In this post, we share some iconic dishes and ingredients characteristic of Oaxacan food. Use it as a culinary travel guide for your next foodie adventure in Oaxaca!
Mexico is one of the most exciting food destinations in the world, and as a self-proclaimed food and travel blog, Oaxaca was one place I knew we had to hit in our 6-week long travels across the country. People travel to Oaxaca from all over the country (and the world) specifically to eat — my type of place.
Restaurants and street stalls in Oaxaca are often family affairs, and many have been around for generations. Barbacoa Juanita, for example, has been serving barbacoa in Tlacolula Market for 80 years and counting. Comedor Típico La Abuelita in Mercado 20 Noviembre has been in business since 1893. Throughout our travels in Oaxaca, we kept coming across stories like these where restaurants and recipes get passed on in the same family from generation to generation. Food tradition clearly runs deep here.
The varied climates of Oaxaca lead to a huge diversity of ingredients, and a trip to any food market in the city will wow you with the dizzying array of fruits, vegetables, chilis, spices, meats, and dried goods that are available. In our short two weeks in Oaxaca State, we went from cool, high-altitude mountain air to the humid tropical heat of Oaxaca’s Pacific coast. As Anthony Bourdain put it in his Mexico episode of Parts Unknown, “this is where the good shit grows.”
Indigenous culinary tradition is another major influence in Oaxacan food. The Zapotecs and Mixtecs are the dominant indigenous groups in Oaxaca, but there are at least seventeen identified groups across the state.
In this post, we share some iconic dishes and ingredients characteristic of Oaxacan food. From the rustic, hand-ground texture of Oaxacan tortillas and the rich smokiness of grilled meat to the cinnamon notes accenting a comforting cup of hot chocolate, there’s a little something to please everyone. Do use it as a culinary travel guide for your next foodie adventure in Oaxaca!
Traditional Oaxacan Food, Drinks, & Ingredients
You can’t talk about Oaxacan food without bringing up mole.
Mole is a highly complex sauce and marinade. Though recipes vary, all moles generally contain fruits, nuts, chili, and chocolate, and each ingredient is roasted or fried before being broken down and processed into a sauce. It can take a full day to prepare a proper mole!
Oaxaca is known for having seven distinct moles — negro, colorado, amarillo, verde, chichilo, coloradito, and mancha manteles — all of different colors and flavors, with some containing up to 30 ingredients! Mole negro, for example, a rich, sweet, dark-colored mole, is said to include six different types of chili and chocolate.
The most common way to eat mole in Oaxaca seems to be on top of chicken or enchiladas, or as the filling of a tamale oaxaqueño. You can find excellent mole in the mole corridor of Mercado 20 Noviembre.
2. Grasshoppers, or Chapulins
Grasshoppers are a popular snack in Oaxaca, and though some folk may have a hard time wrapping their heads around it, they are really quite delicious and non-offensive.
Grasshoppers soak up the spices they are cooked in — usually chili, garlic, and onion — and have a satisfying crunch, much like a potato chip. They are sold alone, served as bar snacks or as an accompaniment to mezcal, or used to add a little texture to common taco fillings.
You can find chapulins in one of the city’s many markets and street stalls.
I learned on this trip that barbacoa is actually an ancient style of cooking meat, not a specific type of meat like I always thought.
Pioneered by the Mayans, barbacoa is made by wrapping meat in agave leaves and slow-cooking it in a pib, or underground oven. The Mayans used to cook wild boar, deer, and other game like this, and the technique was picked up by other indigenous groups once the Mayans faded out of power in 900 A.D. In the 1500s, when Spanish conquistadors brought goats, sheep, cattle, and other farm animals to Mexico for the first time, the dish adapted.
Though barbacoa is served all over the country, Oaxaca has its own take using local spices and chilis. The result is a deep, smokey chili-enhanced flavor and a rich brown consome broth.
There’s an entire section of Tlacolula Market — a traditional Mexican market that takes place every Sunday located 45 minutes away from Oaxaca’s city center — dedicated to barbacoa. We tried Barbacoa Juanita, a stall that has been in Tlacolula for over 80 years, passed down in the same family generation after generation — four so far! And it was gooood.
Tlayudas, sometimes called a Oaxacan pizza, is a massive semi-dried corn tortilla topped with refried beans, Oaxacan cheese, and your choice of protein. It can be served open or folded in half like a quesadilla.
I don’t have a specific recommendation on where to try the best tlayudas in Oaxaca, but you can find tasty variations at street stalls around town and within Mercado 20 Noviembre in the city center.
Nieves, a water-based ice cream, is a favorite dessert of Oaxacans. Classic flavors include tuna (not the fish — cactus flower!), walnut, horchata, and all sorts of fruit. If you like sorbet, you’ll like nieves.
Chicharrón is fried pork rind, pork belly, and other parts of the pig. It can be eaten on its own as a snack, sprinkled on a taco for extra crunch, or seasoned and cooked as taco meat.
Cooked, seasoned chicharrón on top of a rustic Oaxacan tortilla and refried beans is the stuff dreams are made of. Try one at one of Oaxaca’s many humble street stalls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants.
Quesillo is traditional Oaxacan cheese. Commonly sold in balls that unravel in one long continuous ribbon, quesillo is moist, tender, and tastes similar to mozzarella, though a bit more savory. Quesillo is melted in tlayudas, tacos, quesadillas, and other classic Mexican eats.
8. Squash Blossoms
Squash blossoms are a popular ingredient in Oaxaca often cooked in quesadillas with quesillo cheese. Anthony Bourdain eats this exact dish at Mercado de Abastos with his local guide.
9. Carne Asada
Made-to-order grilled meats are all the rage in Oaxaca, and the carne asada hall at Mercado 20 Noviembre is an absolute must-do when you are in town! Head into the chaotic, smokey aisle, select the meat of your choice, and get it grilled on the spot. Popular cuts include thinly sliced pork and beef, chorizo, and tripe.
Add a corn tortilla, salsa, and some grilled onions and peppers to the mix, and you’ve got yourself a delicious meal.
Mezcal is a distilled, smokey spirit made from the agave plant. A lot of good mezcal is made in and around Oaxaca, and a popular tourist activity is to book a tasting tour to learn more about the origins of the drink as well as the production process.
There are an increasing number of nice mezcal bars in Oaxaca where you can enjoy a good night out. La Mezcalerita, Los Amantes Mezcalería, Mezcalería In Situ, and La Mezcaloteca are all good options in town.
11. Traditional Oaxacan Bread
Oaxaca is home to many bakeries where loaves of bread are stacked in towers that reach the ceiling. Seriously, vendors carry so much bread at local markets that it seems impossible to sell it all.
Pan de cazuela — one of the many varieties of Oaxacan bread you can try — is baked in a wood oven with chocolate and raisins. It tastes like a lightly sweet wheat bread and a hint of cinnamon.
Chilis are a fundamental flavor-building ingredient all over Mexico, and Oaxaca’s diverse climates and landscapes are certainly favorable to growing all different kinds. A trip to any market will wow you with the sheer volume of chilis available in all shapes, colors, and sizes — both fresh and dried.
I usually sneak home a bag or two of chilis to bring home with me so I can experiment with new salsas and other cooking. Shhh.
Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s most important coffee-producing states, and there are numerous coffee shops all over the city that are worth a try. Do yourself a favor and bring a few bags home from your trip.
Chocolate has been essential to Oaxacan cuisine for thousands of years. However, it is more frequently used to make drinks like hot chocolate and tejate rather than consumed alone.
Try Oaxaca En Una Taza, a small cafe located right next to the Oaxaca’s Santo Domingo Church, for a yummy iced or hot chocolate. Another option is to buy chocolate bars at markets and warm them with water or milk to make your own beverage.
Tejate is a Oaxacan drink from pre-Hispanic times made from roasted corn flour, fermented cocoa beans, mamey seeds, and cocoa flower. The foam at the top is slightly chalky but smooth, and the liquid tastes like a watered-down chocolate milk. It is served with sugar syrup to add sweetness.