Tell a Mexican you’re going to Oaxaca and you will undoubtedly be hit with a barrage of delectable recommendations: moles, tamales, posoles, quesillo and chocolate, to name a few. While it’s true that Oaxaca is a culinary thrill for anyone into new flavors, the state is also home to a few special treats for the exceptionally adventurous of tongue and steely of stomach. Oaxaca de Juarez, the artsy oasis of a capital city at the junction of the Valles Centrales, teems with dining options, from classy, sit-down restaurants that serve plates worth a small fortune in pesos to budgeting itinerants, starving artists and penny-pinching English teachers, to crowded street stalls with standing room only, where one is often forced to reach over a few shoulders to retrieve one’s tacos. Mind the taxi traffic. The city’s pervasive population of North American snowbirds keeps the gourmet places abuzz with English chatter about whatever entertains those who move to a foreign country and never bother to learn the language. Places like these tend to incorporate traditional Oaxacan delicacies into their bourgie, impeccably presented plates: some grasshoppers in your guacamole, maybe. They’re easier to stomach that way.
But if you want to eat like a real Oaxaqueño, to really bite into the coarse flavors and alien textures of pre-Hispanic fare, head to the market southwest of the zócalo, or town square. There’s a woman at the northwest corner who runs a juice stand. You could stop here and pick up a freshly juiced blend of carrots, beets and oranges (a great way to get those high fiber beets down); but don’t. There’s always time for regular old juice later, so smile kindly and move on. Proceed through the tunnels of cascading T-shirts and woven Oaxacan haberdashery until you find a tiny aproned woman elbow deep in a tub of what appears at to be curdled milk, but more truthfully resembles stewed boogers. You have reached the first stop on your journey.
Fortunately, appearances are quite deceiving when it comes to this funky-looking beverage. This is tejate, a maize-based drink that dates all the way back to long before Cortés and his cohorts came over and started calling ‘dibs’ on whatever they wanted in this part of the New World. It is flavored with chocolate and the pit of a fruit you have most likely never heard of called mamey (such vegetation abounds in this megadiverse nook of Mexico). That frothy white stuff on top is called flor de cacao and it is delicious. A cup should only cost you ten little pesos, too.
Don’t drink it too quickly. Take it with you on your way to the market’s south entrance. You might need it to wash down your next course. At the end of the pungent aisle of butchers you have to squeeze your way, if you want to leave, through a gauntlet of women holding large round earthenware dishes piled high with small red crispy things and tenaciously offering you chapulines! chapulines! But you don’t want to leave. You want to stay right here and eat those chapulines, which is Spanish for grasshopper. Although fried with garlic or the quintessentially Mexican mixture of chile and lime, they definitely taste like bug. However, they are very good, if you can get past the legs. Just keep in mind how healthy they are.
Wash the critters down with some tejate and head around the corner to the fruit vendors. Grab a bag of little round yellow fruits called nanche. No one will be able to doubt that you have an eclectic palate if you enjoy these things. Most likely, however, you’ll simply be amazed that a fruit could actually taste like this; in fact, if gagging were a flavor, I believe this would be it. But refrain from knocking it until you’ve tried it. Who knows? You just might love it. Oaxacans sure do!
From Oaxaca, head south to the coast – Mazunte is your best bet – for some relaxing beach time and tamales de iguana. That’s right: iguana tamales. Sure, they may taste like chicken, but as they are prepared by simply tossing a lizard leg – skin, claws and all – into the masa, they definitely don’t look like our favorite generically flavored fowl.
For a truly unique meal, take a pit stop on your way to the beach. Right at the desert’s edge, just before you head up the mountains, is a dusty little town called Miahuatlán de Porfírio Díaz. Get off here, get into a taxi, and tell him to take you to a local restaurant called La Magueyada. Ask the proprietress for a traditional Miahuateco meal and she will bring you a diverse spread of herbs and other plants from the desert that have some of the strongest, strangest flavors you could ever imagine. The oreja de león, a thick, dark green leaf that apparently resembles a lion’s ear, will bring tears to your eyes.
And anywhere you go in the state of Oaxaca, you can easily find a tlayuda. Nothing strange here, just see if you can finish one without needing a shower afterwards. Picture a giant, unruly, super-crispy quesadilla filled with beans, lettuce, pico de gallo, probably too much meat, and stringier than normal cheese. After you stomach all of these new tastes, you can down a shot of mescal (for digestion, say the locals) and get back to your regular diet of tacos, tortas and tequila.
About the Author Cody Copeland has been teaching English abroad and traveling for the past four years. He studied Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. He has published short stories in The Istanbul Review and Every Second Sunday: The Seoul Writer's Workshop Anthology 2010. He currently lives in Oaxaca, Mexico.
About the Author
Cody Copeland has been teaching English abroad and traveling for the past four years. He studied Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. He has published short stories in The Istanbul Review and Every Second Sunday: The Seoul Writer's Workshop Anthology 2010. He currently lives in Oaxaca, Mexico.