My wife Carolyn Berg ’72 did her career service quarter in Guatemala, teaching English. Her immersion in a Spanish-speaking culture helped her develop a facility with Spanish that she never lost. As a result, we like to travel to Mexico, especially to smaller, interior towns where English is less commonly spoken. In 1979, we drove the back roads in the Yucatan Peninsula. In 2012, we went to Oaxaca, Mexico, known not only for its fascinating and well-preserved archaeological zones but also for its characteristic regional food, which we found in little towns as well as the capital city of Oaxaca de Juarez.
Tehuantepec—Where Women Rule
Pulling into Tehuantepec, we were greeted by a large metal statue of a fierce local woman in traditional attire, a style of dress adopted by Frida Kahlo to show sympathy with this town’s legendarily powerful women.
Though Mexico is sometimes perceived as a militantly macho country, Tehuantepec carries forth vestiges of an ancient matriarchy. Guide books warn that even today, heteronormative male shoppers in the market will likely have their manhood called into question and be otherwise verbally abused. As it turned out, I was actually a little disappointed when all the women at the market seemed quite nice.
At the market, we bought a package of totopos, fried cornmeal disks flavored with chocolate that paired excellently with Oaxacan coffee. We also grabbed some road snacks of pickled plums and mangos, spiced up with chile arbol.
As we left the market, I spotted a young woman selling iguana tamales. I had to eat one. The lizard tasted like fishy chicken; the hot sauce helped a lot. Some foods do not invite second tastes.
After the heavy rains that accompanied Hurricane Carlotta, which passed through the area the day we arrived, small flying insects called “chicatanas” emerged from the ground. As has been done for centuries, children catch the insects, play with them and, ultimately, eat them. A young girl, Carmet, showed us a chicatana she’d caught. She said it was too small to eat, so she gently played with it, as though it were a beloved pet. Then she put it back in the ground, perhaps to grow a little before harvesting.
In Oaxaca de Juarez, we didn’t see chicatanas, which may be more of a rural treat, but we did see a lot of chapulines, the grasshopper-like creatures so popular in this region. We bought some from a street vendor; the insects had been fried with chiles and garlic; they were very crispy, which is good because texture is a big part of the chapulines’ allure.
Mezcal—Tequila’s Wild Brother
Driving through Oaxaca, we stopped at some stunning archeological zones like Mitla and Monte Alban, and a few little towns, like Matatlan, whose sole product seems to be mezcal.
Unlike tequila, mezcal is made from green not blue agave. During production, the fibrous core of the mezcal plant is charred, resulting in a smokier taste.
To make mezcal, the green agave plant is stripped of its spiny leaves when it’s 10 years old. The resulting “pineapple”-looking plug is then cooked, usually in an earthen pit. After they’re charred, the “pineapples” are smashed into threads, many times by a horse-powered mill. These threads are added to water and allowed to ferment; when the fermented mixture is distilled, voilà: mezcal.
Mezcal in Oaxaca seems largely the province of small, artisan producers, families who put their own names on the signs outside their buildings or stalls. From one of those small producers we bought a tobilo, a mezcal made from wild agave. Now my experience is that wild plants and animals are frequently tastier than domestic varieties. The tobilo had an almost anise flavor, sweet, with a lot of dimension, and none of the petroleum notes I’d noticed with some less expensive mezcals I’ve tried in the States.
Beyond the Burrito, There’s Mole
The burrito – meat and vegetables wrapped in a flour tortilla – seems to have been served in the United States for the first time during the 1930s at Los Angeles’ El Chollo Mexican Café.
In Sonora, they traditionally serve machaca de burro, a dried jerky-type donkey meat, rehydrated and rolled into large flour tortillas. So it’s possible the first burritos (“little burros”) were actually made of burros.
Whatever the origin of the burrito, it is now, like the taco, too often the popular conception of Mexico food—especially outside of Mexico. If any region of Mexico more completely confounds simplistic stereotypes of Mexican cuisine, it’s Oaxaca, which has a highly nuanced local cuisine.
Of all the dishes served in Oaxaca, there are perhaps none more revered than the highly complex, labor-intensive mole, a sauce made with a multitude of ingredients. Mole can be green, yellow, red, and there are many versions, but the most popular mole is probably the dark brown or black variety, made with chocolate and chiles and usually served over chicken.
We’ve enjoyed moles in Mexico, and we’ve made the sauce at home and, wow, it is, indeed, labor-intensive. There are dozens of ingredients in the average mole. Some years ago, I spoke with Rick Bayless, whose restaurants Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and XOCO have set the standard for beautifully executed Mexican cuisine in Chicagoland. I asked him if he thought all those many, many ingredients in mole were really necessary; I wondered aloud if one could really discern specific spices among the many. “Maybe not,” said Bayless, “but think of the spices like a choir of voices: all the different voices come together harmoniously, and none of them call attention to themselves. They all work together.”
There are many, many types of mole, and there’s opportunity for infinite variation based on how you use the numerous spices involved in a single batch. Oaxaca is known as the “Land of Seven Moles,” but that number seems misleading: there are many more moles than just seven in Oaxaca, and many more things to eat in Mexico than just tacos and burritos.