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What is Oaxacan Food? | 7 Must-Try Traditional Oaxacan Dishes

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In many ways, Oaxacan food is similar to Mexican cuisine that most of us are so familiar with. It makes use of many of the same staple ingredients such as corn, beans and chile peppers, but this state in Southeastern Mexico has its own unique twists on food. These changes make Oaxacan cuisine, in the opinion of many (including me) the best food in all of Mexico.

Oaxaca’s mountains create a number of climates and cultures that have fostered some of Mexico’s most varied cuisine. One thing that makes Oaxaca food different is Oaxaca’s 16 individual indigenous groups. These peoples’ their unique traditions contribute recipes with distinct flavors that aren’t common elsewhere in the country. This includes dishes such as Oaxacan quesillo, tamales wrapped in banana leaves rather than corn husks, and tlayudas—a dish some mistakenly refer to as a “Mexican pizza”.

The region’s diet features a full list of delicious ingredients grown right in the heart of Oaxaca. These make every dish fresh and flavorful. The main ingredients this region is famous for growing include corn, chiles, and cacao.

If you’re visiting Mexico and want to sample creative and flavorful cuisine like nowhere else on earth, be sure to add Oaxaca to your list! The residents have mastered the art of using their ingredients to their fullest potential, and it shows! The state’s climate gives these ingredients different, stronger flavors.

We found the diversity in this area’s food delicious, and we often treasured the opportunity to sample delicious foods throughout the area.

Before your trip: check out my packing list for Mexico and read this post about whether or not you need travel insurance for Mexico.

Moles

Oaxaca is also known as “The Land of Seven Moles.” Each of the state’s seven regions serves up its own creative take on this dish. With this in mind, we set off to try as many types of moles as possible during our visit. In this article we’ll discuss some of the unique types we tried and the ones we recommend.

As we tried different Oaxacan moles, we quickly discovered no two are the same. Oaxacan mole recipes have been passed down through families for generations. 

Oaxacans make mole by roasting different ingredients, grinding them together and then slowly simmering them into a thick, flavorful sauce. Locals then serve the sauce on top of chicken, in enchiladas, with empanadas, and alongside almost everything. We discovered endless options. But, our favorite was served alongside chicken.

All moles contain chiles, aromatics and thickeners. They can include things like onions, garlic, chocolate, tomatillos, tomatoes, and a number of spices. We heard villages just outside the main city serve the best moles. But honestly, no matter where we went, we couldn’t find a mole we didn’t enjoy. You can find this dish just about anywhere in Oaxaca: every market, street food stall, and restaurant.

Mole negro is both sweet and savory, with hints of cinnamon, cloves and chocolate alongside chiles and black pepper.

Also common, the zesty mole verde is made up of tomatillos, jalapenos and cilantro. There’s also a spicier mole rojo made up of pasilla, guajillo and ancho. I personally recommend the mole verde with chicken. But, if you can find it, the mole frutas is great with pork.

Wondering how Oaxacan food differs from food in other regions of Mexico? Click here to learn about traditional Yucatecan dishes!

Tlayuda

First invented in Oaxaca, you’ll find tlayudas to be one of the most popular foods on your visit. Tlayuda is heirloom corn pressed into giant tortillas with ingredients ranging from unrefined pork lard to creamy refried beans blended with the avocado leaves and meat of your choosing. I usually went for shredded chicken but also loved it filled with strips of dried beef and of course lots of Mexican cheese. 

You also get to decide what to put on top:  my favorite toppings included tomatoes, quesillo, and sliced avocado. While these can be a little bit messy to eat, they’re totally worth it. This may in fact be my favorite Oaxacan dish. They are so good I had (at least) one every day I was in Oaxaca.

 

Oaxacan Tamales

In Oaxaca, tamales differ from those you find in other regions of Mexico, because Oaxacans wrap their tamales in banana leaves.

The tamales are made from the masa of Oaxaca’s fresh grown corn, and then stuffed with a number of different ingredients (which you can pick for yourself). These include chicken, refried beans and fresh veggies. The banana leaves capture and lock in the moisture.

Quesillo

Tamales, tlayuda, and enchiladas are all elevated with the stringy addition of Quesellio, an Oaxacan cheese.

This cheese is unique to the region, and we felt that its distinct flavor earned it a place on this list. It’s stringy texture resembles mozzarella, though with a stronger flavor.

The cheese melts well on a number of dishes, and it’s so popular that Mexicans eat it throughout the country. You may run into this cheese without even expecting it. But, we were always happy to notice this stringy cheese incorporated into a meal.

 

Chapulines

When we first found out one of Oaxaca’s most popular dishes is grasshoppers, we were a little bit taken aback. But we had to give it a try so we could see why they are so popular. This food didn’t disappoint. Found at a number of markets, chapulines are spicy grasshoppers that are either fried or toasted and then tossed with chili, lime, and garlic.

Oaxaca’s delicious home grown flavors made these grasshoppers extremely tasty. Locals eat them alone as a simple snack or tossed onto tlayudas or other dishes for added crunch and flavor.

Mezcal

Mezcal is an alcohol drink that is often compared to tequila, but with hints of a smoky flavor and a richer, sweeter taste. The smoky flavor comes from the agave being buried underground for up to a week with burning embers as part of the production process. In fact, the word mezcal comes from a local language and means “oven cooked agave”.

Mezcal is one of Oaxaca’s best-known products. The region’s distillers make the alcoholic beverage from a number of different cactus varieties. In fact, mezcal can be made from any type of agave.

The traditional Oaxacan drink is often served with orange slices and worm salt as these flavors pair especially well.  

While mezcal may not be for everyone, if you’re a fan of tequila, you should at least experiment with the stuff on your visit to Oaxaca. I love mezcal in margaritas as the smokiness cuts through the sweetness of the mixers but the best way to enjoy mezcal is to slowly sip it straight up!

Tejate

Oaxaca is famous for its cacao. So, while I don’t have the biggest sweet tooth, this drink is unique traditional Oaxacan dish so I knew I had to give it a try. 

The Mixtec and Zapotec peoples have crafted tejate for decades. The drink features corn, cacao beans, mamey seeds, flowers, and masa. Sweet and flavorful, you’ll find it sold at nearly every market. And while it can be a bit of an acquired taste you should definitely try it during your visit!

Photo Credit: Uncornered Market


Which of these traditional Oaxacan dishes do you most want to try? Let me know in the comments section below!

 

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[…] region to region with some being yellow, others being white and even blue corn like you find in traditional Oaxacan dishes– blue being my very favorite. If you’ve never had blue corn tortilla chips you should […]

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Friday 26th of June 2020

[…] used to be one of them. I remember being in Oaxaca, Mexico, at a fantastic Michelin-rated restaurant where we ordered a “beet appetizer” […]

LosOjosRojos

Wednesday 10th of July 2019

No to be picky but you stated "The region’s distillers make the alcoholic beverage from a number of different cactus varieties." I know of NO distillers that make any spirits from cactus, only agaves. Cactus is not agave.

Chris

Friday 28th of June 2019

LOVE mole, and some of the best I've had is from Oaxaca. Great article!

Nathan

Monday 1st of July 2019

Thank you so much! Yes, Oaxaca is the best place in the world for mole. I can't wait to get back there!

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