In my travels through Oaxaca, I stopped along a river on the outskirts of town, guided by a friend who lives in the area, to try caldo de piedra (stone soup). Tree-lined and peaceful, we stopped by a roadside stall with an open-air, palapa-style eatery to try this famed soup. Caldo de piedra is a unique Mexican food dish to the southwestern state of Oaxaca, a region that boasts some of the country's most distinct and delicious culinary traditions. The lore behind this soup starts with a traveler who leads by example: He encourages everyone in the village to add an ingredient to his "stone soup." Legend has it that what started out as a poor man's soup turned into a one-pot feast for the whole town.
This meal is a fish-based soup made by the Chinantec people along the Papaloapan River, and it's one of the best Mexican dishes you've never heard of. The soup, made up of river fish, freshwater shrimp, cilantro, tomatoes, lime juice, local chiles, onions, and water, was portioned out amongst the generous jicara bowls made from dried-out, hollowed calabash tree gourds.
One of the most intriguing snacks in Mexico are chapulines, or fried grasshoppers. While you might reach for a bag of chips for a midday munch, kids and adults in Mexico have no problem reaching for a handful of crispy chapulines. Found across the country, they have been consumed in Mexico as a key food source of protein since the mid-16th century before domesticated animals were introduced by Spanish conquistadors. Visit just about any major market around the country and you'll find stalls selling the freshly prepared chapulines. These are made by toasting the grasshoppers on a comal — a cast-iron, flat griddle — and seasoning them with a zesty combination of garlic, salt, lime and various chiles.
I was a little skeptical at first when I snacked on them at a bar, but I was happily surprised to find I liked the smaller chapulines. They feed on alfalfa, so they have a slightly earthy, nutty flavor. Later, we stopped at a local outdoor market in a town just outside of Oaxaca, where my dining partner enjoyed tacos topped with small crispy chapulines. Our local friend, Alvin, loves the bigger variety because they're crunchier and more flavorful. I, however, discovered I like the texture of the small chapulines better, and as to why, well, I'll leave that up to your imagination. Either way, chapulines are a new experience definitely worth trying.
Mole, which means sauce in the native Nahuatl language, is quintessentially Mexican. In fact, it's considered the country's national dish. If you've tried mole before, you know there are many kinds, including verde (green), amarillo (yellow), manchamanteles (tablecloth stainer) and, my favorite, the smoky and mysterious mole chichilo. While some may contain chocolate, this is by no means a chocolate sauce.
I took a cooking class outside of Oaxaca with Susana Trilling, an American expat who has been living and cooking in Mexico for decades now and learned to cook some of the best Mexican dishes from local, often native women. At her cooking school, Seasons of My Heart, in the beautiful Rancho Aurora, we spent the day working on this 30-plus ingredient wonder. Chichilo is a very dark mole, which gets its inky color from dark chiles like the local chilhuacle and ancho, paired with burnt-to-a-crisp tortillas. As instructed by Trilling, we added blistered tomatoes, tomatillos, garlic, avocado leaves, cloves, beef stock, black peppercorns and other ingredients, and simmered it into a thick and silky sauce.
Served typically with beef or poultry, we enjoyed ours over herb-flecked rice and vegetables. Mole chichilo is a heady mouthful of complexity: earthy, savory, slightly bitter and a bit smoky. It was a revelation.
Throughout Mexico, you'll find locals starting their day with champurrado, or Mexican hot chocolate, one of the country's oldest beverages that uses two indigenous ingredients: cacao and corn. I watched women in Mexico City make these with a round, multi-pieced wooden whisk called a molinillo that they roll between their palms quickly in order to froth the mixture. Warm and thick, made with lime-treated corn, dark sugar (called piloncillo), cinnamon, chocolate, vanilla, ground nuts, orange zest, and water or milk, these drinks are made in stages. Champurrado is comfort in a cup that's often enjoyed with churros to start the day.
It's interesting to note that chocolate, which is native to Mexico, was also consumed by Mayans and Aztecs as beverages enriched with corn masa dating back to 450 B.C. It was thought that these chocolate drinks had some magical power, giving the drinker strength. Whether you are visiting Mexico on a cruise or staying locally; give this dish a whirl and you be the judge.
Looking for a tasty take on a sandwich that's anything but typical? Welcome to Guadalajara's prized version, the torta ahogada (or "drowned sandwich" in English). The bread is called "birote," named after a Frenchman, Mr. Birot, who tried to make his beloved French baguettes in Guadalajara but ended up with the local version that bears his name.
These are sold on almost every street corner in the city center as the quintessential working man's lunch. Fast, tasty and filling, we lined up with locals looking for a quick and satisfying meal. On the menu are sandwiches stuffed with a garlic and citrus-marinated pork filling that's fried until crispy. You can smell it down the block! The birote is then "drowned" in a salsa of tomato, chile de Arbol vinegar, cumin, black pepper, garlic and oregano. Top with raw or marinated onions, and presto! You have a torta. One bite, and you can taste what all the fuss is about with its crunchy, pickled veggies, spicy sauce, soft bread and crisp pieces of pork.
Due to the salsa's spicy nature, some locals swear by tortas ahogada as a cure for hangovers, head colds, and infections. Chile-heads will also love it purely for its complex, spicy flavors. If, like me, you prefer it a little less incendiary, ask for a "pica poquito" version (it burns less) and take a bite out of Mexican culinary history on your next vacation. And yes, this sandwich is available around the country because its popularity and deliciousness caught on beyond the city's immediate borders.