First published in Atención San Miguel March 9, 2007
When my friend Dottie returned to Colorado after spending a year in San Miguel with her family, she wrote me the following e-mail: “I went to the grocery store today and burst into tears. Everything is wrapped in plastic. There are no smells of fruits or vegetables or flowers. The avocados are hard as rocks. I miss the real thing.” She was referring to el mercado, the place where Mexicans have traditionally done their shopping before the arrival of Gigante and Commercial Mexicana. In San Miguel there are two mercados, El Nigromante near the center and El Merdcado San Juan on the western end of town. If you haven’t spent time there, you are missing a big piece of the cultural picture of life in Mexico.
In Mexico City’s neighborhoods tall red and green ‘Mi Mercado’ signs are a familiar sight, and although statistics show that more and more Mexicans are shopping in American-style supermarkets each year, in the big city the traditional market is going strong.
Mercados bring the farm, the earth, the past into everyday life. At the Museo de Antropología in Mexico City a diorama of a mercado in Aztec times looks remarkably like those you see today. In the Palacio Nacional, Diego Rivera’s panoramic mural of an Aztec market depicts a butcher offering a human arm for sale, but otherwise the same goods are still sold. Corn, beans, squash, avocados, metates for grinding corn and molcajetes for grinding chilies, baskets and woven mats are just a few of the things that connect today’s mercados to their Aztec past. And, of course, the best tortillas are being sold by women who sit on the ground outside as they have for centuries, their baskets covered with hand-embroidered napkins.
Most market stalls are small family-run businesses, so there is an intimate feel of a village in the mercado. You can still ask for ‘un aguacate para hoy’, a recommendation for the best melon, or get a free apple as a ‘pilón’ from your friendly local greengrocer. Vendors beseech you with ‘Que vay a llevar?’ or ‘Que le damos, marchanta?’ and there is a chatty, bustling feel to the proceedings, and usually, somewhere, music.
La Merced is the mother of all markets in Mexico City, where the experience of a village mercado is enlarged to gargantuan scale. Formerly surrounded by a network of canals crowded with delivery boats, the site has been a commercial center for centuries. The humongous but more business-like Central de Abastos, far south in the city, has replaced it as the main center of food distribution for the country, but La Merced embodies the heart and soul of Mexico City. Arriving by metro brings you right into the middle of the main market building (exit at forward end of train). Huge piles of corn husks and banana leaves for making tamales, spiraling drums of nopal cactus, walls of dried chilies, and seemingly endless rows of garlic, potatoes, tomatoes and fruits surround you. The main building is the size of several football fields; smaller nearby buildings house candy vendors, fake flower sellers, wholesale kitchen suppliers and more in vast quantities. Wandering through La Merced, soaking up its rich, noisy, crowded exhuberance, is an energizing and sometimes dizzying experience. (Avoid Saturday afternoons when crowds are dense.)
A few miles south of the Zócalo, the Mercado Jamaica offers a laid-back and scaled-down version of La Merced, plus more—it is the city’s wholesale flower market. Beyond the beautifully displayed fruits, vegetables and piñatas are several aisles lined with masses of cut flowers and curious formal arrangements that might include apples, plastic dolls or live goldfish. In the main covered building look for the Tepacheria ‘Paty’ where you can get a refreshing glass of tepache, a traditional drink made of lightly fermented pineapple juice. There is a metro stop at the Mercado Jamaica on the #9 line and a taxio sitio behind the flower market
The Mercado San Juan (on Ernest Pugibet in the Centro) is not the most picturesque place, but it’s where gourmet cooks, professional chefs and French people go to buy their food. Fist-size shrimp, button-sized squash, exotic fruits, chinese vegetables, imported cheeses, wild mushrooms and more are found inside the building. Outside you might find crispy fried grasshoppers or fresh gusanos, worms of the maguey cactus that are eaten live, rolled in a tortilla with salt and lime. The dapper Argentine gentleman by the outside wall of the Mercado San Juan sells excellent empanadas de elote.
The Aztec word ‘tianguis’ is still used to describe once-a-week street markets where the vendor comes to you, a distinctive feature of Mexico City neighborhoods. Where I live in Colonia Condesa there are two weekly markets, both colorful and lively affairs. The Tuesday tianguis rivals anything seen in Paris, with enticingly displaced produce glowing under pink awnings. At the corner of Pachuca and Vera Cruz you wll find the best tamales in the city (get there by 11am)—especially good are the tamales oaxaqueños wrapped in banana leaves with mole. The Friday tianguis at Campeche and Nuevo Leon is a compact and colorful affair, a perfect example of a neighborhood street market.
My apartment in Mexico City is midway between a traditional mercado and the Superama, and like any smart urbanite, I take advantage of both. But the mercado offers a grounded feeling of knowing that my fruits and vegetables come from someplace real. It’s one of the delights of city life.
I enjoy your opinionated guide and this follow-up blog. I understand you have a new book coming soon about food in DF, and you well may answer this question there. Nonetheless, I will be in the city this weekend and hope to locate an asian grocery store, specifically one that would have such things as fresh noodles, fresh wonton wrappers, black sesame oil, barley sugar lumps, fermented beans, shaoxing wine...you know, the usual. I can find decent soy sauce and so on in San Miguel, but other stuff I trundle across the border. I'd rather have a source in Mexico. Any suggestions?
sorry it took so long--I'm still figuring out how to use this blog.
Try MIKASA (San Luis Potosi near Monterey in Colonia Roma)
SUPER ORIENTAL (Division del Norte 2515, corner of Londres in Coyoacàn)
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