Delicious guide to Oaxaca
To experience the true soul of Mexican food it is necessary to leave the hotel walls and head out to the farmers' markets.

Watch out, the green one is hot,' cautions the elderly Zapotec woman at the wobbly, oil-clothed table. At the weekly market in Oaxaca, tlayuda, a tortilla dish and local specialty, is served with a choice of salsas: a spicy roja made from tomatoes, onions and chillies, and the universally more treacherous salsa verde which, in spite of its mild green shade, is guaranteed to break a sweat on an unaccustomed diner's forehead. One breathtaking bite and you are hooked.

New restaurants open weekly in Oaxaca City. The world's best chefs flock here to discover ancient ingredients, traditional cooking methods and unique flavours. But to experience the true soul of Mexican food it is necessary to leave the hotel walls and head out to the weekly farmers' markets.
The markets

The Oaxaca markets, known as tianguis, are a serious affair especially on Sundays. The traders choose their best produce to sell, housewives prepare endless shopping lists, children are scrubbed clean and entire families turn up in their Sunday best. The market is not only a chance to stock up, it is also an opportunity to dress up and be seen. People-watching is a secondary pleasure, though, because Oaxaca is the place to sample the flavours that have made Oaxaca the go-to for master chefs.

The markets are the essence of the region. These open-air events are where to see traditional ice cream being made, smell tortilla presses churning out flat breads, watch cocoa beans being turned into chocolate paste and learn how to strip cactus leaves as the Zapotec have done for centuries. The tianguises are of another world, a place to pity live turkeys held upside down in bunches and marvel at indigenous men wielding machetes against innocent pineapples.

There are numerous markets across Oaxaca, known for various specialties such as chicken and cheesemaking. Each one is held on a different day of the week, but the principles are similar wherever you go. The village's main arteries get covered in tarpaulin roofs for the day and are lined with stalls bent from the weight of the produce. Every corner is occupied by pop-up tables on which you will find the best Mexico has to offer, from coriander straight from abuela's garden to tomatillos still scented by sunshine. Dried and fresh chillies are piled high above shoppers' heads; lime-flavoured crickets are roasted on a temporary stove; stringy quesillo is wrapped, yarn-like, at the cheese stall.
The shopping experience is accompanied by home-grown musicians armed with guitars. The cacophony of vendors touting their fresh produce mixes with the ubiquitous renditions of 'La Cucaracha' and the piercing sounds of whetting steel (here, the local expertise lies in knife sharpening).

On Wednesdays, at La Villa de Etla, Andrea Luna Bautista sells her world-famous queso Oaxaca surrounded by the market's pop-up kitchens. She is a third-generation cheesemaker, having inherited a small holding from her mother, and has taken on the challenge of promoting local artisanal food to the wider world. Every Friday she runs the El Pochote organic market, a small coop on the edges of the historic centre in Oaxaca City, where each stall is a step in a journey across the state's varied food scenes, from the lemony ginger of the Pacific shores to the high mountain honey of the Sierra Madre. Though here it's not all about food – there are also vibrant silk scarves for balmy valley evenings and hand-woven ponchos for chilly highland climates.

Back in Etla, Andrea's other cheese, queso fresco, the Latin American cousin of ricotta and feta, is used liberally on the quesadillas at the stall nearby. A group of local women sit around a large stove where the proprietor skilfully flattens the blue-corn dough, spreading bean paste and freshly shaven cactus (known as nopales) on top. The customers, seated on mismatched, colourful plastic stools, choose their toppings – meat is always popular with chicken and pork vying for the top spot. Courgette flowers and cubed pumpkin are also available for a lighter bite.

A stream of mobile merchants flows around the diners through the main arteries of market. They sell pastries, plaits of garlic and, of course, agua fresca straight from plastic bags with straws. The choice of flavours induces instant fear of missing out – it will take more than a day to try them all. Beyond the traditional tamarind and agua de jamaica (dried hibiscus flower) options, there's sweet strawberry, refreshing pineapple and comforting coconut, as well as the more unusual soursop, prickly pear and alfalfa flower. And Mexicans do not skimp on servings – a normal cup is a whole litre and it's a fraction of the price found in the city.
Late in the afternoon, when the pineapples are running low and all the fish is sold out, the shoppers head to the snow stalls, grabbing a cup full of ice cream and a gaznate – a pastry filled with cloud-like meringue – to enjoy a moment of chat and shade. In Oaxaca, the most popular ice cream flavours are burnt milk and dragon fruit. Both are sweeter than condensed milk spiked with icing sugar. Another favourite, especially among the youngest marketgoers, is mango snow doused in spicy salsa and sprinkled with chilli salt. No wonder traditional Mexican cuisine was the first to receive UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage recognition, when from school age the locals are encouraged to experiment with all key elements of complex taste – sweet, salty, sour and spicy – and all in one cheap snack.

Not only are whole towns transformed into markets, but the entire population of nearby pueblos arrives to strut around town. The market day is the day to be seen. The visitors spend most of it strolling up and down the shaded avenues: they buy a week's supply of juicy oranges, bright tomatoes and shiny peppers. But most importantly they bump into neighbours, friends and family to exchange the latest news and village gossip. Mothers breastfeed infants as they watch their eldest play with toy cars, fathers take sons to watch the cock fights, sisters queue for freshly made tortillas and teenagers hang out in the main square awkwardly enjoying their spicy mango sticks. It's the end of the day in Oaxaca
Would you like to know more about the culture and gastronomy in Oaxaca? We are waiting for you in our daily city tours
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