The state of Oaxaca is famous for its distinct cuisines, and the state’s capitol is one of Mexico’s best food cities. Although Oaxaca is also known for homemade cheeses, the staffs of life in Oaxaca are chocolate, corn, and chiles—these essential ingredients appear in everything from frothy beverages to fragrant sauces.
In pre-Hispanic times, chocolate was a ceremonial beverage and in Oaxaca some things never change. Drinking chocolate still symbolizes the honoring of life, family, and tradition. No Oaxacan fiesta is complete without chocolate; Oaxacans serve chocolate con leche (hot chocolate made with milk) at weddings and fetes, and chocolate is a small but essential element in the state’s famous moles. To experience Oaxacan chocolate, order a bowl of frothy chocolate con leche at a market stall or try the mole negro at one of the city’s many fine restaurants.
Oaxaca is redolent with homemade tortillas, but the fun doesn’t end there. Street stalls in the capitol sell tlayudas, giant crispy tortillas topped with pureed black beans or chorizo; memelas, thick toasted tortillas topped with crumbly cheese; and several varieties of tiny, savory tacos. You’ll also find tetelas, triangular corn pockets stuffed with local ingredients, tamales, and pozole, or meaty hominy stew. To experience the best of Oaxaca’s corn offerings, devour the tamales Oaxaqueños at a market stall in the Mercado 20 de Noviembre (20 de Noviembre and Aldama).
Oaxaca produces 24 types of dried chiles that aren’t found elsewhere in Mexico. To get to know Oaxaca’s chiles, stroll through the capitol’s markets; at Mercado Benito Juárez (Flores Magon and 20 de Noviembre) and Mercado de Abastos (de Mercaderes and Juárez Maza) you’ll find booths selling mountains of mud red pasillas, ruby red costeños, golden red taviches, and wrinkled black pasillas. The air itself is spicy. Chiles are also the primary ingredient in the state’s famous moles and no traveler should leave the state without a small bag of smoky dried chiles pasillas de Oaxaca.