Monday 19 March 2012

Cess on the Market

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 pig’s heads hung from spotlessly clean butchers’ shops. Chickens’ feet, like claws, threatened to grab you as you walked by. Round-faced, red-cheeked women offered a selection of chapulines – the local delicacy - grasshoppers. Dan tried a few of the wee blighters cooked to a crisp in chilli, lime and garlic. He reported 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 was 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 started intently at the 1980’s style video game parlour. Grubby children offered wooden animals and weaved 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, hand-pressed tortillas. Impossible to replicate from a New Zealand supermarket, but absolutely delicious.

P.S Our class of Americans had 30 years on us – and dished out marriage advice as we sat down to eat. Later, browsing yet another craft market, we ran into two of them, who seemed to find us somewhat glamorous company. “We were just saying, ‘It was like having lunch with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman!’” they said enthusiastically. Wrong country, but we’ll take that.

No comments:

Post a Comment