Oaxaca City is the culinary capital of the state of Oaxaca which has inspired great chefs and food writers such as Rick Bayless and Anthony Bourdain. The typical Mexican cuisine to which we’ve become accustomed takes a huge leap here influenced much more by the indigenous cultures which comprise over half of the states population. The flavors, spices, textures and ingredients really awaken the senses and surprise the tongue. That being said we went straight away to the Mercado 20th of November (that’s the name of the Market) that we saw on a culinary show with Rick Bayless.
It was suggested that we buy a small bundle of knob onions and some peppers from one of the food venders just outside the market. Then once inside go to one of the venders selling meats and chose from a variety such as carne de res, pork, chicken, cabrito (goat) or chorizo sausages. The meat venders all have grills with wood fires going and they’ll grill up your vegetables and meat while you go to another vender and pick out your tortillas and condiments like pico de gaillo, tomatoes, avocados etc. Then you sit down and assemble your own tacos with all of your ingredients- very romantic on TV.
Our experience was a bit different. There were probably 20 or more venders selling knob onions and other vegetables outside the market so we chose the old lady who looked like she needed the business the most. Walking inside was a huge hallway perhaps 200 ft. long with venders on either side of this gauntlet. Each vender stoked their own fires and grills so they remained hot producing a huge amount of indoor smoke. The place was loud, jammed with people and the hawkers beckoned us to select from their seemingly identical racks of meats. Finally, with our selection of vegetables and unidentified meats in hand, the onions were dropped into the coals directly under the grill with the chiles and meats on top. The meats were different colors and from what we understood they were aged at different rates. They handed us a number and shushed us away to tables at the end of the gauntlet. There we chose the number of tortillas we’d need and also what condiments we wanted. We jammed into crowded tables, elbow to elbow with dozens of Oaxacans all chowing down on their own meals. Our plate of grilled meat and vegetables arrived as well as the tortillas and condiments. We paid each of the venders separately and proceeded to assemble our own tacos. Our eyes were watering from the smoke as were everyone else’s. Ann looked up at me and said, “Man, that’s a lot of work for a few tacos!” Although the food was delicious it was nowhere near as romantic as it looked on TV.
Oaxaca is a clean and well preserved Spanish Colonial city that’s bustling with culture and there are often music, dancing and other cultural events that pop up all over the city.
The restaurants are hugely varied including European and Asian cuisine and the powerful (50% alcohol) Mezcal is elevated to an art with a dozen or more types. The old tried and true distillation technique is still used including crushing the cooked Agave plant with a giant stone wheel pulled in a circle by a mule or a horse.
There are streets that are dedicated to pedestrian only traffic which makes the city easily navigated on foot. On the advice of a friend we found Posada Santa Maria, a B&B run by Bibiana and Thelma.
The hospitality and breakfasts were great and we met doctors from El Salvador and Guatemala attending a conference in the city. They helped us out enormously with future plans for our travels.
The sites are almost too numerous to mention but not to be missed are the Templo Santo Domingo, a huge cathedral built between 1570 and 1608,
the Jardin Etnobotanico which showcases the vast variety and diversity of plants from Oaxaca state
and the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca which is housed in a former monastery building. All three of these sites are adjoined and were once one giant complex of cathedral, monastery and grounds. Not a bad place to be a Monk in my opinion.