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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Vaxevanakis

Oaxaca: What food means to people?

Updated: Jan 25

Part 1 of a photo essay series exploring Mexico’s perspective of food and community. Looking at the way family traditions and the countries history is expressed through different dishes across regions. 

“Food is everything for us. It is something special. It is something

we make with love and strength.” Sofi

Over the past few weeks I have been observing and of course, tasting the beautiful culture of food across Mexico. From street and market vendors, to renowned restaurants and even birthday BBQ’s in the park, it is clear that food is deeply rooted within the Mexican culture. 

It is an integral part of family values and traditions. Boy or a girl, your mum or abueala (grandma) would have taught you basic mole, rice and salsa dishes to ensure you can nourish yourself but also keep family techniques and recipes alive. Due to this deep connection to food and history, traditional Mexican cuisines was the first to receive UNESCO culinary heritage status in 2010 alongside the gastronomical meal of the French.

This collective participation in the ritual of food, from farming to eating, naturally gives each generation cooking independence, it creates a connection to food, to where it’s from, to the process of it being made and to the love that comes with sharing it - it means you can create and be part of a community. Something, the young people I have worked with through The MAZI Project often lack, leaving them feeling isolated.

Trying to capture and illustrate Mexican’s perspective of food and community in just one blog would be silly - so I have decided to create multiple photo blogs for each region I visit, touching on different aspects of food and community. We are starting with Oaxaca city. 

Considered one of the food capitals of the country, this city is rich in warming flavours that celebrate the states native ingredients which include: maize (corn), chocolate (Oaxaca is one of the countries biggest producers of chocolate) chiles and mezcal. 

There is a huge sense of proudness in the ingredients and the dishes that everyone makes and sells here. From Margarita, a third generation woman running Taco’s El Carmen, making each tortilla by hand, to the mole made each day at Comedor Tipico La Abuelita’s and the special chiles ... (I forgot his name) brings each day to sell outside Mercado 20th Novembre It all highlights Mexican's deep connection to the land and to the labor of cooking. 

Tacos El Carmen during full swing of service showing a harmonious flow.

“Food is important to me because it is life. This is a family business, it is what my mum taught me and what she inherited from hers. We sell traditional dishes here from to keep our community alive, from the corn, the pumpkin flower, the quesillo and the yellow mole. Everything is from Oaxaca.” Margarita

NOTE: Speaking of traditional dishes, I went on a bit of a mission to make sure I try as many as possible and instead of listing them all at the end of this blog, I have written a mini separate one here.

Anyway, back to this. 

As someone who is enamoured by food, from growing to preparing to eating and sharing, I genuinely believe it can make the world a better place. I know I have said this already

(and probably will say it again and again) but it is true and meeting wonderful Maria was more proof of food being a universal language. 

“Eating with the community, it's almost like eating with your family. It connects people. Here in the market, you sit down next to a stranger and soon after, you start talking - it is a connector." Maria Teresa in front of a mural showing her grandmother and mum in their most recent addition to their restaurant.

Sitting in the markets in this communal manner forces you to open yourself to strangers, to take in the environment and embody the ethos of eating together. I ended up speaking (slight exaggeration, more like miming due to my poor Spanish) to a lovely family who were on holiday in Oaxaca and had come from a village 8 hours away!

“Food is everything for us. It is something special. It is something we make with love and strength.” Sofi, owner of Sofi in Mercado 20th November

One of the beautiful things about the collective drive to preserve the traditional dishes of Oaxaca, is the social bond it creates within the community. From the women cooking in the markets to head chef, Olga Cabrera bringing her mum’s dishes to fine dining at Tierra Del Sol  - everyone in Oaxaca appreciates their food because it is appreciating and respecting their ancestors' history. 

Food to Oaxacan’s is life and it’s love. 

“Those flavours that evoke memories are what give us life.” Chef Olga Cabrera

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