Sarah Stewart finds a feast for all the senses at the markets of Mexico… The food hall was thick with veils of smoke, billowing up until it hit the blackened roof beams. Old women fanning glowing charcoal grills were visible through the haze. The aroma of charring meat besieged our noses. Plump ladies beckoned to us from behind garlands of raw carne: balls of chorizo, terraces of flank steaks, strings of black pudding and pork sausage, cascading intestines. Young men holding bamboo baskets of spring onions, green peppers and red chillies hustled for our attention. Locals jostled for space on long communal benches. This was the asado aisle, at the heart of Oaxaca’s chaotic market, and carnivore heaven.
The process was this: you randomly picked a man with a basket, selected your vegetables, and then chose the friendliest meat merchant you could see. “Medio kilo?” a smiling lady in a smock asked. “Por que no,” we said, why not. Then you were ushered to a bench space, and soon a platter of flame-grilled goodness, seared veges, fresh tortillas and hot salsa was plonked in front of you. Simple, cheap, and incredibly tasty.
I love wandering through markets, and Mexico has some of the most vibrant, colourful markets I’ve seen. Food makes this country tick, and the market is the best place to shop for it. We passed pigs’ heads hung from spotlessly clean butchers’ shops. Chickens’ feet, like claws, threatened to grab us as we walked by. Round-faced, red-cheeked women offered a selection of chapulines, the local delicacy: grasshoppers. My fiancée Dan tried a few of the wee blighters, cooked to a crisp in chilli, lime and garlic. He reported that they were pretty tasty. I couldn’t get past the brittle eyes, wings and legs.
Mexico’s markets are the kind of places where you can buy everything. Need a new tap fitting? Head past the cellphones, turn left at the dusters, right at the kid’s toys and they’re beside the cosmetics. In Oaxaca an entire block is taken up by the Mercado de Artesanias, or craft market. We got lost for hours, immersed in a world of alebrijes, delicately painted wooden fantasy animals inspired by the toys that Oaxacans have been building their kids for centuries. We now own a slightly pointless collection of tiny snails, turtles, cats and owls. Oh, and a large armadillo.
San Cristobal’s market was my favourite, a feast for the eye, from the perfectly arranged fruit and vegetables to the colourful hill tribe families who’d bought them there. Women in bright silk shirts and woollen skirts sold their wares with children slung haphazardly on their backs. Others walked around with babies stuck to their breasts, shopping as they went. A man in a traditional white tunic, embroidered belt and cowboy hat stared intently at the 1980’s style video game parlour. Grubby children offered wooden animals and woven blankets.
The best thing was always the food section somewhere in the middle: loud, disorderly, and smelling fantastic, and that’s where you’d find all the locals eating. We quickly learnt to get over any concerns we had about eating street food, it was the only “cleaner” restaurants which gave us food poisoning. We ate some of the tastiest food on our trip crammed onto long tables surrounded by Mexicans: crispy tostadas piled high with ceviche or shrimps, tlayudas – flat tortillas with beans, string cheese, salsa, and pork strips, the best beef tacos laced with a simple salsa, sopa de pollo served with a chicken leg and flavoured with chilli, beef Milanese – all washed down with horchata, an iced rice drink.
Our cooking course in Oaxaca began as all good cooking courses should, with a trip to the market to find fresh ingredients: specially smoked pasilla chillies, stringy Oaxaqueno cheese, organic eggs. We concocted chillies stuffed with black beans and cheese, dried chillies stuffed with picadillo in tomato sauce, eggnog gelatine and hand-pressed tortillas. Impossible to replicate from a New Zealand supermarket back home, but absolutely delicious.