Editor’s note: We are very happy to be able to add Oaxaca to the growing list of cities CB is covering. Our coverage of that city’s deep and fascinating culinary scene begins today, with our report on Oaxaca’s State of the Stomach.
Every Sunday, a vendor named Domitila heads out from a village called Etla and makes the hour-long journey to Oaxaca, where she sets up a small stand at a market on the north side of town and sells tamales filled with her homemade stews and moles. The many ingredients for these stews and moles cook slowly, for hours, after which Domitila combines them with spices, chile, chicken or cheese and mixes them into a cornmeal dough spread inside a cornhusk and then steamed – the quintessential Oaxacan snack, one that combines all of the area’s agricultural and culinary richness in one package.
Oaxaca’s deep culinary heritage is, like in many places, a result of its geography: a big valley formed by small ones, all surrounded by mountains, rich soil and warm weather. In fact, this valley reminds us of a clay pot, much like the one Domitila uses, where many ingredients are mixing, aging and melting together to become something new over the heat of the fire.
The Central Valleys of Oaxaca have been home to various different cultures throughout history. The first traces of domesticated corn were found in the caves here. After that, the area was home to the growing fields and fortresses of numerous Indigenous groups such as the Zapotecs, Mixtecs and Mixes, to name a few. Due to the diversity of climates and landscapes in and around the valleys, these people could grow and forage a wide variety of foods, such as amaranth, corn, cacao, grasshoppers and other insects, turkey, chiles, pumpkin; fruits like mamey, papaya, prickly pear; and greens like hierba santa and epazote.
However, the earth and its gifts were not the only ingredients Indigenous groups used to nurture their body and spirit. For them, fire and air were – and still are – part of the sacred recipe for sustaining life. And with fire and air (in the form of smoke) come the fusion of flavors and the origin of new ones. Mole is one clear example, as it represents the mix of several ingredients cooked for a long period of time, over a patient yet powerful log-fueled fire.
But then, in the 16th century, the Spanish arrived, bringing destruction, war and a new religion that they imposed on the original inhabitants of the Valleys. Many fought and resisted the invaders while others fled deep into the mountains and jungles. In the end, a large portion of the Indigenous population was subjected and forced to accept the colonizer’s rules.
The devotion to ancient ways never really died out, however, particularly in culinary terms. All the local ingredients used by Indigenous groups not only survived the invasion but also became crucial for the diets of the Mestizos, as the new population of people of combined Spanish and Indigenous (and sometimes also African) descent came to be known.
Despite the outside influences that have arrived here over the centuries, Oaxaca and its cooks remain deeply rooted in the area’s terroir
Of course, corn is number one on the list – we can’t picture Oaxaca, and Mexico more generally, without it at any point in its history. In Oaxaca it is eaten every day, in all shapes and forms – solid, liquid and semi-liquid. Corn is also one of the main ingredients in most Oaxacan dishes, from tortillas to porridge-like hot drinks and even as a thickening agent in moles. Besides its importance in the local cuisine, it is also the heart of the fields: Most Oaxacan farmers make their living from corn, which they grow to sell or for their own consumption. The soil in the Central Valleys seems to have a love affair with this grain, since at least 35 of Mexico’s 64 native varieties can be found in Oaxaca.
On the other hand, Middle Eastern ingredients brought over by the Spanish such as onions, garlic, olive oil, bread, cloves, cumin, oregano and pepper were incorporated into the original moles, thus deepening the flavors and bringing these dishes to a whole new level. Cattle were another important Spanish import; the resulting meat and dairy products added new dimensions to traditional dishes. Nowadays, we couldn’t imagine barbacoa tacos without onions and lime, or enchiladas, made of lush corn tortillas, without sour cream and cheese.
Despite the outside influences that have arrived here over the centuries, Oaxaca and its cooks remain deeply rooted in the area’s terroir, refusing to cave to the pressures of the modern, frenzied lifestyle that seems to have taken hold of some of Mexico’s northern cities, like Monterrey, Guadalajara and Mexico City (in 2003, when McDonald’s wanted to open a branch in the historic center, Oaxacans – led by a revered local artist – successfully blocked the move). Oaxaca’s food, in particular, has stepped up in recent years to reclaim a position of prominence, with Oaxacan restaurants opening up in other Mexican cities and beyond. In Oaxaca itself, almost every traditional dish you find in the streets, markets, cafeterias or fancy restaurants has been cooked consciously, respecting that most important ingredient: time. This resistance to fast food is something we can touch, taste and smell in every stall and corner of Oaxaca. We can taste it in the enchiladas Maria Luisa makes at her little fonda inside the central market, a recipe her great-grandmother taught her, or the to-go tacos that we buy from Reyna, who religiously sets up her stall in downtown Oaxaca to cater to office workers during lunch, and are prepared with fresh tortillas her daughter makes in front of us.
And resistance comes in other ways as well – it also takes the form of respecting the diversity of traditional food made with Indigenous, Spanish, Mestizo and African ingredients and recipes. Our culinary tradition is a reminder of the clash and syncretism of many cultures, where grilling over clay and deep-frying techniques can cohabitate and complement each other perfectly; where a tangy purslane, radish and cricket salad can be followed by a very heavy mole and then washed down by a shot of minerally mezcal or an acidic lime sherbet. The balance of salt, acid and fat, the result of the marriage of all these cooking styles, is one of the many secrets behind Oaxacan food.
Eating Domitila’s tamal, we taste not just the corn and the chicken, but also the time she put into cooking it, as well as the ancient recipes and techniques that survived over the years thanks to the commitment of local cooks and communities to maintaining local culinary customs. It makes us want to dig deeper into this clay pot-like valley, to find all the traditional dishes that have endured – and taste the transformations they have made along the way.