Exploring the Flavors and Traditions of Oaxaca

Renowned for its mezcal and moles, the southern state of Oaxaca is Mexico at its most authentic, a land where vibrant indigenous cultures, architectural wonders, and some of the country’s best food compete for your attention.

Photographs by Matt Dutile

Left to right: Scooting past one of the many churches in Oaxaca City’s Centro Histórico; a tlayuda on the griddle at Comedor Jessy, a roadside eatery in Santiago Matatlán.

Under the fierce Mexican sun at Dainzu, a pair of mezcaleros are hacking away at the hearts of agave plants with sharpened axes. Shorn of their thick, spiky leaves, the hearts — which can weigh up to 100 kilograms each — look like huge green pineapples, hence the term piña. Once they’re chopped up, the piñas will be pit-roasted over lava rocks and wood charcoal for five days before being mashed in a stone mill and then stewed in giant barrels on their weeks-long journey toward fermentation.

Fortunately, I don’t have to wait that long to sample Dainzu’s finest mezcal, the smoky cousin of tequila. At a little bar counter next to the vats, Leoncio Santiago Hernandez, the owner of this palenque (distillery), hands me a drinking gourd filled with clear liquid. “Hecho con maguey tepeztate,” he proudly declares — “Made with agave tepeztate” — referring to one of the rarer of the three dozen or so agave varieties used to distil mezcal. (Tequila, by contrast, is made exclusively from blue agave).

The flavor is distinctly aromatic and herbaceous — leagues away from the more common espadín versions I’ve tried back in the United States. Hernandez says tepeztate only grows wild in the hills of the surrounding Sierra Madres, and that it can take decades for the plant to reach maturity: 25 years in the case of the batch I’m sipping. It’s like tasting a single malt on the Scottish island of Islay when all you’ve been drinking is whisky from the low racks at home.

Left to right: Agave hearts ready for the roasting pit at the Dainzu palenque (mezcal distillery) in Santiago Matatlán; the entrance to Casa Oaxaca El Restaurante.

Mezcal has been made in Mexico since Spanish colonial times, though it’s only gained widespread popularity in more recent years. To taste it at its source, I’ve come to the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca (pronounced “wa-hah-ka”), which accounts for something like 90 percent of all mezcal production. The dusty rural town of Santiago Matatlán, where Dainzu is situated, stands at the heart of mezcal country. Flanked by arid agave fields an hour’s drive east of Oaxaca City, it is home to most of the state’s palenques — typically small and family-run affairs that produce the spirit from agave to bottle.

Yet mezcal wasn’t my only reason for booking this trip. Oaxaca, with its impressive Zapotec and Mixtec archaeological sites, diverse indigenous communities, lively markets, and splendid colonial architecture, offers a microcosm of Mexico’s complex cultural heritage. It’s also home to some of the best cooking in the country. This is the “land of the seven moles” — complex sauces made from a base of dried chilies, spices, nuts, and seeds — and a place where Spanish and pre-Hispanic culinary traditions intertwine in fascinating ways.

Oaxaca’s eponymous capital, nestled in a Y-shaped valley of the same name, is at the center of it all. Of all the cities I’ve visited in Latin America, this is my favorite. It’s the sense of authenticity that permeates everything here — the culture, people, cuisine, and crafts. It feels like Mexico at its most genuine.

Left to right: At Origen restaurant, Oaxacan flavors meet contemporary techniques in dishes like beef tongue with molasses reduction; Origen’s chef Rodolfo Castellanos.

Walking around the Centro Histórico quarter is an enchantment all of its own. Colossal stone churches — none as ornate as the 17th-century Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán — dominate the low-slung skyline. Cobbled streets are lined with colonial-era buildings painted in cheerful shades of ocher, umber, and green. Each doorway offers a discovery. Behind some are trendy shops like Tienda Q, an artisanal crafts boutique and art space that could easily be at home in Brooklyn; items for sale include gorgeous clayware, woven palm bags, and contemporary Oaxacan filigree jewelry. Behind others are the city’s hippest mezcal bars: Mezcalogia, Sabina Sabe, Mezcaloteca. The latter, whose name is a riff on the Spanish word for library (biblioteca), stocks a truly encyclopedic range of the state’s signature spirit.

A short walk from Oaxaca’s tree-shaded Zócalo (central plaza) awaits one of the best restaurants in town, Origen. Helmed by chef Rodolfo Castellanos, who won the first season of Top Chef Mexico in 2016, it’s an exciting fusion of traditional ingredients and contemporary flair. Castellanos describes his style as “Aoaxaqueñar” — a blending of risottos, ceviches, and meats with indigenous corns, herbs, chilies, and vegetables.

“Watching my mother cook was a huge inspiration to me,” Castellanos says as he whisks me to the elegant second-floor dining room. “We respect the endemic ingredients and traditional flavors of Oaxaca, but we also take from French, Asian, and Latin American influences to create a contemporary dining experience.” For the next two hours, I feast on a succession of inventive dishes: a salad of wild greens with toasted (and surprisingly savory) grasshoppers and hoja santo pesto; beef tongue bathed in a molasses reduction; homemade capunti pasta with a ragout of tichinda mangrove mussels.

Left to right: A tostada topped with radish, avocado, fried grasshoppers, and agave worms at Casa Oaxaca; the 16th-century Church of San Pablo rises over the Mitla archaeological site.

While Castellanos’ menu is full of local flavors, no one has done more to preserve and promote the state’s culinary heritage than chef Alejandro Ruiz of Casa Oaxaca El Restaurante, which he opened in 2003. Overseeing a small empire that has expanded to include three more places in town and one in Mexico City, Ruiz is generally credited as the father of modern Oaxacan cuisine. It’s not a stretch to say that nearly every influential chef working in the city today got their start under his tutelage.

It’s another sunny afternoon when I step onto the rooftop terrace at Casa Oaxaca, which inhabits a renovated colonial house opposite the Templo de Santo Domingo. I have time to admire the view before a waiter in a white waistcoat brings a clay plate to my table. It’s topped by a single corn tostada, with creamy green ribbons of avocado and thinly sliced radish and jalapeño providing a bright contrast to the crunchy, earthy textures of fried grasshoppers and gusanos de maguey (agave worms), another traditional delicacy in these parts. They taste of spring grass. And nowhere else makes them feel as decadent and refined as here.

Short ribs with mole manchamanteles — a fruity, deep-red sauce whose name translates as “tablecloth stainer”— follow in a presentation as artful as the tostada, cooked to fall-off-the-bone perfection. After the sun has dropped well below the horizon, one final dessert of rich Oaxacan chocolate with pollen and hibiscus flowers sends me floating into the warm evening air.

Left to right: Origen’s dining room; artisan-made clothing on display at Tienda Q.

One bright morning I meet Andrea Hagan at Criollo on the western edge of the Centro Histórico. This garden restaurant is another of the hottest tables in town — little surprise, given that it’s the collaboration of world-renowned chefs Enrique Olvera (of Mexico City’s Pujol) and Luis Arellano, who cut his teeth apprenticing at Casa Oaxaca.

Hagan, for her part, is a Chicago expat who runs Mezcouting, a tour company specializing in the culinary and craft traditions of rural Oaxaca. After a languid breakfast — velvety enmoladas topped with a fried egg; cups of the richest hot chocolate to ever have passed my lips — we head east for the foothills of the Sierra Juárez mountains, where the weaving town of Teotitlán del Valle proudly preserves its Zapotec heritage.

There, Hagan brings me to Vida Nueva, a cooperative of 15 female weavers founded 25 years ago when it was uncommon for women of the area to earn their own money. Today, they’ve secured their financial independence crafting beautiful handmade textiles with classic Zapotec designs, while also engaging in community projects like reforestation, food for the elderly, and bettering the lives of other women in the community.

Left to right: Plating rice and cauliflower on top of mole coloradito at Criollo; Oaxaca City’s Santo Domingo de Guzmán church.

“I first met one of these ladies, Pastora Gutiérrez Reyes, in 2009, and we’ve been friends ever since,” Hagan tells me. “They were the first to begin selling their rugs directly to consumers, instead of to the shops along the highway where tourists went. They paved the way, and now most families here do the same.”

There are rugs with traditional motifs like arrows, stars, maize, and lightning; and handsome, hipster-level bags in more muted tones, all painstakingly made by hand on giant looms. A small table runner comes home with me — exactly what I’ve been looking for to adorn my new console, and at a fraction of what I might pay for a handmade piece like this in a designer store back in Brooklyn.

Down the road at the studio of Porfirio Gutiérrez, Juana Gutiérrez Contreras is pulling a ball of soaked yarn from a steaming vat. Blood-red dye drips from the threads as it hangs to dry. Contreras is one of the town’s master dyers, helping to revive traditional techniques that were almost lost with the explosion of cheap synthetic dyes.

Rows of oval prickly-pear cactus stems hang on the wall, each speckled with a cottony white substance. These are the cocoons of a scale insect called cochineal, known since ancient times as the source of the natural pigment carmine. When picked from the cactus, dried in woven baskets, and ground up, the tiny bugs yield the most incredible red dyes.

“This technique was already gone by the time I grew up,” says California-based, Teotitlán-born textile artist Porfirio Gutiérrez, who established the studio in 2007 with his sister Juana and other family members. “We had to research and experiment for years to rediscover the plants and dyes used by our ancestors.”

Besides cochineals, Juana also creates dyes from seeds, pods, leaves, fruits, and minerals, which she grinds in the studio’s courtyard using a stone metate y metlapil, the pre-Hispanic version of a mortar and pestle. She then boils the ingredients in large metal vats set atop wood fires, stirring in skeins of yarn to achieve the desired color. The results are hand-loomed rugs of remarkably rich hues and patterns.

“It takes great time, finances, and effort to preserve this culture,” Gutiérrez explains. “But it is my passion. We must do everything we can to preserve the heritage of our ancestors in today’s modern world.”

Left to right: Master weaver Antonio Lazo Hernandez working the loom at the Porfirio Gutiérrez studio in Teotitlán del Valle; dye artist Juana Gutiérrez Contreras at Porfirio Gutiérrez.

On my penultimate day in Oaxaca, I make my way back to Santiago Matatlán for one last palenque visit. But first comes a stop at Mitla, an ancient city where Zapotec and Mixtec people once worshiped the dead.

Though it lacks the grandeur and mountaintop setting of Oaxaca’s other must-see archaeological site, Monte Albán, Mitla is nonetheless replete with exquisite workmanship. Intricate geometric patterns are carved in low relief all over the upper third quadrant of three massive walled complexes. The fretwork, painstakingly assembled without mortar from thousands of polished stones, is a revelation considering the age of the site, which the early Zapotecs — then among the most highly developed cultures of Mesoamerica — began building in the eighth century.

In Santiago Matatlán, I enjoy a quick lunch at a place Hernandez recommended during my visit to Dainzu. It’s a no-frills eatery on the town’s main drag named Comedor Jessy, with vinyl-covered tables and red plastic chairs set up on a concrete patio. They do a mean version of one of Oaxaca’s favorite antojitos (street foods): tlayudas, those hubcap–size tostadas that Americans like to call Mexican pizza. A lady in a floral smock, twin braids of dark hair trailing down her back, gestures me to a seat. She’s tossing large tortilla rounds on a wood-fired griddle. They’ll crisp until they’re crunchy and golden before being slathered with silky refried beans, gooey strings of quesillo cheese, tomatoes, avocado, and carne asada. It may not be the kind of dish you’ll find in Oaxaca’s top restaurants, but it is delicious.

Left to right: Oaxaca City’s Basilica of Nuestra Señora de Soledad; Gonzalo and Pedro Martínez Sernas of El Sabino in Santiago Matatlán.

Just up the road, Fábrica de Mezcales El Sabino was founded six decades ago by the grandfather of the current owners, Gonzalo Martínez Sernas and his brothers Pedro, Rafael, and Pablo. They produce three mezcal labels here, including their signature Macurichos. What separates the brothers’ operation from the hundreds of other palenques in the area is their dedication to the agricultural heritage of agave though organic farming practices and the reforesting of diminishing wild agave populations. They also use traditional clay-pot stills rather than the more common copper versions, which give their mezcals softer, rounder tones.

“Our mezcal comes from tradition,” Gonzalo tells me as we sit down for a tasting flight of spirits made from four different agave varieties: tobalá, madrecuishe, arroqueño, and my old friend tepeztate. “We grew up with mezcal. That has led us to be guardians of this drink.”

Other spirits, like bourbon, might develop their flavors from a combination of mash and aged barrels, but mezcal’s complexity is all about the plant. The tobalá is earthy and rugged, with plenty of thyme and rosemary notes; the arroqueño is packed with caramel, vanilla, and creamy lemon.

Before the brothers return to chopping up piles of awaiting agave hearts, we raise a toast to the land and the culture it has nourished.

El mezcal es el camino,” Gonzalo says. Mezcal is the way.

 

The start of an agave roast at El Sabino in Santiago Matatlán.

The Details

Getting There

Oaxaca is just over an hour’s flight from Mexico City.

Where to Stay

Quinta Real
The grande dame of Oaxaca City hotels offers old-world comfort in a former Dominican convent (doubles from US$175).

Hotel Sin Nombre
Opened last year in a revamped 17th-century house just a block from Oaxaca’s main plaza, this 18-room “Hotel Without a Name” is a stylish addition to the city’s lodging scene (doubles from US$125).

Where to Eat

Casa Oaxaca El Restaurante

Origen

Criollo

Comedor Jesse
Carr. Internacional Cristóbal Colón, Km 49.3, Santiago Matatlán.

Where to Shop

Studio Porfirio Gutiérrez

Tienda Q

Vida Nueva

Mezcal Tastings

Dainzu
Carr. Internacional Cristóbal Colón, Km 48, Santiago Matatlán.

El Sabino
Carr. Internacional Cristóbal Colón 5, Km 49.

Touring

Specializing in rural mezcal, artisan, and gastronomic outings, Mezcouting can tailor any manner of trips into the Oaxacan countryside.

 

This article originally appeared in the June/August 2021 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Oaxaca”).

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