I Moved To Oaxaca

Friday, February 15, 2008

Spanish words, Zapotec or Mixtec words, Spanglish, slang...sometimes it's hard to know what the heck people are talking about. Because even half a dozen dictionaries don't always help. For instance:

All my books give ¿que? as what?, but here that's considered informal and possibly rude. People use ¿mande? instead. Or this example—my perennial favorite—all my dictionaries list torta (a sandwich), flan (a custard), and/or postre (dessert) for pie. Pie. What are they thinking? Spanish for pie is pay, pronounced "pie." As in "pay de queso," cheese pie, which is actually cheese cake...

My latest puzzler is gravy. My half-dozen dictionaries say the Spanish word is salsa, but I just don't buy that. I suspect the Spanish word for gravy is likely gravy. Aha! It's jugito, little juice. At least it is in Oaxaca.

Here, in any case, are some of the unusual words you're likely to hear in Oaxaca that I do know about:

Abastos Sometimes called "Central" on city buses, the Abastos is both the second-class bus terminal, the site of Oax-town's big Friday/Saturday tianguis, and a big slice-of-life look at Oaxaca.
Abarrotes The corner grocery. You can buy a cup of dog/cat food at a time, or a single bottle of beer, too--and when you bring the bottle back you'll get your 3-peso (or so) deposit back. Great neighborhood resource.
aciento Pig oil, often with bits of pork rind floating around; not to be confused with pig lard, which is manteca. I suspect aciento is in a lot of Oaxacan cuisine; I know for sure tlayudas and memelas have it unless you ask for them "sin aciento."
ADO Pronounced ah-day-oh. It's the first-class bus station on Chapultepec, aka Hwy 190 on the divide between Col. Centro and Col. Reforma. See TAPA.
afuera A popular name for dogs.
aguacate An avocado. These used to be called alligator pears in the States before someone got smart and changed the name. Kinda like what they're trying to do with prunes nowadays.
aguardiente White lightning made from sugarcane juice.
ahuehuete That might be the Nahuatl name; in Spanish it's a sabino, a cypress. The Tule tree is supposed to be the biggest example of an ahuehuete in Latin America.
amarilla A yellow sauce, even though sometimes it's red; I see it a lot in empanadas and in stewed chicken dishes.
antojitos It took me awhile to figure this one out: antojitos and botanas are both snacks, but antojitos are more like finger-foods - your tacos, tlayudas, and empanadas.
Arbol del Pirol The pepper tree; they're all over Oaxaca. Weavers use the tree's cambrium to dye wool pink.
avocado Everybody in Oaxaca calls 'em aguacates, not avocados.
Bimbo Bimbo is Snuggle the Fabric Softener bear's cousin, and he's an ad whore for a brand of fluffy white bread and these nasty hot dogs that smell a lot like Oscar Mayer wieners. His hot dog carts are all over Oax-town.
botana, botanas Yes, it means "snack," but botanas are more like bar snacks - chips and peanuts and cheetos - while antojitos are more your finger-foods category of snack.
buñuelo It looks like fry-bread that got fried too long, and it's coated with cinnamon and sugar. Like an ovoid churro.
caguama What we at home would call a forty, or a 40-oz bottle of beer. Since Mexico is metric, they're actually nine-forties, which doesn't have as nice a ring, so everybody calls 'em caguamas.
camion, camiones A pick-up truck; down here, they're usually used to haul loads and/or people up and down roads too narrow for buses. If you catch a ride in a camion, get the price before you get in.
carnitas Slow-cooked pork, and a speciality of Michoacan. Widely available in Oaxaca. If you're outside Oax-town be mindful that the carnitas can come with (sometimes a lot) of pork skin mixed in.
Casahuate The white-flowered tree found all over Oaxaca; I'll try to get a picture.
cempasuchil Marigolds; you'll see lots in the countryside starting in late September. They're the main decoration flower used for Day of the Dead.
Chalma Town of miracle cures; they say that if you can't get it fixed in Chalma, you're screwed.
chamoy a popular flavoring in candy, nieves, and as a sauce on macro paletas. It's red, it's tart, and I have no idea what it's made from.
chicharron, chicharrones Pork rinds, and a hugely popular snack in Oaxaca. You can even buy extruded corn starch facsimiles instead of the real thing–but why? Always served with salsa.
chilaquiles They look like eggless migas to me; if that doesn't help, chilaquiles are yesterday's tortillas cut into pieces and cooked in salsa, sometimes red, sometimes green, sometimes negro. Some places garnish them with sliced raw onions, queso fresco, crema, and/or shredded chicken. A big plate of these and you will be good to go all day.
churro I'd call it a Mexican donut, except they have donuts here, so ... it's like a donut, except it's long and fluted and coated with cinnamon and sugar. Only buy them fresh, 'cause when they're old they're awful.
clayuda A variant spelling of tlayuda.
comal A round, slightly concave red clay griddle, a basic kitchen item along with a brazier, over which many Oaxaqueñas cook. The white stuff is cal, or lime, used as the original non-stick surface.
dulces regionales Strange Oaxacan candies, and a great gift idea for the folks back home. Lots of nut brittles, and candied pumpkin rind, and tamarind balls or little clay pots with tamarind and chili powder, and other things that taste like Tootsie Rolls. And so on. Too much fun not to try. Just be aware that the little pots are likely a source of lead contamination. Enjoy!
elote Corn on the cob, either boiled or roasted, and stuck on a stick. Eaten either with lime juice and chili powder, or "con todo," with lime juice, mayonnaise, queso fresco, and chili powder. Better tasting than it sounds. Oh, and no one refrigerates mayo here, so don't worry when you see it sitting out.
empanada Looks a lot like a quesadilla to me, but with salsa inside.
eskitas See esquitas.
esquitas Everything you'd get if you bought an elote except the cob and wood stick, all served up in a little styrofoam cup with a plastic spoon and a napkin. Less messy than an elote, too. Yum!
frijoles refritos Like guacamole, Oaxacans like their refried beans soupy. And they're always black beans. And often flavored with epazote, an herb. If you mix your frijoles in with your sopa de arroz it's easier to eat with a fork.
Fud Remember the Gary Larson cartoon? The one where the dog is trying to lure the cat into the clothes dryer with a trail of kibble and a hand-lettered sign reading "cat fud"? Here it is! Fud is a brand of bright-pink snack sausages, like Slim Jims only somehow worse. I didn't think that was possible.
garnacha, garnachas An Istmo speciality; little corn tortillas topped with ground meat, onions, a parmesan-like cheese, salsa and pickled cabbage, carrot, and jalapeno, heated by frying on a griddle. Very, very, tasty.
guacamole What, you've never had guacamole at a Super Bowl party?! It's smashed-up avocado, with diced onion and tomato and a splash of lime juice if you're lucky. Served soupy here, and without the tomato and onion, much to my dismay. Guaca means "icky" so it's my guess that this is "that icky mole," though folks here deny it.
guajolote A turkey or, in Spanish, a pavo. Yeah, the Spanish thought turkeys looked like peacocks.
guanabana A fruit I'd call a cherimoya back home in California, though they're super-big here in Oaxaca. Popular as a juice and in nieves.
gusano, sal de Very popular with mezcal, or sprinkled on sliced fruit. It's, ah, worm salt: ground up worms - grubs, really - mixed with chili powder. It makes a good gift, as you can't really taste the worms but it will surely freak out your friends and relatives.
helado American-style ice cream, but check out the insane flavors!
limon It looks like a lime but tastes like a sweetish lemon. And I never see lemons for sale in the markets. And they put it on everything here.
Llano, the Officially, it's the Parque Benito Juarez, next to the Church of the Virgin of Guadalupe and between Avs. Benito Juarez and Pino Suarez. A nice little park, with several fountains that the city sometimes turns on, families and kids out enjoying the days and evenings, elote and Bimbo vendors, and usually a vendor selling dulces regionales. It's also across from some government building, so it sees a lot of use as the staging area for protests, too.
macro paleta A Oaxacan Big Stick, that speciality popsicle beloved of kids. Here I usually only see it during fairs, which is a shame, because like other treats, the Oaxacans really know how to do this one right: it comes in a bazillion fruit and savory flavors and is served on a styrofoam tray in order to hold the chamoy sauce and a liberal coating of chili powder. Mmm, mouth-watering.
maguey The local name for agave, the wonder plant of Oaxaca. Magueys provide alcoholic beverages (tequila, mezcal, pulque), food, tools (sisal fibers and spines), and ask for hardly anything in return. What a deal!
mamey It's a fruit and a popular flavoring for nieves; it's also a color, similar to our salmon.
mapache That garbage-can party animal, the raccoon.
mercado A market, sometimes open-air, sometimes in a big warehouse-like building. The city's mercados are just south of the zocalo: the Juarez Mercado and the 20th de Noviembre Mercado. Which incidentially is where the tianguis used to be held until it got too big and the city too crowded with auto traffic.
mezcal An appellation-controlled alcoholic beverage made from the roasted, ground, and distilled hearts of magueys. It's readily available in anything from fancy bottles to home brew sold on the street out of plastic gas cans.
mole, moles A set of regional sauces (they make moles in Puebla, too: mole poblano), the most famous of which is mole negro, which has chocolate in it, among a host of other ingredients. Like any good sauce, every family has its own recipe. You can buy it in the stores and mercados and speciality shops around town. Turkey in mole is a traditional favorite, and mighty damn good.
nieve, nieves Oaxacan ice cream. It's like gelato. And it's made from drinking water, not the crap from the taps, so go ahead, try some.
nopal The prickly pear cactus; it's the cactus the eagle is sitting on as depicted on the Mexican flag. Folks here eat the paddles and the fruits. The fruits, called tunas, are great eating; the paddles are pretty bland but are good if cooked right, which mostly means not overcooked.
papalotl Nahuatl for butterfly, locally spelled papalote.
"Por el dios del osito Bimbo!"
pulque An alcoholic beverage made, like tequila and mezcal, from agaves; I've never seen it sold out of anything other than plastic gas cans and rickety-looking shacks. Bring your own bottle.
quesadilla Where I come from, a quesadilla is a tortilla with cheese and vegetables and maybe meat, heated over a griddle or open flame and served either open-face or folded in half. Kinda like a tlayuda, except it's not. Kinda like an empanada, too, except not. If you don't know you're just going to have to have one of each and decide for yourself how to describe it.
rajas As far as I can tell, it's sliced pickled jalapenos and onions and maybe carrots. A popular filling for tamales.
raspado A Oaxacan snow cone, with fruit in syrup ladled over the shaved ice and served in a plastic cup. Really, really yummy treat, especially when it's hot out.
reganada A crispy flatbread coated with sugar and cinnamon.
ride A ride, as in, hey I'm heading out: quiere un ride?
rustica Remember Busvan For Bargains? Or plank-and-block bookshelves? Oaxaca does, too, only down here they call that style of decoration rustica, not dorm-room chic (or worse).
salsa In Calfornia, salsa is a chunky, tomato-based condiment; the fresh stuff is often called pico de gallo, although I don't know why. And well-blended, chile-based sauces are called hot sauce. In Oaxaca, I never see pico de gallo unless I make it, and hot sauces are called salsas. So there you go.
sanitario A public, for-pay bathroom, usually 2 or 3 pesos. They'll hand you a wad of paper when you pay, too. Cleanliness levels vary tremendously.
sitio A taxi stand.
sopa Soup, but if you see "sopa de arroz" or "sopa de pasta" on a menu or sandwich board, it doesn't mean what you'd think. It's just regular cooked rice and pasta. I don't know why they call it sopa.
taco Forget Taco Bell, my friend. A real Mexican taco is a little drop of heaven served with a wedge of lime. Small, hand-sized corn tortillas filled with chopped meat-n-onions. Maybe a little salso or guacamole. Maybe a radish or grilled onion on the side. Pig-head tacos are popular in Oaxaca, so scrutinize the stand carefully before ordering or you'll be sorry.
taquito Aka the roll taco for those inSane Diegans in the house, a taquito is usually a corn tortilla filled with meat - beef or chicken, most often - rolled up and fried, then topped with guacamole, beans, cheese, and cabbage or lettuce. Yum-yum-yummy. But sometimes people here call tacos taquitos, little tacos. Well, tacos are always little, so I don't know what the deal is.
tamal, tamales A tamal—not a tamale as we Americans like to say— is a blob of corn meal with a chunk of meat in the middle, all wrapped up in a corn husk and steamed. There's some pig grease in there somewhere, too, which just adds to the tastiness. Unless you're a vegetarian, in which case it just adds to the list of off-limits Oaxacan delicacies.
tamarindo It's a pod that grows on trees, and a flavor they just love down here. I've had tamarind agua frescas in California, and you can get 'em here, too. But they also use tamarind as a flavoring for nieves and raspados, as well as a candy. Only the candy is more like tamarind chutney, seeds and all, and usually topped with a liberal coating of chili powder. Whoa!
TAPA The first-class bus station in Mexico City with buses that go to Oaxaca's ADO station. Mexico City has several first-class bus stations, so ask your cabbie specifically for TAPA.
tejate It looks like a Oaxacan Yoo-hoo. Maybe it tastes like a Yoo-hoo, too; I've never had a Yoo-hoo. Tejate is good, a drink that tastes faintly of chocolate and earthy flavors (but not like dirt), with a fun, chocolate whipped cream foam on top. I like tejate, but I just can't drink it if I see the ladies preparing it in their gigantic green-glazed bowls: those little ladies have their whole arms in there, mixing up the ingredients and somehow getting the stuff to foam up like whipped cream even though there's no milk or other dairy products in it. Ugh, yet yum. A conundrum.
temescal The local take on the sauna or sweat lodge. Wonderful.
tianguis It means awnings, but refers to the big, once-a-week (usually) market where all the country folks come in to buy and sell. It's a lot like a swap meet, with people selling everything from Made in Taiwan plastic housewares and toys to locally-produced pottery, wooden utensils, tin braziers, clay griddles, dinnerware, clothes both traditional and Western, tools, animals, lots and lots of produce, and hot lunches: tacos, empanadas, and tlayudas, mostly. And on and on and on. All being sold in crates and on tables but mostly in piles on the ground, with tarps of ever color haphazardly stung overhead, their multi-colored and low-strung guy lines going every which way. Tall people really need to watch their heads and feet.
tlacuache Local name for the possum.
tlayudas A Oaxacan speciality: a plate-sized corn tortilla cooked either open-face or folded in half on either a comal or on coals, and filled with Oaxaca-style beans, quesillo (usually), onion, tomato, and avocado, and usually topped with chorizo, tasajo, or cecina enchilada, but of course you can get it plain if you want. And if you don't want it with pig grease, ask for it "sin aciento."
tope A speed bump; they come in many interesting shapes and sizes, but all are designed to ruin your car's undercarriage if you speed through town. They are usually marked, but not always, or clearly. Watch for braking cars in front of you, and when you drive through any little pueblocito just expect to find a couple of topes on the highway.
tuna Not Chicken of the Sea; it's the scrumptious fruit of the nopal, or prickly pear cactus. Eaten fresh - peeled! the fruit has spines - or in nieves.
yu'u Some of the communities around the state have built guest houses specifically for tourists. They're cheap, and basic, and right in the middle of some really neat pueblitos. Well worth checking out.
vibrador A kind of tope, but instead of ripping the bottom off your car should you choose not to slow down, a vibrador will shake the teeth out of your head. A super rumble strip, that's it!
ximantecoso ó retama The Palo Verde tree. There's lots of it in the Cañada and Tehuacan Valley.
xopilote Mixteco for vulture.
zócalo The local name for a town square.


  • "afuera A popular name for dogs"

    afuera means outside, usually people says to dogs: "vete afuera", the means "go outside", so, it is not a dog name, :-)

    By Anonymous bukox@lycos.com, at 7:36 AM  

  • Sigh...well, I thought it was funny...

    By Blogger Bones, at 8:39 PM  

  • hahaha, yes it was funny! :)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:51 AM  

  • As a perro person myself I got it immediately!

    By Blogger medusa, at 5:02 PM  

  • I went to school at Benito Juarez Univ in Oaxaca back in the early 1980's. Great place. If you're in the Zocalo go up the hill(toward Nino's Heroes Chapultepec St) take the street to the right side of the Marquis de Valle hotel. Go up a couple blocks until you see a park on the right (I think it's called Novios Park or boyfriends park). There is a restaurant in that park called Typico de Oaxaco that serves a great Mixteca Soup. Also, there's an empanada street vendor who makes great empanadas. Make sure you eat the grasshoppers at the market.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:28 AM  

  • I have the same feels when i start learning spanish, they use a lot of different verbs for a different person, like i, you, he, we... In english is easier....

    By Anonymous learn spanish Tenerife, at 3:53 AM  

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