The Unexpected Ingredient Mexico Should Be Known For

From May through the early fall, Mexico becomes a wonderland of wild mushrooms—if you know where to look.

The Unexpected Ingredient Mexico Should Be Known For

Photo by Pablo Leautaud/Flickr

A damp morning mist hung over the highlands of Oaxaca. I was poorly dressed for the July rain and frustrated; I’d been foraging for almost an hour and had yet to spot a single toadstool.

Every year at the height of rainy season, the north Oaxacan town of Cuajimoloyas is host to the Feria de Hongos, or Wild Mushroom Festival. As part of the celebration, groups of tourists and locals compete to collect the greatest number of species in the annual mushroom hunt. The race was on and I was beginning to think something was wrong with my eyes; the six-year-old nephew of our local guide had spotted five varieties already.

I followed his tracks as he leapt up hillocks, ignoring his aunt’s calls to stick with the group and shouting, “Got another!” I demanded to know his secret. “Pay attention to the dirt piles,” he offered.

I squinted at one mound of leaves, then another. Like a puzzle, the forest’s green-brown camouflage unlocked and I saw them: tiny clusters of white caps hiding under a fallen tree trunk; thin-stemmed ones with elegant brown tops like a lady’s skirt; and under a heap of pine needles, orbs with white veils that broke slightly to reveal brilliant orange.

Mexican cuisine is known for its incredible variety of chiles, heritage corn, and plump avocados, but no one talks about the real hidden treasure scattered across the country: wild mushrooms. One of the most variety-rich regions, the Sierra Norte (where Cuajimoloyas is located), contains over 2,500 species, more than 50 of which are edible and rival some of the best selections from France or Italy.

In typical Mexican fashion, endemic mushrooms are given descriptive names. There’s the paloma, or dove, a species of white chanterelle with a frilly winglike cap; and the clavito, meaning little nail, which grows in jumbled clusters like nails inside a toolkit. Excited to identify a puffball mushroom, I pointed out the cloudlike sphere to our guide. “Pedo de lobo,” she laughed. It’s called “wolf’s fart.”

The country’s mushroom trove remains overlooked in part because many Mexicans don’t think of fungi as a delicacy. Historically, the Spanish-speaking upper class turned up its nose at what it considered peasant food. The Zapotec-speaking indigenous people of Oaxaca, however, have feasted on mushrooms for centuries and are more than willing to share the wealth.

“When you have the opportunity to connect with the local population on their terms, everyone is genuinely happy to meet you and proud to share their knowledge,” said Christine MacKay, executive director of Crooked Trails, a nonprofit travel organization that arranges custom, community-based tours of Oaxaca’s northern villages during peak foraging season.

Despite our guide’s wisdom, I couldn’t help feeling that danger lurked under every rotting tree branch. At almost every meal, we were served the region’s most popular variety, the Amanita caesarea. One of my companions on the trip, a seasoned mycologist, informed me that she wouldn’t dare try an amanita: They’re part of one of the deadliest mushroom families around, and it’s tough to spot which ones are edible. She refused, but trusting the local experts and taking my chances, I tried amanitas stewed into a flavorful yellow mole with guajillo chiles, cumin, and clove. Spoiler: They were delicious and I survived.

The spoils of the hunt

The spoils of the hunt

Photo by Allegra Ben-Amotz

While the country’s mycological biodiversity has long gone underappreciated, a few Mexican chefs are taking advantage of nature’s bounty. Eduardo García, who owns of three of Mexico City’s hottest restaurants (Maximo Bistrot, Lalo!, and Havre 77), uses about 88 pounds of wild mushrooms a day in dishes like porcini soup and “Queso Oaxaca,” in which matsutake mushrooms are shredded to resemble local string cheese. He even takes his staff on foraging trips with local guides five or six times a season to educate them on the beauty of Mexican mushrooms. “When I opened Maximo six years ago, during the rainy season, I put them on my menu,” he says. “People would be like, ‘Wow, are these from Italy?’ And I’m like, ‘No, they’re from 30 minutes away.’”

In Oaxaca City, at Suculenta, a sort of apothecary for jarred foods, co-owners Paulina Garcia and Daniel Lopez buy overstock wild mushrooms from local vendors and preserve them in oil, brines, sauces, and as salts and pâtés. At their upscale bakery Boulenc, a banh mi–style sandwich features pickled shiitakes and porcini pâté, and a sourdough pizza is topped with fresh lobster mushrooms. The pair even traveled up to Cuajimoloyas to buy mushrooms from the fair.

On the final day of the fair, after our big hunt, the air at the fairgrounds was thick with anticipation and smoke from the wood-burning ceramic cooking comals. As the judges went over their final counts, I started on breakfast: a plate of breaded and fried porcini mushrooms coated in a paste of garlic and fresh oregano. I was imagining how perfect they’d be on the menu of a fine Italian restaurant, paired with a glass of montepulciano, when our guide clapped her hands. “That’s us!”

My group went up to the stage to collect the award for our second-place finish, a basket filled with local mushrooms. We’d collected 134 varieties of edible and poisonous mushrooms, just five fewer than the winners. With so many more species out there, I thought, that number seems tiny. I resolved to return next year to claim the gold.

>>Next: 8 Ways to Forage for Mushrooms Around the World

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