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The Other Mexico: Slow food in Oaxaca

All this week, Gadling will be bringing you coverage of the *other* Mexico. Beyond the margarita-fueled coastal tourist traps lie ancient ruins, colonial cities and culinary hot spots. So, leave your preconceived notions at home, and get ready to head south of the border to explore the other side of Mexico.

Mexican food in one form or another is enjoyed the world over. Not to discount the deliciousness of cheese nachos and mega-burritos, but finding truly authentic Mexican food can be a challenge. Indeed, first-timers in Mexico are often astonished to discover that real Mexican food is unlike anything they've grown accustomed to eating back home.

Just as cuisine varies from region to region in France, Italy and Spain, the Mexican culinary landscape takes into account climate, proximity to the sea and historical roots. It can take the form of a hearty soup of corn and beans, a martini glass full of marinated ceviche or a masterfully blended sauce served over a fine cut of meat.

When it comes to slow food, one region that steals the stage is Oaxaca (pronounced wa-HA-ka). Located in southern Mexico between the Pacific Ocean and the highlands of Chiapas, Oaxaca is a veritable foodie paradise of indigenous eats, French-style sauces and some truly amazing mescal.

The State of Oaxaca is often thought of as Mexico in miniature. Home to no less than sixteen indigenous groups, Oaxaca is deeply rooted in its traditional culture. Yet Oaxaca City, a shining jewel of Spanish colonial architecture, is stylish, cosmopolitan and increasingly well-heeled. The state is also rich in biodiversity, complete with rugged mountains, fertile valleys and sweeping coastlines.

The menu is no less complex. Fresh grains and produce, free-range animals, abundant seafood and even wild game all find their way to the Oaxacan plate. While many items will be unfamiliar at first glance, Oaxaca surprisingly pioneered the quesadilla! On that note, here is a list of recommended items worth consuming or imbibing.

The humble quesadilla. Forget shredded cheddar cheese on a wheat tortilla with watery salsa. We're talking about Oaxacan-style salted string cheese on a ground-corn tortilla with a blend of fire-roasted tomatillos and dried chilies. And that, mi amigo, is just your average run-of-the-mill Oaxacan quesadilla.

Want to get fancy? Add a lightly-fried squash blossom stuffed with soft cheese curds. Want to get ethnic? Add a handful of deep-fried grasshoppers doused in chili-salt and fresh lime juice. Want to get meaty? Add ground-up bits of spicy chorizo and shredded hunks of spice-rubbed chicken breast.

Anything from the markets. Oaxaca is justifiably famous for its food markets. Vendors run the gamut from small mom-and-pop shops hawking their homegrown wares to large industrial operators churning out processed products. Some markets occupy historic buildings in the colonial city, while others lying on the periphery are the size of small towns.

What should you look for? Anything that takes your fancy! Beyond that, don't miss the rows of artisanal cheeses, barrels of sun-dried chilies, all manners of tropical fruits, handmade tortillas and vats of homemade pickles. As we mentioned before, deep-fried grasshoppers are everywhere, and serve as a popular snack food and a quick pick-me-up.

Soups and ceviche. Two of the heavy-hitting all-stars of Mexican cuisine are soups and ceviche. The former can be black-beans simmering in their stock with whole chilies and chopped cilantro, steaming tomato consommé with strips of fried tortilla and fresh corn or blended avocado with cream fraise and garlic salt served at room temperature.

Ceviche is often likened to Mexican sushi, though this is something of a misnomer. In fact, ceviche utilizes the acidic properties of lime or lemon juice to slowly cook cubes of raw fish, shrimp and octopus. After soaking for 1-2 hours, the marinated seafood is mixed with onions, tomatoes, garlic, cilantro, olives and/or capers.

The moles. We're not talking about the blind, burrowing rodents, but rather the moh-lay or Mexican sauce. Oaxaca in particular is distinguished by its seven moles, ranging in color from the spicy, dark chocolate deliciousness of mole negro to the pumpkin-seed accented green tomatillo blend that is mole verde.

Moles are never served by themselves, but rather doused over meat, fish, eggs and/or tortillas. Some sauces are better suited to specific complements, such as mole negro and turkey breast, mole verde and chicken and mole amarilla and beef. Local tip: Eat mole for lunch as you will need plenty of time to properly digest.

Mescal and the worm. When it comes to spirits, mescal, the fermented and distilled heart of the agave plant, isn't exactly a connoisseur's first choice. But we'd wager that once you try the real stuff the way it was meant to be quaffed, you'll agree that mescal deserves a spot alongside single malt whiskies and finely-aged cognac.

True mescal is 100% agave-derived, and contrary to popular belief, does not always contain a gusano or dried worm to mark its authenticity. Smoky in taste, mescal is best drunk straight or mixed with a pinch of chili-salt and chased with fresh oranges. Young mescal (blanco) is clear and light, while older mescal (reposado or añejo) is darker and more complex.

Still think Mexican food is just beans, rice, chips and salsa? Think again as one of the greatest cuisines in the world is richly varied, heart-healthy and not as spicy as you might imagine. With that said, consider steering clear of the overhyped coastlines, and taking the time to discover what lies in the *other* Mexico.

Filed under: North America, Mexico

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