The state of Oaxaca (pronounce wah-HAH-ka), found in southern Mexico, is well known for serving up some of the nation’s finest cuisine. Often called the “Land of Seven Moles” for its elaborate mole (MOE-lay) sauces, concocted with dozens of ingredients that are combined over days of preparation, this is a spectacular foodie destination.
Oaxaca boasts several culinary claims to fame, such as delicious chocolate, milled with spices to your own personal taste outside the vast and fabulous markets; and exquisite cheeses, crumbled across tacos, enchiladas, empanadas, tamales, and other familiar dishes that reach their delectable heights right here in the city’s inexpensive market stalls.
Look around a little more for dozens of different chiles you won’t recognize, as well as delicious herbs you’ll find nowhere else: Hoja santa (Piper auritum), an aromatic leaf used in all sorts of salsa, or simply to wrap fish before roasting; epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides), a pungent, weedy-looking plant that lends its intense flavor to soups and quesadillas; and huitlacoche (corn fungus), a blight on maize transformed into one of Oaxaca’s most amazing flavors.
While almost every traveler spends the balance of their visit eating their way through the fine restaurants serving delicious dishes in upscale environs, small family-owned eateries, and inexpensive street stands serving atole (corn mush—a great desert on cool mornings, try it with local chocolate), tlayudas (like a tasty Oxaqueno “pizza”), or the omnipresent corn on the cob called elotes, roasted right in front of you, then slathered with lime juice, mayonnaise, and chile powder.
Serious foodies might indulge in a cooking class, and there are at least a dozen great options to choose from. Look around online to compare the costs, cuisines, and atmosphere of each. But, while you may well learn to make the mole-smothered empanadas of your dreams, good luck finding fresh hoja santa and other uniquely Oaxacan ingredients upon your return home.
Which is why you’ll need to return one day, to the markets and restaurants inhabiting this ancient stone city bathed in the remarkable high-desert light. There are moles, and then there are moles, and no matter how much you pay in Europe or the USA, it will never be as good as the one you enjoyed in that magical moment in the heart of the market for a few pesos right here.
This is why you should seek out Oaxaca’s other famous dish, chapulines, or grasshoppers. Piled high and shiny red in markets and street stalls, these tasty, high-protein snacks have been a Oaxacan staple for at least 3000 years. The legend says that if you eat a few, their wings will one day carry you back to Oaxaca. And, yes, it does seem to work.
While some tourists, even those in love with the city, may still be a bit ambivalent about enjoying them, have a look at local children begging for a baggie as though they were more delicious than ice cream. Their enthusiasm might convince you.
After being collected from the fields they might otherwise devour, the chapulines are carefully cleaned and then sauteed with lime, chile, and garlic. They are used as a filling for enchiladas, a topping for tacos, and an ingredient in all sorts of salsas. But most often, they are eaten like popcorn, with a crunch you might even learn to love. Either way, if you want to return to Oaxaca for its other, more familiar delicacies, at least give this most ancient and adored snack food a try.