From vegetable blossoms to flying ants and even rocks, Oaxaca’s ancient cuisine draws on virtually everything nature has to offer
Author LAYLA SCHLACK
RESIDENTS OF THE MEXICAN state of Oaxaca may live in a natural breadbasket — tomatoes, corn, beans, sweet potatoes, chilies, vanilla and cacao all grow here — but they have an admirable habit of building meals around whatever they can find. Crickets, grasshoppers, ants and agave worms have long been dietary staples, as has a famous dish called simply “stone soup.” And while braver restaurants in Mexico City and the U.S. have started catering to bold travelers with such fare, few can match the offerings of eateries in this picturesque coastal region.
“People don’t always realize it, but a lot of the dishes in Oaxaca are pre-Hispanic,” says Oscar Carrizosa, chef at Casa Crespo, a restaurant and culinary school in the city of Oaxaca. Before the Spanish arrived with their pigs, cows, wheat and cumin (and certainly before the French brought cream sauce), Oaxacans enjoyed duck taquitos; bu’pu, a beverage made from creamed corn and topped with cacao; and sopa de milpa, a soup of squash blossoms, mushrooms, sweet corn and chipotle — all dishes you can find in Carrizosa’s restaurant.
But possibly the most celebrated pre-Hispanic culinary creation is caldo de piedra, or stone soup, a ceremonial meal eaten by the indigenous Chinantec people. In the springtime, when the soup’s ingredients were most abundant, men made it as a tribute to the women and girls of the village. After collecting the necessary tomatoes, cilantro, chilies and fish, they heated a bunch of river stones in a fire, created huge bowls in the sand and added the hot stones to cook the soup.
“We grew up with caldo de piedra,” says Cesar Gachupin de Dios, head chef at, fittingly, Caldo de Piedra in Tlalixtac de Cabrera. “I learned to cook it at the age of 9. In my village, it’s still eaten on the banks of the river every spring.”
While Gachupin de Dios’ restaurant is very much about preserving tradition, there’s also a broader movement thrusting pre-Hispanic food into the international spotlight. “Oaxaca was always known as a poorer area,” Carrizosa says, “but now that Americans have gotten into eating seasonal and local foods, tourism’s been good here.”
As for Carrizosa’s favorite dishes, he says he prefers those associated with certain times of the year. He particularly favors salsa de chicatanes, a spicy number made with flying ants that’s about as seasonal as it gets: The main ingredient appears for just a few days each May.
MOLE NEGRO: The mole that’s made it in the world at large derives its flavor from a blend of chili, cinnamon, chocolate and sesame seeds.
MOLE AMARILLO: This local favorite gets its yellow color from masa (corn dough) blended with chili, cumin, tomatillo and tomato.
MOLE COLORADO: Similar to mole negro but less chocolaty, colorado’s rich flavor comes from tomato, clove and allspice.
MOLE COLORADITO: This ruddy sauce is also based on chocolate and chili, but achieves a sublime texture with help from peanuts and raisins.
MOLE CHICHILO: Harder to find than the other six, chichilo has a smoky, almost ashy flavor that comes from roasted chili peppers.
MOLE VERDE: Most moles have a dark hue that comes from their many spices; verde gets its bright green color from a purée of fresh herbs and pumpkin seeds.
MANCHAMANTELES: The name means “tablecloth stainer,” and it’s an accurate one. While other moles are usually thin sauces, this one is basically prune and tomato stew. Bring napkins… —LAYLA SCHLACK