The Mexican-American singer Lila Downs made internationally famous by the 2002 film “Frida,” has recreated a modern version of traditional Mexican folklore that is treasured by listeners of past and present generations. While she has both Mexican and American citizenship, it is clear from her music that she favors her Mexican heritage, specifically with the state of Oaxaca where her mother is from. Her song “La Cumbia del Mole” is an ode to Oaxaca and aptly conveys a deep love of the state’s rich culture and history. Upon hearing this catchy tune, locals and visitors alike will surely share the author’s reverent and soulful dedication to one of the most magical states in Mexico. To expand on the content of Downs’ song, this article is dedicated to the gastronomy of Oaxaca; from mezcal to mole, and some of the best places to taste traditional food and drink in Oaxaca City.
Mezcal, a smokey and flavorful spirit distilled from the Mexican cactus maguey, is 100% Oaxacan and in my opinion, is more delicious than tequila. There are hundreds of artisanal mezcals served in Oaxaca and they can be enjoyed in a mixed drink or in its pure form to be savored “de a besitos” (giving the drink little kisses, or tiny sips to appreciate its flavor). There are countless Mezcalerias or bars that serve exclusively mezcal, and they are usually small, hole-in-the-wall joints with a lot of character. If you are new to mezcal and would like an educational experience and sampling of different kinds of mezcal, I recommend reserving a tour at El Cortijo in Oaxaca City. This establishment can be considered a mezcal museum where guests are educated on the history and science behind mezcal and subsequently sample various different kinds with the guidance of expert mezcaleros. For a hip new mezcal bar experience, check out la Mezcalerita with both indoor and terrace seating in the heart of downtown Oaxaca. I also recommend a mezcaleria and restaurant called el Tobaziche which is located in a colonial-style building and offers delicious authentic Oaxacan food and live music.
The most famous Oaxacan dish is Mole, and while there are said to be 7 different kinds in Oaxaca, the most famous is Mole Negro. Mole negro is an incredibly complex sauce made with a number of local chiles, peanuts, almonds, sesame seeds, chocolate, breadcrumbs, plantains, chicken broth, and a slew of herbs and spices. This lusciously rich and thick blend is typically served over chicken and accompanied by rice and beans. Three other popular types of mole plates are coloradito, mole amarillo, and texmole. Coloradito is a mole made with a mixture of chiles, garlic, sesame seeds, plantain, breadcrumbs, spices, and herbs blended with broth and served over chicken. Mole amarillo draws its name from a particular indigenous yellow chile used in the blend. Texmole is a sort of mole soup using the same key ingredients found in mole (a mixture of chiles, seeds, plantain, chocolate, herbs, and spices) thinned by extra broth to create a soup with corn cobs, potatoes, carrots and often times chunks of meat.
Another unique Oaxacan dish is called Caldo de Piedra, or stone soup. This is a simple soup of chiles, tomato, onions, garlic, and fish that is typically served in a gourd and heated by placing a hot stone directly into the soup.
Lastly, a typical meat dish in Oaxaca is tasado, which anglophones might refer to as beef jerky or cured beef. Tasado can be served on its own, in tacos, sandwiches, or atop Oaxaca’s beloved tlayuda.
As in all states in the republic, Oaxaca has a rich street food culture with snacks and beverages unique to the region. As mentioned above, tlayudas are perhaps the most widespread street food, consisting of a large ovular super thin crispy corn tostada topped with a thin layer of refried black beans, lettuce, tomato, and cheese with the option to add tasado, pork or chicken. Tamales Oaxaquenos are Mexican dumplings steamed in banana leaves and stuffed with any number of fillings. These can be sweet or savory. I recommend trying a chicken mole tamale so that you can try two traditional Oaxacan foods in one!
For the courageous and adventurous travelers, a popular delicacy in Oaxaca is chapulines or fried, seasoned crickets. They are satisfyingly crunchy, spicy, and a great source of lean protein. Wash them down with tejate, a traditional Oaxacan drink made of corn and cacao; akin to pozol in the state of Quintana Roo.
The best way to sample traditional Oaxacan food is by exploring their vast and colorful food markets or “mercados”. My favorite markets in and around Oaxaca City are: 20 de Noviembre, el Central de Abastos, and el mercado Tlacolula de Matamoros. Mercado 20 de Noviembre is a large covered market in the center of Oaxaca City with the most delicious tejate, fruit ices and artisanal sweets in town. The best time to visit this market and all markets, in general, is in the mornings. El central de Abastos is the biggest market in Oaxaca City and has absolutely every Oaxacan product that exists; this is a must-see market for all gastronomy lovers. Finally, the market of Tlacolula de Matamoros is in a suburb of the city and has an incredible food court section that serves all the traditional Oaxacan food including its renowned tasado offerings.
In her song “Cumbia del Mole” Lila Downs sings “cuentan que en Oaxaca, se toma mezcal con café,” meaning that in Oaxaca people are said to drink mezcal in their coffee. She then goes on to elaborate on the many ingredients ground together to form the now internationally treasured mole dish. I highly recommend listening to this wonderful song as a prelude to exploring Oaxaca and embarking on what is sure to be a titillating tour for your tastebuds.
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