It’s a special and jarring experience to eat a type cuisine for the first time after spending an entire life eating the americanized version. To be clear, I’ve always known that “tex-mex” is not representative of the food people actually eat in Mexico. I’m very much aware that there is a rich history that results in dishes so different than the ground beef ensembles that cater to the American palette. But it wasn’t until my trip to Oaxaca about a month ago, traveling with Thread Caravan, that I truly got to experience a wide range of traditional Oaxacan cooking and understand the simultaneous simplicity and complexity that exists in the food and drink there.
One of the unique aspects of this trip was that, while I was staying in Oaxaca City, our group spent most of the days traveling to nearby Teotitlan del Valle to learn floor loom weaving from members of Vida Nueva weaving co-op. This meant that meals ranged from exquisite 7-course tasting menus at renowned Criollo Restaurant to the simple but intensely flavorful lunches that we shared at the cooperative. What I found, however, was that each meal held this same sort of feeling around it. That feeling was of respect for a beautiful moment in time by sharing a meal with others, respect for the ingredients themselves and how the foods native to the land and the use of all of their parts make up Oaxacan food culture, and of course respect for the love and passion that went into the preparation of each delicious bite.
Taking this into account and not really noticing what was happening as it was happening, I found that I did not have the same desire to pull out my camera and document the meals in the same way that I have before. It was after that realized that I take pictures of food when something feels novel. I take picture of food as an exploration of my own skills in styling and photography. But the food I had in Oaxaca applied to neither of these situations. Instead this food felt like a nurturing act, a gateway into a culture, a precious experience that only made sense to those participating in it. Being completely in the moment took complete precedence over its documentation, and I regret none of that.
Of course the great thing about creating memories is that they can be shared later and I of course could not end this post without describing some of the amazing food I ate throughout my week. Undoubtedly, the fresh as fresh can be, handmade tortillas, the complex moles, and the mezcals at every meal remain as the real stars in my mind.
Each meal was incomplete without a basket of warm tortillas, all differing in colors and flavors depending on where we were. We had earthy blue corn tortillas at Casa Oaxaca, pale cream and stretchy tortillas at the co-op, crunchy fried tortilla chips at Criollo, and thick, chewy and flavored of lard tortillas as a part of our street food memelas. Most of our meals comprised of some sort of mole as well. My favorite was mole negro, the deep brown variety with a smoky, toasted, and bitter quality and a thick and silky texture. I had this in no less that 4 different settings, each with its own spin and variety of ingredients and spices, as well as several red moles with meats and a fresh green mole served over vegetables. I was set out to have mezcal with each meal too, as it’s been my favorite liquor for a while now, and opted for sipping the mezcal straight over a mixed cocktail most of the time to really taste the differences. Our group leader Caitlin gave me a pretty extensive lesson in its production as well, explaining that the time it takes to mature the agave plants is anywhere from 12-20 years, each plant creating only one fruiting body, resulting in a drink with an extremely long production time. I also learned how the different heirloom varieties of agave create such different flavors in the final product, each with the signature smokiness, but some being more mineraly, others more earthy, spicy or sweet and taking on the characteristics of the land they’re grown on.
What also struck me as significant was that the simplicity of the dishes often still produced such flavorful results, likely because we were eating so many seasonal fruits and vegetables grown in the area. The avocado was more buttery, the squash and its blossoms more floral, the corn more complex, and the plantains more sweet than anything I’ve had before. Oh, and the insects more…insecty. And while I will reluctantly refrain from listing out every single dish that we had, I will provide the restaurants where we ate for anyone traveling to the area. Until next time, Oaxaca!
Restaurants in Oaxaca City:
Tlayudas el Negro
Hotel con Corazon (not a restaurant but the included breakfasts every morning prepared by Chef Eduardo were phenomenal).