By Edward Wilkinson Latham

Photography by Marina Dempster

Outpost Magazine

Every time I arrive in Mexico my senses are immediately overtaken, like being hugged by a long lost relative. I am swept away in a feast of sensations that comfort, challenge and contradict. To tell you the truth, I’m addicted to Mexican home cooking and I would quite happily waddle round the country for as long as it took to taste all the flavors this wonderful country has to offer– but the one place my taste buds always pang for is Oaxaca.

Long considered the Mecca of Mexican crafts, today Oaxaca boasts an international art scene that rivals that of many Latin American capitals. Combined with the palate pleasing fusions of the local cuisine, la cocina oaxaqueña, the city has experienced a boom in popularity over the last few years.

The rugged southern state of Oaxaca lies within 250 kilometres of Mexico City and a world away, in a region where tropical climatic zones and several spectacular mountain regions of the Sierra Madre collide with the Valles Centrales. Separated from its neighbouring states by this rough landscape and fringed by the Pacific Ocean, Oaxaca enjoys a slower and somewhat magical existence.

Early in the morning I walk through the city’s streets listening to the birds and the sounds of the street sweepers’ straw brooms. Surrounded by endless fading examples of colonial architecture, painted in bright colours like iced cakes, I walk to the Mecardo 20 de Noviembre, at La Abuelita, a couple of blocks south of the Zòcalo, the ideal place to start one’s adventures with a good breakfast.

Light filters through the market’s multi-coloured canopy, bathing the fruits, vegetables, meats and spices on display in a blue, red or yellow glow. As many dishes in Mexico demand hot pepper sauces, or miltomates, the market is aromatized with the many varied ingredients that go into them: “yerba santa” (holy weed), avocado leaves, oregano, cloves, pepper, and cinnamon. “Spanish fruits,” of Arabic origin, such as raisins, almonds, capers, or olives add yet another olfactory dimensions.

The small comedores in the market serve many local specialties, but most famous is the chicken in black mole, mole being a rich, complex dark brown sauce made from chilies and coco beans.

Oaxaca is so famous for mole that this culturally diverse state is also known as the Land of the Seven Moles. Mole negro, made from dried, black chilies called Chilhuacles, is the most popular, but the other six siblings include: Coloradito, sweetish and dark red in color; the green Almendrado, made from almonds, olives and capers; Amarillito, delicately flavored with edible piper and yellow chilies; Chichilo, whose flavor comes from burnt tortillas; and Manchamanteles, made by mixing fresh fruit into a light mole sauce.

All varieties lay before me, like mountains of modeling clay in large coloured plastic bowels. I decide on a good exotic breakfast, and order a Potosinos – scrambled eggs with onion, chili peppers and tomato, wrapped in a fresh corn tortilla, topped with red mole sauce, while the whole thing floats like a lost raft on an enormous earthenware plate of black mole. I’m so impressed that I lick my plate clean of mole, much to the appreciation of the proprietor, a middle-aged woman with long black braids and a decorated white blouse. Remarkably, she remains immaculate behind her stove, surrounded by mountains of potentially staining sauces.

Rather than my normal cup of English Breakfast tea, a visit to Mexico requires a morning dose of hot chocolate. The smell of one of Oaxaca’s numerous chocolate mills can be detected from blocks away, an irresistbly enticing scent to follow through the city streets. The word chocolate derives from the Mayan word xocoatl; cocoa from the Aztec word cacahuatl. The Spanish/Indian word chocolat comes from a combination of choco (“foam”) and atl (“water”), as early chocolate was only consumed in beverage form. Attesting to the high regard the Aztecs held for chocolate, the 40-to-60 foot tall cocoa trees are known botanically in Latin as Theobroma cacao, meaning “food of the gods.”

The original cocoa recipe was a mixture of ground cocoa beans, water, wine, and peppers, but it didn’t take long for the Spaniards to begin heating the mixture and sweetening it with sugar. When it was introduced to England, milk was added. Served either con aqua or con leche, the taste of Mexican hot chocolate is an altogether different thing than its poor European derivatives. Flavoured with ground cinnamon and almonds, most proprietors grind their own mixture in large hot contraptions before it is poured into containers, still hot.

It is said that the Aztec Emperor Montezuma consumed his cacahuatl in golden goblets before entering his harem; upon introducing Don Cortes to this pastime, chocolate soon earned its reputation as an aphrodisiac in Europe. In a flowery courtyard somewhere west of the Zocalo I try a Sopa de guías, a soup made from tender zucchini shoots and the blossoms of the zucchini itself, mixed with corn and served with maize dumplings called chochoyotes.

Feeling like Orson Wells on a gastronomic bender, I next try Verde con Espinazo next – pork in a green sauce made with beans, chilies, parsley and epinazo (wild spinach), before a small helping of Tlayudas, large tortillas with toppings of beans, guacamole and local farmers’ cheese, a stringy comestible that comes wound in a ball, enticing any chef to obsessively unravel. Outside, I make my way to the juice stands that flank the cathedral. Here large containers of juices attract passersby with vibrant colours. All freshly squeezed and too affordable to pass up, I try a watermelon juice, quickly followed by a guava. With true siesta zeal, I retire to my hotel and sleep off the day thus far.

After a generous kip, I awake wondering for a minute where I am, before heading out for an evening refresher. I pass an ice cream shop serving over 40 different kinds, including avocado and chiceron (fried pigskin). I choose one made from the red flowers of the Hibiscus. Soaked in water they create a tangy deep red “cooler” called Aqua de Jamaica, high in vitamin C, which when combined with sugar and egg white, is then frozen to make a delicious sorbet.

For even more sustenance I venture into a bar and munch on perhaps Oaxaca’s greatest specialty of them all – grasshoppers. Served roasted and covered in chili and lime they are, despite what the weak western stomach might presume, delicious. I soon find myself ordering another basket of the little crunchy devils, known as Chapulines. With that I venture back to my hotel and down a glass of Alka seltzer, just in case those chapulines decide to hop into my dreams. However, just as legend has it that those who throw coins into the Tivoli fountain in Rome will always return, Oaxacans assure visitors that if they eat the spiced grasshoppers, they will always be able to return to Oaxaca. Seems like I’m going to be going back and awful lot.