myself, I do not feel alone. For around me, the clatter of spoons against cups fills the air, the waiters with their white shirts and hair nets roam between tables, a little girl holding her father’s hand smiles as she passes.
A sleepy satisfaction has come over me, but I do not want the night to end. So I sit at my table in café Mayordomo a little longer, cherishing this moment and feeling that familiar resurgence of tenderness for strange towns, unknown faces, and fleeting scenes that I’ll never experience in the same way ever again. Here, on this January evening, in Oaxaca, beneath this pastel sky.
The music from the Zocalo is growing in volume as the night’s event starts up. I hear the fervent sound of a trumpet and then the band strikes up an upbeat Paso Doble.
“Mezcal, por favor,” I say to the waiter. He smiles at me. This time, there is no doubt that he understands me perfectly.
By Kazandra Pangilinan