Emmanuelle Jary - 2011-10-14
In 2010, UNESCO added traditional Mexican cuisine to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. If Mexico is a country rich in culinary traditions, the southern state of Oaxaca exemplifies this wealth with its exceptionally distinctive and varied cuisine.
Here we have a complete cultural model organised around agricultural practices and ancestral rites. Mexican cuisine is also very elaborate and symbolic, with its daily tortillas and tamales, both made from corn, and both an integral part of the traditional Day of the Dead offerings,’ says Alejandro Ruiz Olmedo, the illustrious chef of Casa Oaxaca. In Mexico, food is such an important component of national heritage that great cooks would never consider completely distancing themselves from tradition. Thus, in Ruiz Olmedo’s gourmet restaurant, dishes often evoke the pre-Hispanic origins that characterise Mexican cuisine. Revamped tacos and other traditional dishes are also on the menu... but they might just be stuffed with fried worms. In this part of the world, insects are common fare that are best munched while drinking a cold beer before dinner. In the markets of the state of Oaxaca, there are always women selling chapulines (grasshoppers of different sizes). But the great speciality of this region whose cuisine is influenced by the presence of so many different ethnic groups - such as the Mixtec and Zapotec Indians - is mole.
So much so, in fact, that Oaxaca is known as the ‘Land of the Seven Moles’. These sauces are mostly distinguished by colour: negro (dark), colorado (red), coloradito (a less intense red), verde (green), amarillo (yellow), chichilo (black) and almendrado (with almonds). They all have a common denominator: the presence of one or several of a variety of chilli peppers. The quantity of chillies determines the spicy hotness of the moles. This baroque condiment is made from at least twenty ingredients, but the list can stretch on and certain moles require over fifty!
The other major staple in this culinary culture is corn: it is absolutely everywhere. White or blue corn flour or corn meal is present in the preparation of virtually all of the delicious street food - generically called tortillas - which are typical of Oaxaca cuisine. Once cooked, the corn-based batter can be used in any of a number of different recipes. Memelitas are served flat like a pizza and garnished with meat and different vegetables; tacos are rolled up and served with meat, vegetables or cheese. Quesadillas and empanadas are both folded into a half-moon; the former are filled with cheese while the latter hold chicken and vegetables. Tortillas can also take on the shape of very large corn pancakes - as big as a pizza - and be cooked with many ingredients, in which case they are called tlayudas; served with refried beans, cheese and salad they become tostadas. Finally, there are molotes, cigar-shaped corn fritters filled with potatoes and chorizo.
Corn flour is also used to make another regional specialty: chocolate atole. This pre-Hispanic drink, very different from the cocoa we drink in Europe, is made with cocoa powder, masa harina corn flour, water and sugar. It is also present in the beverage called tejate made from corn flour, cocoa powder and exotic fruit.
As much a part of national culture as rice in Asia and wheat in Europe, corn is more than a foodstuff here: it’s a way of life that sets the peoples of Mesoamerica apart. The savoir-faire that goes into its preparation went a long way towards putting Mexican cuisine on the UNESCO Intangible World Heritage list. ‘The basis of the system is founded on corn, beans and chilli; unique farming methods such as milpas (rotating swidden fields of corn and other crops)... ...cooking processes such as nixtamalization (lime-hulling maize, which increases its nutritional value); and singular utensils including grinding stones and stone mortars,’ states the UNESCO website. Corn’s importance here was eloquently summed up by a friend one evening at the dinner table. ‘We are the children of maize,’ he said.
Naturally, alcohol is served during all holiday festivities in Oaxaca. If beer is the national beverage – Mexico is one of the world’s most prolific producers – mezcal, the regional specialty, is also highly prized. The villages of San Juan del Rio, Matatlan and Santa Catarina Minas are a few of its traditional homes. Mezcal is made from a variety of agave locally called agave espadín - sword agave - due to the shape of its leaves. The plant must be at least eight years old before it can be used to make mezcal of superior quality. Its leaves are cut so that only the heart of the plant, called la piña - the pineapple - is left; this is quartered and cooked in a wood-fired oven pit. Today one also finds less traditional methods, but the finest mezcals are still prepared the old-fashioned way. This method of cooking caramelises the plant and gives the spirit its characteristic smoky flavour. Next, the heart of the agave - the penca cocida - is chopped with a machete and the pieces are put in a mill and crushed. The liquid that flows out is poured into a wooden barrel, water is added and the concoction is fermented during a period of around two weeks, more or less depending on the weather. Next, the mash is placed in a copper still, heated over a wood fire and double-distilled. The resulting liquor, the mezcal joven, can be drunk immediately or aged in a cask for three to twelve months, in which case it is called mezcal reposado. Certain producers continue the aging process for four to eight years, after which time it will have earned the mezcal añejolabel.
Mezcal is drunk with some chilli, a dash of salt and a slice of citrus - usually orange or lemon. The salt is sprinkled on the back of the hand and licked off, the fruit is squeezed, the juice sipped and the mezcal imbibed directly afterwards. Some bottles of mezcal have a ‘worm’ inside - it’s debatable whether the presence of the larva (which is actually a caterpillar) changes the flavour, but the worm is meant to bear witness to the high quality of the alcohol. The larvae are only present in agave plants that are eight years old and older; it is believed that they give a distinctive flavour to the plant, whence the notion that finer mezcals are made from agave plants that are at least eight years old. An infested plant is generally easier to pick and its quality is considered optimal. Agave producers collect the larvae which are grilled in a brasero and sold or placed in bottles of mezcal. If the spirit is to fully absorb the insects’ flavour, a hundred or so larvae are soaked in a small quantity of mezcal and this is then added to the bottle. Some of the region’s tonier bars put a worm in each glass before filling it; the pleasure is not related to the taste, but to the gratifying image of the worm floating about... a worm which is swallowed once the glass is empty. In Mexico, these insects may also be used to add flavour to sauces made of tomatoes or chilli peppers.
Mexico tourism board
Tel: 00 800 11 11 22 66 (toll free in Europe)
Secretary of Tourism and Economic Development of the State of Oaxaca
Several companies fly to Oaxaca’s Xoxocotlan Airport
From the UK or Europe you’ll need to change planes in Mexico City.
Casa Oaxaca (café)
Jazmines n°518, Col. Reforma
Tel: (951) 50 260 17
Casa Oaxaca (el restaurante)
Constitución 104-4, Col. Centro.
Tel: (951) 516 85 31