The Best of Mexico's Oaxacan Cuisine
Oaxacan cuisine is one of Mexico's most gastronomically diverse food cultures, internationally praised as one of the ultimate food scenes in all of Mexico and, to some, in all the world. The state of Oaxaca is located in the south of the country and boasts incredible geographic diversity with mountain ranges, canyons, valleys, rivers, and coastline along the Pacific with nine major bays. These varying climates afford Oaxacan cuisine a wealth of various ingredients: seafood from coastal areas, vegetables from the Central Valley region, and tropical fruits from the northeast near Veracruz. And because of the area's rich history and isolated terrain, Oaxaca has preserved and officially recognized 16 indigenous cultures, each with unique culinary traditions that enrich Oaxaca's striking culinary landscape. This is nowhere more evident than in the region's iconic mole sauce, of which there are officially seven types—but every abuela, or "grandmother," has her own special family recipe, carried down through generations.
But before we dive into the wonders of mole sauce, let's explore the key ingredients in Oaxacan cuisine and the most famous dishes made with them.
As with all of Mexico for thousands of years, corn is Oaxaca's staple ingredient. It is most often dried and ground into a masa dough, featured in the region's beloved tamales or used to make tortillas, which are incorporated into almost every meal—whether as a vessel for meat and vegetables or as a side dish for dipping into rich savory sauces or soups.
Oaxacan cooking favors a variety of mainly black beans, most often prepared with aniseed and served as a topping or a black-bean-style soup. It's most notably used on tlayudas, which is almost like a Oaxacan pizza (more on that below).
Oaxacan chile peppers are renowned by chefs and highly prized for their one-of-a-kind flavor profile. They are traditionally smoke-dried in a slow process that brings out each pepper variety's unique piquancy. These dried chile peppers are one of the most important ingredients in mole sauces.
Chocolate / Cacao
Chocolate is grown throughout Oaxaca and is used in the region's famous mole negro, but it's the region's ubiquitous hot chocolate beverage that the ingredient is best known for. For this delicious drink, the cacao beans are hand-ground, then mixed with hot milk, sugar, almonds, cinnamon and other warming spices.
Also known as quesillo, Oaxacan cheese is similar to mozzarella, but a bit softer and presented in ropes like string cheese. Cooks and street vendors rip off rough strips of the soft cheese and sprinkle them on a number of dishes like quesadillas.
Oaxacan cuisine features a number of edible insects, but the most popular is, by far, its grasshoppers, or chapulines. They are toasted to crunchy perfection in a comal, or earthenware griddle, over hot coals, then seasoned with garlic, lime juice, and salt. They are eaten by themselves as snacks, as a filling for tacos and the like, or as a salty crunchy topping.
Huitlacoche, or corn fungus, is a noteworthy Oaxacan delicacy. Also known as "Mexico's truffle," the strange-looking fungus has a mushroom-like earthiness and slight sweetness that is so lovely, it commands top dollar—or top peso. Next time you're in Oaxaca and you see huitlacoche as a taco or empanada filling, don't shy away from the opportunity to taste this special ingredient. Here it fills crispy quesadillas.
Famous Must-Try Oaxacan Dishes
There are seven distinct types of mole: negro (black), amarillo (yellow), coloradito (little red), mancha manteles ("tablecloth-stainer"), chichilo (named after the sauce's main chile pepper), rojo (red), and verde (green). Many would argue that the mole negro is Oaxaca's finest mole. It consists of smoke-dried chile peppers charred on a comal over hot coals, almonds, pecans, tomatoes, tomatillos, white onion, garlic, plantain, peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, biscuit-like cookies, a chocolate bread, raisins, prunes, oregano herb mixture, and chocolate, among other things. The labor- and time-intensive sauce is usually served over fall-off-the-bone chicken, pork, or beef and alongside any combination of rice, tortilla, salsas, and sometimes topped with crunchy grasshoppers. But the sauce—a tantalizing mix of smoky char, piquant heat, sweet chocolate and fruit notes, earthy spices, and salty goodness—is definitely the star of the show.
Across Mexico, tamales are a beloved treat enjoyed morning, noon, and night in both savory and sweet iterations. Normally, the pillowy masa dough is stuffed with any combo of stewed meats, cheeses, vegetables, fruit, or chocolate, then steamed in a corn husk. While Oaxacans still uses this method, their signature-style tamale, dubbed tamales Oaxaqueños, replaces the corn husk with a banana leaf and the filling is the state's fabulous mole negro. It's out of this world.
Make these Tamales Oaxaqueños (Oaxacan-Style Tamales).
You cannot dip your toe into the world of Oaxacan cuisine without hearing about Mercado 20 de Noviembre, a massive well-known market, and its grilled meat halls, or pasillo de carnes asadas. This style of grilled meat is found throughout Oaxaca. Paper-thin strips of meat are salted and partially dried before grilling. Choose between tasajo (beef), cecina (pork), cecina enchilada (seasoned pork), and chorizo (Mexican sausage, not thinly sliced). Cooked fast and hot over an open flame, these grilled meats are enjoyed in all manner of Oaxacan dishes.
Try this Carne Asada al Cilantro dish.
Nicknamed "Oaxacan pizza," a tlayuda is a large tortilla brushed with a thin layer of unrefined pork lard, then topped with refried black beans and any combination of additional toppings, whether it's tomato, avocado, Oaxacan cheese, cotija cheese, and meats like chorizo, tasajo, or cecina. They are often served open-faced like a pizza, but can also be folded in half like a quesadilla.
Caldo de Piedra
Roughly translated as "stone soup," caldo de piedra is a Oaxacan soup made with scalding hot rocks and fresh fish, caldo de pescado, or head-on shrimp, caldo de camaron. For nearly 500 years the Chinantec people have made this savory seafood stew along the banks of the Papaloapan River. But it has made its way to other areas of Oaxaca. It's served with toppings like lime, chopped white onion, chopped hot peppers, cilantro, and salsa, so you can tailor your soup to delight your own unique palate.
These are small corn dough cakes, thicker than tortillas, which are topped with any mixture of refried beans, cheese, and your choice of meat topped with spicy salsas and even crunchy grasshoppers. They are cooked on a comal, lending them a crispy base to anchor the soft center and melted toppings.
This traditional Oaxacan cold drink originated in the indigenous cultures in pre-Hispanic Mexico, when it was treated as a complete meal. Made with fermented maize, cacao, the mamey fruit seed, and flor de cacao—tejate has a slightly floral and light chocolate flavor with a foamy top layer, and it can be served sweet or unsweet.
Check out our collection of Authentic Mexican Recipes.