Oaxaca: The Proud Cuisine of a Humble People

May 14, 2012 § 3 Comments

A woman cleans, packages, and sells produce outside Oaxaca’s 20 de Novembre market.

Known all throughout the world, Mexico’s (especially Oaxaca’s) food culture is nothing short of vivacious, but what gives it the pure liveliness we know and love it for today?

El Pochote Market is an all organic market with vendors (all women aside from the man who sells mezcal) selling everything from chocolate and coffee to tamales.

A delicious meal; organic chicken stuffed with Oaxacan cheese served with orange glazed carrots and mashed potatoes at El Pochote Market.

The Mexican foodways are part of a dynamic culture rooted in resistance, but also in adaption. As we look at our diets now, in the modern era, it is imperative to consider who we are, who came before us and who came before them; as all these details determine the foodways in which we take part.

Chayote, the green-butt-like vegetables seen above, taste like summer squash. They are a staple of Oaxacan cuisine.

Mexico’s cuisine is defined by an intense preservation of indigenous foodways combine with those of the conquistador settlers. Many of the indigenous foodways have been preserved, many adapted and some eliminated. As food cultures evolve from cultural encounters, social and political hierarchies, socioeconomic castes, and the conjunction of surrounding life, Mexico is a prime example of how the richest food culture, those of the Aztecs, Miztecs, Zapotecs and Mayans, are those that have endured the test of time (even if they have had to adapt to do so).

As seen above, food is delivered to the market, purchased and prepared all in the same day – a fast way to do slow food.

In the Sierra Norte mountain range, most of the steep hills are plowed by oxen-team and used to grow maize.

Food, and how it is portrayed within a society often speaks volumes about that society’s culture, and in Oaxaca it’s clear that influences from all around the world play a pivotal role in the ever-evolving food culture. One trip to Oaxaca and it is quite obvious that influences from ancient, pre-Colombian Mayan and Aztec civilizations, from Spaniards during post-conquest period, from West Africa during the slave trade, and from Europe and America, also known as “Creole” have penetrated the Mesoamerican foodways yielding those of Mexico.

Oaxaca, known to many as the Land of the Seven Moles, has preserved the ways of the indigenous people, sticking to hyper-locally grown produce, spices and meat as well as traditional food preparations and gatherings.

The woman in the picture recently started a business making and selling flour tortillas. Each day she presses hundreds of them. Here she made us her special beef filling with bay leaf, cloves, chiles, avocado leaves and tomatoes then wrapped it up in a hand pressed tortilla.

What is so impressive about Oaxaca is that good, integral food is expected from and by everyone. Between the open-air markets and the sustenance farming, the women (and some men) of Oaxaca have fanned the flame of what it means to eat “slow food”.

The cuisine of Oaxaca is incredibly labor intensive (both in the kitchen and in the field) due to the from-scratch mentality, yet regardless of where you go, the women will only feed you the best of what they have. While in Oaxaca I tasted everything: mole, tamales,  hand-pressed blue corn quesadillas, tlayudas, elotes, traditional guacamole, chapalinas (crickets), chocolateatole, mezcal, agua frescas, agua de chocolate, flan, stuffed squash blossoms, etc, etc.

Chile infused spinach soup with hot of the comal blue corn quesadilla.

This beautiful indigenous woman enthusiastically sells her roasted peanuts, a popular Oaxacan snack, day in an day out.

Despite the fact that I’ve been back home, in the US, for a few months now, the spirit of the rich Oaxacan food culture still resonate with me. Each time I experience a new culture it becomes part of me. The spirit of the humble Oaxacan people serving their proud cuisine is now one of my favorites.

Elotes are spared ears of corn rolled in butter, chili powder, lime and queso fresco.

Now off to Israel and Greece!

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§ 3 Responses to Oaxaca: The Proud Cuisine of a Humble People

  • paul says:

    Resistance and humility…, tempting to see them as being on different ends of the continuum, but I think they’re absolutely related. I love the color in these foods (although I’m a bit dubious on the pig head…:)). Wow lots of information here that I did not know! Thanks, have amazing travels and experiences! I’m gonna say that I’m reasonably certain that on my next trip to the mainland I’ll be unable to stop myself from going into a store somewhere and asking for “Chayote the green-butt-like vegetable that tastes like summer squash” (just to see the reactions those words bring). And I’ll blame you…:)

  • Kristi says:

    yum & yay! I LOVE tamales! Makes me miss the food in California… 🙂

  • Fernando says:

    I really like this website, is very interesting & cultural.. Thank you !

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