Regional Mexican cuisine is, thankfully, beginning to break free of its overgeneralized reputation. A new set of ambitious, young chefs are calling attention to the regional variations within Mexican cooking, while the hard work of some pioneering U.S. restaurants are finally convincing diners that Mexican food isn’t synonymous with fast-food burritos or slushy margaritas.
Chief among the regional cuisines lately getting their due is the food and drink of Oaxaca, one of the 30-plus states that make up the country of Mexico. Located in the southern portion of the country, Oaxaca boasts a varied topography that includes mountains, lowlands, coastal areas, and its largest metropolis, Oaxaca City. It’s impossible to talk about the flavors of Oaxaca without first talking about its range of geography and ethnic groups.
To better understand the culture (and agriculture) behind Oaxacan cuisine, I turned to chef Hugo Ortega. Oretega was born in Mexico City and is the James Beard Foundation award-winning chef behind four Houston restaurants (Backstreet Cafe, Hugo’s, Caracol and Xochi) and is the author of two cookbooks. Though he was born in Mexico City, his grandmother lived in a 500-person village in the Oaxacan region of Mixteca while he was growing up, and Ortega vividly recalls trips to her candlelit home.
He tells me that members of 16 of Mexico’s 21 ethnic groups live in Oaxaca and speak more than 200 dialects. Despite Spanish colonial presence, many pre-Hispanic cultural traditions have survived and mingled with outside influences.
“It’s pristine, still,” Ortega tells me. “It’s so difficult to get there and that’s what’s helped maintain what it is today.”
Despite some formidable mountains, the capital city is located in a rich equatorial valley perfect for many types of agriculture including corn, chocolate, and chili peppers. Even in the mountains, succulent wild mushrooms are plentiful, while the coastline provides excellent seafood and sea salt.
“Oaxaca is the belly of Mexico,” Ortega says. “And as far as I’m concerned, it can be the belly of the world.”
If the region is known for any dish, it’s mole. Oaxaca is dubbed the Land of Seven Moles, for seven regional variations on the dish, though most people outside the country are probably familiar with mole negro, the red chili-chocolate version that can contain a few dozen ingredients or more.
“You put 20 cooks and you give them chilis, 20 cooks will cook mole differently,” Ortega says. “There’s no such thing as a standardized recipe.”
Andres Padilla, culinary director for Rick Bayless’ Frontera Restaurants, describes mole as a hyper-regional dish that most home cooks prepare from their own blend of ingredients and spices. All of it starts, of course, with the red or green chili peppers that flourish in Oaxaca. From there, cooks can add aromatics such as onion and garlic, chili seeds, tomatillos, tomatoes, cacao, spices, and broth or water.
“You’re making this really complex flavor that’s not of any one ingredient,” Padilla says. “It’s all the ingredients coming together which is like their indigenous cultures coming together with a lot of Spanish culture, too. You can think about it that way.”
Behind mole, mezcal is likely Oaxaca’s most famous culinary export. It’s similar to tequila in that both are made from agave plants, but tequila is only made from one type: the agave tequilana weber plant. Mezcal can be made from dozens of types of agave, so in fact tequila is just one subset of mezcal. Tequila lacks mezcal’s smoky character because its agave is typically steamed rather than roasted in pits. Both spirits are protected by Denominación de Origen (DOC) regulations.
As global demand for the spirit grows—AdWeek reports its sales volume doubled between 2012 and 2016—larger, commercial producers are muscling in on what has for centuries been a highly artisanal, individualized practice of mezcal-making.
“As you go up in the mountains, they do it in a more organic, rustic way. It’s not commercial-side. People have 20 plants where they do 50 bottles of that particular mezcal and every little village does their own,” Ortega says. “Some companies have commercialized this. They buy the land, plant the agave they want to grow; but overall it’s still very untouched.”
Besides claiming some of the best chili- and cacao-growing soil in the country, Oaxaca is also the birthplace of the crop most central to Mexican cuisine: corn. Ortega says Oaxacans cultivate around 200 types of heirloom corn, which can be ground into the masa that forms the base of much of the region’s cuisine.
One of the best places to experience the flavors of heirloom corn is at the markets, where vendors, usually women, sell tlayuda. Tlayuda is heirloom corn pressed into a giant tortilla and baked on a clay comal or griddle until crispy, with a flavor like rich popcorn. You can buy them by the stack, but Padilla says they’re best eaten as a base for a snack of creamy black beans blended with the leaves of a wild avocado plant, which lend an anise-like flavor. Topped with queso oaxaca, fresh tomato and avocado, it’s about as good a breakfast as you can find, Padilla says.
Also important to the markets are the meat vendors, especially in Oaxaca City’s Mercado Benito Juarez where an entire corridor of stalls fills with the aromas of smoke and cooking meats. The most common trio of offerings are Oaxacan chorizo (made with red chilis, vinegar, and spices); cecina, a super thin-cut pork that’s salted and marinated with a red chile adobo and grilled over a wood fire; and tasajo, accordion-cut, super thin beef that’s salted, cured overnight, and cooked over a fire.
“Order your meat by the quarter-kilo and they’ll throw it on the grill for you with knob onions. Then go down to the end of the hall where the ladies make tortillas, and order a dozen. Other people have the fresh salsas and salads. You basically build yourself this little taco platter,” Padilla suggests. “That’s a must for anyone who goes to Oaxaca City.”
Above all, he and Ortega stress the importance of this first-hand experience, of going to Oaxaca. They worry that the nuanced culture and food there gets lost in translation to America at times, and that the voices and traditions of the people who’ve made this style of food for generations aren’t being heard.
“It worries me when it comes to commercialization, when we as cooks don’t do our homework and go learn firsthand,” says Ortega. “You get satisfied just to serve that something you have not spent your time with; I think that should not happen. Anyone can do Mexican food but it’s our job to study and appreciate what these wonderful people have done for us.”