The first and most obvious awesome thing about Oaxaca is, obviously, its name. First there is the spelling. This word brazenly opens with double vowels and then — BAM! an X! — followed by another vowel! You don’t get to a normal consonant until the third syllable. And THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is nomenclature that brings all the wordsmiths to the yard.
Wah Hah Cah. WaHokka. WHA-HOCK-A
As if that were not enough, let us consider the pronunciation: wah-ha-ca. Wa ha ca. WAHACKA. Close enough to “wacky” or the Pac-Man/ Fozzie Bear sound wocka wocka wocka to suggest that zany, madcap stuff is happening here all the time.
.. but sometimes it is!
Fabulous name aside, let us move on to the actual things about Oaxaca that are great. This region of Mexico is known for its food, and I have quickly become a huge fan of two of its best known food products: Oaxaca farmers’ cheese, and molé.
Oaxaca farmer’s cheese is a staple food item: a humble, yet delicious semi-soft cows’ milk cheese similar to mozzarella. It melts like a dream and has a light, buttery, pleasingly salty taste. When grated, it takes on an airy, fluffy texture that is reminiscent of a mild feta. One of the cheapest (yet incredibly satisfying) items on any menu is a plain quesadilla with just two ingredients: long, stretchy strings of melted Oaxaca cheese folded into a fire-toasted tortilla. No spices, oils, condiments, or anything else to muck it up.
Enchiladas verde and Oaxaca cheese.
Cheese enchilada with scrambled eggs, tomato sauce and shredded Oaxaca cheese
Then there’s molé, a broad name for any number of regional sauces that use various chili peppers and, often, chocolate. Every restaurant has its own versions of molé, and the ones I have sampled in Oaxaca, especially the chocolate versions, are a bit more smoky than those I’ve tried before. In some instances the smokiness takes on a slightly burnt-chocolate flavor. At first taste I found this to be strong, bordering on off-putting, but by the time I was a third of the way through the meal I had become a total convert. Hereafter, I’m going to be disappointed if I don’t get that bit of burnt-smokiness in a molé dish.
Chicken enchiladas with molé and, hello again, delicious cheese.
I’ve grown to love the super spicy salsas that are standard features on every restaurant table. As a precursor to a meal, the diner is presented with a basket of bread rolls with one or more types of pepper salsa as the only accompaniment. Some Westernized restaurants include butter as a concession, but most come with nothing more than bowls of salsa, made from lava-hot insanity peppers that strike fear into the taste buds of the most die-hard fans of culinary heat. But, a dollop of salsa on the bread is the perfect way to appreciate the nuances of the pepper flavors. The bread cuts the sting of the spice just enough to let the palate open up to all the peppery tastes without actually blistering your mouth. Once again, I’m a convert.
Do not let the innocent appearance of this salsa fool you. The spice content in this little bowl could ruin lives.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the ingredients: everything in this region is so fresh and tasty, and as a result, people keep recipes very simple and let the ingredients speak for themselves. Tacos are not the crunchy, overstuffed affairs you find in Mexican restaurants outside Mexico …here, you get a warm rolled-up tortilla with sauced-up meats on the inside. Piled high on the tacos (or placed on the side) are the veggies, cheese and creamy black beans.
A perfect plate of chicken tacos.
Let’s move on to some non-food items: I love the plazas that are scattered throughout the city of Oaxaca. These central town squares are lively, pretty, interesting, and fun, and ideal for people watching.
Plaza de la Constitución, or "El Zócalo." Another great word. ZOH CA LOH.
Political protests in the plaza.
Oaxaca de Juárez is a very old city that has preserved a lot of its indigenous structures as well as colonial-era architecture. There are amazing cathedrals and churches all over the city, each one older and grander than the next.
Just another old, spectacular church in Oaxaca.
I love the double bell tower on this one.
Okay, this one is not native to Oaxaca, but you can drink Duff Beer here! Yes, the favorite brew of Homer Simpson can be found all over Mexico and other parts of the world. Oaxaca happens to be the first place I saw it. The creators of The Simpsons might not be on board with this — in fact, they sued a similar enterprise in Australia — so I don’t know how much longer we’re going to be able to enjoy the beer “brewed from hops, barley, and sparkling clear mountain goat.” So I should enjoy it while I can, no?
Are you ready to get DUFFED?
I guess that last one was technically a food item. Next post, I’ll pry myself away from the tasty goodies and move onto some sights and sounds, I swear.