Searching for Local Flavor in Mexico

Posted on: May 11, 2017


You don't have to look very far. Much of the food there remains fiercely local and always shows a particular point of view. These photos show a few interesting aspects of a recent trip to Oaxaca and Mexico City.

The main Oaxaca City Mercado is manageable in size and has a little bit of everything. This woman was presiding over a spice shop called "Almita," featuring a wide variety of chiles, spices and herbs, mostly focused on culinary items.

Along with some local chiles, I bought a few interesting flowers from her. First was rosita de cacao (Quareribea funebris), an intensely aromatic seasoning commonly used in cacao beverages in Oaxaca and elswhere in the region. It's hard to describe, with a penetrating, slightly musky aroma perhaps along the lines of a vegetative truffle. It is not, as sometimes described, the flowers of the cacao tree, whose flowers are tiny and not particularly aromatic.

The second flower is called flor de mayo, a perfumy tree-blossom from a very decorative teree that was bred since early times in Oaxaca for its gorgeous and highly aromatic flowers. It is still an important flower in the perfume industry, under the name of "frangipani, and mostly cultivated in India and elsewhere" The aroma is sweet, slightly fruity and quite persistant.

Left: Doña Almita at the Mercado Oaxaca

Below: Blossoms of the flor de mayo tree, which range from this graduated white-to-orange variety to full-on pink

The third flower is called "heart flower" (Talauma mexicana). Lile the others, it is used in cacao, adding what is usually described as a "sweet aroma." The batch I have is quite robust and thick rather than being what you would think of as flower petals. In whole dried form it's not very aromatic, when ground and extracted with vodka it's quite fruity, with a hint of sweet spoiciness and some barky tannin on the palate—perhaps substitued by cinnamon in colonial days.

These things have been on my list for quite a while, so it's exciting to come face-to-face with them. It will be interesting to see how these find their ways into beers.




Left: A woman in the Coyoacan (A neighborhood in Mexico City) prepares a cold cacao drink called tejate.

Tejate is a very traditional cacao beverage. always served cold. It uses cacao beans, alkaline-processed corn (nixtamal; we know it as hominy), water, sugar and seasonings, which may include cinnamon, mamey pits, rosita de cacao and some of the other seasonings discussed here.

It is invariably made by women, and everyone has their own special recipe. A dense layer of persuistent foam is an important feature contributed by certain ingredients and vigorous whipping. It is traditionally served in decorated calabashes.

The taste is light and slightly sweet, but definitely chocolatey, but amazingly layered, with soicyt, amondy and the indifinable character of rosita de cacao. And in the end, it's quite refreshing as well—an attribute we don't often associate with cacao.




Right: Medicinal herbs for sale at the Mercado Oaxaca


Most of the herbs shown here are for medicinal purposes, but the one labeled "Manita de Leon" is a tree flower sometimes used to flavor traditional cacao beverages—in addition to its medicinal qualities.



Below: Chiles at the Mercado Oaxaca.


Of course there are chiles. In addition to better-known varieties, specifically  chilhuacle and chilcostle, are specifically Oaxacan and used in mole and other dishes.

We toured the Jardin Etnobotánico with its founder/director Alejandro de Ávila. It's a lovely place and laid out to showcase the interaction between plants and human culture. Corn and many other important plants were domesticated thousands of years ago. Each has its own fascinating story, and of course, we barely scratched the surface





Below: A beautiful bundle of fresh squash blossom exemplifies the reverence with which Mexicans regard their cuisine.


Oaxaca is also the most important region for the distilled spirit, mezcal. It is made from dozens of different types of agave. In oaxaca alone, 25 species are used, but the primary cultivated variety is called Espadín. A few of the Oaxacan species are shown in the photo below of the demonstration garden at Mezcalería El Rey del Matatlán, about half an hour east of Oaxaca City in the heart of mezcal country.

It's a deliciously complex spirit, combining fruitiness, a pleasant vegetal/cactus character (you may recognize this from equila, which is technically a form of mezcal), perhaps a hint of spice and most often an obvious smoky character on top of it all.

Various agave mezcal plants at El Rey del Matatlán in Oaxaca. A large variety of species are adapted to the diverse habitats across Oaxaca

Mezcal is fermented from roasted agave hearts like the ones below, traditionally cooked for several days in wood-fired roasting pits like the one also shown here. In contrast, the rules for Tequila specify steam cooking, which produces a less complex flavor.

While there are some large producers, mezcal is an incredibly artisanal spirit. Using very simple technologies, traditional producers in villages make mezcals that reflect the conditions and available resources of the land. Ancient techniques such as clay stills, fermentation in raw cowhide and the practice of hanging a cooked chicken in the still ("pechuga" on the label) still exist. For the time being, mezcal is still very much a family business, especially in the more remote villages, and one can still find family members selling the products of their palanque, or production shed.

Roasted sgave "piñas" at El Rey del Matatán awaiting crushing and fermentation.

We had the opportunity to taste quite a few over the course of the trip, and no two tasted alike. I love the stuff in a somewhat dangerous way.

While reposado and añejo versions are sometimes made, most mezcal lobvers preferthe unadulterated joven (young, and also white) form. What about the worm one often finds in mezcals up in the states? It is one of those specialties, and for me muddles the clear aromas of quality mezcals. A seasoned salt made from ground roasted worms, salt and sometimes a little chile is often served as an accompaniment. While that's quite nice, What I really like it with is chocolate.






A traditional stone-lined roasting pit at El Rey del Matatlán.It is perhaps 15 feet scross at the rim.

We did find a huge amount of well-informed enthusiasm for authentic mezcal in both Oaxaca and Mexico City. And in Oaxaca City, the mezcal bars like El Destilado, Tobaziche and Expendo Tradición were the sweet spots for us, with craft beer and tasty and innovative food as well as the mezcal along with people happy to help us understand their unique world.




Below: Gigantic maguey plants at the Templo Mayor in Mexico City


The original—and non-distilled—drink made from agave is called pulque. Different varieties of agave, generally known there as maguey, are the source of a sweet juice called âgamiel (literally "water-honey) that can be fermented into a drink. Harvesting is very different from the agaves in spirits. The top leaves are chopped out and a bowl-shaped depression is created. The sweet juice is removed after it collects in the space.

Concentrated aguamiel is sold in the mercados as a natural sweetener. artisanal versions are thickened by boiling, which adds rich caramelly flavors making it quite different from the agave syrups sold for the same purpose here. We're hoping to put a beer together with it.