WORLD FOOD: Real Mexico - the Full Enchilada ; Oaxaca, with Its Blend of Pre-Hispanic Civilisation and Andalucian Charm, Offers a Fascinating Culinary Experience. Just Don't Expect Tex- Mex
Caldicott, Chris, The Independent (London, England)
Our little eight-seater airplane seemed as relieved as its passengers when at last the long uphill climb was over and we could gracefully descend over the summits of the Sierra Madre mountains into the Central Valleys of Oaxaca. The dawn flight gave spectacular views; first of the wild Pacific coast, then of thickly forested mountains and of the ancient Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban and then, finally, of the preserved colonial elegance of Oaxaca itself as we came in to land.
After the steamy heat of the coast, the cool morning air was refreshing. We had just flown up from Puerto Escondido, where the mighty waves that pound Zicatela beach attract surfers from all over the world. There, the bars and cafes which line the strip are staffed by beautiful people in bikinis and cut down jeans, serving knock out tequila cocktails and tempeh burgers in an atmosphere as much to do with California as Mexico. We had enjoyed a few days on the beach, but now we were ready for the "real" Mexico. Oaxaca, which was once the summer home of Cortes, did not disappoint us.
The city feels more like a large town really. It is centred on the zocalo, a leafy square of shade surrounded by street cafes perched beneath stone arches. Under the square's trees, old men perform animated shoeshine artistry for relaxing, newspaper-reading customers while, on the fringes of the square, scruffy young boys attempt to provide a cheaper version of the same service.
At night, the zocalo cafes provide musicians to serenade their customers, and street vendors stroll around selling bright plastic toys, savoury snacks, multi-coloured jellies and arm loads of hand- knitted shawls. At dawn and dusk, the zocalo's cafe society is silenced by a flamboyant display of nationalism as a troop of highly polished solders attend with great seriousness to the lowering of the Mexican flag.
Beyond the zocalo, Oaxaca still maintains much of its historic, Andalucian charm. Of a number of fine 16th century churches, the most impressive is the Iglesia de Santo Domingo with its lavish gold leaf interior. In the adjoining cloister, Oaxaca's history is exhibited in the Museo Regional. A more rewarding alternative way to get a historical overview is to step into one of the city's many colonial haciendas. Each is built around a tranquil courtyard of greenery and flowers, with grand stone archways, polished wooden stairways, high-ceilinged rooms and sunny balconies. Many, now museums, restaurants or hotels, are open to the public.
For many of Oaxaca's visitors, however, the regional cuisine is a bigger part of the appeal. Heavily featured in its restaurants is Oaxaqueno, a very stringy mozzarella style cheese, and mole, a rich, spicy chocolate and herb sauce served with vegetables or chicken. Slightly less so are chapulines (fried grasshoppers), which, even cooked with onion and garlic and served with fresh lime, were a taste I failed to acquire. The moles were delicious though. Intrigued by how chocolate could be used to create such a spicy, savoury taste, we went in search of a recipe.
A Oaxacan woman who was selling vegetable mole agreed to show us how it was done. She cooked everything on open fires in her courtyard, which her husband and sons also used as a mechanics workshop. From tins and jars on shelves above dismantled engines and buckets of sump oil, she produced 14 ingredients which, when blended with the blocks of raw cocoa, make the mole. We thanked her so enthusiastically for her trouble that she invited us to join her and the grinning mechanics for lunch. However, as our cookery lesson had been conducted next to an evil-smelling pot containing a boiling pig's head, we politely declined.
Most of the ingredients for Oaxacan cooking, including blocks of chocolate and piles of grasshoppers, are on display in the city's Mercado de Asbastos. In typical Mexican fashion, the market is a colourful labyrinth of stalls and shops. …