Last October I spent three weeks in the city of Oaxaca (Oaxaca is also the name of the state), so I had plenty of time to explore restaurants, bakeries and markets. I was here for Spanish immersion classes at the Becari Language School, which helped in discovering where to go, what to order and how the dishes were made. I came home with a guide to what I thought was the best food as well as a notebook full of recipes.
Oaxaca, a colonial city of 244,000 in the largely mountainous region of southern Mexico, is rich in indigenous culture, and it takes pride in a varied cuisine that preserves cooking techniques known long before the Spanish conquest.
Women sell bread baked at home in wood-fueled ovens. Corn tortillas, called blandas, are large, rustic and full of character. Some are made from black corn. Fragrant avocado leaves and an anise-scented herb, called hierba santa, perfume many dishes.
In market areas, women walk along with baskets of güías, tender shoots of the squash vine, on their heads. These are used in soup, along with squash flowers. Black beans are preferred, and quesadillas, made with squash flowers and the full-flavored string cheese known as quesillo, are outrageously good.
And then there's mole. It's probably sacrilegious to admit that I tried to avoid it, but I had overdosed on the dish, with its sweet, chocolate-infused sauce, while traveling in the state of Veracruz and in Puebla, home of mole poblano, Mexico's national dish.
Eventually I succumbed, because it was unthinkable to leave Oaxaca without trying at least some of its moles. One taste and I realized that abstinence had been a big mistake, but more on that later.
Each day I worked out a dining agenda, from breakfast through coffee breaks, multi-course lunches and late evening snacks, taking buses to nearby towns to see what they offered.
A note of caution: It's always a good idea to be careful eating abroad. I ate food from street stalls and almost anywhere without problems. But people's constitutions differ. In recent years I have noticed that eating is safer and sanitary conditions are better than in the distant past. But any kind of change in food or water can cause problems. The old rules of thumb are still appropriate: Watch out for water (that means ice too), sticking instead with bottled drinks; eat only produce that is peeled; and try to avoid things grown on the ground.
With that in mind, here are some of the highlights from my eating adventures.
For delicious local specialties, go to the Mercado 20 de Noviembre, a big building filled with food stalls. It's a couple of blocks from the zócalo, or square, just beyond the Mercado Benito Juárez, a large market where you can shop for dried chiles, local cheeses, fruits, flowers and handicrafts.
I usually ate at the Comedor Regional Chabela, a spotless place with a long menu. First came hot chocolate accompanied by a lightly sweetened anise-scented bun called pan de yema, then perhaps a bowl of fried cheese in tomato sauce flavored with chiles and epazote. If I wanted orange juice, a stall called Jugos y Licuados
Wily would send over a tall glass of it, foamy and freshly squeezed.
A leisurely breakfast at the outdoor restaurants along the zócalo is also nice. The pan de yema at La Primavera is especially good, softer and fluffier than some in the mercado; with a hot chocolate, you'll pay about $2.25. Try huevos a la Oaxaqueña, an egg pancake folded around cheese and placed in a casserole of tomato sauce.
The afternoon comida, a full-course set menu, starts so late that at 2:30 p.m., a restaurant might still be empty.
My favorite place was La Olla, which is attached to a charming bed-and-breakfast called Las Bugambilias on Reforma in the center of town, not far from the zócalo. For about $5.50 you can have a meal such as this: chayote squash cut in half, filled with cheese and an epazote leaf and set on a pool of tomato sauce. Next, black bean soup with strips of fresh cactus, followed by chicken in a ground almond and tomato sauce and, for dessert, fresh guava shells.
Excellent whole wheat bread accompanies La Olla's comidas.