When I travel abroad, my favorite question to ask the locals is “where do you consider to be the most exotic place in the world you’d like to explore?” I lived in Australia for a spell and it always struck me that France was the second-most common answer (standby for the most common). When in northern Europe, the answers are usually pretty similar to those you might expect to hear in the United States: Bali, Thailand, Tahiti...Syria used to be a fairly common one - not so much anymore. Interestingly, few former colonizing countries ever seem keen on naming their former colonies nor do they see their neighboring countries as an enticing travel destination. It seems the mutual cultural exchange they facilitated – or often mandated – resulted in a de-exoticifation (if you will) to the nuances in their mutual customs and norms.
For example, English people are constantly told that Britain’s Indian food is better than anything cooked within the borders of their former colony (chicken tikka masala was officially decreed the UK’s national dish in 2001), so the Brits don’t exactly look to India to fulfill their unmet hunger for the exotic (to their detriment). The Dutch feel the same way about Indonesia, the French about North Africa, and no European countries are too keen on naming each other as ‘exotic.’
In the United States, we feel ambivalent about the cultural riches of Mexico, at least relative to the rest of the world. Interestingly enough, Mexico is by far THE most common answer I hear to my question almost everywhere I go outside of the Americas. When I lived in Sydney, I was constantly asked about Mexico and told how lucky I was to live so near to it. In Europe, I felt like I could find top restaurant versions of almost any cuisine, but they could never even come close to getting Mexican right – and they know it.
For me, as someone whose travel decisions almost exclusively hinge on a country’s culinary scene (sorry Bolivia, it might be a while for visit #2), it seemed criminal that my only encounters with Mexico were of the Cabo/Ensenada spring break variety. Even though Mexican tops my list of favorite cuisines, and I speak better Spanish than any other language, Mexico always seemed too close; a waste of a long holiday. Like Canada...!
Luckily my love of mezcal finally convinced me to finally check out ‘real’ Mexico last fall, in the form of Oaxaca.
Oaxaca is actually one of Mexico’s poorest states, still recovering from a violent period of unrest that came to a head in 2006. Its coastline is a well-kept secret in the surfing community for its massive swells and near-perfect point-breaks, its pre-Columbian ruins are as sophisticated and formidable as Chichen Itza, and its capital, Oaxaca City, is arguably the most stunningly preserved colonial city in all of Mexico. But you won’t find any branded t-shirt touting mega resorts geared towards the borracho gringo-frat scene.
Pre-Columbian Oaxaca never assimilated into Aztec or Mayan rule, and was instead governed from mighty Monte Albán (500 B.C. to 750 A.D.), with astronomically aligned pyramids and well-preserved ball courts visible above modern Oaxaca City. Oaxaca State is the most diverse and indigenous region of Mexico, where some 17 languages (including Spanish) are still spoken. Native Oaxaqueños seem to relish in their historic refusal to kowtow to outsider influence. Travelers hoping to get by in Mexico without at least a cursory knowledge of Spanish may thus want to steer clear of Oaxaca, especially when venturing along the coast or in the country. But even if you at least attempt to speak the native language, Oaxaqueños are incredibly warm, and will appreciate the effort before speaking to you in English or trying to meet you halfway.
I could write a book about all there is to do outside of Oaxaca City, but when it comes to the culinary scene, stick to the capital (population 650,000). There, amidst the gold-encrusted Baroque architecture, magical year-round Dia de Los Muertos festival spirit, colorful art installations, sprawling garden courtyards and cobblestone alleys, you will find one of the most inventive culinary scenes in the world. Start with a daylong stroll. One of the most surprising things about the city, at least the old town, is how safe it is at any hour.
Your first meal should be mole. Oaxaca is also called “land of the seven moles” (whose ingredients go way beyond chocolate and chile). We tend to associate mole with the traditional mole negro, but just as common in Oaxaca are rojo (which basically just uses less chocolate than negro), amarillo (like Mexican curry), and coloradito (basically similar to both negro and rojo but with mashed ripe plantains).
Almost anywhere you go for mole will be better than anything you’ve had outside of Mexico. I highly recommend taking a cooking class to fully wrap your head around how this dish is actually made and how many ingredients go into it. Several restaurants around town offer them, but we went with Chef Oscar Carrizosa at Casa Crespo, because the class started with an hour-long trip to the local market to actually purchase all the ingredients for the 4-course lunch meal we made.
The best street food comes in the form of tlayuda: a huge, crisp tortilla covered with pork lard, beans and cheese cooked over charcoal at any of the street stands near the city’s central market: Mercado 20 de Noviembre just south of the Zocalo (the lovely, leafy main square). And chapulines (dried crickets) are ubiquitous. To me, they taste like chili-crusted raisins (and I hate raisins), but they are hard to avoid as Oaxaqueños sprinkle them on everything. They grew on me in moderation, folded into guacamole or garnishing the occasional taco, though I found out in our cooking class that they are also ground up and integrated into most tortilla dough as a spice. You can run but you can't hide.
There was another would-be cringe-worthy item that I fell for, hard: sal de gusano. Made from the dried and crushed mescal gusano (the infamous worm), blended with salt and chili, the blood-orange hued dust it creates is addictively tart, salty and spicy – and my margarita will never be the same without it crusting the lime-kissed rim of my glass.
There are myriad fabulous restaurants in Oaxaca City, and I recommend exploring the streets and determining which menus are most tempting to you. For us, standouts included the beautiful courtyard at Los Danzantes, the contemporary-chic vibe at Zandunga, the organic mecca La Biznaga and trendy Zicanda, but Casa Oaxaca is the one restaurant that simply CANNOT be missed, as it is an actual revelation. Perhaps one of the top five dining experiences of my life, this stunning rooftop ode to traditional Oaxacan cuisine is where the city’s celebrity chef, Alejandro Ruiz, began his farm-to-table concept - now the norm among his peers. Whether you order the lamb in pitiona sauce with sweet potato puree, seafood-stuffed chilies and tacos, or simple bean stew – the experience dining here on a warm night, overlooking the city is nothing short of magical. And I still yearn for the paloma cocktails.
In Situ and Mezcaloteca are the two best mezcal bars we found. After a long evening of mezcal ‘education’ at the small In Situ mezcal library, the incredibly knowledgable owner set us up with her taxi-driver friend, who spent the next day driving us out into mezcal country. There, about an hour outside of Oaxaca City, we visited a few of the tiny outdoor artisanal producers who sell their traditionally made mezcal to the big houses. What shocked me was how many producers still make mezcal the way their great-great-great grandfathers must have. Without technology (beyond a donkey perhaps) or even electricity. The stills were basically built right into the earth, and the mezcal stored in plastic vats that looked like they were meant for gasoline before the big bosses come collect it to blend into their branded products that we (think we) know. How that entire process works warrants its own write-up, but those producers work hard for very little so we can enjoy those smoky margaritas on this side of the border.
Do yourself a favor. Next time you dismiss Mexico as too close to home for your next big exotic vacation, consider Oaxaca. The relative short journey there from anywhere in the United States makes us the envy of our mole-craving international peers.
All the Swirl is a collections of thoughts and opinions assembled by the staff and industry friends of Charles Communications Associates, a marketing communications firm with its headquarters in San Francisco, California. We invite you to explore more about our company and clients by visiting www.charlescomm.com.