The food in Oaxaca was some of the best that I’ve eaten overseas, and again it was nothing like the Mexican food that we eaten back in Australia. There are whole books dedicated to Oaxaquenan gastronomy, and I can understand why.
Each day at the casa started with breakfast, and we would always be welcomed into the kitchen with a plate of fresh fruit – sliced watermelon, pawpaw, and banana. We’d drink coffee, and every meal was served with tortillas. Some days it was eggs and frijoles, some it was fried quesilla (cheese) and salsa, or a quesilla and ham quesadilla.
One of the traditional Oaxaquenan dishes is mole. Mole is hard to describe, but I will try my best. They are rich sauces – negro (black), rojo (red), amarillo (yellow), or verde (green). Each tastes nothing like the other, and are made with specific types of chillies, many that are found only in Oaxaca, and are generally eaten with a specific meat. We tried them all during our stay at the casa, and mole negro was my favourite. Eaten with chicken, one of the main ingredients is chocolate, and it works beautifully with the chillies. The mole negro tamale was one of the best meals I’ve ever had.
Then there is quesilla. A special kind of cheese, it is found in meals from soup, to sandwiches, to quesadillas. When you see it in the market it looks like a ball of thick, white, smooth yarn. Similar to mozzarella, it is stretchy, and keeps it’s form in dishes, with a subtle taste. Delicious fried with eggs in the morning in a tortilla, or added to a bowl of veggie soup.
Another is the tlayuda. A large baked tortilla served with onion, tomato, avocado, quesilla, salsa, and a choice of meats – chorizo, bacon, steak, chicken, or chapulins (grasshoppers) sometimes served on the side. Fold it in half, and it is a very satisfying meal.
Elote was a very popular snack in the Zocalo and around town. Corn on the cob, or served in a cup, with a mysterious mayonnaise and chilli salt. Cheap and tasty.
One of my favourite discoveries in Oaxaca is Jamaica water. A refreshing drink after a hard day of study, it is made by soaking dried hibiscus flowers in cold water, and adding sugar to taste. It looked like Ribena, and also went well with a shot of vodka.
We drank bottled water while in Mexico, but I do recall purchasing a bottle from the shop across the road from school before an excursion and being horrified to discover that she had given us a one litre bottle of pina colada flavoured water, stronger than cordial. It was an exceptionally hot day, so we guzzled it without hesitation, but after that we were always cautious of what we were buying.
I hate to admit that I ate hamburgers more often than I’d like in Mexico. Sometimes I just craved comfort food! But the surprising thing was that a couple of them were up there with the best that I’ve ever had. One of the Hawaiian burgers had a thick beef patty, a slice of ham, fried onion, tomato, lettuce, mustard, ketchup, mayo, and grilled pineapple. I soon discovered that all hamburgers come with a slice of ham, regardless of whether they are Hawaiian or not. Even my fish burger later in Cancun came with a slice of ham and fried bacon! But it was hit or miss, with one of the burgers coming with a thin pork breakfast patty, and onion that had been fried in soy sauce. A strange combination!
What was great about Mexico, was that if you buy a drink, they will give you some food to snack on. Or if you were in a restaurant or café and had just ordered a meal, they will bring something for you to ruin your appetite with. It ranged from popcorn, to mystery savoury snacks, to the standard corn chips and salsa, to mini baked potatoes and tortilla pizzas.
Lunch was the biggest meal of the day, and always started with soup. Tomato with pasta shells or spaghetti, cactus soup, chicken consommé with rice, carrot soup. Sometimes there was a pasta course, with spaghetti with cheese or pesto. Then a main, served with warm tortillas. We always left the table satisfied and ready for a nap.
Bread was cheap and plentiful, and sold at most convenience stores as well as bakeries. You could pick up a bag full of assorted pastries, biscuits, and breads for 20 pesos ($1.30).
One night we went to the Noviembre de 20 market and treated ourselves to a barbeque dinner. Ten or more stands fought for your custom by banging on the meat draped over the display, smoke from the barbeques thick in the air and giving the hall an eerie feel. We chose a selection of meat (chorizo sausage, marinated beef and pork), and then a group of ladies started yelling our to us to buy some condiments, and yet another man wanting us to buy some beers. We ended up with a plate of guacamole and another of hot salsa, and a couple of beers to wash it down. It was more for the experience than the quality of the food – I’d still rather an Aussie BBQ any day – but it was fun nonetheless.
One of the disappointing foods was the empanadas. The first ones that we bought from an otherwise outstanding bakery looked, smelled, and possibly tasted like cat food. The second lot from a well renowned restaurant (below) wasn’t much better. Quite bland. However we were pleased to discover that the empanadas and saltenas in Peru and Bolivia are much tastier.