Where to stay
Azul Contemporary design hotel with an art gallery, hiding behind a colonial courtyard restaurant serving excellent food. Audaciously cutting-edge suites as well as compact, more basic rooms, and a screening room for the DVD film library. Doubles from £85. Calle de Mariano Abasolo 313, 00 52 951 501 0016, hotelazuloaxaca.com
Casa Oaxaca Intimate guesthouse with exquisite, traditionally furnished rooms constructed around a colonial courtyard. Breakfast is a highlight, as is the secluded swimming pool. Main meals served are from a shorter menu than available at chef-owner Alejandro Ruiz’s highly-rated restaurant, which is in a separate location. Doubles from £160. Calle Manuel García Vigil 407, 00 52 951 514 4173, casaoaxaca.com
Quinta Real Smart, if slightly austere rooms, in a 16th-century former convent converted into a luxury hotel. The location puts you in easy reach of many city centre sights. Doubles from £100. Avenida 5 de Mayo 300, 00 52 951 501 6100, quintareal.com/oaxaca-en
Oaxaca is a state located in the south of Mexico. Its capital city shares the same name (also officially Oaxaca de Juárez). Mexico’s currency is the peso, and time is six hours behind the UK. In December, the average high temperature in Oaxaca is 26C and the average low temperature is 9C. Journey time from the UK is about 15 hours.
Aeromexico is the country’s top airline and operates a regular service from London Heathrow to Oaxaca, via Mexico City. aeromexico.com
British Airways operates a route to Mexico City. ba.com
Mexico Tourism Board has a good online portal offering a comprehensive rundown on Oaxaca. visitmexico.com/en/oaxaca
Oaxaca Tourism Board is also a valuable resource for planning your trip to the state. oaxaca.travel
Oaxaca al Gusto by Diana Kennedy (University of Texas Press, £42). One of the foremost guides to the gastronomy of the Mexican state, lavishly illustrated and a reassuring 14 years in the making.
Want to offset your carbon emissions when visiting Oaxaca? Then make a donation at climatecare.orgwhich uses contributions to support environmental projects around the world. Return flights from London produce 2.58 tonnes C02, meaning a cost to offset of £19.38.
Where to eat
Dishes are for three courses, excluding wine, unless otherwise stated.
Casa Oaxaca Alejandro Ruiz, the best-known champion of Oaxacan cuisine, serves substantial, inventive dishes on an elegant, covered first-floor terrace. Don’t miss his delicate chile de agua stuffed with ceviche and passion fruit sauce or his delicious rib-eye steak tlayuda, billed as a starter but big enough to feed an army. £30, including a taste of fine Mexican wine. Calle Constitución 104A, 00 52 951 516 8531, casaoaxacaelrestaurante.com
Itanoní Grab a cab for the best breakfast in town, just outside the historic centre. Native species of maize are hand-ground into quesadillas and other corn-based treats. £4. Belisario Dominguez 513, Colonia Reforma, 00 52 951 513 9223
La Olla Pilar Cabrera serves highly authentic moles and other dishes she learnt to cook with her grandmother in a bright, contemporary first-floor dining room. She also runs cooking classes. £15. Calle de Reforma 402, 00 52 951 516 6668, laolla.com.mx
Las Quince Letras Chef Celia Florián, president of Oaxaca’s Slow Food chapter, cooks traditional food with great passion. Be sure to order the Botana Oaxaqueña – a hefty appetiser platter of meats. The chocolate tamale is the finest dessert in town. £25. Calle de Mariano Abasolo 300, 00 52 951 514 3769, lasquinceletras.mx
Mercado Benito Juárez Hit the smoke hall for a lunchtime feast of flank steak, chorizo or innards, grilled by a choice of butchers and served up with salsa, guacamole and other side dishes made on the spot. Or try Mayordomo for a chicken tamale with black mole sauce accompanied by a big cup of hot chocolate. £3.
Mezquite Craft beer, mezcal and great bar food are attracting serious acclaim for chef Ricardo Lemus. Bag a table upstairs on the terrace, enjoy the view of Santo Domingo and don’t miss the octopus and oxtail tacos – the standouts on the tapas list. £15. Calle Manuel García Vigil 601-A, 00 52 951 514 2099, mezquite.com.mx
Origen Close to 20 de Noviembre market, Rodolfo Castellanos serves sophisticated fare that stays close to its roots, with occasional divergences like his signature sweetbread tostada. Reasonably priced for food of such outstanding quality. £20. Avenida Miguel Hidalgo 820, 00 52 951 501 1764, origenoaxaca.com
Pitiona Traditional ingredients get an edgy, ultra-modern treatment from José Manuel Baños, who has worked with the finest in San Sebastián. Don’t miss the iced avocado cloche with sashimi buried within, or the tomato soup with spheres of liquid cheese. £30. Calle Ignacio Allende 108, 00 52 951 514 0690, pitiona.com
Zandunga Restaurant specialising in south-eastern Mexican cuisine, featuring the likes of pork marinated in pineapple. Come also for the cool cocktails, served in a colourful, high-design contemporary setting on the edge of the arty Los Arquitos neighbourhood. £20. Calle Manuel García Vigil 512-E, 00 52 951 516 2265
- Grasshoppers purged to remove any bitterness, seasoned with lime, garlic and salt then fried crisp to serve with drinks or strewn over salads.
- Chile de agua
- Chilli commonly used for stuffing in Oaxaca, it's spicier than its name suggests.
- Pungent herb resembling a chive but with a distinctive, lingering flavour.
- Smokey dried chilli often used as an ingredient in moles and other sauces.
- Coriander, valued for its flowers as well as its leaves and stems.
- Commonly used long, red chilli.
- Smokey artisanal spirit distilled from agave.
- Rich sauce made with the yellow, red or green chilles that give its colour; and often enriched with unsweetened or slightly sweetened chocolate to make the most famous black version, generally served with chicken or turkey.
- Native fruity, hot chilli, usually served dry.
- A dish of foraged wild greens.
- Local mozzarella-like cheese, sold in plaits and used fresh or melted.
- Delicious wild salad leaf that is also a mainstay of quelites.
- Giant corn tortilla crisped up over a naked flame and topped with black bean paste, melted quesillo and sometimes strips of beef.
Food and Travel Review
They came for the gold but stayed for the food. When the Spanish first arrived in Mexico’s culinary heartland in the early 16th century, they returned with more than precious metals in great store. The New World not only gave us corn and chocolate, but also spicy mole and smoky mezcal. Oaxaca is beginning to be recognised as one of the world’s great gastronomic regions, both forward-thinking and respectful of where it has come from.
Pronounced ‘wa-ha-ca’, it’s an astonishingly diverse state of mountains, forest and coast, with a fertile valley at its centre. Its eponymous capital is where British chef Thomasina Miers found inspiration for her restaurant chain, Wahaca.
‘Even chefs born here still spot foodstuffs they have never seen before in the markets,’ she says. ‘From hot chocolate and eggs baked on hoja santa at Casa Oaxaca, to quesadillas stuffed with Oaxacan cheese, beans and epazote at Itanoni, Oaxaca is dear to my heart.’ It’s not surprising, for this lovely little town founded in 1529 and designated a Unesco World Heritage Site is all that a visitor to Latin America could wish for. Laid out in a perfect grid, punctuated by a colonnaded central square and many intimate plazas, its colourful low-rise buildings sit against a backdrop of moody skies and mountains on two sides.
As for markets, London’s Borough would pale into insignificance. Sacks of blue, white and yellow corn sit alongside pyramids of exotic pasillas, poblanos, costeños, chilhuacles, guajillos, chipotles and other fresh and dried chillies, piles of squash of every colour and vats of the freshly conched chocolate so beloved in the state. And then there are the succulent meats, stretchy local cheeses and stacks of crunchy grasshoppers, without which no salad in this part of Mexico seems to be complete.
Rodolfo Castellanos – lauded by the likes of Mexican cuisine expert Diana Kennedy as ‘the great chef in Oaxaca’ – learnt how to use these ingredients from his mother. His cooking style is sophisticated and modern without losing focus on the essential flavours and textures. He cooked in Michelin-starred restaurants in Monaco before returning to his hometown to create a brand of French-Mexican fusion that’s gaining fans the world over. Oaxaqueños, it’s said, can never stay away long. Although it is the men who have created a global appetite for the food of region, it is women who have kept it alive, who propagate native ingredients in their fields and gardens, and who perpetuate centuries-old culinary traditions in restaurants and their own homes.
However, not all were born into a lifetime of domesticity. Lea Gabriela Fernández Orantes is a biochemical engineer who turned her back on a high-flying career to become – in the eyes of her slightly horrified family – a humble tortillera bent on saving the corn varieties Oaxaca has been growing for 6,000 years.
‘My husband is an agronomist specialising in maize production. Fourteen years ago, we decided to devote our lives to preserving and propagating heirloom species in danger of dying out,’ she explains. Many endemic varieties of this Mexican staple have been compromised by the infiltration of GM crops. ‘We decided to showcase them not only by establishing a cooperative to help us grow seven important varieties, but also grinding them by hand and cooking on a stone in the traditional way.’
And thus Itanoní, their restaurant, was born. Here, a fried egg and a dollop of red or green salsa on an organic tortilla make you realise why Mexico, the cradle of maize, has made the world mad for corn-based tacos and their equally addictive relatives, quesadillas, enchiladas and the giant, crispy tlayuda that are an iconic speciality of Oaxaca, where they are used as a Mexican-style pizza base.
Itanoní’s corn comes in shades of blue or white rather than yellow (it is US demand for sweetcorn that has threatened to drive out endemic species), and Oaxaca’s stucco colonial houses are even more diverse in colour. On any one street you’ll find terracotta clashing cheerfully with cobalt, cherry-pink trimmed with green or yellow, turquoise walls flaunting purple window-frames. The psychedelic rainbow hues allegedly inspired John Lennon to write Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds when he came to Oaxaca to try its legendary magic mushrooms. After being dazzled, we continue our day in the outlying weaving village of Teotitlán del Valle, where women still cook with the same tools and techniques used half a millennium before the Spanish arrived.
Juana Perez and her daughter converse with each other in Zapotec, an ancient language that has persisted among locals for over 2,000 years. ‘I went to school to learn Spanish, but only when my mother could spare me,’ explains Juana, who follows in the footsteps of a long line of matriarchs by rolling cornmeal for her tortillas on a lava-rock stone. The stone and its accompanying metate – a short, chunky stone rolling-pin – sit in a back garden planted with many of the area’s exotic herbs, including yerba santa, yerba buena, epazote, purslane, pitiona and the intensely flavourful, chive-shaped chepiche. Juana is also growing her own squash – it’s so prolific that every day in summer she can pluck the blossoms so prized in Mediterranean markets to stuff into tortillas, over which she will melt the stringy, mozzarella-like local cheese known as quesillo, before folding and toasting into quesadillas.
Next to the herb plot, a wood-fired stove hisses steam, in which tamales of cornmeal laced with shredded chicken are gently cooking in their silken husks, enrobed in a golden sauce. Juana has just used her stone to grind lemon-hued costeño chillies with flavourings including yerba santa and avocado leaves, to make a delicately spicy yellow mole. It’s every bit as prevalent in Oaxaca as the better-known black version synonymous with Mexican cooking.
‘Mole is not just about chocolate in this state,’ she laughs. Indeed, in the nearby Sunday market of Tlacolula – where hundreds of vendors come down from the mountains and up from the coast every week – we see vats of red, green and rust-coloured mole, as well as yellow and black. ‘To us, mole simply means a paste that we pound into a sauce,’ Juana says. ‘It always contains various chillies and usually cornmeal too – and just sometimes we add chocolate.’
Her own tamales with yellow mole are very good. However, drawn by the ever-present heady scent of chocolate freshly ground with almonds or hazelnuts, cinnamon and cloves, I can’t wait to try the sweeter and stickier version that she mentions is back in town. The chicken tamale with black mole purveyed by Oaxaca’s premier house of chocolate, Mayordomo, where the city shops for its morning drinking chocolate, is a taste sensation, with the salty chicken playing against its grainy cornmeal bed.
The only version that beats this one is the stunningly simple dessert tamale we eat at Las Quince Letras, a city restaurant with another great woman at the helm. Chefowner Celia Florián also runs the Oaxaca chapter of the Slow Food movement, which has taken a strong hold in Mexico.
It’s tempting to imagine that a dish so redolent in the essential flavours of Oaxaca might have been enjoyed as a festive treat in the temple complex of Monte Albán, whose pyramids, ball-courts and rock carvings have drawn millions to the area since they were excavated from beneath a layer of grass and mud just 85 years ago. This masterpiece of Zapotec engineering dates back some 2,500 years, and by the time the Spanish arrived, the indigenous nobles were already drinking chocolate, sharing it with their subjects on national holidays.
Away from the pyramids of Monte Albán, the medieval archaelogical site of Mitla and the mezcal distillery route, there are big culinary draws to explore. Women will ply you with traditional fare, the men will wow you with dazzling, technical cooking. The spherification and liquid nitrogen of molecular cuisine may seem out of place in such a traditional city, but chef José Manuel Baños has dared to import it, along with the other tools of contemporary culinary theatre, from San Sebastián in northern Spain, where he worked with New Basque maestro Juan Mari Arzak.
At Baños’s Pitiona restaurant, the first thing I’m given is spheres of quesillo, which explode in a pure burst of slightly sour liquid, set inside a sweet bath of tomato soup. A dish of shredded lamb has an earthiness that comes from bitter chocolate. Insects are never far away in Oaxaca, and we soon become used to chapulines – garlic-fried grasshoppers sold in markets by the sack – substituting for croutons to lend crunch to a herby salad.
Where ants and grasshoppers are so abundant, worms aren’t far behind – occasionally blended with the chilli salt that accompanies a sauce of green orange slices at mezcal tastings. Generally, the worm remains in the bottle, a reputedly aphrodisiac addition to this artisanal spirit that was a forerunner to the more industrialised tequila of Mexico’s western states.
‘We don’t use chemicals,’ explains Armando Hernandez, a third-generation distiller at Palenque Mal de Amor, one of many small makers along the mezcal route to the south-east of Oaxaca city. ‘Growers come from tequila country offering them to help our agaves, but we prefer to grow naturally and wait eight to ten years to harvest each plant.’ Once picked, denuded of their spiky bluegreen leaves and hacked into quarters, the agaves are baked for four days in a deep wood-fired pit at the back of the distillery. This renders the fruit a deep amber as sweet as sugar cane, and the nectar is a valuable by-product in its own right. Once distilled, just a hint of sweetness remains, and while the pure spirit is an acquired taste, we discover it mixes beautifully with cucumber juice.
While our first encounter at the bar is a grass-green cocktail at Alejandro Ruiz’s Casa Oaxaca – the ritziest place in the city to stay and eat – our second appears as a digestif with coffee added to mezcal and cucumber juice at Mezquite, a lively taverna run by Ruiz’s younger protégé Ricardo Lemus.
A place for bar food that complements Oaxaca’s mezcals and growing number of craft beers, its specialities include tacos of succulent octopus and sticky oxtail – rib-sticking stuff designed to ward off hangovers (though they say you will never get one from super-clean mezcal). Their tlayuda is phenomenal – spread with dripping, and topped with mashed black beans, avocado leaves, fiery chile de árbol, caramelised onions and finally quesillo.
‘It’s a double-edged sword here,’ says Lemus, of his city. ‘Embracing tradition doesn’t always chime with embracing change – and those of us trying to do something new with the ingredients we grew up with have to fight for it.’
One chef winning the fight is the last I visit, just a block from the 20 de Noviembre market, where you must dodge butchers in the smoke hall hawking ready-to-grill flank steaks, chorizo and tripe hanging from their stalls like necklaces in order to save appetite for Rodolfo Castellanos’s restaurant, Origen.
The homesick Castellanos – who went straight from cooking school to Monaco after winning a scholarship to cook in the principality’s top restaurants – returned to Oaxaca by way of a stint in San Francisco after his little girl was born. ‘My wife, my sweetheart from cooking school, and I really wanted to come home to our families and the ingredients we love,’ he explains. The result is a menu that looks Mexican on the surface, but embraces ingredients that Oaxacans may have forgotten, or perhaps never discovered in the first place. Quintonil is a wild green that has to be foraged, and is exquisite when served by Castellanos as a divinely bitter stew over spaghetti squash, garnished with tiny tomatoes and a sprinkle of grated hard local mountain cheese. These quelites, as the dish is known, accompany a sweetbread tostada, made quintessentially Oaxacan by the addition of pasilla chillies, avocado leaves and coriander flowers, which are often discarded in other cuisines.
And here’s the rub: ‘You see tripe and other entrails in the market, but the sweetbreads are often thrown away,’ says Castellanos, who only became familiar in with the meat in France. ‘Yet we have always valued the leaves, as well as the fruit, of the avocados and the flowers of the corriander plant.’
That’s Oaxaca for you: always something new to discover, whether recipes handed down through the generations by indigenous people or ingredients reimagined and now helping to redefine the ancient cuisine. Maybe that’s the true treasure?
Get Premium access to all the latest content online
Subscribe and view full print editions online... Subscribe