Friday, May 16, 2014

The Markets of Oaxaca

I am caught in a moment and suddenly understand why life inside the market is like entering the heart and soul of Oaxaca. It's a total feast for the senses and once you're pulled in, you're in for good.

You're seduced by the smells, the sights and the sounds. To say it's mesmerizing is an understatement.

Fresh tortillas cooking on the comal, aprons embroidered in Oaxaca colors and the cry of turkey vendors will transport you to a place you've never been before.

One minute you're struggling to understand an indigenous language and the next moment you're bartering for a bucket of grasshoppers. So, this is why you studied Spanish?

But this is Oaxaca...the real Oaxaca.

There are no famous chefs here but the taste of pork coming out of the fire pit will convince you that someone missed out on a Michelin star it's that good.

Of the five markets I went to in the city and the two we ventured out to in Ocotlán and Tlacolula, all were captivating but I only scratched the surface.

Once is not enough to explore their dimension. You have to go back for another look.

No telling what you're going to find the second time around.

Buen Apetito!

20 de Noviembre Market

Did I tell you that the 20th of November is my birthday so no wonder I had such a connection to this market. It's the culinary heart of Oaxaca.

It's mainly food and produce which includes my favorite section: Carnes Asadas. It's located indoors on the east side of the market.

Meat stalls line both sides of a very wide aisle. You can barely see through the smoke except when sunlight streams in through the ceiling. It's mystical.

BBQ chefs are competing to sell you meats and sausages while their assistants, with small woven fans, struggle to keep the flames under control while they cook.

Once you've selected your meat and vegetables, you are led to a table where you are offered accompaniments like fresh-made tortillas, salsas and guacamole.

I would have been content to have every one of my meals here if I weren't such an explorer. The flavors were amazing. Like nothing else I've eaten in Oaxaca.

Mercado Benito Juarez

Mercado Benito Juarez is called the tourist market and it's filled with Oaxaca specialties such as grasshoppers, Oaxaca cheese, chocolate, Tejate, herbs and hundreds of other local treats.

Here you can sample everything from tamales to Oaxaca moles or buy everything to make mole from scratch.

A feast for the ears are the different languages you'll hear from the indigenous communities around Oaxaca.

Pochote Market

This is an outdoor organic market held every Friday and Saturday in a small park under the aquaduct at 819 Garcia Vigíl. There are enticing foods as well as fresh vegetables, fruits and flowers.

It is very far up on Garcia Vigil and I almost turned around a couple times but I'm glad I didn't.

It was a diversion to experience such a small, local market.

The vendors were anxious to give away samples including flowers and also to practice their English.

Mercado de la Merced

This is the most popular market that is patronizes by middle-class Oaxaca.

Undoubtedly the best restaurant is Fonda Florecita where a wide-range of foods are available including breakfast.

Central de Abastos

The most confusing market in Oaxaca is Mercado Abastos, which is also the largest market in the city.

It's been said that you can find anything here. I have a simple mission. I just want to find my way around.

It was a vision however when hundreds of indigenous people came to sell their goods on Saturday.

Even a person with a good map gets lost in this market. The only thing I was sure of was where the collectivos were lined up to head out of town.

Road Trips...

Although I loved the markets in the city, the villages were the place where I really fell in love with Oaxaca.

Ocotlan on Friday and Sunday in Tlacolula. You haven't seen real life in Mexico until you've gone out to one of the small towns where Indigenous people from villages all over the central valleys of Oaxaca come for market day.

Outside of the Aguilar sisters ( red clay pottery figures that are colorful and treasured by collectors) and painter Rodolfo Morales, Ocotlan is famous for it's Friday market. There are very small aisles and it's way too easy to get lost.

A lot of the market is covered so it was much more of a challenge to get photos.

Speaking of photos, I heard so much about vendors not wanting you to take their picture that I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that's the way it was going to be. But my experience was just the opposite. Many of them posed or held up their food to make sure I got the perfect shot. I always showed them the photo after I took it. More often than not it generated a huge grin.

Tlacolula was my favorite market and its diversity could be viewed from the half mile long main aisle where the things that made you love Mexico in the first place are in full view.

I prefer an open air market and this was one of them with colorful, native dress and a wide-variety of goods including sheets of chicharrón and of course Mezcal, Pulque and Tejate.

Indigenous women sell Tejate, a non-alcoholic drink, in ceramic pots just about everywhere in the market. It's a sweet somewhat nutty and milky mix of corn flour, the seed of the Mamey fruit, cacao beans and a flower called flor de cacao.

Locals say it can cure a hangover. It isn't about to cure the one I am going to have after being intoxicated by all of this magic.

Pulque is a before-lunch-indulgence and the perfect detour on a Sunday morning. It was strong and it's sipped from a jicara, a small, traditional cup made from a dried gourd.

Let's see, Pulque or Sunday Mass? There's no question here with the long line of regulars waiting for the brew. But I guess both are a religious experience of sorts.

Some still barter and trade goods instead of using money. It's been going on forever and Tlacolula was no exception.

The atmosphere at the market is a lot more social than anything else. In fact, little has changed over the years. It's often been said that this market is as close to a tianguis in pre-Hispanic times as you can get. It was definitely a trip back in time for me.

The only market I missed was the one at Etla. It's first on my list next time. Next time being soon. It's a Wednesday market and everyone has told me it's a food lovers paradise.

The culinary climate in Oaxaca is the most exciting in Mexico and attracts both chefs and foodies alike.

The markets are a good start for understanding just why that is.

Buen Apetito!