Oaxaca is the BEST destination for foodies in Mexico. You could spend months in Oaxaca just eating and drinking your way through the state. I recently spent time in Oaxaca City’s colorful, pedestrian-friendly streets and historic plazas full of street vendors and restaurants. Oaxaca is known for its artisanal chocolate and not surprisingly, coffee is hugely popular as well as evidenced by the many coffee shops around Oaxaca City. If you love food and authentic cultural exchanges, I highly recommend taking cooking class in Oaxaca, Mexico with a local. I signed up for a private cooking class in Oaxaca City and it was one of my favorite activities during my time in Oaxaca.
Visiting El Mercado de la Merced
I booked a cooking class through Airbnb Experiences and arranged to meet Jaqueline at El Mercado de la Merced, a local, authentic market. El Mercado de la Merced is smaller and less busy than 20 de Noviembre and Benito Juarez, the two largest and most well-known markets in Oaxaca City, which is better for social distancing. Jaqueline preferred to be somewhere with fewer people due to Covid. We felt at ease about taking the class because she took the necessary Covid-safety precautions.
Covid Safety Precautions for Oaxaca
Oaxaca really takes their Covid precautions seriously. I saw single passengers wearing a face mask inside their car. Even toddlers wore face masks outdoors. Signs to socially distance are posted everywhere. They want to keep their citizens safe. At the market, we saw the same Covid safety precautions that many markets and establishments were adhering to around Oaxaca City. Before going inside, we washed our hands with soap and water and had our temperature checked on our wrist. We stepped into a mat with disinfectant for our shoes and sanitized our hands. Every single person we saw inside the market wore a face mask. Not surprisingly, Oaxaca was doing a great job keeping their Covid cases low. It could be the strict rules or the fact that tourism was not at full capacity.
The Beauty of Mexican Markets
A big part of the taking a cooking class in Oaxaca is taking a trip to the local market. The small market buzzed with activity. Vendors called out their special of the day as we walked by to entice us to stop and buy something. Stalls sold every imaginable thing—sweet bread, or pan dulce, sliced, fresh fruit and fresh juice, chocolate, pre-made mole, flowers, vegetables, cheese, piñatas, plastic Tupperware, bright colorful toys, loose-leaf tea, spices, and a small selection of homemade Oaxacan artisanry.
Warning for Vegans Shopping at the Market
Mexican markets are lovely but I don’t like the meat section. There are actual slabs of raw meat out in the open on display for everyone to see. Meat is a staple in most markets, so if you’re vegan, just know it’s there and get ready to look away when you see it.
Mole is the Most Popular Dish In Cooking Classes
Before you go the market, you decide what three dishes you want to make. We chose mole, one of the most popular dishes in Oaxaca, sopa Azteca, which is a favorite amongst kids, and quesadillas de huitlacoche, sans cheese for me. Jaqueline was happy to veganize everything and I appreciated her flexibility so much. Jaqueline paid for the ingredients at the market, and we left the market.
Mezcal vs. Tequila
On the way to Jaqueline’s, we made one last stop at a mezcaleria popular with locals. Large wooden barrels once used for storing mezcal now stood as a testament to the long history and importance of mezcal in the region. An array of bottles containing different varieties of mezcal lined the shelves behind the glass counter.
what is the difference between tequila and mezcal?
Fun Fact: Did you know that tequila is actually a type of mezcal? Tequila is made with one specific type of agave called agave azul. Our host Jaqueline selected a mezcal for us made from espadin, the most common variety of agave that helps introduce newbies to other types of mezcal.
Learning About Oaxacan Cuisine
Back at Jaqueline’s, we found ourselves in an open patio decorated with dozens of potted plants, colorful flowers, and palm trees. After a thorough handwashing in her fully-equipped outdoor kitchen, Jaqueline tasked us with chopping vegetables, cutting tortillas into strips, deseeding dried chiles and soaking them for the sopa Azteca, quesadillas and the mole. Music played in the background as a hot pan sizzled on the stove. Jaqueline explained which spices to use and in what order to fry them in as she simultaneously gave us directions for making the sopa Azteca. We started the prep work for the mole first because it takes the longest to took. The combined smell of the different dishes wafting in the air made my mouth water.
Mezcal Tasting and Mole
We sat down to have our first spoonful of sopa Azteca, but not before we had a sip of mezcal to cleanse our palate. According to Jaqueline, the best way for beginners to drink mezcal is to take a small sip of mezcal and swish it around softly in your mouth for a few seconds. This helps your taste buds become accustomed to it and to activates your salivary glands. I felt the first sip burn slightly as it went down. Then I tried the soup. It is easily the best soup I’ve ever had in my life. The flavorful tomato and crunchy fried tortilla strips contrasted well with the creaminess of the avocado. I could see why it was so popular with the children, and I imagine that it’s a hit with the adults, too.
Huitlacoches in Oaxacan Cuisine
In preparation for our next dish, Jaqueline topped our shot glass with mezcal, and our host reminded us to sip it slowly and savory it. I rarely drink so I already felt a bit warm and fuzzy from the first round The second shot went down more easily than the first. I made veganized my quesadillas by stuffing them with sautéed huitlacoches and topped it with fresh green salsa. The huitlacoches are savory and earthy, a perfect combination with the salsa and maiz (corn) tortillas. While bountiful during the rainy months, huitlacoches are harder to find in December so do try them if you have the chance.
Did you know mole, one of the most well-known dishes from Oaxaca, contains more than ten different types of chiles? In addition to the chiles, its mouth-watering flavor is achieved by frying a plethora of ingredients such as cumin, cinnamon, cloves, nuts, and most importantly chocolate. This was the grand finale of our cooking lesson. We made two versions, a vegan one for me, and the traditional one for my partner.
Is Mole Vegan?
Mole is generally not vegan since the traditional recipe calls for chicken broth. To replace the chicken broth in mine, Jaqueline added few extra spices to mine. As a result, my mole was creamy and packed with more flavor than the mole with meat. This vegan mole is the best one I’ve ever tasted, and my partner and Jaqueline liked the vegan version better than theirs, too.
Vegan Cooking in Oaxaca
There are many vegan options and even Mexican dishes that are already vegan. However, you have to watch out for hidden ingredients such as lard (manteca) or chicken brother (consome de pollo). This seems to be a tradition in typical Mexican cuisine. Jaqueline said that her mother, a very traditional Oaxacan woman, would have scoffed and turned her nose up at the vegan mole. She believes that if a dish is made without meat, it shouldn’t be made at all. While you will encounter other people who share this belief, being vegan in Mexico is definitely possible. To prepare for your cooking class, you just have to speak up and ask questions about the ingredients used. That being said, I’m happy that they were accommodating about my request to make my food vegan from the beginning.
Tips for Having the Best Cooking Class
- Don’t go with the first cooking class you find. Read a few reviews first.
- Ask if accommodations are possible ahead of time. I always make sure there will be vegan options for me.
- You will be eating several dishes so have a light breakfast the morning of the cooking class. We made so much food that we ended up taking some back to our Airbnb with us.
- Wear your apron because salsa can stain your clothing.
- Tipping is not required, but if you enjoy your experience, tipping is a great way to show your appreciation for the hard work and effort your host puts in.
- Taking pictures is encouraged, and you will want to remember this.
- Be open-minded. You might be surprised to find new dishes you will like.
We were lucky to find Jaqueline’s cooking class. Not only was she an expert about Oaxacan cuisine and mezcal, but also about the local history and traditions. I thoroughly enjoyed our day with Jaqueline cooking authentic Oaxacan food, and it was a fun surprise to have a mezcal tasting, too. This is one experience in Oaxaca that you cannot miss. If you have any questions about being vegan in Mexico or taking a cooking class in Oaxaca (or with Jaqueline, specifically), I would love to hear from you!