Who hasn’t stopped to buy a nieve on the stairs of La Soledad Basilica when the late afternoon falls? There are so many stalls and so many varieties of traditional ice cream that you never know what to choose. You can let yourself be seduced by the unique flavours of a “burnt milk” nieve or go a more traditional route with nieve de limón. Once you’ve finished, continue down the stairs towards the street, and you’ll come across a typical sweets stall named ‘El Arte Oaxaqueño’. Even though you’ve enjoyed an ice cream and your stomach is satisfied, you cannot help but pause to check out the variety of sweets, all tempting in different shapes and colours. Should you buy the gaznate, a pan de mamón, or perhaps, wait until next time when there is more room in your ice cream-filled stomach?
Later, when walking down any street in Oaxaca Centro, you can’t miss the women selling something that appears to be a jelly covered in pink powder. A curiosity for first-time visitors, it is the indulgent nicuatole, one of Oaxaca’s many sugary temptations!
In Mexico, we call the variety of handmade sweets sold primarily by mobile vendors or in street/market stalls dulces típicos. Many are considered to be from Mesoamerican times, but experts in culinary history affirm that a large part of these typical sweets is from the colonial period. The convents were where culinary syncretism took place; missionaries, nuns, and indigenous locals fused flavours and colours giving rise to the Mexican gourmandise. Products brought from Europe, such as sugarcane and a fondness for milk-based products, were mixed with the fruits, seeds, and spices of the Americas. Additionally, Arabic flavours, transmitted through migration through Spain, can be found in many of our dulces típicos. If you have ever eaten Moroccan food, you will notice the resemblance, especially in the sweets, which are also based on seeds, sugar, and milk.
Oaxaca enjoys a fabulous gastronomic reputation, focused primarily on the salty and spicy food which attracts most of our visiting diners. Although Oaxacan chocolate is the most representative in terms of sweet flavours, the state is an excellent place to enjoy a variety of sugary temptations. In the capital, we can find sweets from different parts of the country, from the sweet potatoes of Puebla to the Yucatecan marquesitas. But let’s take a tour through our local favourites.
The word is of Nahuatl origin and comes from necuatl which means honey and atole, the Mesoamerican corn drink. Usually made by women, this is the Oaxacan dessert par excellence. It is based on corn dough, water, sugar or piloncillo, milk, and cinnamon. The popularity of this dessert has fuelled the creativity of local chefs, who now prepare nicuatole of different flavours: coconut, walnut, mango, and pineapple. This delicious dessert is sold in markets and at stalls in the city. If you dare to have a ‘one hundred percent nicualesque‘ experience, don’t miss July’s Feria de Nicuatole in San Agustin Yatareni, the city where the dessert is believed to have originated.
2. Nieve de leche quemada con tuna
For this heat, what is better than a refreshing nieve?! How about lime, coconut, strawberry, or mango? If you choose one of these flavours while in Oaxaca, you are playing it safe. Here, we like ice creams with interesting and unique flavours; that is why we have mezcal ice cream or, even better, ice cream made from ‘burnt milk’ paired with cool prickly pear. It is a mixture of boiled milk, sugar, cinnamon, and delicious cactus fruit. It is the perfect balance of flavours and, due to the milk, its consistency is creamier than many nieves. Do not miss trying a nieve at the plaza in front of La Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad. They are the best in the city, and it is an ideal spot to spend the afternoon with family or friends.
This toasted peanut snack covered with piloncillo can be found anywhere in Mexico but is so ubiquitous in Oaxaca that it couldn’t be left off our list. It is eaten as a dessert, but can also be a delicious snack; simple and tasty. One of the favourite treats of children to munch on a walk home from school. Most Oaxacan children remember the pain of biting down and hitting a hard nut, this familiar experience inspiring the snack’s very name, palanqueta, which translates as ‘crowbar’.
Minerva, who runs the ‘El Arte Oaxaqueño’ sweets stall in the 20 de Noviembre market, doesn’t hesitate to tell us that gaznate is her bestselling snack to both locals and visitors. Although not 100% Oaxacan, it’s indulgent appearance is attractive to anyone looking to satisfy their sweet tooth. It is dough fried into a taquito shape, filled with sweetened whipped cream, sometimes with a touch of mezcal. The heavy cream might seem contrary to a refreshing treat on a hot afternoon, but the gaznate, translated to ‘gullet’, is too rich and satisfying to pass up.
5. Maguey cocido
To close with a flourish, a less common sweet, but the most Oaxacan of all: cooked maguey. It has a slight fermented aroma, but its flavour is bittersweet. This treat is visually unattractive, nothing more than maguey or pineapple stems baked in the oven. Of fleshy consistency, the fibres are chewed to extract the juice. It isn’t a very seductive eating experience, and it can be a bit messy for novices, but lovers of mezcal and bittersweet flavours will not be disappointed! You can find this unique Oaxacan sweet at many ferias as well as in some mercados.