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