Mole, mezcal and more: a taste of Oaxaca with Bricia Lopez

Bricia Lopez shares her culinary highlights from the coastal Mexican state.

By Bricia Lopez
Published 4 Jan 2020, 06:00 GMT, Updated 1 Nov 2021, 16:02 GMT
Mexican feast.
Mexican feast.
Photograph by Quentin Bacon

At the southeastern reaches of Mexico lies a land of rugged mountains, narrow canyons, arid flatlands, lush valleys and blue sky that goes on as far as the eye can see. It’s home to Zapotecos, Mixtecos, Mazatecos, Mixes and many other proud indigenous communities. 

Oaxaca is widely known as the land of the seven moles and, more recently, as the birthplace of mezcal — but it’s so much more than that. The corn, chillies, chocolate, herbs and spices that form the foundation of the food here establish the state as the culinary heart and soul of Mexico. 

When it comes to tradition and scenery, Oaxaca is undoubtedly one of the most stunning destinations in Mexico. And as for the preservation of indigenous flavours, ingredients and culinary techniques, Oaxaca leads all other Mexican states. Because of its rugged terrain, many of the indigenous communities were never conquered by the Spanish conquistadors. Some, like the Mixes, earned the nickname los jamás conquistados, which translates to ‘the ones who were never conquered’. Monte Albán, one of Oaxaca’s main archaeological sites, was the pinnacle of Mesoamerican society.

But in modern Oaxaca, I grew up eating tortillas made from masa (corn dough), nixtamalised by my mother at night and freshly ground almost every morning. Our beans were cooked with wild herbs plucked from the soil, and we ate every combination of chillies and tomatillos you can imagine. I come from a long lineage of Oaxacan mezcal craftsmen and cooks, and these flavours have stayed with me throughout my life. 

An edited extract from Oaxaca: Home Cooking from the Heart of Mexico, published by Abrams (RRP: £30).

Bricia Lopez prepping dishes with local cooks.
Photograph by Quentin Bacon

Bricia’s top three restaurants 

1. Portozuelo
Owned by renowned chef Alejandro Ruiz Olmedo, this restaurant sits within the rolling hills of Zimatlán, an hour’s drive from Oaxaca City. The menu includes staples like memelitas (tortillas made from masa), enfrijoladas (enchiladas in a black bean sauce), empanadas (stuffed savoury pastries) and chicharrón (fried pork rinds), all made by local chefs.

2. Zandunga
This is one of Oaxaca City’s few restaurants specialising in food from the Isthmus region. The dishes at this beautifully designed restaurant are all made by matriarch Aurora Toledo. My favourite dishes on the menu are the garnachas (thin masa cakes topped with garnishes) cochinito horneado (roasted pork) and molotes de plátano (plantain rolls stuffed with black beans).

3. Comedor Mary
This spot in the town of Tlacolula de Matamoros offers some of the best home-cooked Oaxacan food you’ll ever have. My go-to dishes are chiles rellenos (stuffed peppers) and a chocolate atole (a thick hot chocolate).

Plus, her must-try dish

Mole is often described as a ‘chocolate chilli sauce’. The key to balancing salty, spicy and sweet is to roast the chillies without overly smoking them. 

Published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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