This is a food town for sure, with corn, chocolate and mezcal being the cornerstones. Once again what is compelling about Oaxaca is the way they preserve and celebrate their traditions, but also welcome the modern take on them. And food is no exception, from the fantastic marketplaces and family restaurants, to today’s chefs putting new twists on locals dishes.
One tradition is chapulines, baked and spiced grasshoppers. They sell them by the bagful in the marketplace, but we also saw them on restaurant menus. And yes, we did try them. We just sampled some from a street vendor. Peter’s was spicy and crunchy and mine tasted like a dill pickle and crunchy. Let’s just say we can check that off the list.
Chocolate comes in numerous forms from a beautifully crafted hot chocolate to the famous mole poblano. The complex sauces can be bought throughout the markets and of course ordered in restaurants. Many debate if there are 6 or 7 official types of moles, so Peter decided not to try just one and ordered a tasting that came with roasted pork in 6 different moles.
Hot and cold chocolate drinks are made with the same intensity as your coffee barista. They scoop steaming milk into ceramic pitchers and break in chunks of dark chocolate from solid bars and feverishly mix and froth with a traditional wooden dowel called molinillo (moh-lee-NEE-yoh)
One thing Oaxaca is really into is Mezcal – not the rot gut downed by Hollywood banditos, but rather high-end, aged clear Mezcal, sin worm. Mezcal is made from maguey, a type of agave and is meant to be sipped straight. Thanks to a tip from our friend George, we went to a little hole in the wall mezcaleria called In Situ. Its walls were lined with hundreds of bottles of Mezcal, and only Mezcal.
The liqueur is made in dozens of factories around Oaxaca, from Mom and Pop shacks to fancy places with tasting rooms that would not look out-of-place in Napa. A red-cheeked round little man named Ulisses Torrentera runs In Situ, and he wrote the book on Mezcal (literally – he handed us the book he wrote but alas it was in Spanish). However, even with his limited English and our nearly non-existent Spanish we learned a great deal from him and tasted several varieties before settling on a bottle with a nice smokey flavor to bring back to the boat.
It was fascinating to watch a farmer come into the shop with several large soda bottles filled with his product to sell to Ulisses. After tasting it, Ulisses let us know under his breath that this particular batch was not very good and he wouldn’t be buying any. We felt bad for the farmer but that’s business I guess. Although it isn’t as well know as tequila, mark my words, I predict it will soon be the next drink de jour in the states.
The Juárez and 20 de Noviembre mercados are giant labyrinths of food and craft vendors selling everything you can imagine and some things you can’t. On our days, yes we made several trips there, we ate and sampled and bought everything from Oaxaca cheese (like string cheese), chocolate to those damn grasshoppers.
Peter was in carnivore’s heaven when we wandered into the smoky carne asada alley. It’s about 200 feet long and lined with glowing barbecues on each side. You can barely see your hands in front of you, due the smoke. He didn’t know what the procedure was, but after a little Spanish and a lot of pantomime, he was handed a plate with raw peppers and scallions and pointed to the row of identical stalls grilling beef and sausage.
He picked one and handed his plate and the vegetables to the grill master and said “mixto”. What he didn’t know was that the meat was sold by weight and, not specifying an amount, they decided how much he wanted. We sat and waited and soon a kilo, maybe more, of perfectly grilled meats and the aforementioned scallions and peppers as well as tortillas and salsas were delivered to the table. It was really a meal for two or three people and all for about $9. I went to another stall in the marketplace for a tlayuda. This is a pizza-size baked tortilla that is covered with any combination of things, but always based with black bean paste.
Again this was enough food to feed the town and was only $5. I wasn’t successful finishing mine (I shouldn’t have filled up on those grasshoppers 😉