What is it about Oaxaca? How is it that in this sprawling southwestern Mexican state, something as simple as a memela — a thick, oval tortilla made from ground masa and crisped up on a comal — can taste so otherworldly? The same holds true for a basic bowl of black beans. Or a blistered empanada — which in Oaxaca is a broad, quesadilla-like turnover made of masa and filled with squeaky quesillo. Or a cup of thick drinking chocolate mixed with just water and whisked till foamy, and so on. Somewhere in the post-meal euphoria fueled by teosinte, Theobroma, and capsaicin lies the secret to understanding Oaxaca’s food culture and what sets it apart from the rest of Mexico and other cuisines around the world. Here, then, is a very basic outline of the cuisine of Oaxaca, a cooking tradition admittedly too enormous, ancient, vibrant, and varied to be contained in even a book, let alone in an article. But we’ve compiled a few of the essentials to fully appreciate Sazón Oaxaqueño.
From Indigenous influence to la cocina de autor, here’s some crucial context.
Oaxaca is a state of roughly 4 million people. And while its central city of colorful colonial-style buildings and mountainous terrain is the most well-known, more than half of the population lives in one of the state’s 10,523 rural villages along its green valleys, arid deserts, foggy mountains, and tropical coasts. The wild herbs and naturally organic fruits and vegetables found in the state’s many microclimates are everyday staples of the country’s thriving Indigenous populations that continue to shape the state’s diverse cuisine and culture today.
In fact, 16 of Mexico’s total 68 recognized Indigenous groups are based in Oaxaca. Some groups, like Los Mixes, who are proudly known in Oaxaca as Los Jamas Conquistados, were never conquered by Spain, and their foodways remain untouched by the European ingredients that weave through so much of Mexican cooking.
Oaxaca’s prevalent Indigenous identity and the off-the-grid lifestyle of many rural villages —