Oaxaca, the Food Capital of Mexico

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Oaxaca, the Food Capital of Mexico

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I had only vaguely heard of Oaxaca when I signed up for a trip back in January of 2020 with chef Iliana de la Vega who had previously owned a restaurant in Oaxaca de Juarez by the name of Naranja. She now has one in Austin, Texas. She and her daughter who together conduct  culinary tours are Mexican natives but have lived a lot of their lives in the US. Iliana is a world-class authority on Mexican food and I’m not talking about the combo plate with enchiladas and tacos. This gal designed the Latin curriculum for the CIA, Culinary Institute of American and she knows her stuff. She can tell you about all the various 16+ tribes who all live in the Oaxaca region and the influence their culture has on the cuisine of the area.

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Before long on that first trip I was eating Tlayuda (a Mexican-style Pizza), Corn Fungus Tacos, Memelitas, Enfrijoladas, Entomatadas, Tetelas, quesillo, Chapulines (grasshoppers), atole and discovering that mole isn’t just that slightly odd savory chocolate sauce I’d had once and was unsure about. BTW, If you want to know what all of these things are, you’ll have to come with us on one of our GG2P food-focused trips starring Iliana or her daughter to Mexico in 2021 & 22. The food capital of Mexico is Oaxaca, full stop.

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After that first trip, I had fallen in love. After 10+ trips over the last 30 years to Mexico it was the first time I felt as if I truly saw Mexico for what it really is. An extremely rich, diverse and ancient culture that pre-dates the hispanic invasion by thousands of years.

Fast forward to the pandemic. In the fall of 2020 we decided it might be smart to decamp to Oaxaca and rent a house for 2 months where we could work and play in warm weather and enjoy Christmas with family and dinners out. Compared to where our place is in NY, it had far less Covid.

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It’s kind of the ideal place during a pandemic because once can dine outside free from the kind of worry and anxiety we were feeling in the states. Everyone wears a mask, each restaurant takes your temperature as you walk in and sprays you down with some kind of antiseptic, they wash the tables in front of you with more antiseptic and of course you are required to use hand sanitizer. Because the weather is perfect everyday you can sit outside day and night never getting close to anyone that’s not in your party.

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Now sadly we are coming to the end of our 2 month stay here and we’ve fallen head over heals with this place. What comes to my mind so often is how ridiculous our mainstream opinion of Mexico is back in the states. Those who don’t know this country think of it as either a cheap beach escape or worse a place where “unwanted immigrants” come from. What short shrift we’ve collectively given this great country.

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Just in Oaxaca alone they have a number of churches and cathedrals that are all older than any church in the US. Of course there are impressive ancient cities that you can visit that were built thousands of years ago by Mayans, Zapotecs, Mixtecs or another great indigenous culture that is still vibrant today.

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Oaxaca is a proud and beautiful society rich with diversity hailing from all the various tribes, as well as the particular artisanship that each possesses. Those ancient cultures mix freely with artists, hipsters from all over the world and of course those descended from Spanish colonials. The adobe architecture in Oaxaca Centro is many hundreds of years old, its colorful and drop dead gorgeous. There are countless restaurants, spas, hotels and other places of business that have been build inside the walls of grand Spanish colonial buildings with beautiful courtyards decorated with plants, artwork, fountains or all three. Some of the best places are those that have used crumbling down walls as an asset or an artistic backdrop.

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This is a place you can live, easily. Our housekeeper cost us $15 a day, life-changing tacos cost $3.50 for 6 and a Michelin star level tasting menu is $50. If you are not ready to move, at least come and visit. The shopping is out of this world. The pottery my daughter purchased for $1-$3 per item is rustic perfection, something that in New York would fetch $40 per mug. Everything is handmade here. The Zapotecs have been weaving rugs in the region for 2000 years. Each pattern has some significance and every color is dyed organically using plants or local beetles that grow in cactus plants.

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And don’t even get me started on mezcal. If you think you don’t like mezcal, because you think it’s too smokey, come to Oaxaca and I’ll change your mind in one day. Mezcal is the life blood of this place. It’s an extremely complex nuanced liquor that has a rich history and is still being made with mules, ancestral techniques and a little bit of magic. But what really impresses me is that this is one of the few alcohol made without any additives – nothing enters the bottle that indicates we are in the 21st century. Some say that’s why you can drink a decent amount of it and have no hangover.

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But Mexico…is it safe? That’s always the first question that comes up when you talk about Mexico. Much has been published about drug cartels in Mexico for the past several decades and yes there are some really scary border towns and other no-go zones. But like the US this is a big country. Oaxaca is one of the safest states in Mexico as well as in all of central and south America. If you use the comparison site Numbeo, which is one of my favorites ways o compare costs and crime statistics of cities all over the globe, Oaxaca is far safer than NYC which is itself one of the safest big cities in the US. Oaxaca is even safer than Raleigh, NC. So tuck those worries away and come visit the REAL Mexico!

We have four Women Only Tours going, 2 in 2021 – one to Mexico City and another to Michoacán and 2 in 2022 heading to Mexico City & Oaxaca. Its time to re-look at our neighbor to the south and discover what’s been hiding in plain sight all along.

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