Oaxaca is known as the culinary capital of Mexico, and those of you who frequent a certain well-known Mexican restaurant chain may, or may not, be surprised to know Oaxaca is pronounced ‘Wahaca’.
It was armed with this knowledge that we arrived with high hopes for the cuisine; we were not disappointed and as you’ll see, much of our time here involved food in some way.
Our initial foray into town was hot, and we sheltered from the blazing sun with iced coffee in one of the town’s many coffee shops. Oaxaca has its own take on coffee which is a very thick concoction flavoured with sugar and cinnamon – quite delicious.
In the evening we ventured as far as the local food market to wolf down a couple of ‘tlayudas’, best described as a Mexican pizza, a large flat toasted tortilla with your choice of ingredients spread on top (him- veggies, me – chorizo). After, he dashed off with some others from our tour to a much anticipated football match between the local team and Mexican giants ‘Cruz Azul’, which he’ll tell you about in another post.
The following morning we set off early to Monte Alban, a Unesco World Heritage Site, to discover all about the Zapotec Culture there. One of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica and thought to be the Zapotec capital, Monte Alban was founded in around 500 BC. We learned that it was eventually abandoned in around 900 AD – though the reasons for the abandonment seem to be contested. Our young yet impressively knowledgeable guide’s opinion was that it was a lack of resources that caused it’s inhabitants to eventually move on; that over the years they had drained the area and made errors in farming in the lowlands rather than the highlands, which were then affected by flooding.
Most fascinating were the ‘Stones of the Dancers’ which had been thought to depict the entertainment of the day, but more recently a theory has emerged that the pictures in fact show medical maladies.
The aesthetic feel of the site is similar to that of Mayan sites we’ve seen on this trip, and we were able to climb the platforms and marvel at the views.
There were locals inhabiting the area and farming the land when it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site who are now entitled to sell their replica artefacts within the site. We agreed to buy a small hand carved replica owl from a very persuasive chap (for the equivalent of about £1) and I indulged in a very fashionable hat from just outside the site to protect me from the sun for the princely sum of 80p (I have to admit to finally letting it go in El Salvador).
That evening we decided that we couldn’t visit the ‘culinary capital’ of Mexico and not check out what was declared by our guide to be the best restaurant in town, ‘Casa Oaxaca’.
Our meal began with our waiter preparing us our very own personalised salsa by hand at our table, which was incredible and quickly devoured by us with tortilla chips as we perused the menu. To start, I enjoyed squash flowers filled with ricotta, honey and herbs and served with an amazing plantain puree, while he devoured beef strips served with tomatoes, smoked trout and a herb dressing. For mains I enjoyed duck and he octopus. We snuck in a desert each, me an Oaxacan chocolate mousse within a sphere of chocolate which was perhaps a little rich for my savoury taste but undeniably delicious. We paired the whole thing with a delicious bottle of Mexican red (did you know they don’t really export Mexican wines, but gosh do we wish they would – we’ve sampled some beauties) and agreed as we rolled back to our hotel that it was oh so worth the splurge on our travellers budget.
Not satisfied with sampling the culinary goods, the following morning I decided to go backstage at one of the other well-known Oaxaca restaurants ‘Casa Crespo’ for a chance to see up close how the local foods are prepared and to have a go at cooking them myself.
Here, head chef Oscar Carrizosa put together a menu based on seasonally available ingredients and the tastes of his students that day, before leading us to the local market where we watched him pick and choose the produce and listened to his vast knowledge on just some of the 150 types of chillies that are available in Mexico.
Back in the classroom we collectively made no less than 7 courses, including Mixiotes, Chiles Relllenos de Picadillo, Squash Blossom Tamales, Pollo Encacahuatado (chicken in peanut sauce), Tortillas de Masa Fresca, Mancha Manteles, Chichilo and Helado de Chocolate Oaxaqueno (Oaxacan Chocolate Ice Cream). We even made tortillas by hand and helped to press and cook them. After our class came the best bit of the morning – a feast of a lunch eating all of the goods we’d helped to make.
If you’re ever in the area, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this class, which cost the equivalent of around £50 – in my opinion good value or money, especially as we were sent away with all of the recipes (friends – you bring the tequila and I’ll attempt to recreate the tamales).
Meanwhile, back at our charming hotel which surrounded a central courtyard filled with the most beautiful trees, plants and birds, he was left in charge of packing our bags ahead of our first dreaded overnight bus on to San Cristobal de las Casas.