Scents sink to the ground. That’s why dogs sniff along the earth when tracking. Walking up the stairs from the Merced Metro station, before you see the food, you smell it. Ripe fruit mixes with sizzling chile sauces and charring meats. It’s a battle for the ol’ factory.
Next are the sounds, bustling and clanging and the call of “Tacos! Quesadillas! Huaraches!” As I reach the top, from the left of the stairs I hear someone announce that mangos are only four pesos.
Finally, the spectacle. Little ladies, tias and abuelitas, with bags of this and that hurry down the narrow walkways, passing eager vendors offering tastes of their goods. Senoritas press and sling masa onto griddles, feeding hungry workers and shoppers. Stepping into a wide aisle and looking down the length of the market, the massiveness is awe-inspiring.
The main market building is literally an airplane hangar. I can barely see from one end to the next. I don’t think I could hit the ceiling with a baseball. There are at least four other buildings about half the size of the main market building that constitute the rest of the market. A Walmart Supercenter could probably fit in any one of them. La Merced takes days to explore adequately. I only had hours. A food lover who visits Mexico and skips La Merced is like an art lover who visits Paris and skips the Louvre.
Emerging from the Metro station and exiting into the fondas, take a left to head to the north end of the market. This area houses the majority of fresh produce. You’ll come across fruits first, both tropical varieties, such as mangoes, papayas, and pineapples, and more local items, such as strawberries, watermelons, and oranges.
Two of my favorites are mamey and guanabana. The former looks like an oversized tan avocado with a bright orange flesh and a dark brown pit. I’ve never eaten the flesh straight, but it’s one of my favorite flavors for licuados (smoothies), helados (ice cream), and paletas (popsicles). It tastes like a melon crossed with a sweet potato or pumpkin. Very unique flavor.
Guanabana can be eaten with a spoon when it’s fully ripe, but the seeds are toxic. You can actually find the juice in cans in most Mexican and Asian markets in the US (it will often be called soursop), but the fresh juice, available throughout Mexico, is brighter and more intense. I usually describe it as tasting like a tangy banana or a mild pineapple with vanilla. The fruit grows into an irregular spiny green mass that looks like the larval stage of some alien creature.
If you’ve never had a truly ripe mango, then you must get one. There’ll probably be half a dozen or more species to choose from, but just get whatever is most ripe. Here in the U.S., mangoes are ultra-stringy, almost woody at times. In the tropics, the flesh nearly melts in the mouth and tastes like honey gelee with a bit of citrus. In the Kama Sutra, women are told to perform fellatio as if they were sucking a mango pit. Call me what you will, but I strip every last bit of flesh with my mouth, deep-throating the pit. People sometimes don’t realize, too, that the pineapple comes from the Americas, not Polynesia. If you love pineapple, try a locally grown one.
You can get tastes of most things and they’ll cut it up for you, but this is risky. First, you don’t know if their hands are clean. Second, you don’t know if their knife is truly clean. Third, if the piece of fruit has been sitting for a while, it could already be contaminated. You’re best off buying whole fruit and cutting it up right before eating. My wife has gotten sick from fruit that has sat out in Mexico. If the fruit doesn’t have a peel, like a berry, then you should wash it thoroughly in purified water.
As you browse farther north, there’ll be fewer fruits and more vegetables. Corn is ever-present, being the country’s staple. Several people will be shucking ears at each stand. Native vegetables to the America’s, like potatoes, squash, and beans, are all at least as popular in Mexico as they are in the United States; however, the number of varieties dwarf what you can find in the biggest American megamarts.
Salsa makings — tomatoes, onions, chiles, garlic, etc — are all near each other. I can’t begin to tell you all the varieties of chiles available. But the quality is also terrific. I’ve never seen larger and more pristine poblanos, for example. I’d eat rellenos every week if I had access to plump chiles like that. Vendors display tomatoes in giant pyramids of deep red. Tomatillos come in sizes as small as a peanut to as large as a lemon. Herbs such as cilantro are sold with their roots still attached and onions often come still connected to their greens.
Look for the gorgeous and gargatuan bouquets of flor de calabaza (squash blossoms). These delicate yellow flowers add an interesting flavor to salsas and soups and are one of the most popular ingredients in quesadillas and other antojitos. There’s also huitlacoche (aka, cuitlacoche), the Mexican truffle. Our name for it north of the border, “corn smut”, doesn’t do it justice. It has a sweet and earthy flavor that can add depth to all kinds of dishes, though it seems to be most popular in antojitos as well. It’s nearly impossible to find fresh outside of Mexico.
The far end has dried chiles. Each vendor will have dozens of varieties. Outside along the delivery area to the east, there are more herbs and vegetables, along with dried chiles and beans, and even insects. Chapulines (grasshoppers) are popular, plus you can find insect eggs that you can scoop up by the pound. Both inside and outside this east wall are columns of nopales. Each prickly “leaf” overlaps another in stacked concentric circles to form the massive green cylindars that sometimes reach head-high. The edible cactus paddles ooze a viscous goo, much like okra, but have an interesting vegetal flavor, like tangy green beans or asparagus.
Turning right out of the Metro station puts you on the south side of the main market building. This side is less dense than the northern side. Dried beans, mole pastes, nuts, both ground and whole, and the bulk of the dried chiles are all found on this side. The bean selection is impressive. Mexicans have scores of beans distinguished not only by color and size, but by region and the time of year they fruit. Dried beans are one of the items you can bring back with you, too. An online acquaintance, Rancho Gordo, does this, plants them and then sells them at Farmer’s Markets and via his website.
Many of the southern aisles are piled 15 feet high with bags of corn husks for tamal making. The dried husks dwarf those you find in the United States, making it much easier to wrap the masa dough. Dried corn in a rainbow of colors can be bought by the kilo for making blue, green, or red corn tortillas, along with yellow and white.
Bundles of banana stalks line several rows. Men skillfully strip these stalks one by one and fold and stack the leaves, which can be used as wrappings for food when cooking. One of the vendors saw me taking pictures and started a conversation.
He was a short fellow with native features and a mouthful of capped teeth. He was amazingly friendly and excited to discover how much I liked his homeland. I asked if he had ever visited the United States, and he had. He had lived in Colorado, of all places, for a year. He loved it and wanted to return someday.
A friend of his joined us and they reminisced about how gorgeous the women are in America — so tall, so blonde. Britney Spears, Madonna, Angelina Jolie, they noted. But I set them straight, countering with Thalia and Salma Hayek. They agreed there were no women prettier in the world than those, both Mexicans, and we bonded as all red-blooded heterosexuals do: with lust for the fairer sex. The two joked back and forth, only half of which I could understand. But it was fun and I laughed even when I didn’t get it. Finally a customer came up and they got back to work.
Mexico has a wide variety of wild and domesticated mushrooms, which are on the south side of the market. The largest number of dried chiles are also on the south side. I puchased bagfulls of dried chiles in both Mexico City and Oaxaca and even months later, just sitting ziplocs, they are pliable and fresher than what I can get in most markets around here.
Herbs, especially dried herbs, even if still on the stalk, are over on this side also. You can find Western herbs like thyme and marjoram alongside epazote and avocado leaves.
On the other side of the fondas just east of the Metro exit is a group of meat and dairy vendors. However, the bulk of meat, dairy, and fish sellers are actually in a building across the street just southeast of the main market building. The smells can be overwhelming from one stall to the next. The floor around the seafood has puddles and whole fish sit lined up on tables alongside piles of shrimp. Huge blocks of cheese and buckets of crema are stacked in stalls and vendors line the aisles like perfume girls at a department store, trying to get you to take a taste.
Looking back through my more than a thousand photos, I’m a bit disappointed in the comprehensiveness on occasion. This is one of those. I have no photos at Merced of either fish or dairy. I apologize. Perhaps I was just so impressed with the meats, I forgot.
It really is the meats that I love and both the approach and the options in Mexico are so different from what we have here. My wife is emblematic of our country’s disdain for what she refers to as “parts”. Parts are the unsightly bits that remind us that meat comes from animals: bones, cartilage, skin, connective tissue, organs, etc. It’s just aesthetics. My wife will eat a hot dog from Orange Julius and a hamburger from McDonald’s — who knows what is in either –, but she has me remove the meat from the bone of a chicken at a restaurant for her.
Mexicans love parts. In Mexico, carnitas are not just the shoulder of the pig cooked in its own fat. It’s all parts of that magical animal, as Homer Simpson called it, cooked until crispy and succulent. A favorite in Mexico City are tacos de barbacoa, tacos made with the meat from the head of a cow that has been steamed overnight until the meat falls off the skull. Tongue, tripe, and cesos (brains) are also favorites. The skin of the pig is even prepared in multiple ways, from crunchy and deep fried to stewed and chewy to roasted and chopped into miniscule bits for flavoring.
Meat stalls in La Merced’s Super Mercado de Carnes bulge with flesh. Pig heads hang from hooks next to long coils of sausages. Entire legs and sides of hogs hang next to that. Piles of pig’s feet and miscellaneous cuts of meat lay on tables. Large slabs of chicharron sit upright on smaller slabs of chicharron. A man with two machetes quickly chops pieces of cooked pork skin into little shreds and packs it into bricks. Beef vendors sell entire sides of a cow, along with specific cuts and dried beef, like cecina.
Other aisles are lined with poultry vendors. Whole chickens hang over cut up chickens with deep yellow skins. 20 gallon bags sit on counters filled with giblets. Other stands sell turkeys and ducks, birds Mexicans have been eating since before Columbus.
There are three areas to get a bite to eat at the market. First are the fondas as you come out of the Metro. These specialize in antojitos such as quesadillas, tacos, and the enormous huaraches they’re famous for. “Huarache” means “sandal” and refers to the shape of the tortilla used to make the dish. But not even Kareem Abdul Jabar has feet that big. The huaraches are probably 18 inches long and a third that wide. They’re thin and griddled, topped with beans and chosen ingredients, along with a bit of cheese, lettuce, and salsa. Quesadillas in the fondas are also much larger than average, being about a foot long, but normal width. There’s an enormous selection of fillings: typical items, like carnitas, pollo, pastor, and chorizo; guisados (stews), like tinga and chicharron en salsa verde; and other items less common in the States, like flor de calabaza, huitlacoche, nopales, and cecina. You can find most any quick dish at these fondas. Besides the normal antojitos, keep an eye out for pambazos, tortas with buns that have been dipped in chile sauce.
Just north of the meat market building are the comedores, little restaurants with long tables and bars where customers take a more leisurely meal. I’ve never seen this area truly busy like the fondas inside the market. At least half the shops always seem to be closed. The best values are to be found here, however. Comida corrida, a fixed price lunch generally with a drink, soup, choice of stew, beans, and rice, runs about 15 pesos, or a dollar-fifty. Fruit and drink stands are mixed in with the comedores. Jugos and licuados are dangerously tempting. For a gringo, the drinks have a high probability of causing tummy troubles, but for the incomparable flavors, I generally let Montezuma have his shot at revenge. They even sell cut fruit and desserts like fresas con crema (strawberries and cream).
Around the outside of the market, especially on the far south side, there are puestos, street stands, selling a variety of street foods. Tacos and tamales dominate in the morning. Smoke eminates from charcoal grills for true carne asada. These are probably the busiest, and therefore most hygenic, places to eat at the market. Each stand specializes in something different and the choices are endless.
The west side of the market, between the main market building and the main road, has non-food items for sale. At the south end is a large building with crowded rows of cookware, mostly for small-time professionals and street vendors. Gigantic pots, citrus squeezers, churro makers, ladels, knives, etc, etc. This, however, is also a great place to purchase more traditional items like metates, the big stones used for grinding corn and chiles, and molcajetes, the stone bowls used for grinding guacamole and salsas. The quality is decent and the prices are fair.
A little farther north, the walkways from the road to the main building zig-zag around shoe, belt, and hat booths, along with the occasional clothing vendor or electronics vendor. The next building north is the famous flower market which houses both real and fake flowers. It’s gorgeous and smells wonderful, and for a couple pesos, you can use the restroom here, though I’d rather hold it. A small church and its courtyard block easy access to the dulces (sweets).
Walking around the front of the church and to the building just north, there’s a line of dulcerias selling candied fruits and confections made with ground nuts, coconuts, and tropical fruit pastes. One of my favorites is the limon, a candied lime peel filled with coconut. You have to order quickly or risk being stung by the numerous yellow jackets with aggressive sugar tooths. Around the building to the south are tents that house the bagged Mexican candies you can find in Latin markets in the States. Inside the building are dozens of vendors selling both the homemade and commercial dulces.
I didn’t visit the Sonoran Witchcraft market this year, trying to focus on food. But there’s some wonderful descriptions on MexicanMercados.com, including a diary of an entire day there and at Merced.