Oaxaca takes its food very seriously. And with good reason. It is a complicated cuisine, having little to do with the Mexican offerings found in North America. No hard-as-rocks taco shells, no greasy yellow cheese food drowning tasteless entrees in a too-hot-to-handle plate, and nary a stale taco shell salad in view. Flour tortillas? Not a one to be found. Most cooks take their own corn to the local 'molina' to make grind their own masa dough for home preparation of fresh tortillas. This is the home of complicated sauces with 30 ingredients, a dozen different tender steamed tamales filled with a delicate balance of vegetables and meats (even fruits!), and tasty barbequed goat, lamb and pig -- a carnivore's delight served with fresh tortillas hot off the comal, and a crisp, spicy escabeche. Yes, there are seven moles, made famous by the local North American chef Susana Trilling (www.http://seasonsofmyheart.com) who gives a marvelous day-long class comprised of an Etla market tour,a food lecture and the hands-on cooking class at her lovely rural cooking school to the north of Oaxaca followed by a late lunch of foods prepared in class.
But don't forget the 'estofados,' green tomatillo sauces or the soups: creamed poblano chile, chayote with cilantro, sopa de tortilla. Or the fruit-flavored mild chile and tomato sauces, and the steamed, to-die-for chocolate puddings and flans. The French kindly (or inadvertantly?) left their recipe for 'bolillos,' in spite of the French Emperor Maximillian having been summarily executed in Mexico in 1867. A bolillo really a large French roll with a crusty outside and a soft, almost sourdough cushy inside that accompanies all meals to soak up those wonderful sauces. Or which forms the basis of 'tortas,' always a great,classic sandwich. Warning: avoid the Mexican 'sandwich' at all costs, for the bread basis is the dreaded Pan Bimbo, aka Mexican Wonderbread. Dreck. For the early morning or late evening pick-me-up, a huge ceramic bowl of foaming, freshly locally made hot chocolate, prepared with milk or water, is accompanied by a large basket of fresh 'pan dulce.' Careful, it's habit forming.
For those who love to cook in news ways at home, there are many Oaxacan cooking classes here to sharpen your skills: at La Olla Restaurant/Las Buganbillas B&B, at the newly recussitated El Naranjo Restaurant (we had the best ever chiles rellenos there), or at Casa Oaxaca with the energetic, charismatic Chef Alexandro Ruiz. Speaking of whom, we were the only lucky diners one night last week at Casa Oaxaca, and ate in the kitchen watching him prepare and plate a tasting menu of local fresh fish: red snapper, octopus, tuna and giant shrimp. Superb! He created recipes on the spot ~ an appetizer made of goat cheese, small dab of fruit jam, nuts and a mystery herb, all rolled in flour and quickly fried. Wow! Not to mention the chocolate mousse wrapped in a thin leaf of local Oaxacan chocolate (which contains cinnamon, almonds,and local brown sugar ) topped with hand-made spun sugar. For a more casual approach, where he puts his individual spin on local Oaxacan cuisine, do try his new large and more affordable Casa Oaxaca Cafe in the La Reforma neighborhood. Spend three hours on a Sunday afternoon trying the tacos mole, or wild boar stew,accompanied by small shots of smoky 'mescal.' Keep your eye on this man, his own personal star is about to ascend across all regional and national borders! Google Casa Oaxaca on YouTube to catch him in inaction.... OR...http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-e5FQWnzqqA
You can buy literally tons of plump, glistening fresh veggies every day of the week at a different regional markets; best time to go is early in the day when people and food are at their best. Tlacolula is my favorite on Sundays, but then it's hard to pass up the Friday market in Ocotlan and Maestro Rodolfo Morales' Instituto for a peek at his famous kitchen and a gallery of his whimsical collages. Etla is on Wednesdays, and our tour there with Susana's cooking school allowed us to try all the mystery foods I'd been afraid to try over the years: foaming, frothy drinks, candies, ice creams, tamales, and a market lunch of entomadadas. Susana's staff checks out the cleanliness of the cooks' kitchens before taking tourists there. It has taken me 15 years to decipher the obvious: enchiladas are tortillas dipped in chile, entomatadas are dipped in tomates, and enfrijoladas are covered in a frijol bean sauce....a little quesillo, or famous Oaxacan string cheese, some fresh onions and parsley on top,and you have an inexpensive, healthy and most tasty meal.
We visited the small, tidy La Merced Market in Oaxaca City, on the north side of town, where Chef Rick Bayless has understandably filmed some of his cooking videos as it is very managable: open, light, and uncrowded. Friends Henry and Rosa Wangemann, and delightful son Zach of the perennial favorite Amate English Bookstore on Alcala Street (http://www.amatebooks.com) , guided us to their favorite empanada stall at the entrance -- the winning entree is the large , 10" empanada (slyly made of a large corn tortilla rather than bread, as the name implies) stuffed with 'huitlacoche,' the delicate dark corn fungus (which if fresh, comes with additional small kernels of corn), mushrooms and string cheese, all for a staggering 18 pesos, or $1.30 as of this writing. The nearby juice bar proffered a mystery veggie liquid of all things green, or mango, payapa and citrus juice combos, with or without carrots and beets.
It's impossible to write about fabulous Oaxacan food experience without mentioning everyone's favorite, both for ingenuity and fair pricing: Biznaga. It's on the north end of Garcia Vigil, and has a jazzy, New York/Mexico City kind of urban appeal. The Slow Food designation is gone, and the service and speed have thankfully picked up a bit. The chefs shop locally, and combine local ingredients in inspired new ways, with regional naming conventions. At lunch I tried La Sierra, grilled paper-thin tasajo beef, (you can see through when hanging fresh in the meat markets it's sliced so thin), which was stacked on grilled portobellos from the northern Mixteca region, over a nutty goat cheese. $6 or $7....The music is always interesting, in several languages, at a volume that allows conversation. The high ceiling slides open on warm evenings, allowing stars into the patio courtyard. It's one of those places where you want to try everything but hate NOT to order your favorite as they it's too good to pass up. The only real dud was the Oaxacan salad, which avoided lettuce for the fearful, and instead replaced it with a huge chunk of string cheese. If you are in fact feeling a bit of indigestion, the 'Suave' is a chicken and rice soup to sooth the more savage stomach.All foods here, as in most larger places in Oaxaca now, have been rinsed and disinfected. Organic food choices are growing monthly, and the local Pochotle Friday/Saturday market, as well as the new market at the train station, feature organic and natural foods. NOTE: While waiting your meal at Biznaga, you can shop at the attached store Chimalli, a compact folk art store with great selection and great prices.