The Magic of the Mercado

Undeniably our favorite part of Mexico was the food. We could not get enough of the street tacos or the delicious mole sauce. But, it wasn’t the easiest to eat out as a vegetarian, especially when, after eating ordering mushroom quesadillas six days in a row, I reached my limit on having cheese with every meal. Though rice and beans are definitely staples of my vegetarian diet and are stereotypically Mexican foods it was somewhat hard to order a plate of just those ingredients. I tried a few times in restaurants but in most places the servers didn’t understand what I was asking for (admittedly it may have had to do with the fact my Spanish was pretty rough). One time I tried to order enchiladas with mole minus meat and I received a huge plate of mole with two tortillas underneath, that was it. Delicious, but not much of a meal. After several attempts I learned to appreciate that vegetarianism isn’t as much of a way of life in Mexico and find a new way to get my veggie fix.

I turned to cooking in our airbnb most of the time. I started by exploring the supermarkets but I was a bit underwhelmed by the packaged food options and the wilting vegetables. I was able to make a few decent meals but I knew there had to be a better option. I asked our airbnb host about the best place to buy groceries and her recommendation was to skip the supermarkets and visit the markets instead.

Little did I know markets in Mexico were nothing like the farmers markets I experienced at home. My idea of a market was a street or parking lot lined with white tents, full of bleary eyed parents clutching coffee in one hand and a stroller in the other while twenty-somethings passed through on their way from yoga to brunch. In stark contrast to the laid back, relaxed summer afternoon feeling of San Francisco farmers markets, the markets in Mexico were a hub of the neighborhood, full of families, shouting vendors, and bustling people.

The first time we went to the market in our neighborhood in Oaxaca was on a Sunday and the entire warehouse was overflowing with people. We wandered the stalls overwhelmed by the sheer amount of products and people packed into the place.The heat combined with the fresh produce made what might have a neutral walk through a store in San Francisco an undeniable sensory experience. We wandered by endless brightly sweet fruit stands, through the herbaceous and spicy aisle selling fresh chamomile and mole mixes, past endless stalls of flowers and seeds, and the even found ourselves in in the salty, slightly rotten smelling aisle full of plucked chickens, feet and all, sitting out on the countertops.

After buying perfectly soft avocados and the most fragrant passion fruit from the man we would later consider “our veggie guy”, and picking up some sweet rolls in the the entire room dedicated to panderias we made our way to the restaurant area in the middle of the market. The room was full of families gathered around the long plastic tables enjoying their market brunch. Next to us a grandmother was holding her one year granddaughter on her lap, teaching her how to drink orange juice from a straw. In our broken Spanish we ordered coffees and the lady who served us, who looked and acted a lot like a grandma herself, asked us what we were going to eat with them, and proceeded to list almost the entire menu before we could convince her the bread we had would be plenty. Funnily enough, after we left that market that day, we made our way to downtown Oaxaca, and we found ourselves in two more markets along the way, these ones even larger and busier than the one in our neighborhood.

Toward the end of our time in Oaxaca we visited the 20 de Noviembre with some friends we met in our Spanish school. The major draw of this place was the “El Pasillo de las Carnes Asadas” aka fresh meat aisle. As a vegetarian, I wasn’t necessarily drawn to visit, but our classmate raved about how it was a quintessential Mexican market experience, so I had to see it for myself. And I must say, though I had no interest in eating meat, I was so impressed with the entire operation. We walked into a long, narrow room with 18 foot tall ceilings, absolutely full of smoke. As we made our way through the chorizo scented cloud, we walked by stand after stand of women selling the same cuts of meat vying for our attention, hoping we would stop and order from them. Jeff and my classmates eventually chose a few different cuts of meat to be cooked to their specifications and we crowded around a nearby plastic covered table topped with salsas and various toppings, waiting for the meat to be delivered. Shortly after two well dressed women who looked like they were on their lunch break from work even though it was 4pm our joined table and when their meat arrived we saw that just the two of them had ordered double what our group of six had ordered. Lesson learned, don’t go easy at the meat market.

Over the two months we were in Mexico we visited a market in every single place we went. From the small town where we ate breakfast on the way to Yosundua, to the place we stoped on our way home from Hierve el Agua when we were starving from not eating all day, to the very market where Frieda Kahlo herself wandered in Mexico City. And while the busy-ness, abundance, and variety of options changed from place to place, the feeling of aliveness was the same. Markets were one of the best ways to interact with the locals while getting a sense of everyday life, and were, hands down, one of our favorite parts of Mexico.