Oaxacan-born chef Manuel Diaz opened eatery Nu’u by Nativo earlier this year with his partner Diana Farrera to cure a case of homesickness. The restaurant and mezcal bar is located in Sydney’s Inner West, and is the duo’s second venue, joining taqueria Nativo.
Nu’u by Nativo champions Oaxacan cuisine and serves a menu based on traditional recipes and cooking techniques from the area. “We tried to keep it as close to the original recipes – we don’t want to hide who we are since that is the real magic of traditional cuisine,” says Diaz. “The authentic traditional flavours from home are so specific and it was a challenge I wanted to take on.”
The Michelin-trained chef says Oaxacan food is incredibly intricate and differs from what most would call Mexican food. “Some of the cuisine known around the world is sold to be easy and cheap, but Oaxacan cuisine in general is very complex,” he says. “Recipes call for dozens of ingredients and you really only master them after years [of work].”
Oaxaca itself has a large indigenous population and is home to around 16 of Mexico’s 68 recognised indigenous groups. The cuisine is made up of local ingredients, indigenous traditions, and sees dishes made with traditional utensils. “Oaxacan cuisine comes from the earth, from our ancestors, and it is really artisanal,” says Diaz. “The techniques used are ancestral and close to our roots.”
Diaz’s menu at Nu’u features an array of Oaxacan dishes including the venue’s signature enmolada which sees corn tortillas on a roll filled with chicken picadillo and mole sauce. “Our mole is a sauce, although we would say it is more like a dish on its own,” he says. “It is traditionally made with more than 40 different ingredients including Oaxacan chocolate, dry chillies, plantains, nuts, and apricots.”
The team uses traditional Oaxacan cooking clay pots to make the mole. “The pots give the mole a slightly different flavour profile and changes the way the ingredients roast,” says Diaz. A stone metate is another traditional cooking tool used in the kitchen to grind spices. “[The metate] is literally a stone piece which you use to roughly grind spices or maize using a stone pestle,” says Diaz. “We also use it for some salsas, like our molcajete salsa that we use for our potatoes.”
Memela del mercado also demonstrates the intricacy of Oaxacan cuisine. “It’s made with five recipes which is common with Oaxacan dishes but it’s somehow simple at the same time,” says Diaz.
The dish sees a masa (maize dough) base with a meat filling that varies according to different areas alongside beans, cheese, and salsa. Nu’u’s uses pork as the protein of choice: “Cecina is a thin cut of pork that is usually marinated with dry chillies and spices,” says Diaz. “We make our cecina in-house with my family recipe.” Diaz also uses roasted bone marrow with the seasoned black beans to create a deeper flavour and complement the other elements of the dish.
Diaz’s take on Oaxacan food is more than a meal, but an opportunity to share the ingredients, flavours, and memories of his home. “Most of the dishes are more than just food, they are stories about my life, my family, my friends, and places that are important to us,” says Diaz.
The chef hopes the cuisine will become more recognised in the near future. “Oaxacan food is the epicentre of what we as Mexicans call ‘our cuisine’.”