Oaxaca is among Mexico’s most treasured cultural and culinary regions. In fact, what Tuscany is to Italy, Oaxaca is to Mexico. Travelers from every corner of the globe are drawn to this isolated corner of southwestern Mexico; lured by countless moles, edible insects, frothy hot chocolate, and oversized corn tortillas called tlayudas. Oaxaca is where the art of making fresh corn masa is still a part of daily life, and where unpasteurized milk is artfully transformed into long, shiny strands of quesillo—a local string cheese revered for its acidity and essential for making quesadillas and other antojitos.
Oaxaca is bordered by the Pacific Ocean, and a narrow strip of land known as the Isthmus of Tehuantepec on its western edge, and divided internally by the Sierra Madres. As a result, Oaxaca’s indigenous peoples have remained virtually isolated from the outside world, leaving many ancient culinary traditions intact. With 16 distinct languages and eight geo-cultural areas that include microclimates ranging from arid desert to tropical cloud forests, Oaxaca is teeming with rare chiles, native corn varieties, and agaves that produce some of the country’s finest mezcal.
Land of Mole and Chiles
Known as the land of seven moles, Oaxaca is divided into eight official regions: Sierra Norte, Sierra Sur, La Cañada, El Istmo, La Costa, Tuxtepec, Valles Centrales, and La Mixteca. Each region is home to distinct landscapes, foods, ethnic groups, and even its own chiles.
Oaxacan chiles are the building blocks of the state’s regional moles, infusing color, flavor, and piquancy into these delectable sauces. Take, for example, the triangular-shaped chilhuacle chile, used for making the famed mole negro. It ranges in color from black to red to yellow, chilhuacles are found only in the dry and semi-tropical mountains of Cuicatlán in the state’s La Cañada region. To further illustrate Oaxaca’s distinct microclimates, the Mixe region grows smoky and fiery-hot Oaxacan pasilla chile. The flavor profile of this chile is much more complex than a chipotle, with a deeper, more hard-hitting spice. The Oaxacan pasilla chile grows in a vertical, green landscape, and is harvested by hand and painstakingly dried and smoked. This chile—which is not grown outside the Mixe region—is used for making salsas and a chile paste known as chintextle.
Oaxaca City and the Valles Centrales
If Oaxaca is a hub for Mexican moles and rare chiles, then the Valles Centrales region is ground zero for tasting Oaxaca’s breadth of culinary treasures. Where else can you savor such a gastronomical feast of moles—brick-colored coloradito, bright-red mole rojo, fruity manchamanteles, herbaceous mole verde, the deceivingly orange mole amarillo, burnt chichilo, and black velvety mole negro—all in the same city? Whether traversing markets inside the city such as Benito Juárez and 20 de Noviembre, or venturing to the outlying markets and towns of Etla, Tlacolula, and Teotitlán del Valle, a mole tour like no other can be had in the capital city of Oaxaca and its surrounding Valles Centrales.
Mexico’s Corn Cradle
Few cultures rely as heavily on corn as those in Mexico; quite frankly, it is the nucleus of the Mexican diet. Remains of domesticated corn dating back to 3450 BC have been found in Oaxaca’s Guilá Naquitz cave, giving the region its distinction as the “cradle of corn.” This fact is evident in Oaxaca’s breadth and variety of native maize. With white, yellow, red, and blue maize available, masa is ground and transformed into specialty tortillas unknown in other parts of Mexico. Even today, the act of nixtamalizing and grinding corn on a metate or with an electric molino lies largely in the domain of women. These matriarchs and young women make the back-breaking work look easy as they skillfully soak, wash, grind, press, and cook tortillas with speed and agility.
Delicacies made from fresh corn masa and tortillas form the basis of breakfast, lunch, dinner and local antojitos. Whether you are having fresh esquites or chile-seasoned corn on the cob; masa-based garnachas and molotes; steamed tamales; warm, porridge-like atole; frothy, fragrant tejate; or masa-based antojitos like tlayudas, dobladas, quesadillas, or memelas; corn is everywhere.
Oaxacan Mezcal: The Cognac of Mexico
Oaxacan mezcal is considered world-class. The region’s terroir, coupled with traditional and artisanal production methods, puts local mezcal on a different level than commercially produced tequila. Matatlán, a small town prized for its rich mineral waters, is the state’s mezcal-producing capital and home to more than 200 distilleries known as palenques. In hamlets outside of the cities, farmers work to produce “single-village” mezcals. Working with few resources in the rugged, high desert altiplano and using techniques and knowledge passed down by generations, modern indigenous communities take the harvesting and production of mezcal seriously. The region’s more prominent varieties of agaves—espadín, arroqueño, and tobalá—produce an intensely smoky flavor. For years, mezcal has been an important part of the lives of the people of Oaxaca, where it is estimated that more than 20,000 families subsist entirely on its production.