Oaxaca: Mexico’s Foodiest State

Oaxaca: Mexico’s Foodiest State

just finished breakfast, and it’s time to eat again –
these are my favorite trips. Our little group is walking through
the vibrant colonial streets of Oaxaca towards El Mercado de la
Merced. Today is the day a famous local chef will teach us the
mysterious magic of Oaxacan cooking; tomorrow, we will venture to
the fields to learn the craft of mezcal production.

But first, the market. This one, a manageably sized place on the
eastern side of town, is where we will buy the ingredients for our
lunch. Inside, stalls are separated by big baskets of dried
chilies, stacks of dark chocolate and boxes of chayote and lumpy
heirloom tomatoes. We purchase, among other things, a mound of
white corn masa, a perky yellow bouquet of squash blossoms, and
cuitlacoche-a blue fungus from corn that we will sauté for our

In the chef’s sunny kitchen, our ingredients splayed on the
tables look like a still life ready for painting. The art of
cooking them is a complex work and we set to it immediately:
carving out the spicy seeds from the peppers, crushing the maguey
(agave) worm with a stone mortar and pestle, dissecting the
delicate vanilla pod for its tiny, flavourful seeds. An hour later,
appetites whetted, we sit down to one of the most beautifully
balanced meals of my life – sweet corn soup is paired with salty,
fresh string cheese; a hearty quesadilla compliments the complex
spices of yellow mole sauce. We finish the meal with the perfect
portion of a delicate rice pudding served in a hollowed-out

The next day, we hop aboard a van and head out of the city to
the surrounding agave-dotted countryside for an immersive mezcal
experience. Our guide, a mezcal guru with a nerdy and infectious
enthusiasm for the smoky spirit, has arranged for us to experience
every aspect of its production-from harvesting the spiny agave
plant to drinking the final product. On the drive through the
hills, we sip different mezcals from a little gourd bowl and try to
identify their nuanced flavours.

In light of our recent cooking glass, it’s hard not to think of
mezcal production as a different kind of cooking. Instead of a trip
to the market for our ingredients, we go out into a dusty field and
uproot an old agave plant with the assistance of a couple of
bemused farmers. The pulpy root of the agave, the piña, is then
split, roasted in an earthen oven and crushed by an archaic,
horse-pulled grinding stone. Thus broken down, the mixture is
shovelled into vats where wild yeasts feed on it for a while. Fire
is added, the brew is twice distilled and finally, the booze is
ready for human consumption. All these steps take place in the open
air; a distillery in the US can feel like a chemistry lab, but this
is more like a farm field trip. Friendly locals guide us through
the whole process, instruct us on what to do and, once it’s done,
chat with us over a little cup of the spirit.

On the rough route home, our alcohol-addled minds absorb the
landscape. Oaxaca sits in the belly of the sierras, isolated by
steep mountains and narrow, sinuous valleys. Limited to strictly
local ingredients, the native food and drink traditions display an
improvising and earthy creativity – and relative isolation from
outside influences ensures that Oaxaca’s delicious improvisations
live on. The sun is setting and the agave plants are silhouetted by
a gray sky. Our van is silent, full of my dozing companions, until
the city lights come into view. Suddenly, I feel a renewed energy.
It is time for dinner.

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