Week 30 MEXICO | Oaxaca

Image of the week: the beautiful traditional Oaxacan dress and dancing as part of the Guelaguetza Festival
More images at the end of post

l

Where in the world


A six hour bus ride from Mexico City to Oaxaca, where we stayed for five nights. 

A very comfortable ride too – the bus stations are like airports here. You have to check your luggage in which are then loaded onto the coach by staff. 

There are security body scans, coffee machines on the buses, and multiple and very clean toilets on board. It’s a fantastic way to get around the country, with pretty much only motorway between the cities.

Thoughts

Let’s first address the name Oaxaca, as there will be some contorting their lips in an effort to say it. It’s a lot easier than it looks – pronounced wahaca – like the small chain of Mexican restaurants you can find in London.

Now let’s move on to the coincidence factor that’s been following us throughout our travels. By some unplanned and unforeseen, but most welcome, cosmic alignment, we have not only found ourselves in Thailand during Songkran (the Thai new year), but specifically in Chiang Mai, the city that has the biggest celebrations. And boy, did they celebrate. 

We also ended up in Vietnam for Tet (Vietnamese new year), Los Angeles for Independence Day, and on the day we visited Milford Sound in New Zealand, one of the wettest places on the planet with three times more rain than the Amazon, we had nothing but clear skies and sunshine. 

We can now add a Mexican entry to this list of happy coincidences. Without realising it, we put ourselves in Oaxaca in the month of July, every day of which is filled with a calendar of cultural activities, from concerts, festivals, parades, shows, and the rest, as part of Guelaguetza 2015

The specific few days we were there, happened to host the Festival de los Moles (the Moles Festival), and eating authentic Oaxacan moles was probably the number one reason the city was added to the itinerary (see The best things I ate this week for the full story, and what moles are). Those Coincidence Gods have certainly been smiling down on us.

Guelaguetza Festival parade – Oaxaca
l

Oaxaca is like the Mexican town from a story book. It’s a place that doesn’t feel like it’s putting anything on for tourists – all these amazing street parties and cultural events would still be going on, even if there weren’t any there. And from the hoards sauntering through the streets each evening to buy ice cream and popcorn for the kids and enjoy the live music and incredible food, I could only spot a few tourists. 

There are no English menus or signs, there is barely any English at all. It’s yet to be plagued by the universal disease that is Starbucks. There are no big faceless international hotels, only small boutiques blending into the existing colonial architecture. 

Market vendors mostly sell their wares to locals, and from what I saw and experienced, foreigners were not having the usual ‘tourist tax’ added onto the ticket – they were given the same price. The traders don’t push their goods like in almost all other countries, they barely even look up from their paper as you walk past – if you want their stuff, they know you’ll come.

some of the many crafts available to buy in Oaxaca
l

And about the crafts for sale. I’m not sure I could love this city’s colour palette, artistry or fabrics any more than I already do. It’s like the time I visited Marrakesh and ended up furnishing half my house with the exquisite things I bought there. In Oaxaca, I want all of it. There’s a rug, a metal wall hanging, and a colourful Dia de los Muertos ceramic skull in the suitcase. I’m surprised I didn’t end up with more.

Oaxaca is a compact, vibrant gem of a city. It’s small enough to walk around, it has the most wonderful food, the people are nothing but a joy, it’s full of colour and music, the cool of the evenings is when most will come out to enjoy it, the air is clear and bright, and it may well be one of my favourite destinations from the past seven months. It’s surpassed every expectation I had of it, and they were high. I think I’m leaving a bit of my heart here.

My only regret is we didn’t get to explore the surrounding mountains and countryside. I had every intention of spending a day hiking the Sierra Norte, but there was just so much going on in the city, it was hard to leave. 

I guess I’ll just have to come back one day. Which I’m almost certain, I will. 

Guelaguetza Festival parade – Oaxaca
l

The best things I ate this week


What to eat in Oaxaca

The tourists you do find in Oaxaca are more often than not, there for the food. Unlike places such as Merida (next week) and Tulum (the week after), which boast some of the world’s best beaches and act as bases to reach the ancient Mayan ruins of Chitchen Itza et al, Oaxaca mostly just has the city and the surrounding stunning countryside, with the state eventually reaching the coast. 

The eating here is world-renowned. Oaxaca is Mexico’s primary exporter of mezcal and a famed producer of chocolate. The food is local and regional to the core, the beneficiary of abundant microclimates and fantastic biodiversity. And nowhere else in the country will you find more kinds of chillies – Oaxacan cuisine shows them off in dish after dish.


Street food in Oaxaca

Tlayuda – crisp-fried tortilla with toppings

A thin, crunchy, partially fried tortilla con todo (with everything). Here slathered with asiento (pork lard), beans, avocado, salsa, quesillo (stringy Oaxacan cheese), and tasajo (thinly sliced beef). The beef and tlayuda, with all its toppings, are cooked over charcoal – superb flavour. Ordered from a street food stall in the centre. Just under £2 – strong pizza competition for sure.

top: tlayuda with all the toppings, noodle soup with cheese balls, chicken with mole negro
bottom: a stuffed torta, nutella filled churros, pozole soup
l

Sopa de fideos | Mole negro con pollo, Pitiona

I realised quite late in the day that two restaurants from Latin America’s Best 50 Restaurants can be found in Oaxaca. We decided on Pitiona, and from an overall very good meal, two dishes in particular were stellar. 

The sopa de fideos – a noodle soup with liquid balls of silken cheese that disintegrate on contact with the tongue. Far greater than the sum of its parts, a noodle soup against which all others should be measured. 

And then there was the chicken with mole negro (more about what moles are below at the Moles Festival) – a complex, thick and glossy sauce with succulent meat and creamy al dente rice. Another plate, please. 

Also worth a mention is their playful take on the classic churros. Here, rather than batter being piped into hot oil, yet-to-be-frozen ice cream is syphoned into a bowl of liquid nitrogen which instantly freezes it. The result, fabulously light and airy ice cream in the shape of churros, with a side of hot drinking chocolate.  Play the video below to see how it’s done.



Pitiona, Ignacio Allende 108, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca

Torta – the Mexican sandwich

A very good torta, with a bit of a waiting time at Tortas La Horminga. With chorizo mince, quesillo (stringy Oaxacan cheese), frijol (refried beans), pickled veg and a scalp-tingling chilli sauce. It’s a street food truck, there are a few of them dotted around town, and they are always busy.

La Hormiga Tortas, Calle de la Reforma 800, Ejido del Centro, Oaxaca.

Filled churros 

There are few problems in life that filled churros can’t cure. Here, with Nutella, and a couple more out of shot filled with cajete, which is dulce de leche with goat milk.

Sr. Churro, Av. de la Independencia 500, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca

Pozole – ancient soup

The ancient soup of pozole has been around in Mexico since before the Spanish invaded. In it, pork, whole corn kernels, spices, herbs, seasoned with cabbage, radish, hot salsa and lime, served alongside tostadas. Under £2 each from a street food stall in the centre.

top: potato-stuffed empanada, chorizo mince tacos
bottom: Oaxacan drinking chocolate, local lunch spread, mamey ice cream

l

Empanadas – stuffed fried pastry

This was an empanada stuffed with spicy potato, filled and fried to order. The street food vendor asked me what I wanted on top – a useful phrase I’ve learnt is con todo (with everything). Language barrier solved. 

Topped with refried beans, guacamole, a crumbling of queso fresco (fresh white cheese), shredded lettuce, and a whole row of salsas to choose from. Great snackage 

Chorizo tacos

Post-festival (see Highlight below) tacos with minced chorizo and cheese from a busy street food stall in the centre. Great charred flavour. Lashings of green salsa and lime, heaps of coriander.

Drinking chocolate

Oaxaca is famous for its chocolate, used in cooking to make mole sauces dark and glossy, and to drink. The locals mix chunks with boiled water rather than milk, whisking it up for a frothy head – the one pictured was had at The Oaxacan Coffee Company. You can also dip in some bread. I bought some pieces from a market to keep me warm in London on winter evenings. I hope they travel well. 

The Oaxacan Coffee Company,  La Constitución 108, Centro, Oaxaca

Local lunch spread

Escaping an afternoon downpour, I ducked into a local home-cooking restaurant I happened to be walking past to get some lunch. The menu was written on a piece of fluorescent card stuck on the wall and was just five items; I suspect the list changes daily, depending what ingredients they’ve got from the market and what they’ve decided to cook. 

I ordered the pollo con salsa verda (chicken with green salsa), and what came was a fortifying pasta soup to start, a gloriously cooked chicken leg with potatoes and stock, a side of rice, three big tortillas, and an agua fresca (a type of flavoured water). All for just under £2. It was totally wonderful.

Mamey fruit ice cream

New fruit discovery alert (I think the last one was ‘dragon’s eye’ in Ho Chi Minh City in March). Mamey is native to central America and Mexico. It’s about the size of an avocado with a brown skin and soft creamy flesh ranging in colour from salmon pink to red. The Mexicans use it to make some superb nieves (a Mexican sorbet) – such as in Chagüita Nieves Oaxaqueñas – and it has a wonderfully unobtrusive flavour. Subtly sweet, quite neutral – a bit like the sweet potato ice cream I tried and fell in love with in Japan.

Chagüita Nieves Oaxaqueñas, Flores Magón Sn, Oaxaca Centro, 68000

Santo Domingo, Oaxaca
l


Oaxaca Cooking Class

A highly recommended and much sought after activity when in Oaxaca is taking a cooking class in order to get better acquainted with the nuances of this region’s world famous cuisine. 

There are several on offer around the city, but the ones from Chef Pilar Cabrera at Casa de los Sabores Cooking School stood out because of Pilar’s culinary experience and the fact she runs La Olla Restaurant

Each class begins with an informative saunter around Pilar’s local market to collect the ingredients for that afternoon’s menu, and the great photo opportunities that go with that. You’ll then all make your way to Pilar’s beautiful home, greeted by a few helpers, which is where the cooking takes place.

top: cooking class kitchen, cooking class ingredients
bottom: students, charred peppers, me pressing tortillas
Casa de los Sabores Cooking Class with chef Pilar Cabrera, Oaxaca
l

What is cooked depends on which of the different menus available you signed up for, each focusing on a particular aspect of the cuisine. I went along to the Enchilado day, showcasing the most representative chillies of the region: fresh chilli de agua and dried Oaxacan chillie pasilla

The class comprised of preparing the chillies and stuffing them with the fillings we helped make; the former with black beans and cheese, and the latter with picadillo (a mince meat filling). For accompaniments, rice with tomatoes, a tomatillo sauce, and tortillas. For dessert, a slice of rompope (eggnog) flan with a scoop of superb mamey ice cream (see above for my mamey discovery).

The class provides great insight into the amount of time and effort that goes into making these types of dishes, and the meal was totally exquisite. Full of flavour and fire, a real joy to eat. 

My only niggle is that there wasn’t enough of it. I interpreted the website description of ‘we prepare about 5 dishes’ as there would be five plates of food, which is what I’ve experienced in other cooking classes such as at Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia and in Chiang Mai in Thailand, for example.

top: chef Pilar cooking tortillas, cooking class menu
bottom: the finished main, mezcal tasting, dessert
Casa de los Sabores Cooking Class with chef Pilar Cabrera, Oaxaca

l

Because I was expecting a lot of food, I actually skipped breakfast in preparation. Which was a mistake, as we didn’t eat until 1pm (it starts at 9.30am). What it actually means is there will be five components that make up two plates of food, which is quite different – no doubt this is just an example of the meaning being lost in translation.

Unlike cooking class formats you might be used to where you cook one dish, eat it, then cook the next, eat that, and so on, with this format you will spend the duration helping Pilar and the assistants prepare the food, and eat at the very end of the class. 

What you will be given is enough for an adequate lunch (we each had two stuffed chillies, a little rice, a tortilla, some sauce, and the plate of dessert). If you’re a big eater (as I obviously am), be conscious of this – have a big breakfast, and perhaps take some snacks to tide you over, and you’ll be fine.

Whilst the class is described as ‘totally participative’, there isn’t much actual cooking involved for the students, more preparation. This is no doubt due to the restrictions of a home kitchen and only having one of everything, as opposed to a cookery school set up which will have a cooking station for each student, for example. 

Activities we did participate in were chopping vegetables, peeling the skins off chillies, stuffing the chillies, pressing out tortillas, and someone will be asked to char the chillies; we alas had no involvement with the dessert. The things you will learn will likely be from watching the rest of the cooking being done by Pilar and her helpers, so pay attention and do ask questions.

elderly lady selling mushrooms, taken during the market visit with Chef Pilar
l

What I particularly enjoyed about the class was the mezcal tasting prior to lunch (the first thing to pass my lips that day – *hic*), the offer of beers with the food – which always goes well with a fiery plate, and all the recipes handed out for you to replicate at home.

All in, it was a fun and informative few hours spent with other lovely students and a talented chef who really knows her stuff. And without hesitation, the food we did eat was glorious. What I would have done for more of it!

The class starts at 9.30 am in La Olla restaurant, finishing around 2 pm. Classes are generally offered Wednesdays and Fridays by reservation. They are given in English and/or in Spanish, and there is a minimum of 4 and a maximum of 10 people in each. Spaces in a shared class are $75 USD (£48) per person, and include the mezcal tasting and a beer with your food.


Note: Casa de los Sabores kindly hosted my place as part of a media package. All views remain my own.

colourful Oaxaca street
l


Oaxaca Mole Festival


We had an awesome afternoon at the Festival de los Moles (mole pronounced mol-ay) in Oaxaca. It’s an annual ticketed event only in its second year, and was part of the broader calendar of events for Guelaguetza 2015

A huge marquee set in Oaxaca’s splendid botanical gardens, it showcased a buffet feast of a whopping 23 different mole dishes from 10 provinces across five regions of Oaxaca, some regional sweets for dessert, free flowing beer and mezcal, live music and dancing. And only about £15 a ticket – what a steal.

Festival de los Moles 2015, Oaxaca
l

We were first given a plate of starters – chiccharones (deep-fried pig skin), guacamole, quesillo (stringy Oaxacan cheese), a stuffed tortilla with queso fresco, and some sort of blissful pastry stuffed with more quesillo, chilli and grasshoppers.

Then you’re let loose on the mole buffet – so many fabulous sauces with meat in to choose from, ranging from vibrant green to the fabulously thick, dark and glossy (my favourites).

And if you’re wondering what the hell moles are, they’re complex sauces used in Mexican cuisine, each with anywhere from 20-45 ingredients, depending which one you’re making. They always start with chillies, along with other ingredients including herbs, spices, fruit, vegetables, chocolate, tomatillos, ground nuts and tortillas to thicken, and a load more. They take hours to make; probably days when it was all done by hand. 

Festival de los Moles 2015, Oaxacal


Did you know?

grasshopper anyone?

Insect eating

I mentioned grasshoppers above. And it wasn’t a typo – Mexicans eat them, nay, love them. Many other insects too – ant eggs, stink bugs, giant winged ants, beetles, scorpions and dragonflies to name a few. 


Insects have served as a protein source for civilisations for tens of thousands of years, all over the planet. Today it’s rare in the developed world (we’ve grown too accustomed to steaks), but insects remain a popular food in many developing regions of Central and South America, Africa, and Asia.

For centuries, it wasn’t meat that sustained Aztec warriors but protein-rich grubs, and entomophagy (that’s the scientific word for insect-eating) is something the rest of the world is starting to take very seriously. It’s an economical and sustainable way to provide a low-fat high-protein food source to our ever increasing global population.

We tried some chapulines (grasshoppers), cooked with lime and salt. The ick factor is not that different to caviar, prawns and escargot when you think about it, and I love all of those. The texture was good, but the flavour was a little sour and bitter. I mean, they were fine, but there are other things I’d rather be snacking on.

My insider tips

Mezcal y mole

The starting point of any mole are chillies. Lots of hot, gut-gurgling chillies. I was told by two separate people that the way the Mexicans assist their stomachs in digesting all that fire, is to pair it with mezcal. Apparently the liquor helps to prevent heart burn and indigestion. 

Any excuse, really.

lunch time in primary colours, street food stall in Oaxaca
l



Provecho!

I learnt a couple of very useful phrases from Arturo during his street food tour in Mexico City last week, specifically to use when ordering and eating from a kerb-side stand.

Instead of asking for the bill, which is too formal for street food, once you’ve finished your meal you ask the vendor cuanto te debo (how much do I owe you?). They’ll respond by asking you what you had, you recite it, then they’ll tell you how much it was. You always pay after you’ve eaten, not at the point of order.

And a great thing to say when you’re wishing someone an enjoyable meal is provecho! Particularly fitting when you’re leaving a street food stand at the end of yours – it’s addressed at the remaining clientèle. You’ll get a great response.

Highlights / Lowlights

Highlight  

This was most certainly stumbling across a fabulous parade through the city one evening, full of dancing, music, traditional dress, candy thrown at kids, fireworks, free mezcal, and big papier mache giants, culminating in a gathering outside the Santo Domingo church.

Guelaguetza Festival, Santo Domingo – Oaxaca
l

We weren’t entirely sure what it was for, and to be honest, the city seems to hold a street party for any and all occasions; there was a whole other parade to mark the start of the mole buffet dinner mentioned above, for example.

But my Googling skills tell me it was part of the Guelaguetza Festival. A pre-hispanic event focussed around offerings to the goddess of corn to ensure a good harvest. The Spanish then invaded Mexico and catholicized it by tying it into the feast of the Virgin of Carmen.

Guelaguetza Festival – Oaxaca
l

It was a riot, offered a whole host of splendid photo opportunities, and seemed to go on all night. It even had a guy lighting rockets with his cigarette and launching them from his hand leading the parade. Health and safety, what?

The Mexicans sure know how to have a good time.

Lowlight


Yeh, so all those chillies. There’s inevitably an aftermath. Usually the next morning.

Next week


A flight eastward over to Mérida, the capital and largest city of the Mexican state of Yucatán. 

Postcards

Santo Domingo, Oaxaca
Santo Domingo, Oaxaca
Guelaguetza Festival parade – Oaxaca
Oaxaca, Mexico
Guelaguetza Festival parade – Oaxaca

Oaxaca, Mexico
Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxaca, Mexico

Guelaguetza Festival parade – Oaxaca

Oaxaca, Mexico
Oaxaca, Mexico
Oaxaca, Mexico
Guelaguetza Festival parade – Oaxaca

street food in Oaxaca, Mexico
Guelaguetza Festival parade – Oaxaca

Botanical Gardens, Oaxaca – Mexico

Guelaguetza Festival parade – Oaxaca

Oaxaca, Mexico

Related posts

Week 0: Gone travelling. London – see you in nine months


Week 1: INDIA – Mumbai → Goa
Week 2: INDIA – Bangalore → Mysore → Wayanad
Week 3: INDIA – Kochi → Allepey → Kollam → Madurai
Week 4: INDIA – Pondicherry → Chennai → Mumbai


Week 5: INDIA – Varanasi → Udaipur → Jaipur → Delhi
Week 6: TAIWAN – Taipei
Week 7: CHINA & VIETNAM – Hong Kong → Hanoi
Week 8: VIETNAM – Sapa → Hanoi → Ha Long Bay → Hanoi


Week 9: VIETNAM – Hue → Hoi An
Week 10: VIETNAM – 6 day / 5 night motorbike tour from Hoi An to Da Lat
Week 11: VIETNAM – Da Lat → Nha Trang
Week 12: VIETNAM – HCMC → Mekong Delta → HCMC

Week 13: CAMBODIA – Siem Reap (and Angkor Wat) → Phnom Penh
Week 14: CAMBODIA – Sihanoukville & Koh Rong Samloem Island
Week 15: CAMBODIA – Kep
Week 16: THAILAND – Chiang Mai

Week 17: THAILAND – Songkran Festival in Mae Rim & Chiang Mai
Week 18: THAILAND – Bangkok → Koh Phangan
Week 19: THAILAND – Bangkok
Week 20: MALAYSIA – Penang → Borneo

Week 21: AUSTRALIA – Melbourne
Week 22: NEW ZEALAND – Auckland → Rotorua → Turangi → Whanganui
Week 23: NEW ZEALAND – Wellington → Nelson Lakes → Hanmer Springs → Christchurch
Week 24: NEW ZEALAND – Lake Tekapo → Mount Cook → Queenstown → Milford Sound

Week 25: NEW ZEALAND & USA – Queenstown → Hawaii
Week 26: USA – Hawaii (Big Island) → San Francisco (Oakland)
Week 27: USA – San Francisco
Week 28: USA – Los Angeles

Week 29: MEXICO – Mexico City

Share:

2 Comments

  1. July 31, 2015 / 09:24

    Stunning pics. The colours are so vibrant! Your posts have piqued my interest in visiting Mexico.

    • August 2, 2015 / 03:31

      Thanks very much Sam. I'm glad it has – Oaxaca was one of my favourite places from the whole trip.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *