Note: This is our third story in a six-part series highlighting the regional cuisines of Mexico. Get ready to dig into the incredible breadth and depth of this nation's food culture.
Oaxaca is where soaring mountain ranges disappear into the ocean. One of Mexico's most rugged states, it's home to more than half of the nation's indigenous Mesoamerican language speakers and 16 loosely bound ethnolingual groups. All this diversity of climate and culture has contributed to a seemingly endless cuisine.
Here is where the Zapotecs, still Oaxaca's dominant ethnic group, pioneered the comal (the flat griddle used for cooking tortillas), thousands of years ago. Today, Oaxaca is often called the land of seven moles, though in truth it has many more. It is Mexico's primary exporter of mezcal and a famed producer of chocolate. The state is officially divided into eight regions, all geographically and most ethnically distinct.
What is Oaxacan cuisine? Crackery planks of masa piled high with savory toppings. Tortillas so soft and white they're called blandas, loaded with fillings so they're anything but. Duck seared with chili sauce and braised wild greens. And then of course there's mole, a literal and figurative melting pot of fragrant herbs and local chilies enriched with dozens of other ingredients—a mother sauce and a traveler's guide to everything this state has to offer.
A Land of Resourceful Eaters: Chilies, Wild Greens, and Bugs
Oaxacan cuisine is local and regional to the core, the beneficiary of abundant microclimates and fantastic biodiversity. Many dishes rely on local varieties of corn, chilies, herbs, and greens found only in a particular region. And these dishes have persevered through the years thanks in no small part to the state's isolated geography, which has helped to preserve local pot herbs like cebollín, a wild onion with chive like leaves, and the marjoram like Almoraduz in the Sierra Sur.
Nowhere else in Mexico will you find more kinds of chilies, and Oaxacan cuisine shows them off in dish after dish. The most famous chili is the smoky pasilla Oaxaqueno, grown only in the Mixe region but ubiquitous in Oaxacan salsas. Other dishes rely on more obscure varieties, like chihuacle, which comes in three colors: amarillo, negro, and rojo.
Ancient Mesoamericans didn't have any large domesticated livestock; instead they became especially creative and resourceful with their native plants and grains to survive. That meant a reliance on quelites, or wild greens like quintonil, and the climbing plant cocolmécata, tree bark, mushrooms, and every last part of the plant—think of them as vegetarian's off-cuts—roots, flowers, and vines.
Oaxacan resourcefulness extends well beyond greenery. Take the prolific entophomagy—insect-eating—evident in salsas featuring flying ants and in chapulines, the fried grasshoppers more famously consumed whole. Or look at some of the state's favorite meats: tasajo, the air-dried beef jerky, and the bulbous chorizo oaxaquenos, pork with chilies, vinegar, and warm spices, a plentitude of rabbit and lots of intensely flavored dried shrimp. Dried shrimp, a Lenten staple throughout Mexico, is eaten year-round in Oaxaca.
Resourcefulness and hyper-regionalism are hallmarks of Oaxacan cuisine, but cooks here also display the distinctively Mexican taste for fruit of all sorts—not just tomatoes and chilies—in savory dishes. Try guaje, an indigenous tree with an edible pod fruit that Oaxacans love. The garlicky, grassy, bitter seeds are consumed as a snack and essential to the Mixteca dish huaxmole.
But like elsewhere in Mexico, Oaxacans cook with a global pantry. The state borders Veracruz and, by osmosis, it adopted the plantains and yucca brought there Africans. Foreign almonds, capers, olives, pine nuts, and raisins are used in many sauces, and the wheat grown in Mixteca Alta smacks of Spain.
All the Moles Under the Sun
Oaxaca is frequently called "the land of seven moles," in reference to the state's most famous, and famously lusted-after, sauces that envelop all kinds of braised meat. (Moles are, to dust off the books, exceptionally complex chili-based sauces with potentially dozens of ingredients. Their ingredients, and the techniques by which they're combined, have come to embody the mestizo heritage of Mexican culture and cooking.)
Those moles are, for the record, amarillo, chichilo, coloradito, negro, manchamanteles, rojo, and verde. But Oaxaca has many more moles under its belt—a near-uncountable number to match the diversity of chilies cultivated there. Perhaps "the land of a thousand moles" would be more a more accurate term.
As elaborate dishes generally saved for festive occasions, moles are both some of the most complex and delicious dishes of the Oaxacan repertoire. Though most recipes call for a pantry's worth of ingredients, when it comes to mole, chilies are always king. In fact, there is nothing more important to a mole's identity than the proper chili. Each chili has a very specific flavor, so a chilcolse, essential to mole amarillo, can't be swapped for a costeño.
Oaxacan moles go far beyond the thick, dark chocolate-accented version most common in the U.S. There is sweet and pungent manchamantles full of pineapple fruitiness, stewy beef-broth-based chicolo, and bright, fresh verde, a celebration of the changing seasons. And even among Oaxaca's famous canon of seven, regional variations abound: a Mixteca's mole negro isn't the same as a Zapateca's.
Oaxacans seem to make moles with whatever ingredients pair deliciously with their chilies. Thus pine nuts take center stage in the Mixteca's mole blanco, a nutty, floral sauce made for Christmas and Easter and most traditionally served with an edible flower. Nuez criollo, another type of nut, is paired with arbol and guajillo chilies in mole chantino, a sauce used for pork ribs. Ceremonial mole zapoteco, served with poultry, is heavy on the allspice and cloves, while others yet are made exclusively for game like mole de iguana negro or wild mushrooms.
But the king of all moles is estofada, an intricate dish often prepared for weddings. It defies easy classification, but its hallmark is a rich tomato sauce that's "fried" in fat at the end. A catalogue of spices make their way into the dish: there may be dried chilies or pickled jalapenos; fresh fruit and vinegar or raisins; warm spices from Asia; and almonds, olives and capers from Spain.
Like the big seven, estofada is designed to be the star of a meal. But Oaxacans have plenty more going on in their kitchens.
Soups and Stews
Soups and stews have long sustained the Oaxacan appetite, and they're perfect substrates for the state's bounty of vegetables and various chilies. You can find these dishes all over Mexico, but Oaxacan versions bear a particular complexity in their seasoning.
These stews laced with chili stretch back to the Aztecs. They were typically vegetarian and cooked without fat (as was Aztec cooking generally) in a preparation called chillmoli. Contemporary interpretations benefit from meat and ingredients imported by immigrants, but they still provide a tangible link to the region's ancient kitchen.
Many preparations in Oaxaca mirror those of neighboring states. There's cocido, a card-carrying member of the meat-lover's club. Near Veracruz, you'll find variations on tesmole, made with different herbs depending on the protein used. Beef is a major theme here, and you'll find riffs on chile caldo, a soup of pork and beef cooked with squash, runner beans, and chilies, and variations on caldo de res, or beef soup, throughout.
Sometimes prepared as a side dish to be enjoyed alongside barbacoa, masita, at its most complex, is a preparation of soupy cracked corn cooked in the barbacoa pit and served with shredded barbacoa and chili sauce. It calls to mind the hominy stew pozole, a widely known and much beloved dish from Jalisco. But cracked corn is a longstanding if little known part of the Oaxacan repertoire, as in segueza, where it is toasted and ground and then stewed with chiles, tomatillos, tomatoes, and rabbit, shows.
And Even More Vegetables
Mole, delicious culinary feats they are, aren't exactly an everyday, "just throw it together" kind of thing for the home cooks. What's a typical meal? For many Oaxacans, it's all about fruit and vegetables.
You see it in common dishes like quelities guisados (stewed squash) and slightly more complex ones like stuffed squash blossoms and stuffed onions. It's also evident in the state's pipians, the pre-Colombian sauce based on toasted seeds. While that sauce is typically served over meat in neighboring Puebla, Oaxaqueños make theirs with beans and greens.
Chilies often get the chance to star in these dishes, like in agua de chile, a sharp condiment of raw chili, lime, and scallion, then blended with a little water. Chili heat also plays out in vegetables marinated with spicy fruit vinegar. And all kinds of chilies are stuffed with meat or grains and bathed in tomato broth.
Chilies remain in the driver's seat even when frying, roasting, or steaming meat. They're crucial to barbacoa, here prepared with either beef or goat seasoned with vinegars and chili (adobo), while in the Mixteca they wrap themselves around meat (pilte). You'll find chilies in preparations as diverse as duck fried with a sauce of dried chilies and tomato, poached chicken in a soupy chili sauce, and chileajo, a stewy interplay between chilies and garlic.
A Mexican meal is nothing without salsa, and the sauce reaches its zenith in Oaxaca. Packed with everything from chili seeds to dried shrimp to ants, Oaxacan salsas come in a range of heat levels and kinds of spicing, reflective of the locals' globally inspired palates.
Antojitos and Other Snacks
Most masa snacks, from garnachas to the flour-tortilla-based, al pastor-stuffed gringas, are grilled or fried. But two of Oaxaca's most distinct antojitos are neither. Rather, they're dried, to preserve highly perishable masa. The more famous is the tlayuda, a large cracker-like tortilla topped with cheese, salsa, and other trimmings. The other is the totopos of the Zapotecs. Sometimes compared to a flatbread, they are prepared by poking holes in the tortilla so they can stick to the side of the comizcal, a tandoor-like oven, while baking. They can be made savory, with black beans mixed in, or sweet, with sugar and a tropical touch of grated coconut.
Other antojitos are grilled, like tetelas, triangular masa turnovers related to tlacoyos, and often brushed with lard, as in memelas. Asiento, the residue leftover from making chicharrones, is slathered over blandas as they grill to make tortillas con asiento.
Beverages and Desserts
Oaxacans are as resourceful with their sweets and beverages as they are with their savory dishes. Historically, pumpkins were primarily cultivated in Mexico for their seeds, to be eaten as a snack or used in sauces like pipian, but in modern Oaxaca the flesh of bottle gourd is mixed with canela, pineapple, and piloncillo to make to make agua de chilacayote. Similarly, squash is stewed with sugar and water, then topped with dried corn kernels and pepitas, for the sweet but substantial batida de calabaza.
Pumpkins are just one part of the pantry, though. In her cookbook on Mexico's heritage sweets, pastry chef and dessert anthropologist Fany Gerson praised Oaxaca's frozen treats as among the most delightful in the nation. Oaxaqueños put their state's major lime crop to good use with their nieve de limon, or lime sorbet, while they bring the national fixation with candied fruit to new heights with mangoes in spicy piloncillo.
Native Mexican traditions persist in the state's beverages. While mezcal is the state's most identifiable drink abroad (chances are if you're drinking the smoky libation stateside, it's from Oaxaca), the one that best captures the ancient identity is tejate. This frothy "drink of the gods" is made with mamey seeds, cacao beans and flowers, and masa. Meanwhile, atoles, the pre-Hispanic porridges, are made not just with corn but peanuts, soured masa, and wheat.
Both in and outside the kitchen, Oaxaca is a land of startling diversity. From the most intricate moles to the simplest stew of wild greens, the state's cuisine is thoroughly delicious and ingeniously resourceful.
To comprehensively document the state's food ways would take a lifetime. There's a reason why Diana Kennedy called Oaxacan cuisine "an infinite gastronomy in the subtitle of her ethnography-meets-cookbook, Oaxaca al Gusto. It is the definitive resource available in English and the first place you should start when learning about the cuisine. (Disclaimer: many recipes are not practical for cooks outside the regions they hail from.) As always, Kennedy's other, earlier books offer ample information on the state's cooking. Beyond Kennedy, check out Zarela Martinez's The Food and Life of Oaxaca and Susana Trilling's Seasons of my Heart, valuable resources both.