This Oaxacan-style plate of chips and mole sauce is typical of the many mole dishes to be found in Oaxaca, Mexico, known as the “Land of Seven Moles.”

The Mexican state of Oaxaca is a very diverse area, mainly due to the natural, geographic divisions created by the mountain ranges in the region, resulting in distinct microclimates and cuisines within its borders. The main indigenous groups are the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs, but Oaxaca has 16 registered indigenous groups, and the combination of these groups and traditions has created a very diverse and interesting cuisine. The temperate central valley is very fertile and an ideal area for growing fruits and vegetables. Fruits are also grown widely to the north, in the area bordering Veracruz. Typical Oaxacan-grown fruits include mamey (with a sweet apricot almond flavor), tejocotes (sweet-sour flavor combination), mangoes and papaya. Further to the south, the Pacific Ocean also offers an important source of fish and shellfish to the region.

Oaxaca is also known for Oaxaca cheese, chocolate (which typically contains cinnamon, almonds and vanilla) and mescal. Mescal is an important product of Oaxaca. It is a fermented and distilled spirit made from the agave plant, similar to tequila. Mescal typically has a more pronounced, smoky flavor than tequila and usually contains an agave worm that adds a distinctive flavor. Other typical Oaxacan ingredients include corn, black beans, poultry, beef, coffee and a wide range of chiles. The most well-known Oaxacan chile is the pasilla chile, with its distinctive, smoky heat and beautiful, red color. 

Mole (pronounced moh-lay) plays a large part in Oaxacan cuisine and is considered to be the defining dish of Oaxaca. The word mole is from a Nahuatl word, molli, meaning mixture or sauce. Mole is a rich, complex sauce that can contain more than 30 ingredients and usually includes a quite complicated and lengthy cooking method. Moles can include ingredients such as chocolate, nuts, toasted seeds, spices and chiles, but the ingredients are largely varied, depending on the area or available ingredients. Oaxacan moles also exemplify “slow food,” as they take several hours, or even days, to prepare and combine indigenous cooking techniques with the best local ingredients the area has to offer. The recipes are handed down from generation to generation. Oaxacan cuisine has developed over thousands of years to become what it is today, and the state of Oaxaca has the most variety of moles to offer in all of Mexico. 

The “Seven Moles” are each unique because of the type of ingredients and preparation methods used. The mole varieties include: negro (black), amarillo (yellow), coloradito (little red), mancha manteles (tablecloth stainer), chichilo, rojo (red) and verde (green). Mole negro, or black mole, is the most popular and well-known Oaxacan mole and has a very distinctive, roasted note that is developed by deeply roasting the individual ingredients. Many other ingredients can be included in Oaxaca's moles, such as nuts, chocolate, sesame seeds, oregano, raisins, cloves, cinnamon, herbs, tomatoes and black pepper. Legend has it that those who visit Oaxaca and do not eat mole were never there. Other typical Oaxacan dishes include chiles rellenos, which are stuffed chiles; snacks such as chapulines, or dry roasted grasshoppers seasoned with chile and lemon; and Oaxacan tamales, which are wrapped in banana leaves to impart a unique and delicate flavor when cooked.

Flowers also are incorporated into several Oaxacan dishes and beverages. Rose petal ice cream, Bougainvillea flowers floating in horchata (a rice milk drink), pumpkin blossom soup and cocoa flowers found in tajete (a cold drink made of dark chocolate, corn masa and cocoa flowers, then frothed), are just a few examples. Hoja santa is one of the most popular herbs native to Oaxaca that is rarely found fresh outside of Mexico. Also called “pepper leaf,” hoja santa is a green, leafy herb with the flavor of anise, black pepper and nutmeg. The herb is typically used in soups or sauces or as a wrap to impart the unique flavor of the leaf into the item or dish during cooking.

So, where can all these wonderful ingredients and dishes be found? Market stalls and street food are popular sites for natives and tourists alike. Sights and smells emerge from the busy market stalls, enticing those passing by and allowing the opportunity to sample the best of Oaxacan cuisine, or to purchase local ingredients for experimenting in the kitchen, all in one location. 

Quesillo is a salty, Oaxacan-style string cheese that is a regional favorite found at the markets. Tamales de mole (corn tamales steamed in banana leaves), smoked worms and extra-large tortillas, called tlayudas, are also common finds in the market stalls and exemplify traditional Oaxacan dishes. Specialty market stalls also sell pre-made versions of moles or mole pastes for those who prefer the simple and quick route to a delicious mole. Horchata, agua frescas (fruit water) and agua de Jamaica (a hibiscus sweet-and-sour flavored drink) are just a few of the traditional drinks offered in the market stalls that pair perfectly with the food of Oaxaca.  Another option for cooling off, while satisfying the sweet tooth, includes the famous frozen fruit bars in flavors like coconut, tamarind, watermelon, or orange and chile. A portable dessert option is the abundance of fresh tropical fruits grown locally, such as mangoes peeled and skewered on a stick for easy eating.

Food also plays an important role in various celebratory festivals in Oaxaca. A winter festival, called “noche de los rábanos,” or “night of the radishes,” is celebrated on December 23 and turns produce into an art form. The town square becomes a gathering place to examine the works of art created by figures elaborately sculpted from radishes. These figures are typically scenes showcasing the history and culture of Oaxaca. Mole is also an important traditional dish used to celebrate the Day of the Dead in November. The family recipe for mole is prepared for this celebration in honor of departed ancestors.

Last, but certainly not least, the desserts in Oaxaca include a wide array of options.  Nieve de leche quemada is a burnt milk ice cream served with a dollop of crimson preserves from the cactus fruit, providing an interesting combination of sweet notes paired with a sour flavor, which is a perfect snack or ending to an Oaxacan meal. Oaxacan-style flan, sweet tamales or hot chocolate (made with Oaxacan chocolate and a hint of chile) are also great choices.

The complex and diverse cuisine of Oaxaca was created over many years and under the influence of a variety of different peoples and cultures to create a very unique cuisine within Mexico that is not to be missed. Trying to recreate these masterpieces offers a glimpse into the rich culture of Oaxaca, which is defined largely by its people and its food.