The Food and Folklore of a Mexican State

By Salloum, Habeeb | Contemporary Review, June 1997 | Go to article overview

The Food and Folklore of a Mexican State


Salloum, Habeeb, Contemporary Review


From the border of Mexico, northward to the Arctic Circle 'Let's go and have a fajita' is now almost as common among teenagers as 'let's go for a hamburger'. The words of a traveller who wrote, 'Mexican food excites the passion, seduces the body, then sends one into ecstasy' are now becoming a reality in North America. The cuisine of Montezuma's land is spreading like wildfire in both Canada and the USA and it is now found throughout England.

During the past two decades, I have made numerous trips to most of the well-known vacation spots in Mexico, but this time it was different. I had come to Oaxaca - a state where tourism was in its infancy. Here, I was told, 'the country's folklore and, above all, its food reach their epitome of splendour'.

'They say if you eat this dish, you will always return to Oaxaca.' My colleague smiled as she passed me a reddish-looking dish. 'What is it?' I could not make out this food which looked like small fried buds of broken flowers. 'It's called chapulines coloraos.' She lowered her voice, 'It's fried grasshoppers.'

My colleague must have seen how my face reddened as I spooned a very small portion into my dish. 'Go ahead! Taste it! Don't be afraid.' Hesitatingly, I put a bit in my mouth. Strangely, I liked the flavour. It was to be my opening into the Oaxacan kitchen - one of the most unique in Mexico.

The sumptuousness of the Oaxacan kitchen has its roots in the flourishing Zapotec/Mixtec Indian culture which once dazzled the Conquistadors. After the Spanish conquest, the rugged mountains, comprising about 85 per cent of the state of Oaxaca, protected the Indian communities and preserved much of their culture.

Today, this state, along with the neighbouring Chiapas, has the largest Indian population in Mexico. An indigenous land par-excellence, both states, especially in their dress, folklore and food, imbue a kaleidoscope of vibrant Indian colours encompassed by a veneer of Spanish influences.

Some 7000 villages dot the coastal low lands, mountains and valleys. Among the 17 distinct groups, mostly descendants of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, over 200 Indian dialects are still spoken as a first language by many of the state of Oaxaca's three million inhabitants.

From the legacy of this culture are 4000 archaeological sites, a flourishing handicraft industry and a rich cuisine of international fame. What made this kitchen and, in fact, the whole delightful Mexican cuisine possible were the numerous edible plants, cultivated by the Indians, which were unknown to the pre-Columbus European.

All types of peppers from bell to cayenne, all species of pumpkins and squash, allspice, avocados, Brazil nuts, cashews, cocoa, corn, Guinea-fowl, peanuts, pineapples, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, turkey, vanilla, and all types of beans except broad-beans were some of the new foods Cortez found when he set foot in Mexico.

Above all, Oaxaca's cuisine is noted for its moles (sauces) - seven basic types and dozens of varieties, intimately related to the type of chilli peppers used. Among those often prepared, some with over 30 ingredients, are: chichilo made with avocado leaves; manchamantel made with banana and pineapple; yellow mole made with string beans and chayotes; coloradito and black mole, for which the state is noted.

These sauces go well with Oaxaca's many special dishes like dried beef enchiladas served with chilaquiles (tortilla strips in sauce), quesillo (an exquisite cheese knotted in strips), chile relleno (stuffed peppers), empanadas (tortillas doubled over in half moons with various fillings; when greased along the edges they become gorditas or picadas), and sweet tamales.

Many of the state's beverages are somewhat different from those in other parts of Mexico. Mezcal and pulgue (made from the fermented sap of the century plant) and tepache (a pineapple beer), are among the popular alcoholic drinks. Also, the non-alcoholic: tejate (a cocoa and corn water drink), horchata (made from melon), and zapote (made from the fruit of the Sapota tree) are very popular among the inhabitants. …

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