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By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS

High on a vast plateau sheltered by a protective wall of rugged Sierra Madre mountains, 400 kilometers south of of the nation’s capital, lies Mexico’s fifth-largest state, Oaxaca.

Home to 16 distinct ethnic groups — and numerous subgroups that have, over the centuries, developed their own unique customs and traditions — Oaxaca, with nearly 70 percent of its population identifying themselves as indigenous, is Mexico’s most culturally diverse state, a veritable mosaic of tribal heterogeneity.

Here, thanks to its extreme geographic fragmentation — the state is crossed by three separate mountain ranges that cover 82 percent of its entire surface area — the multiple indigenous communities that make up this land of ancient Zapotec pyramids and modern-day Guelaguetza song and dance festivals have been able to preserve their rich cultural heritages and ethnic rubrics.

And nowhere does Oaxaca’s bountiful legacy of multicultural creativity shine through more than in the wonderful, robust, unanticipated, spicy flavors of its cuisine.

The very diversity of Oaxaca’s dexterous cookery is suggested by its nickname, Land of the Seven Moles. Indeed, each of the state’s seven regions produces a unique variation of the peppery mole sauce. (In fact, Oaxaca has far more than seven moles, with the people of each of its 418 indigenous communities adding their own secret ingredients and herbal flavorings to this centuries-old recipe.)

Oaxaca is also Mexico’s primary producer of mezcal (that smoky maguey spirit that sometimes comes with a worm inside, but not always), and it is a famed producer of chocolate, the key ingredient of most moles.

Oaxaqueño chefs have never shied away from unconventional ingredients, and their culinary repertoire includes a wide range of chilies, fruits, vegetables, herbs and regional greens, along with insects, worms and even ant larvae (known as escamoles and considered to be one of the world’s greatest delicacies).

From gluten-y tlayudas (large, semi-dried tortillas glazed with pork lard and topped with refried beans, tomatoes, avocados and shredded chicken tinga), to savory barbacoa beef stews flavored with wormseed leaves, to fragrantly fried banana and yucca pastries drizzled with garlicy guaje pulp, there is seemingly no end of gastronomic delights Oaxaca offers to please the palate.>

You could spend an entire year in the southern central Mexican state and still not discover all of its epicurean secrets.

Fortunately, you don’t have to.

Mexico City’s upscale Hotel Marquis Reform is now offering an extraordinary culinary trek through the magical state of Oaxaca at its La Parilla restaurant from Monday, Oct. 25, through Sunday, Nov. 7.

The exceptional gastronomic festival, titled Sabores de
Oaxaca (Flavors of Oaxaca), provides an authentic Oaxacan experience, replete with regional art and décor, thanks to a joint effort between Mexico City’s Marquis Reforma Hotel and Oaxaca’s exclusive Hotel Casa Bonita.

To guarantee authenticity, Casa Bonita executive chef Perla Aquino has worked closely with Marquis Reforma head chef Javier Salazar and the entire kitchen staff of La Parilla to make sure that every detail of production and presentation is truly Oaxaqueño in nature, and she even insisted on bringing many of the key ingredients from her native state.

And since the festival happens to coincide with Mexico’s colorful Day of the Dead holidays (Nov. 1 and Nov. 2), the Marquis Reforma has gone all out and created a kaleidoscopic altar of multi-hued skulls and giant alebrije sculptures by regional artisans to set the mood for a holistic Oaxacan experience.

The restaurant has also piped in tracks of ethnic Oaxacan music and decorated tables with papier mâché skeletons, but, of course, the main attraction is definitely the food.

The glittering eight-course tasting menu — paired with four different types of Cómplice mezcal for an astonishingly affordable 699 pesos per person — includes a sampling of antojitos (Mexico’s answer to appetizers) of hoja santa (wormseed) sopes crowned with maguey worms (that may sound outlandish, but the taste is phenomenal) and mini tlayudas of fresh edible flowers with fried grasshoppers (again, if the thought of eating bugs freaks you out, just close your eyes and enjoy the flavors).

The next course is a hardy broth of boiled corn mass and traditional Oaxacan herbs, served with a sweet string cheese and pork jerky quesadilla made with fresh, just-off-the-comal tortillas, followed by a explode-in-your-mouth yellow mole and ribboned cheese empanada.

Then prepare for a barrage of three different moles: red chichilo (burnt tortilla ash) mole with chicken, green pumpkin seed mole with pork, and, the crème de la crème, deep, smoky, black chocolate mole with turkey and handmade tortillas.

The dessert course is really two courses, a crusty Oaxacan sugar cookie with cactus and burnt cream sorbet, and a flattened buñuelo cake served with a bittersweet chocolate sauce.

The set tasting menu is available for both lunch and dinner, and there is also an array of Oaxacan antojitos for breakfast at La Parilla.

The restaurant, located on the Marquis Reforma’s ground floor (Avenida de la Reforma 465 in Colonia Cuauhtémoc, tel: 55-5229-1200) is open daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations are highly advised.

 

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