Oaxaca is a place bursting with flavors, aromas, songs, and stories to be discovered. It’s people the generous keepers of so many wonderful things that they are so happy to share with you. The food culture is vibrant, brimming, and goes back to ancient appetites.
Here is my top-five list of new flavors, three of which are bugs.
Chicatanas (Flying Ants)
I was in Oaxaca during rainy season. And when it rains in Oaxaca, it can be unforgiving. I spent many rainy afternoons hunched in doorways waiting for the rain to pass. Rainy season also brings (edible) insects, like chicatanas — flying ants. When the first rain takes place, the flying ants come out and people of all ages collect them to make “salsa chicatana.” The ants are washed and grilled on a comal and then ground in a molcajete with tomatillos, garlic, salt, and chili to make a delicious salsa.
Where to try: In any market, or you can also have a wonderful, luxurious chicatana salsa made at your table at Casa Oaxaca.
Admittedly, it took me a while to try chapulines. Because they are fried whole, and by the time they get to you they still look like grasshoppers, antennae, wings and all. I stared at the deep stacks of them in the market for a good while before trying. Tangy, crunchy, and salty is how I would describe them. You might eat them in a taco, or by the handful as a snack.
Where to try: Markets like Benito Juarez, famous for its chapulín tacos.
My first tlayuda was homemade, and it is still the best I’ve had (Gracias, Aurelia!). Affectionately known as Mexican pizzas, tlayudas are large, sometimes enormous, tortillas warmed on a comal and piled high with Oaxacan goodness: homemade salsa of tomato, onion, and radish; smoky asiento (pig lard), fresh nopales (cactus), refried beans, chorizo from the market, zucchini from the mountains, avocado, quesillo (a white semi-hard cheese), and hoja santa (an aromatic, heart-shaped herb). The rules are not strict. Build your own expression of tlayuda. Fold or eat open-faced.
Where to try: Any of the markets, or at Dona Flavia, a local favorite.
Gusano Rojo (Red Chili Worm)
The red chili worm lives in the heart of the maguey plant and, like flying ants, it is a rainy-season delicacy. I never could manage trying it in its whole-worm form, but I did grow to love ground red chili worm mixed with salt on the rim of a cold beer.
Where to try: Zandunga restaurant; owner Aurora Toledo makes delicious food from the Isthmus and handcrafts her own colorful mescal salts, my favorite of which is the Jamaica (hibiscus).
In the markets you will see women stirring large bowls of a chocolaty-looking liquid with white flowers on top. Tejate is a traditional and beloved maize and cacao drink that goes back to pre-Hispanic times. It tastes like a hearty, slightly fermented chilled cocoa, and is refreshing and substantial at the same time (a large cup could ruin your lunch plans). It’s main ingredients: toasted corn, fermented cacao beans, toasted mamey pits and flor de cacao (flowers of cacao).
Where to try: La Cosecha, a super-cute organic market on Calle Macedonio Alcala, just north of the Santo Domingo Cathedral.