Many years ago, before I began traveling around Mexico working with regional chefs and cooking teachers, I was a newly arrived greenhorn, both fascinated and confused by the country’s markets and their contents.
One of the first sources of enlightenment for me on this subject was the writing of Vicki Cowal, who produced informative pieces on Mexican markets, ingredients and techniques for Mexico City’s English language newspaper, The News. I still have clippings of recipes that Vicki wrote for the newspaper, and I refer to them often.
When Larry and I decided to take a much-needed month-long vacation, I asked Vicki to fill in for me as guest columnist and was delighted when she accepted. Besides being an authority on Mexican cooking, Vicki teaches and caters from her home in Mexico City and has provided Mexico Connect’s readers with some valuable information on the city’s markets and the history of Mexican markets in general, as well as sharing one of her special recipes.
I hope you enjoy Vicki’s column as much as I did. Happy Holidays! Until next month, Karen Hursh Graber
The Jewels of Mexico: Public Markets
I go at least once a month to the Central de Abasto, said to be the world’s largest wholesale market. It is somewhat of a trek and everyone wonders how I can do this in view of Mexico City’s notoriously horrendous traffic. I go because for me, the market is a living museum of Mexico.
While it is wonderful to have the convenience of supermarkets, I have always felt that one of Mexico’s greatest treasures is its public markets, both the covered ones and the street variety. They have been preserved, not as oddities but as a way of life. Unless food is your business it is obviously hard to find time to make a general habit of shopping in public markets. But you might try treating them as a way of pushing away your cares to see a special and unique side of Mexico.
These lively, colorful and fascinating food paradises have a history that goes back for many centuries, in fact as far back as the beginning of established communities thousands of years ago. Markets constituted the only pre-Conquest opportunities for trade. They also had profound social significance for this is where the people came to intermingle and to gossip. It was a chance to break their normal routine.
The Aztecs raised the markets into works of art. Each town had a market day at specific intervals. There was a trade class – the pochteca – whose members traveled all over the Aztec Empire bartering and obtaining products for the central market in the capital city of Tenochtitlan.
In this great capital every day the city’s largest marketplace was crowded with thousands of merchants. Produce from all over the outlying provinces flowed into the city: waterfowl, turkeys, doves, rabbits, dogs, deer, wild pigs, fish, turtles, frogs, maize, beans, chilies, tomatoes, amaranth, onions, garlic, artichokes, as well as a huge assortment of fruits and honey and octli, the fermented cactus juice. There was also a vast variety of cooked dishes ready to eat on the spot.
The Aztecs generally used the cocoa bean as “payment” as it was highly valued and easily portable. They also bartered, with the value of an item linked to its desirability and rarity. Money as an exchange medium of fixed value was introduced later by the Spaniards.
In his letters back to the Spanish Crown, Cortez constantly relayed his awe of the enormous Aztec markets. “This town has many squares on which there are always markets, and in which they buy and sell. But there is another, twice the size of the town of Salamanca, completely surrounded by arcades, where every day there are more than sixty thousand souls who buy and sell, and where there are all kinds of merchandize from all the provinces, whether it is in provisions or jewels of gold and silver.”
Bernal Diaz del Castillo, the old soldier who came with Cortez to the New World and many years later wrote his intriguing and detailed chronicles of the Conquest, was equally impressed. “When we reached the great square called Tateluco, as we had never seen anything like it, we stood amazed by the infinity of people and goods, and by the method and regularity of everything.”
By the early seventeenth century, the Spaniards had taken over complete control of the markets, but the cultural tradition of these gatherings remained indigenous. All throughout the history of Mexico the market has been the center of social reunion and a chance to buy what is not individually grown. To me, they represent the continuance of a beautiful, non-technical world, a chance to be in touch with the real world and real food.
Every town of any size in Mexico has a public market. The larger cities have many and also have weekly street markets called tianguis. If you are new to Mexico you may be somewhat intimidated by the prospect of dealing with merchants and bargaining, but once you have overcome this fear you will discover the fun of it and the freshness of the produce. After you have become thoroughly acclimated, you will start to eat the prepared foods at the markets and know that there is nothing quite as delicious as a taco and freshly made salsa eaten standing up at a market.
Central de Abasto
The Central de Abasto is so immense that it is almost like a city. Except for specialty items, I think that if you can’t find something here it is probably not sold in Mexico.
The market is divided into different sections selling dried goods, vegetables, fruit, dairy and delicatessen products, meat, fish and flowers. My favorite part is the fish section. It is not an exaggeration to say there must be 100 stands, each one selling something more enticing than the next. Even if you don’t plan to buy anything, a trip there is an unforgettable experience. Just entering the gigantic warehouse of mountains of dried chilies is a visual treat and an olfactory adventure.
It is a very pleasant market with extremely agreeable merchants. No-one is going to hassle you. To the contrary, if you go in mid-morning after their main business is done, they seem to enjoy a few moments of relaxed talk after the bustle of the activity which starts for them before dawn. While most of their business is done by the truckload, they are perfectly amenable to selling you small quantities. I have bought as little as a pound of onions. The savings are enormous with many items being less than half of what you pay at the supermarket.
The market is a bit off the beaten track, but actually quite easy to reach. Take Rio Churubusco to Tezontle, take a left and then follow the signs saying Central de Abasto. You can park in the middle section near the flowers and go off from there. Do wear old shoes as the cement floors can get wet and are covered in refuse after all the early morning action.
The San Juan Market
A more accessible market both in terms of size and location is the fabulous San Juan market. For those who love to cook this is the place to find the best of the usual as well as the unusual. You will pay a bit more than at the supermarket but you will be rewarded with the freshest produce of the highest quality. I go there with many groups of newcomers to Mexico and it is always an enormous hit. There are fruits and vegetables unattainable elsewhere (during the rainy season look for their outstanding variety of wild mushrooms – setas), cheeses from all over the world, dozens of butchers selling tender veal, lamb, beef plus all the hard-to-find innards. (If you are squeamish you might want to avoid the section of rabbits and baby goats) There are Spanish stands with superb jamon serrano, chorizo and chistorra; seafoods stands with all manner of shellfish and such deep sea fish as tuna and (sometimes) swordfish; and half a dozen stands selling hard-to-find Asian products including such fresh ingredients as bok choy, daikon and spectacular gingerroot.
Here again the merchants are polite and helpful. Some of my favorite stands are #73 for fish; #252 & #253 for dried chilies, spices, nuts & dried fruits; #209 for Asian; #217 for the most delicate of vegetables: #147 for cheese. The market is located near the Ciudadela handicraft market. The easiest way to reach it is to go down the Reforma towards the Centro Historico. Turn right at Bucareli and then left after about 5 blocks on Ernesto Pugibet. Keep straight for a few blocks and the market is on the left side at 77 Ernesto Pugibet. There is a parking lot at the market. They don’t give you a ticket when you leave your car, but I have been parking there for years on faith.
Another enticing market is the Medellin market in the Colonia Roma on Campeche between Medellin and Monterrey. Of special interest are the ingredients for making food from the Yucatan: fresh banana leaves, habanero chilies (very, very hot), red onions, achiote (the paste, made from the seeds of the annatto tree, for making pibil dishes), bitter limes and oranges, and the dough for making tamales. The vendors will talk to you at length about Yucatecan food and how to prepare it.
There is also within the market a tortilleria selling freshly made whole wheat tortillas. At the back of the market they sell a good selection of straw baskets and clay pottery. And the flower merchants make about the best arrangements in the city, at a more than reasonable cost.
I bought shrimp last week at the Central de Abasto. After looking, smelling, touching, checking prices I finally bought tender and flavorful medium- size shrimp for 75 pesos a kilo – versus 185 pesos at the supermarket. Since I was not going to be cooking them right away, I froze them according to the advice of the merchant. This was to freeze them in water in their shells in a plastic container. Then I made the following recipe which has long been a family favorite.
- 1 poblano chili
- 5 tomatillos, husked and quartered
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 ear corn
- ½ cup chicken stock
- 1 large zucchini, diced
- 1 small white onion, chopped fine
- 1 tomato, chopped fine
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
- ¾ pound raw medium shrimp, peeled, deveined and coarsely chopped
- 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
- ½ cup grated Manchego cheese (or Monterey Jack)
- 12 flour tortillas
For the sauce: char the chili over a gas flame until blackened on all sides. Place in a plastic bag and let stand for 10 minutes to sweat. Under running water, peel off the blackened skin, remove the seeds and core. Dice the chili and combine with the tomatillos, stock and cilantro in a medium-size saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Puree in a blender and season with salt and pepper.
Preheat oven to 175 C (350 F).
For the filling: strip the corn from the ear and put in a skillet with the stock, zucchini and onion. Simmer over a low heat until the vegetables are tender, about 8 minutes. Mix in the tomato and garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the shrimp, cilantro and basil and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and season with salt and pepper.
Place a spoonful of filling down the middle of each tortilla and roll the tortillas. Place them, seamside down, in a lightly greased baking dish. Pour the sauce over all and cover the dish with foil. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove the foil. Sprinkle with the grated cheese and bake for 10 more minutes, or until the top is lightly browned.