You may or may not be familiar with the term torta, the Mexican interpretation of a sandwich. Tortas are brought to life using bolillos, a type of bread with the perfect amount of crunch and yield to provide textural contrast. When it comes to this Mexican plate, there are no rules: budget and imagination are the only boundaries to what you can create.
Tortas are usually served for lunch, except when they are filled with a tamal, in which case they are called guajolotas or “female turkeys”. This is a popular breakfast meal. According to some food intellectuals, such peculiar name was given to tamal-stuffed tortas in the early 1900’s, due to the fact that back then, this plate was created with a low-quality bread called guajolote (turkey).
Licuados are close to the concept of a smoothie, with the exception that in Mexico, the fruit is usually mixed with milk and even cereal and raw egg yolks.
Here, licuados are a breakfast staple.
Just like sports have permeated the vernacular in the US, in Mexico, food has found its way into language in a rather ubiquitous way. For example, the expression, “se comió la torta antes del recreo” (having finished one´s torta before recess) means a couple is expecting a child before getting married.
This photo was taken at one of the handful of stands offering tortas and licuados in downtown Mexico City.
*Chilango is a term to refer to someone from Mexico City.
I have always said that like its people, Mexican food is mestizo- an amalgam of ingredients transformed by fire and knife into colorful, flavorful, complex creations. Dishes are particularly hyperlocal. They vary quite a bit even within one state, and incorporate anything from vegetables and cacti to meats and insects.
In Monterrey, Mexico’s most important city to the north, the mix of European, indigenous and Middle Eastern cultures have blended into rustic delicacies such as their famous Cabrito Asado (roasted baby goat). Usually served with tacos and salsa, the meat is braised over wood or coals, and basted with a mixture of lime juice, garlic, onion, sugar and even beer.
A must try if you visit Monterrey, you should have no problem finding it- here, large skewers with cabritos leaning against windows are quite a common sight.
The supernatural and the secular, the old and the new, the exotic and the mundane converge at Mercado de San Juan- a collection of food so eclectic and extraordinary as the imagery that frames it. Mercado de San Juan offers a gateway into what would be the equivalent of anthropological “Cliffs Notes” on Mexico. In less than four aisles, visitors can walk 500 years back in history and choose from a wide array of pre-Hispanic sources of protein including chicatana ants, grasshoppers and other insects.
Walk a few aisles and a couple of centuries forward, and discover hundreds of varieties of cheeses at “La Catalana”. Walk a few steps more and find anything from duck to wild boar, ostrich and crocodile in the meat section. Plus, the market has its own fonda, a little food bar with fresh, rustic-yet-extraordinary flavors, in case you want to stay and eat like a local.
I have spent most of my life in Mexico City, and it was not until a recent trip home that I decided to visit Mercado de San Juan. This market has attracted shoppers for hundreds of years, and more contemporarily, celebrities, up-and-coming chefs and food enthusiasts. If you are in D.F. and close to the Centro Histórico, have a taste of Mexico in one of the aisles of Mercado de San Juan. Here, food is sustenance, food is love, food is sacred. Missing it, a sin.
Address: Antiguo Mercado de San Juan Ernesto Pugibet, No.21 loc.162 Centro Historico, Mexico D.F.
The legendary Mercado de La Merced (La Merced Market) in Mexico City, was named after a Monastery of the order dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy, which was established in the homonymous Barrio de La Merced in 1594. Among locals, the name La Merced will today evoke images of a monumental market, the second largest in town, and perhaps the most iconic. In the halls of this shopping colossus, the bizarre and the ordinary collide into the most fascinating explosion of colors, sounds, aromas and flavors.
I find it so fitting that, as in the case of La Merced, many large mercados in Mexico are named after saints or other religious figures. While I understand these names were assigned for practical purposes in colonial Mexico, I find there is something powerful about food, something almost spiritual. Like its people, Mexican food is mestizo- an amalgam of ingredients transformed by fire and knife into a colorful, flavorful, complex creation. As an art form or a cultural artifact, food provides the ultimate level of interactivity – communion.
Mercados are living museums, and a fun and delicious way to sample everyday life including the local fare. Wherever I go, I always make a point to add them to my list of must-see places.
Sadly, La Merced has declined a bit in recent years, and if you are not in the mood for an adrenaline-fueled adventure, a wonderful alternative to get a taste of Mexico is El Mercado de San Juan.
If you are in Mexico, chances are that you will find cacti in your dish. As surreal as it may seem, Cacti have been an element of Mesoamerican cuisine since pre-Columbian times. Nopales and tunas, also known as “prickly pear cactus” and “prickly pear fruit” in the US, can be easily found today as an ingredient in sweet and savory dishes and drinks ranging from tacos to sherbet. The jiotillas or xoconostles in the picture, for example, can be turned into a smoothie or a refreshing drink.
Find a delicious recipe for a salsa made with this fascinating and healthy ingredient, here.
Ladies in folk attire shop at the Sunday market or “tianguis” in Tlacolula, Oaxaca. The open-air market of Tlacolula is the oldest and busiest in Latin America. Week over week, more than a thousand merchants bring to the market a great selection of products ranging from fruits and vegetables, to farm animals, mezcal, handcrafts and hand-made clothing. Visiting this market is particularly fascinating- many Tlacolulans wear folk attire and speak Zapotec as their mother tongue.
Pinole, from the Náhuatl, ¨pinolli¨ is a sweet powder made with dry or toasted corn. It can be eaten as candy when it is mixed with cocoa and other spices; used as flour or mixed into a drink.
Pinole is not only part of the diet of many Mexicans, but this delicate dust has also found its way into a variety of sayings or figures of speech. For example, ´se hizo pinole´ (it was turned into pinole) is used to say that something or someone was pulverized. The saying: ´No se puede chiflar y comer pinole´(it is impossible to whistle when eating pinole) refers to the difficulty of simultaneously carrying out two incompatible tasks.
The lady in the photo sells pinole as her livelihood. The picture was taken at the main square of the town of Atlixco, Puebla.
In Mexico, and especially in Oaxaca, the art of making nieve (Spanish for ‘snow’) is a tradition passed on from generation to generation. For centuries, nieve artisans or neveros have crafted this dessert by hand, using only fruit and no artificial coloring or flavoring. If you are in Oaxaca, you will easily be able to indulge in this festive edible art, which will lure you from wooden containers on streets and markets. A wide array of both usual and unexpected flavors is typically available wherever nieve is sold- chocolate, strawberry, corn, cheese, mezcal, rose, avocado and soursop, to name a few. There are also deliciously surprising combinations such as the popular beso de ángel, or ¨angel´s kiss¨, which typically combines cherries with almonds and other fruits, delivering a complex yet delicate texture and flavor. Although still widely available, today, artisan nieves face the overwhelming competiton of mass-produced ice cream.
Mayans believed people were made out of corn. This grain was such a part of this people’s existence, that their legends and folk heroes have maize at their core. The crop was also essential to the Aztec world to such degree, that important characters in their mythology, Centéotl and Chicomecóatl, both corn deities, represented food, fertility and life.
Today, we might not think people are made out of corn, but this cereal is fundamental to the Mexican diet of any region. From tortillas to tamales and atole, and even on the cob with lime, chili, mayo and cheese as a street snack, “elote¨ or ¨maíz¨ is easy to find in any of its delicious forms. And while in Mexico perhaps, corn is no longer revered, it is definitely still adored.
For 50 years, this lady has sold mushrooms as her livelihood. Here she is at her post at the Central de Abastos. One of Mexico City´s two massive wholesale markets, and meeting point for buyers and sellers from across the country.
With the precision of a natural event, spring after spring, dozens of tejateras (ladies who make tejate) descend upon the village of San Andrés Huayapán, a town about 15 miles away from the city of Oaxaca. The big colorful clay pots signal the beginning of La Feria del Tejate (Tejate’s Fair), one of Oaxaca’s many tributes to this ancestral drink.
Tejate is made with corn masa, cocoa beans, mamey fruit and the flower of the cocoa plant, also called “rosita de cacao” (little rose of cocoa). Expert tejate drinkers usually agree that the thicker the foam made by this flower, the better the tejate.
This cold drink is served in small handcrafted containers or jícaras. Each drink is as unique as the jícara that holds it, and as proud as the hands that make it. At first glance, tejate might seem a bit rough and perhaps even unappealing. One sip, and you will understand why this complex mix of flavors was the favorite of Zapotec kings.
Not in Oaxaca in April? Don´t worry. You can easily find this drink year round in any Oaxacan mercado, or around the city.
Our very own Chef Aldo Saavedra has embarked on a gastronomical tour of Mexico. He found this delicious barbacoa roja in the village of Tlacolula, Oaxaca, a town founded by the Zapotecs in 1250 A.D. In Mexico, barbacoa has little to do with barbecue in the U.S.- this dish consists of goat meat usually cooked for hours in an underground pit. This Oaxacan treasure is cooked with a mix of 10 different chilis and is garnished with cauliflower, radish and cilantro. If you are in Tlacotula, you will find that this local favorite is accompanied with tortillas and a drink made with a sweet and refreshing cactus fruit called pitaya.
Food is ubiquitous and readily available throughout Mexico, in settings both formal and informal. El Mercado 20 de noviembre, where this picture was taken, opened its doors in 1882 in the southestern city of Oaxaca, Mexico and is still in operation today. This delicious chocolate de agua is a concoction made with ground cocoa beans and sugar. Pan dulce (translated as “sweet bread” but closer to pastries) is a staple of any Mexican breakfast meal.