"I'm so sorry, you've missed it," apologises my concierge, Rikardo, delivering the news that one of Oaxaca's most celebrated annual events - La Noche de Rábanos - has finished. I knew that I'd missed the actual Night of Radishes, held each 23 December in the town's Zócalo (public square) since 1897, but I had hoped that the elaborate displays would hang around at least until the new year.
Friends who had cycled through a week earlier had led me here in the eager hope of catching sweet nativity scenes, anteaters giddy from the effects of mezcal, and intricate Day of the Dead tableaux, all carved out of radishes – some of which, I’m told, can reach around 50cm in length.
I was disappointed to have missed them, but my friends had also provided me with pointers for other edible treats that I could enjoy during my stay in the city, with its world-class food scene. For decades, Mexican cuisine was largely written off beyond its borders as an unsophisticated carb-rich mess of burritos and tacos. Then, 2005 Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers introduced Britain to the nuanced, piquant flavours and textures of Mexican market food with the launch of her restaurant chain Wahaca (the phonetic spelling of Oaxaca) in London in 2007.
Miers, who lived in Mexico for many years, cited a street food dish from this enchanting city as the best meal she’d ever eaten, and it’s perhaps the memory of this dish – pozolé, a slow-cooked pork stew with radish, coriander, and fresh lime juice to give it zing (very different from our misconceived notions of Mexican food) – that inspired the chef to name her restaurant after the city. But it could also be that, with its numerous markets and distinctive flavours, the state and city of Oaxaca offer some of the most celebrated and innovative cooking and ingredients in Mexico.
Oaxaca: Mexican street food
With its elegant colonial buildings, an impressive arts and crafts scene, top-class museums and markets selling mounds of mole (sauce) and the state’s other favourite food, chocolate, Oaxaca is a city that both looks and tastes good. The regional cuisine encompasses fiery, earthy mountain dishes and delicate seafood, crowned by stand-out restaurants such as Casa Oaxaca – one of the two Oaxacan establishments on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The other is Pitiona, whose chef Jose Manuel Baños Rodriguez has done stints at elBulli and Arzak.
To make up for missing the radish fest, I delve into Pitiona’s six-course tasting menu at a courtyard table with a kitchen view. I watch chefs craft complex dishes such as sopa de fideos, a noodle and bean soup that is presented with delicate globes of cheese that burst into liquid in the mouth. Each course is paired with a Mexican wine, craft beer or mezcal from small producers that now thrive as part of the country’s burgeoning gourmet scene.
I also sample dishes at Casa Oaxaca, El Típico, La Biznaga and La Olla. The range of flavours, spices and textures is as varied as the ingredients, which include delicate squash blossoms and mole chichilo (beef stock, chillies, onion, garlic and lime-cured flour). However, to get to the heart of Oaxacan cuisine, I need to visit the food markets.
Here I find the country’s finest selection of moles – salsas made from a base of black chillies, chocolate and sesame seeds to create mole negros; and more unusually from yellow or red chillies, tomatillos and fresh herbs, or ground pumpkin seeds, to create moles such as amarillo, coloradito, salsa verde or pipián.
At Mercado Sánchez Pascuas, I join scores of Oaxaqueños at tiny family-run fondas (food stalls) to try some of the seven varieties of moles on offer, memelas (tortillas topped with lard, cheese and salsa verde) and grilled empanadas – pastry filled with fiery chicken and yellow mole sauce. During the rainy season, huitlacoche, a fungus that grows on corn, is added to the mix to give an earthy flavour quite unlike anything else. These antojitos, or little snacks, are as cheap and homely as Mexican food gets, but just as delicious as refined restaurant dishes.
At the shops along downtown’s Mina Street, I watch hair-netted, masked men toil over industrial mills to grind cocoa beans into chocolate and moles, all available to sample and buy for the equivalent of pennies. Just north, at Mercado 20 de Noviembre, the huge clouds of curling smoke and burly butchers pressing me towards slabs covered with wafer-thin meat may make the huge pasillo de carnes asadas (passage of grilled meats) look like a modern Hieronymous Bosch scene of hell. However, it smells like heaven – the meats are grilled and served in beef or pork tacos. Equally appealing are the signature Oaxacan tlayudas – huge baked corn tortillas topped in the manner of pizzas with everything from pork lard and the local stringy, mozzarella-like cheese, quesillo, to avocado and tomatoes.
Across the road at Oaxaca’s oldest market, Benito Juárez, women sit beside mounds of chapulines – grasshoppers toasted with garlic, lime juice and salt. They are an acquired taste which, despite two or three attempts, I never get the hang of. More palatable, I’m assured later, are the caviar-like escamoles: ant larvae. Another local – and cheaper – flavour is nopal, the slimy prickly pear cactus leaves that offer another distinctive taste.
I’m much more enamoured of the agua frescas on sale everywhere – flavoured, natural waters. I chose a Jamaica – made using dried hibiscus flowers – from the huge selection at Casilda’s stall in Benito Juarez market, where the crowds are three-deep and the everyday pastel-coloured plastic jugs belie the beauty of their contents. I join the throng, knowing that it will be worth the wait, and that in half an hour’s time, I’ll be ready for another antojito – though maybe not the grasshoppers.
Mexico City is served from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Aeroméxico (0800 977 5533; aeromexico.uk.com). Volaris (volaris.com), Aeroméxico and Interjet (interjet.com) fly daily from Mexico City to Oaxaca.
Eating and drinking there
Pitiona, Allende 108 (00 52 951 514 0690; pitiona.com).
Casa Oaxaca, García Vigil 407 (00 52 951 514 4173; casaoaxaca.com.mx).
El Típico, Zarate 100, off El Llano square (00 52 951 518 6557; facebook.com/ RestauranteTipicoOaxacaEnMexico).
Biznaga, García Vigil 512 (00 52 951 516 1800; labiznaga.com.mx).
La Olla, Reforma 402-1 (00 52 951 516 6668; laolla.com.mx).
Mercado Sánchez Pascuas, Porfirio Díaz and Callejón Hidalgo.
Mercado 20 de Noviembre, Ignacio Aldama and 20 de Noviembre.
Mercado Benito Juárez, Flores Magon and Colon.
On 10 February, Alejandro Ruiz, from Casa Oaxaca, will be cooking in London at Wahaca, Covent Garden in the the first of a Culinary Trip Through Mexico series. Four-course meal with coffee, £40 (wahaca.co.uk/blog).Reuse content