A culinary journey to Oaxaca

Sample the unusual flavours found on the streets and in the restaurants of the Mexican state.
Octopus at Casa Oaxaca El Restaurante. Photo by Douglas Favero
Octopus at Casa Oaxaca El Restaurante. Photo by Douglas Favero

It’s a bright, light Mexican morning at Oaxaca’s chaotic Mercado de la Merced, where I’m quietly debating whether to brave a handful of fried grasshoppers.

“They’re very tasty,” says Pilar Cabrera, founder of Casa de los Sabores culinary school and my cooking teacher for the day.

Sliding a couple of crispy critters into my mouth, I experience a burst of flavour that’s peppery and slightly sour. It’s not unpleasant, just unusual – an appropriate introduction to the authentic fare that makes Mexico a must-visit destination for the adventurous gourmet. The country’s culinary credentials are well established; Unesco recognised its cuisine as an element of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010, and today the world’s great gastro capitals are peppered with Mexican eateries.

But the real appeal for the “epicurious” is in what comes alongside those sunny flavours: the chance to immerse oneself in traditional culture, through dining experiences that preserve an ancestral way of life.

Ask any Mexican and they will tell you the ultimate foodie ­destination is the state of Oaxaca and its eponymous capital: a ­colourful, colonial city of cobbled streets, domed churches and leafy plazas.

Set on Mexico’s curving southern coast, the state is one of the country’s most diverse – both culturally and geographically, with 16 different ethno-linguistic groups and hugely varied terrain.

“Here, every family cooks with local ingredients – apples that are in season, chillies, tomatoes. People stay true to what’s available,” says Cabrera.

This natural wealth is displayed at multitudinous mercados across the city, but the largest is the labyrinthine Central de Abasto. The butchery section is a sight to behold, packed with stalls trailing lengths of intestine, slabs of beef and whole chickens. In the fruit section, watermelons form bright pyramids, while smaller stalls sell sweet and spicy bags of chopped mango with chilli.

You’ll also find less recognisable edibles here, such as roasted gusanos (worms), which are ground down with spices to use as seasoning; or great piles of chapulines (grasshoppers), a much-loved spring speciality.

Returning from our shopping trip laden with produce, I am ushered into Cabrera’s cosy kitchen, to cook up some traditional Mexican specialities.

The 12-year-old Casa de los ­Sabores school (Dh275 per person for a group session) offers various classes, from seafood to an all-maize menu. Today we’re creating five dishes from the Isthmus region – including the classic Meso-American tamale, steamed corn dough stuffed with spiced chicken, almonds and raisins; a smooth, smoky tomato and charred red chilli sauce, the perfect foil for fresh king prawns; and hot maize tortillas.

The class is a lesson in local culture, as well as technique. Despite the historical Spanish influence, food here has vehemently resisted colonisation. Modern dishes still reflect pre-Colombian roots, with an emphasis on corn, squash, beans, chillies and avocados – ­ingredients the Zapotec community has cultivated for more than two millennia.

Intrigued by this culinary continuity, I arrange to meet Reyna Mendoza, a Zapotec from the eastern village of Teotitlán del Valle and founder of El Sabor Zapoteco cooking school (from Dh275 per person for a group class).

Mendoza says many Oaxacan dishes have remained the same for years, handed down over generations – although each village has its own style, and classics such as the famed Oaxacan mole (a chilli-based sauce) have innumerable versions.

However, times are changing. The older generation still works by hand, but younger folk are embracing new methods and new kitchen equipment; some even use fridges. Believing in the importance of old methods, Mendoza enjoys passing on cooking tradition via her classes.

Many of Oaxaca’s culinary schools are set in the historical centre, a Unesco World Heritage site packed with vividly coloured colonial buildings. I’m staying at the heart of it all, in the chic Hotel Casa Oaxaca (double rooms from US$199 [Dh730], including taxes and breakfast). Behind a blue facade, the elegant courtyard forms the heart of the property: a white-­pillared haven with terracotta tiles and wicker furniture surrounding a knotted pomegranate tree.

The food here is as good as the setting, with one of the region’s best-known chefs, Alejandro Ruiz, at the helm. He’s a man with a lot on his plate, running a portfolio of outlets across Oaxaca and Mexico City that includes the hotel’s courtyard cafe and affiliated fine-dining restaurant Casa Oaxaca El Restaurante (five-course tasting menu available from Dh124).

Tonight I’m dining with Ruiz himself, a man brimming with enthusiasm for his native cuisine. It’s midweek, but El Restaurante is full; an appropriate accolade for a venue that featured in the 2014 Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

Growing up in a large family, the oldest of five children, Ruiz learnt to cook helping his mother. She died when he was just 12, but her love of good food left its mark. “The best Oaxacan food is still found in the home,” says Ruiz, simply. “It’s the mole your grandmother makes, the tortillas your aunt rolls by hand – unpretentious food, made with love.”

The tasting menu showcases classic flavours elevated by fresh and intelligent interpretation – such as the aromatic green chile de agua, traditionally stuffed with meat and battered, but which Ruiz has transformed with a ceviche filling, accompanied by zesty passion fruit and mango salsa.

Grasshoppers are no longer recognisably insects, but finely diced and layered in soft flour tacos with hierba santa – an aromatic herb – black beans and strong cheese, topped with crème fraîche, chopped onion and coriander.

It’s a master class in Mexican flavour, with artistic plating and table-side preparation adding a delicious dollop of theatre.

But superlative eating-out isn’t limited to the high-end: Oaxaca is jam-packed with family-run restaurants, cafes serving locally grown coffee and street vendors frying tacos on oil-drum stoves.

As a region of undulating hills, walking around Oaxaca quickly builds up an appetite. A stroll past the grey-green stone facade of the cathedral into the Zócalo, the city’s vast main square, reveals stalls selling everything from fresh esquites (corn kernels and mixed with chilli powder, lime juice, mayonnaise and cheese) to fried tamales, stuffed with potato and topped with a salsa verde of green tomatoes and chilli, sprinkled with sharp, crumbly cheese.

This is street food at its freshest and most delicious.

From there, I continue north along a stone-paved street towards two soaring domes on the skyline: the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán. This magnificent Baroque church, famed for its elaborately gilded interior, adjoins a vast complex of ecclesiastical buildings – once a monastery, now a museum.

After a healthy helping of history, I’m in the mood for something sweet. Handily, across the plaza sits organic ice-cream store Manolo Nieves, which stocks some seriously adventurous flavours – including tamarind with grasshopper, and rose petal and avocado. Although if you’re after a more traditional taste, the bitter Oaxacan chocolate is sublime.

A similarly fresh and fun approach is evident at La Betulia Bed and Breakfast (double room from US$87 [Dh319], including taxes and breakfast), a guesthouse where the classic courtyard layout is offset by blazing colours and contemporary design. It’s run by husband and wife team Carlos and Pia, who – like all good Oaxacans – love their food. Breakfast is a major event. Each morning, the courtyard table groans with freshly baked bread and pastries, home-made jams and a different daily special, such as enchiladas de coloradito, crispy stuffed tacos with red sauce; or molotes – plantain fritters with black beans.

“People here are demanding about food,” Pia explains, as I exclaim over the morning spread. “That’s down to the quality of ingredients we’re used to.”

The couple encourage their gastronomically inclined visitors to explore the surrounding area, in particular the local pueblos: small rural towns, many an easy day-trip from the capital.

Each one has its own distinct character, best observed ­during the weekly markets. Zaachila Market, held every Thursday, has women in traditional dress manning canvas-shaded wooden stands, piled high with goodies such as cinnamon sticks, plump pink radishes and crusty loaves. Meanwhile, cheese lovers should make a beeline for the village of Etla’s Wednesday market, packed with farmers selling juicy ribbons of fresh quesillo (a stringy, ­mozzarella-like cheese), and strong, crumbly queso fresco.

Ultimately, it’s this diversity and heritage that makes Oaxaca such an appealing culinary destination. Tradition isn’t a gimmick, something locals wheel out for tourists; it’s an active part of everyday life and the essence of the local culinary scene.

As long as the community continues to propagate this balance of modern flair and traditional flavour, Oaxaca looks set to become one of the world’s most exciting epicurean destinations.

travel@thenational.ae

Published: December 30, 2015 04:00 AM

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