Insects, Mezcal and Alebrijes: Oaxaca’s Rich Indian Heritage . Part 1

We didn’t know exactly what to expect in Oaxaca, though we’d been to other parts of Mexico in an earlier trip. But we knew a couple who waxed wistful over Oaxaca’s charms especially “los siete moles,” a label often applied to Oaxaca. We just had to experience the place for ourselves.

A clay casserole of mole for a Oaxaca feast
© Alvin Starkman, 2007
Mole, as you might know, is the uniquely Mexican sauce usually made with chiles and sometimes chocolate. Our plan was to gorge on each of the seven moles for the seven days we’d be in Oaxaca. We ended up tasting four of the siete (7) moles: negro, verde, chichilo, and coloradito.

In Oaxaca, these moles draw from traditions dating back to prehispanic times. Maybe, that’s inevitable. Pure Indians (Zapotecs and Mixtas) make up 90% of Oaxaqueñans. Mole negro, the best-known and maybe the best tasting mole emerges out of a long, involved process using some 30 ingredients including chocolate.

There was no question we’d begin our mole adventure with mole negro.

At the bed and breakfast inn where we stayed, we asked our black-eyed, dusky-skinned waitress where the best mole negro was. She was a quiet woman who we’d not yet heard utter a word but you could discern her long experience on her face. She smiled hesitantly and said, “El Naranjo. Es el mejor.”

Indeed even now, El Naranjo claims being internationally known and featured in popular travel guidebooks like Frommer’s. Though our waitress couldn’t tell us if their mole negro was good, we went there for lunch, anyway.

The day was sunny under the mild October sun and when the receptionist asked if we wanted a table in their inner courtyard, we said yes. The squarish courtyard, a common feature of Spanish architecture, was surrounded by four rooms. Nearly every restaurant we went to on this visit had such a courtyard. Our inn had one.

The mole negro sauce was good—aromatic, intriguing in its complexity and mildly-spicy. But the pork loin it smothered gave our jaws and teeth a good workout. As servers always do, ours asked us how we liked the mole. We said, “Great sauce, tough meat.”

The chef came out of her kitchen a few minutes later to ask us the same question. We gave her the same answer. Graciously, she said she wasn’t going to charge us for the dish.

Tender meat was a bit of a problem for this restaurant (a vegetarian mole was not an option). The next day, at lunch, we ordered chicken in mole chichilo. The chichilo sauce was actually wonderful—scrumptious, smoky and fragrant, and slightly bitter from charred chilies (not unpleasant, somewhat like radicchio). Regrettably,the chicken was dry and chewy. I thought mole chichilo was a rather sophisticated concoction although Rich (who likes bitter less than I do) was not as impressed.

We had mole negro at two other restaurants and the one we liked best was served at Maria Bonita which might now be closed.

On our last evening, instead of sampling another mole, we went to a restaurant recommended by the inn. Casa Oaxaca (not the restaurant at Casa Oaxaca hotel) served nouvelle cuisine a la Oaxaca. Their offerings had a refinement worthy of the best restaurants in the Bay Area. The chef mined what to us were truly exotic ingredients but which might be indigenous to the local cuisine—flying ants grasshoppers, maguey (agave) worms and corn fungus. Dishes containing them were mostly appetizers, offered alongside more familiar main courses.

We stuck with the familiar—fish deliciously and superbly prepared with hoja santa, a multifaceted herb that hints of anise. At this place, as at El Naranjo, we truthfully said, on being asked, that the lemon tart was too dry and slightly overcooked. The chef, once again, excluded the charge for the tart from the bill. Oaxacan grace and civility impressed us all week.

Cacao, the source of chocolate, is grown here as in other parts of South America. But while stores sold sugared chocolate tablets for hot chocolate, we could not readily find locally-made chocolate bars and candies to take home. We ordered a chocolate cake (they call it pastel) at one good restaurant but it was disappointing—not too fresh, not deeply chocolatey.

Hot chocolate really was the thing. According to one Oaxaqueñan waiter, preparing it for the dia de los muertos was a long spiritual process that many families began by roasting and grinding cacao beans.

An agave cactus liquor called mezcal is, of course, the drink Oaxacans love. They serve it all the time. It flowed freely (and was free) at two art show opening events and in a religious procession we witnessed (more on this in Part 2). Locals boasted, chuckling, that it could cure some ailments. How? It could make you forget them.

Did Oaxacan cuisine, allegedly the best in Mexico, make us want to return to Oaxaca for it?

I’m willing to taste a pinch of anything once, but a healthy helping or a generous garnish of insects or worms would strain my daring too much. Fungus? Depends. Mushrooms are fungi and so are yeast and some molds used to make cheese. So I’m curious about corn fungus.

One disappointment in our tasty Oaxacan adventure was the lack of variety in vegetables served with our meals. We eventually got tired of lettuce, tomato, corn, avocado and chayote.

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