The once unknown state of Oaxaca, Mexico’s fifth largest, is now on the knowing traveler’s hit list. Its capital is one of Mexico’s most enjoyable colonial cities. By day, people relax at plaza-front sidewalk cafes beneath shady arches and take in the slow-motion scene, reflecting the best of old Mexico. By night, the same plaza becomes alive with entertainment, crafts, folkloric dances and food stalls. Near the plaza, there’s a burgeoning restaurant scene, traditional markets and art galleries.
We visit the surrounding Valley of Oaxaca to explore regal ruined cities, crafts villages, colorful markets and beloved old churches and town plazas. Head south and the Pacific beckons with the coastal resorts of Huatulco, Puerto Angel and Puerto Escondido. Here, outdoor adventures from fishing and river rafting to paddling through wild-life rich coastal mangrove lagoons and hiking tropical rain forest trails.
After eight seasons of exploring Mexico, we can’t resist the allure of Oaxaca. For the ninth season of Chef Rick Bayless’ highly-rated cooking and travel show, we’re taking our viewers from Oaxaca City to Puerto Angel to explore the cuisine and culture that makes this wonderful state of Mexico irresistible.
Rick takes us on a remarkable journey through Oaxaca City during the revered Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) holiday. We discover that in Mexico death is embraced as part of the circle of life. During the holiday, people welcome home the spirits of their ancestors who come to commune with their families and friends. Like all visitors, the ancestors are welcomed with food, drink, music and memories. The spirit’s presence is a blessing and brings joy to loved ones.
In preparation for the celebration, the last days of October are spent preparing aromatic loaves of pan de muerto (sweet bread), making mole, harvesting special flowers, including marigolds (cempasúchil) and creating commemorative altars in homes. Grave sites are decorated with elaborate sand paintings. The bustling Central de Abastos market in Oaxaca is overflowing with flowers and bread. At the home of Rick’s friends, we learn to make Andres’ family’s black mole, tostadas topped with avocado leaf-infused black beans, a classic, smoky Oaxacan salsa and a simple guacamole. From the Panteon General to Xoxocotlan’s Municipal Cemetery, Rick gives us an insider’s look at the annual fiesta that richly blends Catholic and indigenous traditions with celebratory food.
Everything tastes better cooked over a wood or charcoal fire—at least that’s the Oaxacan credo. From soup to barbacoa, burning embers influence the flavor of Oaxaca’s food in just the right ways. For starters, Rick guides us through the “taco corridor’ at the 20 de Noviembre market just off the main square in Oaxaca. We can almost taste the richly burnished chiles and onions as they grill alongside super-thinly sliced beef and pork and robust chorizo sausages. Then we see hot rocks plucked from the glowing embers and dropped into hot soup for making caldo de piedra (stone soup), a specialty from the village of San Felipe Usila.
La Capilla, a campestre (open air) restaurant, in the town of Zaachilla, has served lamb and goat barbacoa for more than 47 years. Rick’s so enamored with the process of burying the chile-seasoned meat in glowing embers that he creates his own version on the backyard grill. Served with Oaxacan pasilla tomatillo salsa, there’s meat, fire and smoke in every bite.
The majority of the people who travel to Mexico go for the beaches. Little wonder when the beaches are as pristine as Huatulco’s Playa Chahué—complete with the Playa Limpia certification for cleanliness. Still, a man’s gotta eat. Not content with a diet of all-inclusive resort dining, Chef Rick Bayless takes us off the beaten path to find great food and even better beaches. You’ll be well-advised to follow his lead and start the day at one the local’s favorite restaurants, Sabor de Oaxaca, in La Crucecita. There, Rick enjoys Salsa de Huevo (omelets in salsa) before a quick trip to Puerto Escondido for an amazing lunch of wood-fired grilled fish on the Playa Principal. Rick paddle-boards on Playa Carrizalillo, another stunning beach in Puerto Escondido, to work up his appetite for Encamaronadas (crispy, cheesy shrimp tacos). Back in Huatulco Rick enjoys an uber-fresh seafood cocktail at Grillo Marinero before stopping for a nightcap at the Quinta Real Hotel to take in the beauty of it all.
Mescal is having a real renaissance, both in Mexico and in fine cocktail emporiums all over the United States. Rick takes us on a journey to see how a small Oaxacan distiller hand-crafts this fine spirit renowned for its rich, smoky complexity and brightness. As with any great artisan product, there’s always a great story. With Rick around, there’s always great food, from hand-pressed memelas topped with a bright avocado salsa to vinegar-infused snacks. We learn to sip mescal with fresh oranges and sal de gusano—chile-spiked salt. At home, Rick guides us through a mescal tasting and a host of snacks for a do-it-yourself mescal cocktail party.
So many moles, so little time. That’s how most visitors to Oaxaca feel when perusing the choices from mole pastes in the markets to fine examples served up at restaurants and street vendors all over the state. Let’s start with two moles, advises Rick, who takes us to Seasons of My Heart Cooking School on the outskirts of Oaxaca City to explore Black Mole and Green Mole with school owner Susana Trilling and her students. We perfectly char the chilies, set the seeds aflame and roast the tomatoes for Susana’s black mole sweetened with roasted plantain and a little Oaxacan chocolate. On the simpler side, there’s green mole—redolent with fresh herbs, roasted tomatillos and jalapeno. At home, Rick makes his Coloradito Mole before we indulge in yellow mole and grilled fish at Topolobampo.
Ever on a quest to learn more about the food he grows and cooks, Rick even vacations with an agenda. This time he’s taking us to the mountains to Finca Las Nieves, with its artisanal coffee production and organic gardens. Together we learn about sustainable gardening along with how-to’s for amazing vegetarian tamales and sopa de chepil in the kitchens at the Finca. Then it is off on a hike seeking orchids and bromeliads before a lunch of trout at the restaurant of a trout farm. Rick makes his version of the trout with chorizo at home. Rancho Pitaya also proves fertile ground for Rick’s eco-tour vacation with horseback riding to a cactus grove overlooking the valley of Oaxaca before a picnic lunch of grilled tasajo beef, a salad of fresh cactus paddles and red chile potatoes.
The variety of corns available in Oaxaca boggles the mind and the taste buds. Rick introduces us to Amado Ramirez Leyva who believes that corn, domesticated some 9000 years ago in Mexico, is the basis of Mexican culture. From championing the protection of ancient varieties, to cooking and grinding it into masa for tortillas, Amado just might be the corn guru of Oaxaca.All manner of enticing snacks served at Itanoni his Oaxaca restaurant, including memelas, tetelas, tostadas, and tacos, use carefully selected types of maiz criollo (native corn). Abigail Mendoza, a superb village cook from Teotitlan del Valle, transforms her handmade fresh blue and white masa into simple, yet amazing village-style tamales cooked in a traditional olla over a wood fire. Rick riffs on her yellow mole to make his own fresh empanadas on his kitchen griddle. With the skyline of Oaxaca as the back drop, chef and restaurateur Pilar Cabrera shows Rick her beautiful squash blossom tamales. Together they make sweet pumpkin tamales laced with Oaxacan chocolate that prove transcendent.
“You are what you eat.” Brillat Savarin’s statement fuels Rick’s tour of the 21 de Noviembre market in downtown Oaxaca. We uncover the incredibly rich culture of the market and its role in the daily lives and meals of the locals. Mounds of tomatoes, chiles and cilantro inspire salsa. Fresh chickens inspire Rick to spit-roast chickens in his backyard grill. Baskets of black beans motivate a platter of enfrijoladas topped with chorizo. The amazing market day ends with a stop at Chaguita, a 200 year-old frozen ice and ice cream stand and a favorite of Rick’s for more than three decades. At home, Rick inspires us with his simple coconut ice and a deep-pink jamaica syrup.
In Mexico, cheese is all about fresh cheese. So fresh, in fact, that Rick planned his cheesemaking with two local women in the village of Rojas around the milking of the alfalfa-fed cows. We see that uber-fresh milk turned into the sweet, tender curds known as queso fresco and the tangy, salty quesillo (string cheese) so ubiquitous to many Oaxacan specialties. In his Chicago home kitchen, Rick encourages viewers to try their own hand at fresh cheese. As a reward, he creates a simple dinner featuring the just-made cheeses as well as salsas from his grill with salad from the garden. Fresh indeed!
Ever dream of renting a space with a kitchen in Mexico just so you can cook all the fresh fish you can eat? Rick lives the dream at Hotel Villas Carrizalillo in Puerto Escondido. First, he peruses the town market for inspiration and ingredients from heirloom tomatoes to the local tuxtla chiles. Then he joins a resident expert to take him spearfishing off Roca Blanca Playa, one of the prettiest beaches in Mexico, for the freshest possible catch for his feast. And what a feast it is! Rick takes one robalo and turns it into an aguachile (a spicy ceviche appetizer), a brothy soup with chayote and beer, and pan-seared robalo with a tomatillo –pumpkinseed sauce. All from a small kitchen at the villas, a sharp knife, a couple of large pans and blender! Paradise indeed!
In Mexico, it is just as common to start your day with a cup of steaming hot chocolate as it is with coffee. Little wonder, when the chocolate is made from freshly roasted cacao beans and seasoned with cinnamon and a touch of sugar. Rick takes us to world-renowned Mayordomo near the main market in Oaxaca and to Seasons of My Heart Cooking School to see the process from two perspectives. For the best cup of coffee ever, Rick takes a day trip to Finca Las Nieves Coffee Plantation where the owners are passionate in their pursuit. Set in almost a thousand acres of the Oaxacan cloud forest, we see organic altura coffee from the bean to the cup. In Chicago, Rick creates a Oaxacan-style tres leches cake with coffee and chocolate. Now we’re wide awake.
The once unknown state of Oaxaca, Mexico’s fifth largest, is now on the knowing traveler’s hit list. Its capital is one of Mexico’s most enjoyable colonial cities. By day, people relax at plaza-front sidewalk cafes beneath shady arches and take in the slow-motion scene, reflecting the best of old Mexico. By night, the same plaza becomes alive with entertainment, crafts, folkloric dances and food stalls. The city boasts a burgeoning restaurant scene, traditional markets and art galleries. The coast is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Rick takes the spirit of Oaxaca home and with a group of friends he creates a dinner sure to transport. We’ll start with a mescal pineapple cocktail with his version of the crunchy chile-and-garlic-infused peanuts sold throughout Oaxaca’s markets. The first course highlights indulgent shrimp and crab. Rick’s main-course stars one of the famous seven Oaxacan moles—Manchamanteles—a simple red mole with fresh pineapple, pork and chicken. For dessert, a super simple avocado ice pays homage to Rick’s favorite market stop.
Oaxaca has long been known for its seven moles, unparalleled home-cooking and remarkable market fare. Lately, its restaurant reputation has skyrocketed, too. Deservedly so. Rick visits four of the top chef contenders in Oaxaca City, tours their restaurants, cooks in their kitchens and discusses the lively burgeoning scene. For starters, Chef Miguel Jimenez cooks up a batch of red chile beef and fruit stew from the Isthmus to serve inside his crispy plantain mogo mogos. Next, Chef Jose Manuel Banos creates a taco from jelled carrot filled with a chintestle and shrimp ceviche. Chef Alejandro Ruiz and his brother Jesus show Rick their dream come true: An organic farm supplying their restaurants and their employees. Their beautiful produce inspires many of their house specialties. Rick and Alejandro make a fresh salsa with the garden cilantro to go with a red chile-burnished octopus barbacoa. Last but not least, Chef Rudolfo Castellanan makes a simple mole de caderas to accompany suckling goat. All this world class cooking inspires Rick to make a signature dessert at his award-winning Chicago restaurant Topolobampo.