By Iliana de la Vega
Photography by Knoxy
Pablo Neruda, the famous Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner, used to say that the soul of Mexico is in its markets. There, the bustling public hive takes over the senses, from the bright colors and wonderful smells to the background of lulling music flecked with loud pregones: the shouts offering various goods to be had. Even though supermarkets are practical and convenient, nothing can surpass the incredible experience of talking to vendors and even asking for recipes. All of the markets in Mexico are wonderful, but I have my favorites to share.
MERCADO BENITO JUÁREZ
This market covers a whole block in downtown Oaxaca City and is arranged in concentric circles. The outermost ring of the market is the area for meats, clothing and folk arts and crafts; the following ring features coffee, shoes and sandals, chicken, fish and specialty products from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Ladies call out their offerrings of tortillas—blandas! (soft) and tlayudas! (large, soft or crispy)—and mounds of edible grasshoppers are everywhere. In the center of the market are stands with dried chiles, grains and legumes, fresh vegetables and fruits, aguas frescas and nieves (fruit drinks and ice creams), quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese), queso fresco, butter and cream, flowers and much more.
MERCADO DEL TRUEQUE
This is the most memorable market I’ve ever visited. It’s only open on Friday mornings at the Plaza del Santuario in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. I was told to be early, so at seven o’clock on a chilly and misty fall morning, I was on my way. The vendors were arranging their stands by placing straw mats on the floor where the merchandise would be displayed and speaking in Purépecha, their native tongue. The items in the small stands ranged from fruits, corn, beans, vegetables and handcrafted wooden tools to blanco de Pátzcuaro, a rare, almost-extinct fish from the local lake. But the reason I find this market unique is that it’s a trip to the past. Forget about credit cards and money; here, the method for acquiring goods is to barter—it’s what trueque means! I was prepared with a bagful of aromatic guavas, which I traded for some local jobos (native plums), small zucchinis, amaranth balls and cauliflower, which I then traded over and over again just for the experience.
A couple of things I like to prepare after a bountiful trip to the market are Sopa de la Milpa (corn soup), which I think reflects the essence of the markets and Mexican life, and a zucchini salad that evokes the trade experience at Mercado del Trueque. At El Naranjo here in Austin, I also serve a tomatillo and chile morita salsa and verduras en escabeche (pickled vegetables) using fresh market vegetables that are easily available like jalapeños and carrots. Buen provecho!
Mercado Benito Juarez
Calles 20 de Noviembre and Miguel
Oaxaca City, Oaxaca 68000
Mercado del Trueque
Plaza del Santuario, at the corner of Codallos and Juarez streets
ENSALADA DE CALABACITAS
1 lb. zucchini (or a mix of zucchini and yellow squash)
3 T. white vinegar, or to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
½ c. olive oil
1 t. dried oregano
1 t. dried marjoram
2 T. fresh cheese, crumbled (or goat cheese)
½ medium red onion, sliced, for garnish
Slice the zucchini into vertical strips or bite-size pieces and blanch in salted boiling water until al dente—about 3 to 5 minutes. Drain and place the slices in cold water to stop the cooking process, then transfer to a serving dish. In a bowl, combine the vinegar, salt and pepper and beat with a whisk while slowly drizzling in the olive oil. Toss the salad with the vinaigrette and sprinkle with the oregano, marjoram and cheese. Sprinkle the onion slices over the top. (Cooked and peeled chayote can be substituted for zucchini, if desired.)
SALSA DE CHILE MORITA
(Tomatillo and Morita Chile Salsa)
Makes 1¼ cup
10 dried Oaxacan chiles moritas
10 tomatillos, husked and rinsed
1 clove garlic
Salt, to taste
Slice open the chiles, remove and discard the veins and seeds and soak the chiles in hot water (not boiling) until soft—no longer than 12 minutes. Place the tomatillos in a small saucepan, cover them with water and simmer until they change to a pale green color. Do not let them burst open. Set aside to cool. Remove the tomatillos from the water and place them in a blender with the chiles, garlic and salt and process until smooth. If necessary, add some of the chile soaking liquid or the tomatillo cooking water if it’s too thick.
VERDURAS EN ESCABECHES
(Mexican-Style Pickled Vegetables)
Makes 10 to 12 cups
1 c. olive oil
1 lb. carrots, peeled and sliced
1 white medium onion, halved and sliced
1 small cauliflower, cut into ½ in. florets
½ lb. jalapeños, stems removed, quartered lengthwise
(see note, below)
20 garlic cloves, peeled
½ lb. zucchini, sliced on the bias
15 black peppercorns
2 whole cloves
5 fresh sprigs thyme (½ t. dried)
5 fresh sprigs marjoram (½ t. dried)
5 fresh sprigs oregano (½ t. dried)
5 dried bay leaves
1 c. white vinegar
1 c. apple cider vinegar
1½ c. water
Salt, to taste
In a large, nonreactive saucepan, heat the olive oil over moderate heat. Sauté the carrots until almost soft—about 10 minutes. Add the onions and cauliflower florets and sauté for 2 minutes. Add the jalapeños and garlic and sauté for 2 more minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients except the salt, reduce the heat and simmer for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the vegetables are al dente. Season with the salt and set aside to cool. Place in a container, cover and refrigerate. Let it rest for 24 hours for the flavors to develop. If you prefer to can the escabeche, it will be good for at least a year.
Note: I recommend leaving the seeds in the jalapeños for a nice, slightly spicy flavor. If you prefer, you can substitute, or add, diced green beans, potatoes or chayote. Just be sure to adjust the olive oil, vinegar and seasonings, including salt, if you add more vegetables to the mix.
SOPA DE LA MILPA
3 T. olive oil
3 c. fresh corn kernels (or frozen— see note, below)
1 medium onion, diced
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 lb. tomatoes, diced
4 poblano peppers
¾ c. vegetable oil
½ lb. zucchini, cubed
½ lb. mushrooms, sliced
6-8 c. water
4 whole black peppercorns
2 whole cloves
3 sprigs epazote, chopped
12 zucchini blossoms, pistils and outer green leaves removed
½ lb. queso fresco Mexicano or queso panela
(Mexican-style white cheese), cubed
Salt, to taste
Heat the olive oil in a large pot, add the corn kernels and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the onion and sauté for 2 more minutes, then add the garlic and the tomatoes. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently. Meanwhile, using a small knife, make a small slit in each poblano. In a medium skillet, heat the vegetable oil. Add the poblanos and fry until blistered all over—turning them with tongs as they cook. Remove them from the oil and set aside. Add the zucchini and sliced mushrooms to the corn mixture, then stir and cover with a lid. After 3 minutes, add the water, black peppercorns and cloves to the pot. Peel the peppers, remove the seeds, stems and veins and dice. Add to the soup, along with the epazote and zucchini blossoms. Taste for seasoning, then divide the cheese among 6 serving bowls. Ladle the soup over the cheese and serve immediately.
Note: If using frozen corn kernels, add them to the soup when adding the poblanos.
Additional note: You can substitute cilantro for the epazote and chicken stock for the water, if you’d like.