Are You a Oaxacan or a Oaxacan't?
The effect of Oaxaca’s 20 de Noviembre market is nothing short of synaesthetic. Noises, smells, sights, tastes and textures assault you in such all-encompassing totality and with such rapidity that the senses blur. The air tastes of chapulines, grasshoppers fried then dusted in chile and lime; seconds later the smell of raw chicken assaults your tongue. Stalls loom at imposing heights; artefacts edible, wearable and otherwise covetable dangle above you – a Dora The Explorer piñata here; a 20-peso sombrero there. And then like that, you’re through to the other side, gasping for something resembling fresh air, only to realise you have just walked into the outer circle, the air now thick with the loamy smell of atole and fumes from dozens of tiny braziers, on which stallholders are grilling thin sheets of tasajo or thick, greasy chorizo.
It is Oaxaca’s heart – literally; it is mere moments from the central zocalo – and is everything the stately, beautiful Convento de San Domingo is not. It did not come as a surprise to me this time round – I had panicked through it clutching my money-belt (!) on a Gap Year tragedy trip – but I could tell it was a little more lived-in than Lizzy was expecting, although in all honesty it should not have come as a surprise to her, either – I am constantly dragging her round markets, some shiny and new (the superlative Or Tor Kor in Bangkok; Copenhagen’s Torvehallerne), some gloriously timeless (the Boqueria; Modena’s Mercato Centrale), some hopelessly immune to modern standards of cleanliness and interior design (a wetmarket in downtown Kuala Lumpur that unfolded darkly in the midday heat from a backstreet abbatoir).
Even with 20 de Noviembre at its heart, Oaxaca is not resistant to change, to daylight: here are espresso bars, Modern Art galleries, silversmiths and ice cream parlours. Here is a stall crushing tiny Mexican limes over ice and soda water to create the only drink that can cut through the midday heat; here is a row of agaves, cerulean in the sun. Despite the heat, it is an extraordinarily lush city – literally, scientifically megabiodiverse – and when the sun shines you could easily see yourself setting up a little hacienda, kicking back with a pitcher of margaritas in the early evening, checking out.
And then night falls – quite quickly, like something at the gloomy centre of 20 de Noviembre has been released and is reclaiming what is rightfully its own. And the city, busy enough during the day, explodes into vitality: streetside elote vendors make double, triple their daylight sales in a matter of minutes, children propel their latest purchases skyward, young couples consume vast tlayudas loaded with frijoles and tasajo and quesillo. And in the background – not quite hidden in plain sight, not necessarily always obviously there either – are the mezcalerias. It was at one of them – Los Amantes, really just a hole in the wall – that I finally got my head around this weird, borderline unpleasant drink. A few nights later, things would get a little ugly in this same bar – not the spontaneous gunfire Hollywood lore would have you expect, just a drunk guy not being especially chivalrous. But for one night, at least – in that bar, with that guy with a guitar playing that song, with that slice of orange dusted with ground chilli and gusano – no other drink could have made more sense.
The botanical gardens effectively form the back yard of the Convento de San Domingo; access is via guided tour only. The tours take around two hours, which – it is true – is a long time to be standing in the heat, particularly since the gringo tour starts at 11 and therefore straddles the two hottest hours of the day. Heat notwithstanding, it is a beautiful spot, spacious and tranquil. And it was standing there, looking up at the convent, that I realised something small but quietly monumental: it was all about the limestone.
That beautiful architecture whose masonry catches the light just so around dusk? Limestone. That fertile soil that stimulates such diversity and allows – in particular – the magueys from which mescal is made to flourish? Limestone. That obscure akaline byproduct of the construction industry, cal, that, when reappropriated by canny cooks, permits the nixtamalization of corn, thereby driving the production of Oaxaca’s (and Mexico’s) most indelible culinary artefact, the tortilla? That’s limestone too. Beautiful buildings, raw, borderline unpleasant yet inimitably Oaxacan mescal, a cornucopia of botanas – tetelas, tortillas, eses, memelitas, quesadillas, tostadas, tlayudas – all, in their own way, emerged from the limestone-rich hills that ring the city.
The word terroir will be most familiar to you as slurred pseudo-French, beloved of that wine bore you keep forgetting to forget to invite to parties (in other words: me). And, post-noma, the concept of “eating local” is about as hoary as they come. But it was quietly thrilling to experience it in the wild, and not in imitation of Redzepi’s cuisine. At three places in particular – Amado Ramírez Leyva’s Itanoní; Casa Oaxaca Café and Casa Oaxaca El Restaurante (both owned by Alejandro Ruiz) – the dedication to the state’s rich culinary heritage bordered on the ideological.
In many ways, it reminded me of Bill Buford’s portrayal of the monomaniacal Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini in Heat (still and surely forever the best book ever written about food). In Buford’s prose, Dario’s intense Tuscan pride becomes warped, until he finds himself leading a supremacist movement of one (although in its fetishization of beans, mushrooms, bread, and long-cooked stews, it is more of a brown supremacy than a white one). Our guide round the botanical gardens described beans, corn and squash as the “holy trinity” of the food of the Americas; it is difficult – unless you flee to the flour tortilla tourist traps ringing the zocalo – to avoid at least one of them in every course. More often than not, you will find them together: beans in corn (tetelas), beans on corn (memelitas), corn in beans (enfrijoladas). The analogy with Tuscany may not be a terrible one; it may even explain why weird trans-Atlantic mirrors exist: for pappa al pomodoro (near-stale bread dissolved to a sort of thick soup with tomatoes) read chilaquiles (yesterday’s tortillas fried and soaked in tomato sauce); for cannellini beans with rosemary, read frijoles with avocado leaf.
Oaxacan food, Tuscan food – slow food. The flavours are strong and simple to the point of being almost one-dimensional, but every now and then there is something extra that makes you sit up and take notice: the hoja santa with your morning eggs, the cloves in your chocolate, the overriding intensity of the local limes. Nothing exotic to a Mexican palate – the complete opposite, in fact: as old as limestone, as old as agriculture and leatherwork and beans planted alongside squash and corn. In time it will change, and we will mourn the passing of soul food as though that’s a term that really means something. My advice? Get there while you still can – walk the botanical gardens, take a trip through the market. And watch the city joyously, suddenly explode as the sun sets over the hills.