Mexican cuisine is so good it’s on Unesco’s cultural heritage list. And while you can eat well across the entire country, the top place to sample the best of Mexico’s food is the state of Oaxaca (pronounced wa-ha-ca).

From the Sierra Norte Mountains to its wild coastline, Oaxaca is a mix of cultures and traditions with its own distinct menu, where native chefs are transforming classic dishes into gourmet fare.

Mole is one of Oaxaca's traditional dishes, made with up to 40 different ingredients. Image by Sarah Gilbert / Lonely Planet

The food

Forget tasteless Tex-Mex and boring burritos, Oaxaca’s multitude of microclimates has given its produce a diversity that few other states can match. Its numerous varieties of red-hot chilies include the endemic chilhuacles and smoked pasilla chile, many of which are used in mole sauce, Oaxaca’s quintessential dish, traditionally served on special occasions and created from a rich mix of up to 40 ingredients, including chocolate.

Tlayudas. Image by Sarah Gilbert / Lonely Planet

Enfrijoladas, fried tortillas with beans, are served across Mexico, but in Oaxaca the beans are given extra flavour by stewing them with the leaves of the local avocado plant. And while Mexican tamales are normally wrapped in corn husk, Oaxaqueño-style tamales are wrapped in banana leaves and often filled with mole. A tlayuda, otherwise known as ‘Oaxacan pizza’, is a giant tortilla, topped with meat, beans, cheese, tomato, and avocado, and cooked over a charcoal grill.

Less appetizing to the Western eye, but an important source of protein since pre-Hispanic times, surprisingly tasty insects often appear on the menu, including gusanos or maguey larvae (gusano salt is often served with a glass of mezcal); escamoles or ant larvae; and chapulines, grasshoppers fried with chili powder. If you eat chapulines, legend has it that you’ll return to Oaxaca.

Grasshoppers have been popular in Mexico since before Europeans arrived. Image by Sarah Gilbert / Lonely Planet

The drink 

Oaxaca’s traditional tipple, mezcal is reaching a new audience as speakeasy-style mezcalerias sprout up around the city. Distilled from several varieties of agave, both wild and cultivated, it’s been described as ‘the love child of tequila and peaty whisky.’ But it’s more than just a potent, deliciously smoky spirit. As part of Oaxaca’s indigenous population’s identity, it’s still produced by rural families in the age-old way – from roasting the agave in stone-lined pits, to grinding it with a stone wheel and distilling it in copper tanks – and you can go right to the source on a tour of a rustic palenque (traditional mezcal distillery), such as Real Minera in Santa Catarina Minas. This terroir-driven spirit should be drunk neat: “You don't only taste the essence of the plant but the history, culture and politics of the land it comes from,” according to Graciela Angeles, the fourth generation of her family to produce mezcal at Real Minera.

Back in Oaxaca City, you can sample artisan mezcal at Mezcaloteca, where the bilingual staff will explain the entire mezcal process and offer tastings from different palenques,Mezcaleria Los Amantes, a closet-sized bar filled with curios, folk art, and bottles, or Los Danzantes, a stylish fusion restaurant, mezcal brand and bar all in one.

Mezcal is the traditional drink of Oaxaca. Image by Sarah Gilbert / Lonely Planet

Another drink worth seeking out and one which, like mole sauce, uses cacao is the ancient Zapotec energy drink tejate. Made with fermented corn and the seed of the mamey fruit, you’ll find it in rural markets.

The chefs

The godfather of nuevo Oaxacan cuisine is Alejandro Ruiz. The first chef in the region to take traditional ingredients and combine them in a different way, his Casa Oaxaca makes regular appearances on the world’s best restaurants lists. The creative menu provides a sophisticated take on regional delicacies in dishes such as cheese-filled pumpkin flowers, ravioli stuffed with huitlacoche (a fungus known as corn smut), and duck tacos with frijole sauce.

José Manuel Baños had a stint at Spain’s legendary El Bulli before opening Pitiona, named after a local herb, where he puts an artistic spin on recipes that have been passed down through the generations. Go for the sopa de fideos (noodle soup) with tiny floating cheese capsules that burst in your mouth, or the beef tongue in coastal chili adobo sauce topped with potato foam.

The chef at Pitiona puts innovative spins on classic Oaxacan dishes. Image by Sarah Gilbert / Lonely Planet

After working in San Francisco, Rodolfo Castellano returned to his roots to open Origen Inspired by Oaxaca’s wealth of endemic and seasonal produce, he uses small farmers to source ingredients for his innovative dishes, such as an upscale take on enmoladas (enchiladas with mole) and tuna seared on chilhuacle chili ashes, all paired with Mexican wine, craft beer or mezcal.

Abigail Mendoza, meanwhile, has become known for traditional Zapotecan cuisine at Tlamanalli, the restaurant she runs with her sisters in Teotitlan del Valle. Here they still grind corn for tortillas the old-fashioned way, using a volcanic stone, and on the chalkboard menu you’ll find a pre-Hispanic dish called segueza de pollo – chicken in tomato and chili sauce with dried corn and hoja santa, a herb which gives it a delicate anise flavor.

The markets

The vast and varied Central de Abastos market is a food-lover's dream. Image by Sarah Gilbert / Lonely Planet

Oaxaca City’s markets are a feast for all the senses. The enormous Central de Abastos is the chef’s choice for endemic and organic ingredients, and if its size makes it seem intimidating, sign up for a cookery workshop with chef Rodolfo from Origen (see above) and he’ll lead you around the stalls, explaining the exotic ingredients and their uses. Smaller and more manageable is the Mercado de 20 Noviembre, two blocks south of the main square.

Here you’ll find balls of quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese), vats of mole, crispy grasshoppers, and bottles of mezcal. You’ll also find a smoke-filled line of charcoal barbecues where you can buy paper-thin slices of beef and grill it yourself with spring onions and chilies. Or take the daily cooking class with Oscar Carrizosa at Casa Crespo and you’ll buy your ingredients at the Sanchez Pascuas market, piled high with colorful fruit and vegetables and bunches of herbs.

Many villages across the state have market days but the Sunday market in Tlacolula is especially lively. Among the squawking chickens and still-wriggling worms, look out for the goat barbecue – the meat is cooked in a hole in the ground for hours then rolled in lime juice, onions, and radishes and served in soft tortillas – and the women stirring large bowls of tejate, drunk from brightly painted jicaro (calabash tree) gourd cups.

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