Monday, November 22, 2010

Food Shopping in Mexico..... I miss it every week....

One of the things about not living in Mexico that I miss all the time, weekly in fact, has to be being able to go to the markets there. Mexico has the most wonderful markets! It doesn't matter what part of Mexico you happen to be in, I'm sure you'll find a great market there.

But there are some markets that are famous, some for the fruit, others for the fish and some for all sorts of things. Historically, Mexico has always had a way with markets as described by Hernan Cortez when he first arrived in our country.....

When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments (...) on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream? (...) I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain

But before I get into this, let me give you a little background you might find interesting.

Aztec (Aztecatl) is the Nahuatl word for "people from Aztlan", it refers exclusively to the Mexica people of Tenochtitlan (now the location of Mexico City), situated on an island in Lake Texcoco, who referred to themselves as Mexica Tenochca or Colhua-Mexica. Sometimes the term also includes the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan's two principal allied city-states, the Acolhuas of Texcoco and the Tepanecs of Tlacopan, who together with the Mexica formed the Aztec Triple Alliance which has also become known as the "Aztec Empire".

But for our conversation about markets, the main marketplace in Tlatelolco, Cortés estimated it was twice the size of the city of Seville with about 60,000 people trading daily. How's that for a large super-store? And these markets, as they do today although not close to the size they were then, still offer everything and anything you could possibly need. Smaller cities have of course, smaller markets but if you visit Mexico City or Guadalajara, the markets are not just enormous in size, being large buildings spanning entire city blocks, but many floors in height as well- some specialize, like La Merced in Mexico City that caters to all sorts of fruits and vegetables. Mexico being blessed with all manner of climates offers a more than wide array of fruits and vegetables year round and La Merced has them all! You'll find ripe fruit ready to eat, vegetables you've only seen in books and prime examples of some of our most beloved ingredients, like:
  • Flor de Calabaza (Squash Blossoms)- Very delicate flowers from the zuchinni squash that we love to stuff withcheese, put them in quesadillas, soups and sauces and must be "just picked" or they wilt quickly, and are considered a delicacy.
  • Huitlacoche (Corn Smut) - This "mold" might look black and forbidding but it grows on fresh corn and has it's flavor and when made into a paste, makes for wonderful sauces, filling for quesadillas and many other gourmet dishes.
  • Ripe Mangoes - If you've ever had a truly ripe mango at it's peak, you'll never taste anything like it, it's fantastic and lends itself to many applications in the kitchen, from ice cream to sauces to drinks and snacks.
  • Chiles Poblanos - Sure, you see these in markets here yet they are never as beautiful as they are in Mexico or make you want to make Chiles Rellenos on the spot! A traditional taste we love in soups, stuffed, sauces and snacks with a wonderful flavor of home!
  • Hoja de Platano (Banana Leaves)- Wrap meat, poultry or fish, maybe tamales or other things in these lovely natural wrappers and they will impart a subtle flavor, while protecting the fillings and bring increased taste to the party.... a true original.....
  • You like chilies? There are hundreds of them. Sweet, smoky, spicy and red hot. Fresh ones, dried ones in every shape and color and for every use. Same goes for teas, nuts and pastes.
On every isle and every floor you find items that I'd give my eye teeth for on any day of the week, especially being back in the USA. I miss being able to find fresh, whole foods that have ripened naturally. I miss being able to find all the ingredients I need in ONE place and it doesn't matter what it is I'm looking for, they've got it cheaper, fresh and better. OMG! For anyone that like to cook or eat, this is heaven..... and I've found this to be the case in all of the places we've lived at, from Tijuana in the North, to Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific Coast, to Zacatecaz in the middle, with Mexico City and Puebla in the heart of the country all the way to Merida on the Yucatan Peninsula..... great markets, great food, amazing prices and endless variety year round.

Of course this doesn't mean that you'd be forced to cook just Mexican Food either, we keep a very varied diet, anywhere we happen to be, and I've always been able to cook American, French, Italian, Greek, Thai, Chinese, Spanish.... and all the regional variations within Mexico as well..... you get the idea.... It makes me mad to see so much processed food here in thee USA and green fruits and vegetables being picked and treated chemically (don't even get me started on this or it will turn into a rant).... turns the food tasteless, so sad.

For fish you've got "La Viga" Market that does ONLY fish and seafood.... incredible! Plus in all of these markets you'll find food stalls selling some pretty incredible edibles too. YUM! Fish arrive there daily from every corner of Mexico, seafood too. I still remember this "marisqueria" (seafood restaurant, more a dive really) called "La Marinera" where we'd have amazing fresh seafood cocktails and ceviche.... just tell them what you want in it and you're set to go, makes for a perfect Sunday brunch item, believe me!

Some markets carry "seasonal' dry goods and specialized merchandise like candles and skeleton effigies for the "Day of the Dead" celebrations or herbs and spices for charms and incantations (not just for cooking) or maybe for a herbal medicine poultice. There are pinatas for parties and the candies and toys that go along with it; there is the section of animals and veterinary needs selling baby chicks, ducks and birds; chicken and roosters; feed, cages, food and equipment, then a couple of aisles over you suddenly run into the religious items area where all manner of Catholic figures, Rosary beads, medals, candles and more greet you. At the Merida Municipal Market there is a food stall that makes great Yucatecan specialties smack in the middle between the religious items, the watchmakers, the animal section and the farm implements. Really, we used to stop by and have some "Papadzules" whenever we'd go shopping there.

You can also find clothes, shoes, musical instruments, electronics, jewelry, music, flowers and more..... this is why these are one stop shop places and very popular. Even if you don't buy anything it's worth making the trip. So next time you're in Mexico, don't forget and ask where the local "municipal market" is and visit, maybe even have a bite, look around and take some memories home.

For me, just writing this entry, makes me wish I was still able to shop like this, somehow going to my local A&P or stopping by a Walmart Superstore just doesn't give me the same experience as being down there but maybe it's just me because I still think food tastes so much better in the places that have markets set up like these. What a great excuse to shop in the markets of Livorno, Venice or Rome or even the market stalls in the street markets of Paris and Greece. Or maybe I just like going to the market....... could be......

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