It was a crisp, cool Saturday morning in July, and the markets of Mexico City were just gearing up. We walked over to the nearest market with our hostess at her invitation; she recommended we check out the fresh foods on offer. While a grocery store is nearby, shopping in local markets, as the locals do, brings us closer to the sources of our food, which is always an objective of ours, anywhere we go. For people like us, who (at the time) had only been exploring this neighborhood for three days, an opportunity to be introduced to the local market was appreciated. Our hostess has lived here for years, so she navigates the streets and markets like a pro. On this morning, it was nice to have someone else leading the way. We hustled across busy streets; walked leisurely across the emptier ones, but we always kept a watchful eye: there aren’t many traffic rules in Mexico, after all.
The first sign of the market was a tangle of red tents, arranged in a long, convoluted ring around a fountain park, formed by the intersection of a major street and two narrow side streets. Since we’d arrived early, we beat the crowds, and the produce was still stacked high and neat. Our host assured us that this way we’d have the best pick of the lot. This was exciting to us, as were the vividly colored mountains of limes, tomatoes, avocados, onions, zucchini blossoms, potatoes, and so much more.
Before purchasing anything, we set out to get a lay of the land, an idea of what was available. We navigated the maze of produce stalls, street food dining tables, candy shops, and perfume stands. It took us about 10 minutes of wandering to get our bearings. We saw mountains of raw chicken, tables stacked high with beautifully fresh fish, and raw beef hanging over short glass walls. None of this would fly in the heavily regulated U.S. market of course, but it was fascinating to see the way it’s done in Mexico. These practices predate any American health code, after all. We marveled at the variety of food available. Not just vegetables and meat, but tortillas, bread, and even large (huge!) monolithic slabs of chicharrónes, whole sides of deep fried pork skin so beautiful it made us wonder why people in Louisiana don’t do that with their grattons or cracklin.
Once we’d gotten our heads around the market scene, we turned our attention to the task at hand: procuring food for the week. Since it was our first visit to the market, we mostly hung back to watch and learn from our hostess, who is, by now, adept at the market game. Plus, her Spanish is impeccable, while we’re both still very much learning. Indeed, shopping at the market with our hostess was a learning experience in and of itself. Most items weren’t marked with prices so it’s important to talk to the stall owners to determine price and quality. We watched how our hostess took her time and great care to examine the cheese and bananas she purchased from a young Mexican woman. Next she took us to her favorite bread vendor, where we each bought a small loaf for 30 pesos. How could we pass up what she described as the best bread in Mexico City? We tucked our first official market purchase carefully into Addie’s bag and were excited to buy more.
But it was still pretty early, and it’s never a good idea to shop hungry, so we opted to have breakfast in the market before we bought anything more. We saddled up to a long, low table with short blue and red plastic stools for seats. The three of us sat at the end of a table in a little cluster, and our host gave us the lowdown on the menu: quesadillas are a traditional breakfast dish here, so that’s what we got. Jeremy had his quesadilla with huitlacoche, a fungus that can grown on organic corn (akin to a mushroom), and Addie had hers with Picadillo, a ground beef, tomato, and potato mixture. Of course, these ingredients were sandwiched inside a corn tortilla, and since we’re in Mexico City, we needed to ask for queso (in other states queso is a given on the quesadilla; only in D.F. must one specifically request queso). We also had big cups of the freshest, tangiest orange juice we’ve ever had; it was delightful. Afterward, Jeremy was still hungry so he ordered a flauta, deep-fried and stuffed with carne, then topped with crema, queso, and lettuce. It was a good dessert, he said.
After breakfast, we resumed our shopping. Our hostess bought mangoes and a few other items, and took us to a stand that sold the avocados and tortillas we needed. We opted for Mexicola avocados, a variety with edible skins, which we were unfamiliar with previously. We carefully selected large, soft fruits, one of which was so ripe we could hear the pit rattling in it. The tortillas we purchased were made with blue corn and were durable, pliable, and filling – just like good tortillas should be.
All told, our first trip to the market was a success. Though we could’ve obtained everything we needed on our own, it was helpful to have a fluent Spanish speaker there with us to simplify the process and show us the ropes. Since our first timid visit, we’ve been back on our own. Every Friday evening, we carefully compose our shopping list to ensure we take advantage of all that the market has to offer for our next week’s meals. We’ve now made it a habit to purchase our vegetables at the market, and of course, we go early in the morning, which means we have to have breakfast, too: quesadillas stuffed with carne and queso and topped with fiery red salsa. We can’t wait for Saturday.
Editor’s Note: We created our own Picadillo Quesadilla Recipe in honor of these visits to the Saturday market. You can find it here on our Culicurious site. Cheers!