The full em­panada in Mex­ico

Head to Oax­aca in Mex­ico for the likes of savoury choco­late sauce and toasted grasshop­pers

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - YOLANDA ZAPPATERRA

I AM so sorry, you’ve missed it,” apol­o­gises my concierge, Rikardo, de­liv­er­ing the news that one of Oax­aca’s most cel­e­brated an­nual events, La Noche de Ra­banos, has fin­ished. I knew that I’d missed the ac­tual Night of Radishes, held each De­cem­ber 23 in the town’s Zocalo (public square) since 1897, but I had hoped that the elab­o­rate dis­plays would hang around at least un­til the new year.

Friends who cy­cled through a week ear­lier had led me here in the ea­ger hope of catch­ing sweet na­tiv­ity scenes, anteaters giddy from the ef­fects of mezcal, and in­tri­cate Day of the Dead tableaus, all carved out of radishes, some of which, I’m told, can reach about 50cm in length.

I am dis­ap­pointed to have missed them, but my friends also pro­vided me with point­ers for other ed­i­ble treats that I could en­joy dur­ing my stay in the city, with its world­class food scene. For decades, Mex­i­can cui­sine was largely writ­ten off be­yond its bor­ders as an un­so­phis­ti­cated carb-rich mess of bur­ri­tos and tacos.

Then, 2005 Bri­tish Masterchef win­ner Thomasina Miers in­tro­duced Poms to the nu­anced, pi­quant flavours and tex­tures of Mex­i­can mar­ket food with the launch of her restau­rant chain Wa­haca (the pho­netic spell­ing of Oax­aca) in Lon­don in 2007.

Miers, who lived in Mex­ico for many years, cited a street-food dish from this en­chant­ing city as the best meal she’d eaten, and it’s per­haps the mem­ory of this dish — po­zole, a slow-cooked pork stew with radish, co­rian­der, and fresh lime juice to give it zing (very dif­fer­ent from our mis­con­ceived no­tions of Mex­i­can food) — that in­spired the chef to name her restau­rant af­ter the city. But it could also be that, with its nu­mer­ous mar­kets and flavours, the state and city of Oax­aca of­fer some of the most cel­e­brated and in­no­va­tive cooking and in­gre­di­ents in Mex­ico.

With its el­e­gant colo­nial build­ings, an im­pres­sive arts and crafts scene, top-class mu­se­ums and mar­kets sell­ing mounds of mole (sauce) and the state’s other favourite food, choco­late, Oax­aca is a city that both looks and tastes good. The re­gional cui­sine en­com­passes fiery, earthy moun­tain dishes and del­i­cate seafood, crowned by stand­out restau­rants such as Casa Oax­aca — one of the two Oax­a­can es­tab­lish­ments on the S. Pel­le­grino World’s 50 Best Restau­rants list. The other is Pi­tiona; its chef, Jose Manuel Banos Ro­driguez, has done stints at elBulli and Arzak.

To make up for miss­ing the radish fest, I delve into Pi­tiona’s six-course tast­ing menu at a court­yard ta­ble with a kitchen view. I watch chefs craft com­plex dishes such as sopa de fideos, a noo­dle and bean soup that is pre­sented with del­i­cate globes of cheese that burst into liq­uid in the mouth. Each course is paired with a Mex­i­can wine, craft beer or mezcal from small pro­duc­ers who now thrive as part of the coun­try’s bur­geon­ing gourmet scene. I also sam­ple dishes at Casa Oax­aca, El Tipico, La Biz­naga and La Olla. The range of flavours, spices and tex­tures is as var­ied as the in­gre­di­ents, which in­clude del­i­cate squash blos­soms and mole chichilo (beef stock, chillies, onion, gar­lic and lime-cured flour). How­ever, to get to the heart of Oax­a­can cui­sine, I need to visit the food mar­kets.

Here I find the coun­try’s finest se­lec­tion of moles — sal­sas made from a base of black chillies, choco­late and sesame seeds to cre­ate mole ne­gros; and more un­usu­ally from yel­low or red chillies, to­matil­los and fresh herbs, or ground pump­kin seeds, to cre­ate moles such as amar­illo, col­oradito, salsa verde or pipian.

At Mer­cado Sanchez Pas­cuas, I join scores of Oax­aque­nos at tiny fam­ily-run fondas (food stalls) to try some of the seven va­ri­eties of moles on of­fer, meme­las (tor­tillas topped with lard, cheese and salsa verde) and grilled em­panadas (pas­try filled with fiery chicken and yel­low mole sauce). Dur­ing the rainy sea­son, huit­la­coche, a fun­gus that grows on corn, is added to the mix to give an earthy flavour quite un­like any­thing else. Th­ese an­to­ji­tos, or lit­tle snacks, are as cheap and homely as Mex­i­can food gets, but just as de­li­cious as re­fined restau­rant dishes.

At the shops along down­town’s Mina Street, I watch hair-net­ted, masked men toil over industrial mills to grind co­coa beans into choco­late and moles, all avail­able to sam­ple and buy for the equiv­a­lent of less than a dollar. Just north, at Mer­cado 20 de Noviem­bre, the huge clouds of curl­ing smoke and burly butch­ers press­ing me to­wards slabs cov­ered with wafer-thin meat may make the huge pasillo de carnes asadas (pas­sage of grilled meats) look like a mod­ern Hierony­mous Bosch scene of hell. How­ever, it smells like heaven — the meats are grilled and served in beef or pork tacos. Equally ap­peal­ing are the sig­na­ture Oax­a­can tlayu­das — huge baked corn tor­tillas topped in the man­ner of piz­zas with ev­ery­thing from pork lard and the lo­cal stringy, moz­zarella-like cheese, que­sillo, to av­o­cado and toma­toes.

Across the road at Oax­aca’s old­est mar­ket, Ben­ito Juarez, women sit be­side mounds of cha­pu­lines — grasshop­pers toasted with gar­lic, lime juice and salt. They are an ac­quired taste which, de­spite two or three at­tempts, I don’t get the hang of. More palat­able, I’m as­sured later, are the caviar-like es­camoles, or ant lar­vae. An­other lo­cal, and cheaper, flavour is nopal, the slimy prickly pear cac­tus leaves that of­fer an­other dis­tinc­tive taste.

I’m much more en­am­oured of the agua fres­cas, or flavoured nat­u­ral wa­ters, on sale ev­ery­where. I choose a Ja­maica, made us­ing dried hibis­cus flow­ers, from the huge se­lec­tion at Casilda’s stall in Ben­ito Juarez mar­ket, where the crowds are three-deep and the ev­ery­day pas­tel-coloured plas­tic jugs be­lie the beauty of their con­tents. I join the throng, know­ing that it will be worth the wait, and that in half an hour’s time, I’ll be ready for an­other an­to­jito — though maybe not the grasshop­pers.

Clock­wise from above: a wide va­ri­ety of chillies for sale in the mar­ket; grasshop­pers are con­sid­ered a del­i­cacy; a stall sell­ing lo­cal sauces

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