Oaxaca: Expecting the Unexpected
s that really iguana meat?” I ask my guide, Ricardo Torres. He nods and giggles.
In the heart of the chaotic Tehuantepec market, a black-haired Mexican woman is selling plump bundles of ground corn, wrapped in brittle husks and steamed in a bubbling broth. Our noses perk up with a whiff of fragrant tamales, heavy with sweetness. I watch her skillfully unwrap the dried leaves to reveal richly yellow chunks of moist corn with bits of meat poking out on the sides.
Apparently, iguana tamales are a popular snack in Oaxaca, often enjoyed by locals in markets and at home. The vendor explains that her family hunts iguana in the hills, then slices them up and layers them into bunches of corn meal that are steamed and sold at the market.
Amidst the soft, spongy texture of the tamal, I can easily distinguish the rubbery texture of the lizard, springy and chewy like octopus. Thankfully, it has a neutral flavor midway between chicken and fish. This tamal is unlike any others I’ve tried, and it helps fulfill one of my main goals in coming to Oaxaca: to experience foods I’d never eaten before.
The iguana tamale is just the beginning.
In Matriarchal Territories
In Tehuantepec, as I wander around the market with Torres, we’re warmly greeted by gregarious smiles. The female vendors, many attired in traditional hand-woven dresses, greet me as if I were a visiting relative, showering me with colorful snacks and preserved fruit.
Still, I am oddly disappointed.
You see, Tehuantepec is a city that traces its roots back to an ancient matriarchal society. Up until the 1970s, men were not even allowed to enter the market. Till this day, guidebooks warn that men in the market should expect to be verbally abused by the women who rule this commercial zone.
I can hardly mask my puzzlement when all the market ladies appear so polite, more like doting grandmas than territorial vendors.
Although I’m curious about the vestiges of Tehuatepec’s past, the heady smoke and aroma of the market distracts me and I’m again drawn into a world of seductive flavors.
Tehuantepec has one of Oaxaca’s biggest markets, with hundreds of food stalls sprawling across a jumble of interweaving alleyways. Torres leads me into the labyrinth, past the maelstrom of carts and wisps of burning copal.
Weaving our way through the market, we come across huge bushels of fresh produce, fat red tomatoes, bright green limes, and chile of all colors; a stark contrast to the dark day, still cloudy in the aftermath of Hurricane Carlotta. The rain-splattered market stalls are covered in blue plastic sheets, but most vendors look barely troubled by the inclement weather.
We stop to buy some totopos, crisp disks of cornmeal dusted with cinnamon and chocolate, and flush them down with a few cups of atole, a thick cornmeal beverage that makes for popular comfort food all over Mexico. Torres wants me to try a local snack, pickled mangos spiced up with thin, red chiles de arbol. Mango is one of my favorite foods, but I’m taken aback when I taste first intense salt and then searing heat. Played against the mango’s inherent sweetness, these flavors turn out to be a surprisingly perfect match.
Eating from Town to Town
On the road from Tehuantepec to Oaxaca de Juarez, the capital of the state, we stop at a roadside shack of weathered timbers and a grass roof, the kind of place that promises an adventurous meal.
We order mojarra, a local fish scored and pan-fried to golden brown crispness. Even though we seem to be in the middle of the countryside, the smell of fresh seawater hangs in the air. Smothered with pepper and olive oil, the fish is served in its entirety – eyeballs, fins and tail intact. We wolf it down with plain rice, savoring the freshness and tender sweetness of the mojarra against the fragrance of the rice.
Back on the road, I spot a local woman serving styrofoam cups full of esquites, corn off-the-cob mixed with cheese and mayonnaise, spritzed with lime, and sprinkled with chile. The carbo-blandness of the corn, the lushness of cheese and mayo, the tongue-perking sourness of lime and heat of the chiles, all combine to create an explosion of flavors in the mouth.
Driving further, we find sizzling barbacoa, goat meat slowly cooking over a charcoal-fueled grill in the Santa Maria del Tule market, right next to the 3,000-year-old Tule Tree, one of the oldest living things and perhaps the largest biomass on the planet. Traditionally slow-cooked in an earthen pit, the goat is stewed and simmered until it becomes so tender and soft that its meat falls from the bones.
Wrapping this meaty broth in fresh tortillas, we slurp it up in big mouthfuls. The tender texture of the goat, accentuated by the spicy tomato-based gravy and tangy drizzle of lime, is a satisfyingly filling and sumptuous dinner. Barbacoa may be my favorite of all Mexican foods.
When the sun goes down on Oaxaca de Juarez, the murmuring in the street rises to a clamor and the night markets pulse with sound and movement.After dark, the city is transformed into a raucous and noisy party, with music pumping from doorways and people roaming the zocolo (main square) tucking into street food.
Many vendors are selling pozole, a thick lava-like stew simmered with chunks of meat and hominy (white corn), spiked with fresh onion, cilantro and salsa.
Other vendors are selling chapulines, Oaxacan grasshoppers. I pluck up my courage to try just one for a kick. The crusty insect is deep-fried to a golden crispness then seasoned with chile and garlic powder. I throw it back in one gulp, feeling its antennas and legs through my teeth and chewing its crunchy body into a tasty and crispy mess.
Then I pop another. And another.
The chapulines are so unfathomably good. I can barely stop at three. That night, I head back to my hotel with a stomach full of chapulines and both my tastebuds and curiosity fully satiated.
In a way, Oaxaca turns out to be as surprising as these chapulines. It reminds me of why I travel: to have expectations turned upside-down, to be surprised, to confront the new.
This article was originally published in WildJunket Magazine Issue 5 (Winter 2012).