Cover Oaxaca, Mexico (Photo: Roman Lopez / Unsplash)

In search of a particular dish, food author and gourmand Angelo Comsti eats his way through Mexico’s culinary rich states and ends up with more than just a satiated palate

It only took a mouth-watering image of memela, a thicker-than-usual tortilla kissed by a hot griddle then slathered with salsa de frijol and quesillo cheese, for me to include the state of Oaxaca in my Mexican sojourn.

In Netflix’s Street Food: Latin America documentary series, Doña Vale, who operates a humble shack inside the Mercado Central de Abastos, is shown preparing memelas on her weary white comal for a hungry and curious crowd of local and foreign visitors. This Oaxacan toasted cake is available all over town, from restaurants to street-side vendors; but hers is special, relegating much of the hype to the generous dab of her signature salsa morita. And that’s why I was quick to invite myself to the party.

See also: Foodie Finds: Author Angelo Comsti Shares His Top 5 Takeout Picks

Proclaimed by the UNESCO as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Mankind” back in 2010 (an honour shared with only one other cuisine—French), Mexican fare has a thousand-year-old food culture that goes beyond the banner items of tacos, burritos and guacamole. In fact, Oaxaca, located an hour-long plane ride away south of the capital city, doesn’t even champion any of those. The gastro-historical state has its own repertoire that offers much to be desired.

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Local Produce

I began my food exploration by visiting two public markets. It’s my way of learning about the basic foundations of the cuisine and paying respect to the farmers and bounty of the land. The Mercado Benito Juarez, named after the first native president of Mexico, was a full city block in size. It was very clean and organised, with the array of products, diversity of agriculture and seasonal abundance in full display.

See also: 20 Of The World’s Most Famous Food Markets

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Chapulines or roasted grasshoppers (Photo: Angelo Comsti)
Above Chapulines or roasted grasshoppers (Photo: Angelo Comsti)

What greeted me by the entry (it was hard to ignore!) were baskets full to the brim with chapulines or roasted grasshoppers. There was a protein-rich pile that was heavily spiced, marked by a fiery red blush, and another tossed with peanuts, perhaps an easy alternative for those who can’t commit to a full-on insect binge just yet. It’s quite a beloved snack, my guide said, with many of the locals eating them by the handfuls, garnishing them on ice cream and stacking them atop tlayuda, a Oaxacan speciality akin to a pizza with fried tortilla as the crust.

Strewn in between colourful fruit stands, thick braids of quesillo cheese, and crowded shelves of mezcals were heaps of dried chillies, many of which I wasn’t familiar with. From mora and ancho rojo, to meco, cascabel and chile de arbol, these sun-kissed peppers, which vary in shape and form, collectively provide an earthy scent reminiscent of stale closets, rather than spice. Regardless, the sight heightened my curiosity that I randomly chose some to be placed in 300-gram packs suited for travel.

From foot-long crispy chicharron to huitlacoche or nasty-looking-but-savoury-tasting corn fungus, many things grabbed my attention inside the market; but it was the mounds of mole pastes that consumed most of my time. This national dish may have been born in Puebla, but Oaxaca has bred them into an impressive family of seven, each bearing a notable difference in colour and flavour. 

See also: Tatler Recipes: Smothered Beef Short Ribs with Mole, Squash Mousseline, Ginger, and Potato Straw

There’s the savoury sweet negro, which America has embraced and placed on their menus; the rojo, also known as mole poblano, made with pulverised peanuts and raisins; the coloradito, which stands in between the first two and distinctly incorporates ripe plantains in the mix; amarillo, which exudes vibrancy due to the absence of chocolate; verde, tainted with tomatillos, jalapeños, and cilantro; chichilo that’s seasoned with beef bones and thickened with masa harina; and the manchamantel, which is sweetened by pineapple. My shopping bag just got a lot heavier with these, a sign that it was time to head back to the hotel—but not without a bite.

There were ready-to-eat specialities one could snack on in-between shopping—from tortas or Mexican sandwiches and tamales Oaxaqueños or chicken-stuffed steamed corn blends, to tejate, a foamy iced beverage made with corn and cocoa.

We snaked our way through to Mercado 20 de Noviembre, which was just a stone’s throw away, and fortunately found a vacant table at the busy Pasillo de Carnes Asadas. The place was filled with smoke, chatter and meats, all of which contributed to the charm of this unique dining experience. I grabbed a basket and picked an assortment of meats from the long row of vendors. I ended up with tasajo (skirt steak), chorizo, and cecina enchilada (adobo-marinated pork cutlets). They traded my purchase with a laminated card, which I handed back once they delivered my grilled goods. A couple of ladies walked by and offered warm tortillas and side dishes such as vegetable salads and salsas; but I opted to indulge on the meats alone, which proved more than enough to satisfy.

Much like the market visit, this meal had all my senses engaged and in overdrive. I expected nothing less and was more than happy to give what the experience asked from me.

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Traditional and Modern

There’s no better person to turn to for an introduction to their typical fare than the founder of the Cocineras Tradicionales de Oaxaca Association, chef Celia Florián.

For a time, the world ambassador for Oaxacan cuisine crunched numbers for a bank. Not finding contentment in her corporate job, she traded it for cooking and researched about the food of her land. In 1992, together with her husband, she opened Las Quince Letras, a restaurant with an open terrace and a menu that gathers the specialities of the state.

There were a couple of tlayudas to choose from, as well as different iterations of stuffed chiles; but most impressive was the section on moles, a good number of which were made with almonds, and paired with turkey (mole negro de fandango), pressed beef rib (cegeueza de res) and even cow tongue (mole almendrado).

See also: The Culinary Capitals of the Philippines: Chef JP Anglo’s Guide to Negros Occidental

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Even restaurant exteriors are on a festive mode (Photo: Angelo Comsti)
Above Even restaurant exteriors are on a festive mode (Photo: Angelo Comsti)

I went with my purist gut and for appetisers, ordered taquitos with oregano-seasoned pulled chicken bathed in red mole and garnished with shredded lettuce and fresh cheese; and molotes de platano, meat-stuffed ripe banana mash. The tag “best of all worlds” called to me and so I got the Oaxacan Plate for mains. It consisted of grilled beef, spicy seasoned pork, a stuffed pepper, guacamole and hard tacos. Not only were they packed with flavour, but each also had balance and contrast in texture.

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Curious as to how their food can be translated into a more contemporary fashion, I booked a table at the beautiful Los Danzantes for drinks and a taste of their bestsellers—the Hierba Santa, melted quesillo and goat cheeses and chile meco stuffed inside an edible leaf sitting on a pool of miltomate sauce; as well as the duck confit tacos with salsa morita and avocado.

It was refreshing to see the chefs play with ingredients without alienating the customers with foams, ashes, and gelees, tricks often associated with modern cuisine. At this restaurant, which is also recognised for its homemade mezcals, typically Asian ingredients such as ginger and vermicelli noodles as well as foreign items like quinoa and quince paste seamlessly take the place of Mexican components to produce an inspiring menu with its soul still intact. Case in point: sweet and sour coconut shrimps with huitlacoche cream, octopus with peanut sauce, and linguine with pumpkin blossom sauce.

See also: Biscuit Quiz! Do You Know These 11 Famed Filipino Biscuits?

On my last day in Oaxaca, just hours before we went back to Mexico City, I realised that I hadn’t even made concrete plans to sample the snack that got me flying to Oaxaca in the first place. I was introduced to a bounty of food that was so new to me that I nearly forgot to have my fill of the sought after memela.

With just a short while to spare, I settled on nearby Pan:am, a brunch restaurant that was walking distance away from our boutique hotel, to finally have our fill of it. The bean-sauce-laden tortilla came warm, with the cheese still glossy from the scorching heat. It was delicious alright, but the thought of having it with Doña Vale’s much talked about salsa still haunted me after.

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Memelas are grilled thin masa cakes with toppings (Photo: Angelo Comsti)
Above Memelas are grilled thin masa cakes with toppings (Photo: Angelo Comsti)

I guess I just found myself a valid reason to return to Oaxaca. And I might—or might not have—done it intentionally

See also: Eleven Madison Park’s Plant-Based Dining Experience: Is It Worth It?

Mexico Mas

Here are other venues to check out to make your Oaxacan stay worthwhile.

Stay in Hotel Azul, a beautifully designed boutique shop that’s centrally located and just minutes away by foot from the Zocalo or town square. The suites are fashioned by different Mexican designers such as Maestro Francisco Toledo whose room has a headboard made of recycled kites, and Maestro José Villalobos who played with geometric figures.

Hang out in Tierra del Sol, a two-floor structure that has three sections. One for baked goods such as guayabana or guava tarts, another for hot chocolate and snacks such as blue corn waffles, and on the top level, a restaurant and bar offering items like lechon tacos and an enticing façade of the botanical garden.

Appease your sweet cravings at Boulenc, located along Porfirio Diaz Street. Apart from selling classic French bread like croissants, sourdough and baguettes, they also have delicious pastries that can make any sweet tooth very happy with creations such as ricotta berry Danish, orange chocolate brioche and buttery concha rolls sprinkled with cocoa powder.

Special thanks to Travel Warehouse Inc for arranging my Mexican travel with hardly any hassle.

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