So, we went to Oaxaca and tasted their moles. They have seven kinds, often prepared according to traditions dating back to prehispanic times. Mole negro, the most complex because of its 30-some ingredients (including chocolate), is considered the best. We also tried mole chichilo, a sophisticated concoction—scrumptiously aromatic made intriguing by a slight bitterness from charred chilies (not unpleasant especially if you like radicchio).
We had our best meals at Casa Oaxaca, where dishes had a refinement worthy of some of the best restaurants in the Bay Area. But theirs was considered nouvelle cuisine Mexicaine and not very Oaxacan although the inventive chef mined local ingredients for some really tasty dishes. Oaxacan cuisine is allegedly the best in Mexico. Perhaps, but our modern palates craved more variety and, being voracious vegetable eaters, we eventually got tired of lettuce, tomato, corn, avocado and chayote.
Cacao, the source of chocolate, is grown here as in other parts of South America where hot chocolate really is the thing. One Oaxacan waiter said preparing it for dia de los muertos is a long spiritual process for many families, beginning with the roasting and grinding of cacao beans
An agave cactus liquor called mezcal is the drink Oaxacans love. They serve it all the time. It was flowing freely at two art opening events and in a religious procession we witnessed. Natives said it could cure some ailments because it makes you forget them.
Oaxaca is home to cochineal bugs. No, you don’t eat them (for those, they have grasshoppers spiced with red chiles). They are ground for natural dyes used in Oaxacan rugs loomed by many artisans at Teotitlan del valle. They yield the reds in these rugs and, allegedly, those in many rooms in Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles. Looking like cactus seeds (and initially mistaken for them), they are dried and ground to a powder on a stone metate. Ground, they are a dark brick red. Acidified, the color turns a bright red orange; alkalized, it becomes almost purple. Other plant parts—flowers, barks, and roots—produce yellows and blues. We are not sure if, indeed, these artisans still use traditional techniques.
Oaxacans produce other kinds of crafts—black pottery, hand-embroidered textiles, and whimsical, brightly-painted wooden creatures called alebrijes. Some alebrijes are quite captivating although they are not truly traditional, started only 30-some years ago. In any case, a visitor could easily find something to bring home from Oaxaca. Ours were a rug and nearly 3 yards of beautiful hand-embroidered textile.