Words and photographs by Ehren Seeland
Renowned for a stunning array of architecture, cuisine and vibrant festivities, Oaxaca is a compelling Mexican destination for travelers with a love of all things cultural. These are the aspects for which the city is most famous, however in between dance performances and devouring crispy tlayudas under the calescent sun, we are reminded of another group of intriguing local delights: the drinks. From the garnet-hued sweetness of agua de jamaica to the downright potent underpinnings of mezcal, there is no shortage of ways to keep yourself hydrated as you take in the best that the region has to offer.
This warm mixture of masa harina (Mexican corn flour), milk, sugar, cinnamon and vanilla is rooted in pre-Columbian times, and maintains a consistency that is sometimes thick like porridge or a thinner, more pourable variation, generally passed over in colorful bowls after being ladled form enormous pots. While you can find this beverage on the streets and in the homes of Oaxacans year-round, the most frequent appearances occur during the Dia de los Muertos celebrations and during the Christmas holidays. Different regions often support their own take on the concoction, with this brilliant orange type (pictured above) found in the community of San Antonio Cuajimoloyas.
Dining establishments and street fairs alike support these traditional waters that are flavored with fruit and sugar as harmonious company to the mélange of traditional cuisine for which Oaxaca is so noteworthy. Some of the most common of these aguas include a blend of cucumber, lime and mint, along with the ever-popular agua de jamaica (water infused with hibiscus flowers), limonada and water steeped with tamarind pods. Both refreshing and satisfying, these drinks are mostly served out of giant plastic jugs that are lined up on vendor tables in various pockets.
A far cry from the powdery super-sweet kind that is typically found in North American mugs, Oaxacan chocolate is a hot drink that combines grainy dark chocolate with hints of almond, vanilla and cinnamon, along with water, and sometimes milk (if requested). The ingredients are heated together and frothed by spinning a hand-carved wooden molinillo between two palms in the centre of the pot before serving. This blend can always be found during breakfast time, and comes with a side of bread to dip into your mug as you go.
A unique mix of rice, milk, sugar, vanilla and cinnamon, brings to life this thin, opal-colored potion that is generally found alongside the agua frescas and are ladled out by the cupful by local vendors. Horchata is served on ice and is super refreshing on a hot day.
Prior to my inaugural trip to Oaxaca last October, a friend at the Canadian embassy in Mexico City scrawled out a menu of things to see and try while in the area. Below the laundry list of various museums and galleries was written a simple warning – mezcal: watch out. While I have heard (dubious) promises of it both improving my dancing and language skills, this distilled alcoholic liquid made from the heart of the maguey plant improved neither, however it has aided in the flow of conversation with new friends. Mezcal is generally consumed straight, and supports a smoky flavor, along with a serious punch. Note: you will want to sip this, not shoot it, or run the risk of a world of hurt the following day.
A spicy combination of cerveza, limón, chili, hot sauce and salt swirl together in this fizzy concoction that serves as the Mexican equivalent to the bloody mary. If you were overzealous and consumed your mezcal at too rapid of a pace the prior evening, this is known to be an excellent remedy for a pesky dolor de cabeza.
Known as the drink of the gods, this pre-Hispanic libation sees a mix of freshly-milled rosita de cacao (the flower of the funeral tree), corn, fermented cocao beans, cinnamon and a local fruit called the mamey, all combined with water. Tejate is served cold and supports a chunky texture that has been perfected by generations of skilled tejateras. Customers are able to specify their desired level of sweetness when ordering with an increase in the amount of simple syrup.
Whether sipping them, gulping them or toasting with them, the assorted refreshments that are found in Oaxaca cover a broad spectrum of making processes and colors, textures and tastes. With these, two things are likely: you will be able to sample potables that you’ve likely not experienced elsewhere, and the benefits of good hydration will be on your side (unless you dip into the mezcal: watch out).