• May 2015
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Deborah Schneider, executive chef, SOL Cocina  

Wednesday, January 12, 2011
In Mexico I climb mountains, eat worms
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Dining at Pujol, Mexico City's finest
Mexico: Stop at Mercado Xochimilco
There’s markets, and then there’s Xochimilco, which is a trip through time into pre-Spanish and early colonial Mexico. The area is known today for its canals and flowered pleasure barges, but for thousands of years it was the city’s farmlands: first for the local people, then the Aztecs, then the Spanish. The native people have endured through millennia of conquests because they controlled the fresh food supply and could negotiate rather than being enslaved. There’s still an insularity and clannishness. Beneath the modern overlay, the pre-Hispanic culture lies close to the surface.

Mercado Xochimilco is an object lesson in the country's traditional foods. The very oldest Mexican food is the corn tamal, and it is a common breakfast, so we started with the dish from a street-corner vendor. She was selling both red and green tamales out of a tin "tamalero." The green tamal came wrapped in a plantain leaf, generously filled with tart salsa verde and tender shredded chicken in silky firm white corn masa, all well seasoned. We ate standing up in the street, with a cup of hot corn "atole."

The second tamal we bought further in was small and bullet-shaped, about 5-inches long, and filled with a coarser masa mixed with "quelites" (wild greens) but no salsa of any kind. This type of sauceless, simple choice is more authentic. It was wrapped cleverly in a dry cornhusk, then steamed at home and brought hot to the market to sell. This wrap style is clever – the original pull-tab – just tug on the bit of husk sticking out of the top, and the tamal unrolls in your hand. I will be practicing how to do it!

The products of the "milpas" are harvested daily, and they are sold outside the market buildings from tiny stands by local vendors, people whose ancestors have likely been growing (and eating) here for thousands of years. Here you see dozens of kinds of wild greens, as well as arrow-shaped spinach, leaf lettuces, mustard greens and many more I don’t recognize. It’s the season for "romeritos," which look like tender rosemary branches wrapped in bands of grass. There are flowers, too – "flor de calabasa" and chamomile in big bundles. And all kinds of fresh chiles, fat and shiny next to carefully stacked columns of tiny, tender "nopales." Big bunches of fresh herbs are gorgeous – thyme, red and green "epazote," "papalotl," parsley and of course cilantro. Mushrooms this time of year are few – mostly oyster and white mushrooms, but also velvety piles of fresh "huitlacoche." Mushrooms are surprisingly popular.

Immediately inside the door, the tortilla ladies line up to sell handmade corn tortillas in both blue corn and white corn, speckled from the "comal" and still warm and flexible. We share a warm, fat "gordita" stuffed with mushrooms, topped with salsa verde and "queso raspado" on top.

Stalls offer bright red, lean beef and stacks of yellow-skinned chicken. Then it’s rows and rows of pork vendors with their sheets of irresistible warm "chicharron" and loops of hanging chorizo and "longaniza." The "chicharron espuma" melts in your mouth.

We make a beeline for one particular stand, where two ladies sell foods ancient and distinct to this region of fresh water and gardens. Their tamales are made of freshwater minnows chopped to a paste and cooked on a griddle instead of steamed. There's a bowl of chicken tripe, another of their avocado sauce and a pile of tiny, bright red pond crayfish.

 Several salads of "nopales" and local greens are made nowhere else.

I buy two kinds of mole from a very serious young man – a "pipian" powder and a paste of his mole "especiale." I also tuck away a piece of "acitonar" – preserved cactus used to add a tart note to certain salsas. He also sells bulk fruit loops, but I pass.

Finally, it’s time to start eating seriously. One whole side of the mercado is "comedores" – food stalls with blazing hot metal "comals" located inches from crowded aisles of shoppers, tended by teams of sweating women surrounded by pots, buckets and "cazuelas."

Everything sold here is based on fresh corn masa, either stuffed or covered with various salsas, cheese, beans, "guisados" (stews of meat or vegetables) or meats like "chorizo prensada," fatty pork bits fried crisp. Forget tacos: Here you eat enormous "huraches," "tlacoyos," "gorditas" and quesadillas. Everything gets a dose of "asiento" – rendered pork fat left over from frying "chicharron."

Cheeses are "raspado" (grated "queso fresco") or "quesillo," lovely dry Oaxacan-style cheese that is shredded to order and melts into cream. We eat until we’re ready to explode.

At the "agua fresca" man, we share an "agua fresca" of fresh lime and "chia" seed (yes, the same one you used to grow hair on your "chia" Elvis.) We watch a "taquero" at work – his specialty is snouts and entrails.

Outside we can’t resist a cup of hot "chileatole" of bright green chiles poblanos, herbs and fresh corn – just spicy enough and delicious.

Across the way, a very young woman dry toasts fresh corn cakes on an earthenware "comal." Her recipe is simple: ground fresh corn, a bit of sugar and ground cinnamon bark. They are crisp on the outside and soft in the middle, like a corn-flavored cookie.

At this point, we are done and stagger off to the car for the trip to Museo Dolores Olmeda and the Frieda Kahlo house in Coyoacan. Both well worth the trip.

Here's a few other photos from my trip:

Fruit, Mamey

Fruits "en alambre," or preserved

Goat head and barbacoa

The world's smallest restaurant

Yellow tomatillos – a first!