By Nat Krieger
Editor Note: SDFP Contributor Nat Krieger is traveling in Oaxaca and Chiapas Mexico. This is the first postcard from his journey.
While Mexico is world famous for its cuisine, many Mexicans look to the state of Oaxaca as having the best food in the republic. Oaxacans do it all, from tejate “the drink of the gods” to mole, and from toasted chapulines (grasshoppers) — a very BC (Before Conquest) dish — to amazing hot chocolate. All these specialties have Amerindian culinary and linguistic roots, but Oaxacans also have a way of adding cinnamon, among other ingredients, to make their chocolate drink second to none.
Cinnamon came to the Americas from Asia, via Spain. In food, as in so much else, Oaxaca is Mexico on steroids: a place where the layering of Spanish and indigenous culture is on constant, colorful, and sometimes violent display. Indigenous peoples make up nearly half the state’s population — only neighboring Chiapas has a higher percentage — and the native peoples of Oaxaca have guarded their traditions through centuries of near or outright slavery.
Spain forced their religion on the people so they made Jesus look like a bearded Oaxacan farmer. The Spanish imposed their language yet words like chapuline and chocolate, and many others entered Spanish in a reverse culinary conquest. Oaxaca’s a place where even today indigenous Triqui women are on hunger strike in the city’s main square because their families have been expelled from their land by paramilitaries that have pitched their tents at the base of the enormous, neo-classical Governor’s Palace. This is reminiscent of pillaged Zapotec temples, which frequently became the base upon which the Spanish built their cathedrals.
Like food, clothing tells stories as well: Triqui women are noted for their bright red huipil garments, the red is a natural red dye achieved from squeezing cochineal bugs who live on cacti. Before the advent of synthetic dyes, cochineal was a major export of Spain — their enemies even made use of it, as seen in the red of British Army coats. In a linguistic reversal, although the bug is indigenous to the Americas the word cochineal is a Latin, not Amerindian appellation.
As for chapulines, they can be crunchy, salty or spicy but I can now report: they don’t taste like chicken. Many environmentalists suggest that westerners re-evaluate their revulsion towards consuming insects as many are nutritious and far easier on the environment than raising meat, or pesticide-drenched corn and vegetables.
What is ancient becomes new again.