International Cuisine

Oaxacan Street Vendors

Anything that walks, swims, crawls, or flies with its back to heaven is edible. – Cantonese saying

Travel to any country anywhere in the world, and the food will give you a good idea of its religious and cultural identity. Crossing all socio-economic boundaries, it symbolizes community, love, life and home. It was written best by the renowned gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1825: "Tell me what you eat, and I'll tell you who you are." Street vendors, specifically, are an important icon of any culture, selling the "food of the people", which can be anything from fresh coconut juice and mangoes on a stick to fried guinea pig and a bowl of noodles.

Known as the culinary center of the country, during one recent trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, we found ourselves in an adventurous mood for some local grub. And what better way to explore local delights but from street vendors, we thought! First, we gazed upon a huge pile of small dark red fried grasshoppers, or chapulines, which are generally dry roasted and spiced with chilies, salt and lemon. We were told that you are supposed to take a spoonful of chapulines and place them in a soft tortilla and then eat it.

Try as I might, no amount of distraction could convince me to try the chapulines even with closed eyes, so I wandered next door to see what I could find. There was another vendor selling tlayudas, which are delicious, huge 12 inch tortillas crisped on the barbeque and topped with Oaxacan-style beans, shredded cheese and salsa, often eaten as a late night snack.

Further down the street, we found a stand with a local indigenous woman selling tejate, the traditional Oaxacan corn drink made with cinnamon and cocoa beans with a frothy cap. With her long braided hair and brightly colored embroidered (and sleeveless!) blouse, she was stirring it around up to her armpits in the huge bowl in front of her. Even though back home this demonstration would have turned my stomach, I decided to let go of my normal inhibitions and promised myself I'd at least try it once.

It has been said that Oaxaca is to Mexican food lovers and cooks perhaps what Florence is to art aficionados. Although there are certainly times when a fancy restaurant meal hits the spot, you need not spend a lot of money on food to be completely satisfied in Oaxaca. Just have a stroll down Oaxaca's colonial streets and you will find some of the best regional food ever! Buen provecho!

*Disclaimer: Eating food from street vendors can be a really neat experience when done with caution. If you are skittish, trust your instincts. There are other ways to taste the local fare such as staying with a host family (with meals included, of course!) or going to reputable restaurants serving regional dishes.

By Sue Lavene

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