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Pan de yema and hot chocolate
Pan de yema and hot chocolate | © protoplasma k / Flickr
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Menu of the Day: Oaxaca & the Isthmus of Tehuantepec

Picture of Lydia Carey
Updated: 11 May 2018
Oaxaca, in Mexico’s southeast, is one of the country’s most culturally and biologically diverse regions of the country. They have over 570 municipalities (one-fifth of the total municipalities in the country), many of which remain majority indigenous and self-governing. Their rich environment and extensive culinary history have led them to have one of the country’s most well-known regional cuisines – tlayudas, tasajo, mole, roasted crickets, quesillo cheese, pan de yema, and Oaxacan hot chocolate are known throughout the world. Here are a few common and not-so-common dishes you will love.

Cocktail hour

Mezcal is king in Oaxaca. This state is the number one producer of mezcal-producing maguey cacti. Each factor in mezcal making affects the final product – soil minerals, type of plant, climate, groundwater, and aging process – so we doubt you will run out of options to try. But, if you prefer something a little different, try a cerveza de piña (pineapple beer), amargo, or chicha.

To whet the appetite

Tlayudas

A filling street snack, tlayudas look like giant tortillas, and they are (made with white corn), but these tortillas are dried out to obtain their crispy texture and roasted over a comal before eating. They get a layer of refried beans on top, cheese, and the meat of your choice, most commonly chorizo, tasajo, or cecina.

Bugs, bugs, bugs

Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s regions with the highest bugs-as-food consumption. Before you get queasy, most of these wriggly treats are roasted and flavored and, besides their crunch, you would barely know the difference between them and “regular” meat. Often served as snack with beer or mezcal or as a taco filling, you will find crickets, cicadas, maguey worms, leaf-cutter ants, and more.

Soups and salads

Squash blossom soup

Squash blossoms in Mexican cuisine date all the way back to the Maya who once inhabited this country. Oaxaca’s strong indigenous community may be one of the reasons that this soup is so prevalent there. Generally for this soup the flowers are sautéed with epazote and then added to chicken stock or water – what comes after that is up to the chef.

On the side

Arroz de chepil

Rice is a common side dish at most meals in Oaxaca, and there are endless variations on how it is prepared. One of the most delicious is arroz de chepil, chepil being an intoxicatingly good leafy herb endemic to Mexico that makes everything taste a little fresher. During its season, fresh chepil is used, and during the dry months, dried chepil is jealously guarded by cooks everywhere until it blooms again.

Albondigas Oaxaqueños

Oaxacan meatballs are generally made from ground beef, mixed with cumin, clove, black pepper, allspice, garlic, mint, egg, and bread crumbs. They are stuffed with hard-boiled eggs and most often covered in a chile pasilla sauce with a little bit of garlic in it.

Main plates

Mole

We don’t really need to talk about any other main dishes, because mole dominates the eating scene in Oaxaca most days. There are, of course, the seven moles of Oaxaca, but there are also about a hundred other renditions – like bean mole in the Sierra Norte region of Oaxaca – that are just as important in daily eating in this state. Different from mole poblano, which has chocolate and is generally served over wild turkey or chicken, Oaxaca’s moles can be yellow, green, red, fruity, or savory, and a few have chocolate as an ingredient. They are generally served with meats like rabbit, pork, or even iguana if you want to go really traditional.

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Mole ingredients│ | © Matt Murphy / flickr

For a sweet tooth

Pan de yema and Oaxacan hot chocolate

Oaxacan bread is famous throughout the country, with different Oaxacan towns gaining fame for different recipes. The most famous of all Oaxacan sweetbreads is pan de yema, or egg yolk bread, which can be found in almost every market and is the perfect accompaniment to Oaxacan hot chocolate, whose mix of ingredients give it a slightly cinnamony and spicy taste to it.

Delicious extras

Cecina / Tasajo

Cecina is thinly sliced beef that is salted and dried, either in the sun or in a smoker. In Oaxaca, you will often hear it called tasajo, and every once in a while it is made with pork meat instead. Tasajo or cecina enchiladas are either of these meats (same drying process) but with a rub of spices. This meat is popular any time of the day in Oaxaca and for any meal.

Tamal Oaxaqueño

The Oaxacan tamale’s biggest distinction is that it is wrapped and steamed in banana leaves, and thus has an ever-so-slightly different taste to it. Filling options are endless and include shrimp, pata de burro, rosados (sweet), yellow salsa, chepil, mole coloradito, corn, beans, and wild turkey.

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Oaxacan tamales│ | © Enrique Vázquez / flickr