The relaxing town of Oaxaca, about 165 miles southeast of Puebla, has an eclectic mix of local culinary treats. With only two days to spend in this vibrant city, we went on a local food binge that filled our stomachs to the brim. From grasshoppers to chocolate to mezcal, give your taste buds a lickin’ with these photos…
Our decision to visit Oaxaca was not by coincidence; its reputation preceded it. I had grown up knowing only the name of this place thanks to a poster in my friend’s living room. I spent many a bleary-eyed morning, after a late night Sega Genisis filled sleepover, trying to imagine how to pronounce that first syllable—O-a…x? (”wah,” as it turns out) More recently it was the teacher protests and subsequent shutdown of the city in 2006 that brought the town to my attention. And then I heard about the culinary treats that one might find on the quiet streets of this town. Since our arrival 24-hours ago, Thushan and I have spent as much time as possible eating, tasting, and sipping our way from one end of town to the other.
We began with a hamburger on the street: about $2 for the burger, a slice of ham, cheese, tomato, onion, avocado, chili peppers, and pineapple, all wrapped up in a toasted bun. Not only is it a great deal, its also a reassurance that some of the things our culture exports to other countries aren’t so bad after all.
In the morning, breakfast included two steaming cups of hot chocolate from Oaxacan grown cacao beans ground just around the corner. When we visited a nearby market in search of the sweet treat, we found Felipe Osorio Venancio, a peculiarly enthusiastic chocolate maker who gave us the low down, from start to finish. Beginning in the evening, when the air is cool in his at home “factory,” he mixes together the ingredients: a kilo of cacao beans, 2 kilos of sugar, and, for his flavored varieties, an ounce of cinnamon or two ounces of almonds. The mixture gets shaped into long bars, hardens over three hours or so, and then, around eleven at night, is cut into smaller bite-sized morsels. After more hardening in the cool air, he wakes up in the wee hours before sunrise to package it up and get it to the market. It sounds like a rough schedule, but he assured us that he gets help from the rest of his family, who take turns doing the night shift. The result is a gritty, almost anise flavored chocolate with visible grains of sugar. Quite good.
Realizing that Felipe was an unusually talkative fellow, we decided to probe his knowledge about another Oaxacan snack favorite: chapulines, or toasted grasshoppers. Sure enough, he was ready with the answer. The fertile ground of Oaxaca has been planted with fields of corn for centuries, and with the corn came grasshoppers, naturally. As the unsuspecting grasshoppers nibbled on the stalks, farmers would pluck them up in bags. After sitting for a day, the grasshoppers are boiled, changing their color from green to red, at which point they are spiced with garlic, onion, and a pinch of chili powder, and toasted over a fire. Voila! Did we then go and try these crunchy morsels? Of course! Did we enjoy them? Well, lets just say that in terms of flavor they hit the spot, but texture goes a long way, and we just aren’t used to that…crunch.
A tasting adventure would not be complete without a local drink, so we found some mescal, which is similar to tequila—only stronger. Made from the larger variety of the agave cactus, which grows in the hills here, mescal is sold on almost every street in the central (tourist filled) center of Oaxaca. Each bottle has a worm sitting at the bottom, which is not arbitrary—the prickly spines of the agave cactus is where the worm calls home. We got to try a sample (or two), and found the 38% alcohol content beverage to be a force to be reckoned with. Thushan’s favorite was the cappuccino flavored version, but I preferred the smoother añejo (aged one year).
As we wandered back to the hostel, our stomachs felt just as they should after a great adventure—full, but tired. We were ready to process, literally, all that had happened, so we went off to sleep.