Fun, Beautiful, Tasty, Historic Oaxaca

Oaxaca Mexico

Oaxaca restaurant owner Pilar Cabrera

Pilar Cabrera, Oaxaca native, chef owner of La Olla restaurant, food scientist

What Lyon is to French gastronomy, what Emilia-Romagna is to Italian cuisine, what the South is to American cooking, many would argue Oaxaca is to Mexican food.

For Anglophiles, Oaxaca was made famous by Diana Kennedy’s Oaxaca Al Gusto. For Mexicans, Oaxaca is a revered place, not only for its savory dishes but for it’s rich history spanning 485 years of European settlement.

Oaxaca chef Celia Florian

Celia Florián is a world ambassador for Oaxacan cuisine. She recently participated in the Worlds of Flavor international conference at the Culinary Institute of America, Napa Valley.

At the mention of Oaxaca (pronounced wɑːˈhɑː.kɑː) Mexicans fall reverently silent and exclaim, “¡Que bella es Oaxaca!” How beautiful!

So what took Oaxaca so long to celebrate its indigenous food? That’s what food expert and restauranteur Celia Florián wondered. So she made it her mission to establish the first recognition of traditional cooks from the eight regions of the state. (Like New York, Oaxaca is both a state and a city named Oaxaca.)

Florián, owner of the respected Las Quince Letras restaurant, implored the mayor of Oaxaca city and the governor of Oaxaca state to establish the Primer Encuentro de Cocineras Tradicionales de Oaxaca (the first meeting of the traditional cooks of Oaxaca).

The results were a success with some 10,000 people over two days exploring the offerings of 48 women cooks, April 24 and 25.

For those of us who were lucky enough to be invited to write about and photograph the two-day food fest it seemed like 48 glorious meals in 48 hours. And a little mezcal.

Tobala Mezcal

All tequila comes from blue agave, but mezcal can start with any agave. The most popular is espadin. This mezcal comes from the tobala plant (shown). It’s one of my favorites.

The Food of Oaxaca

Of all the foods synonymous with Oaxaca perhaps the best known is the tlayuda. A large tortilla is first spread with refried beans and then stuffed with cheese. Next comes a turn on the grill over wood embers. One of the best known locations for tlayudas in Oaxaca is Doña Flavia. The ones at Doña Flavia come with beef, chorizo, and grasshoppers.

Tlayudas in Oaxaca

Cooks spread the tortilla with a coating of refried beans and then cover the surface with cheese.

Tlayuda Oaxaca

Tlayudas are scorched on a super hot grill over wood chips.

Doña Flavia tlayudas Oaxaca

The grill master greets customers at the door of Doña Flavia’s tlayudas restaurant, a legendary Oaxaca space.

Oink, Oink

Dr. Soto, if you’re reading, I’m not likely to develop arteriosclerosis from consuming too much Mexican beef, but the pork is divine. At the Benito Juárez market we found sheets of slivered pork so thin you could practically see through them. This cut of meat, known as cecina, is typically made with beef and salted for preservation. At Catedral restaurant I ate the best backbone to leave a kitchen since I loitered around my mother’s G.E. electric range. The Catedral version was served in Oaxacan green mole sauce. At El Paseo cantina I tried the renown salchicha Oaxaqueña, which must be an acquired taste, like grasshoppers. Adding seasoning and pork fat would satisfy my Georgia palate.

Cecina de cerdo, pork cecina

Eating huge slabs of meat is a north of the border custom. Pork cecina is sliced wafer thin.

Backbone in green mole

Backbone (espinazo) in green Oaxaca mole.

Salchicha Oaxequeño

Okay, I have to admit this sausage, salchicha Oaxaqueña, was not my favorite.

The Three Sisters: Corn, Beans, and Squash

Mexico and the American South share more in common than one would imagine. The Three Sisters of Native American cooking — corn, beans, and squash — is a prime example. A Spanish settlement on the Georgia coast 200 years before the arrival of the English is another. Most southerners recall the memories of stewed yellow summer squash, a big pot of butter beans on the stove, and a cast iron skillet of cornbread on the side.

Evelia Reyes wakes every morning to nurse a giant pot of beans at her restaurant Cocina Económica Fuensanta. She serves Oaxacan tamales made of corn. For special guests she prepares sopa de guías, a soup made with the runners of squash plants.

We are more alike than we are different.

Squash soup

Sopa de guías is made from the runners of the squash plant.

Beans on the stove

Evelia Reyes stirs a pot of beans at her restaurant Fuensanta.

Oaxaca tamale

Tamales Oaxaqueños


The women who are traditional cooks in Mexico, who pass down ancient recipes and cooking techniques, are known as las mayoras. You may also be interested in reading an article I published about the women soul-food cooks of The Beautiful Restaurant in Atlanta. Together the nine women tallied 292 years of kitchen experience when the article was first published in 2014.

SOUL FOOD: The Beautiful Restaurant and the Perfect Church


© 2017 Doug Hall

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