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Market Scene: Mercado de Coyoacán, Mexico City

Slideshow SLIDESHOW: Market Scene: Mercado de Coyoacán, Mexico City

Last time we met here, I was eating huitlacoche quesadillas at the Mercado de Antojitos Mexicanos in Coyoacán (a picturesque neighborhood in the south of the city) with chefs Mark Miller and Mónica Solis, as well as the IACP's Mexico country coordinator, Ruth Alegria. In fact, I left you just as we were heading to the neighborhood's main market, the Mercado de Coyoacán. Let's pick up where we left off.

The market is just a couple blocks north of the main plaza in Coyoacán. Unlike farmers' markets in the United States, the stalls are rarely run by actual farmers. Most of the produce you'll find in Mexico City markets comes from one place: the enormous Central de Abasto. At around 800 acres, it is one of the largest wholesale food markets in the world, responsible for handling around 20% of the food supply for the entire country—at its height, it handled closer to 80%.

Despite this extra stop on the road from field to table, the produce you find in the city's mercados is still generally fresher than anything you can get at a supermarket. And, of course, the variety of products available is far greater, and the experience is, well, just bit more personal. It's hard to build up a relationship with the supermarket cashier the way you can with the butcher at your local market.

The first thing that caught our eye upon walking into the market was some beautiful huitlacoche still on the cob at Local (Stall) #88. We'd seen some loose huitlacoche at an improvised stall on the street on our way there, and had been impressed. There was a good variation in the size and color of the pieces, and there was no sign of dampness or sogginess. Mark explained that these were key characteristics to look for in good huitlacoche. Miguel Ángel, who was manning Local #88 that day, was selling his product for 100 pesos (about $8) per kilo—of course, the corncob gets included in the weight.

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Next, we found some gorgeous criollo avocados and an impressive array of chapulines (grasshoppers) at Local #27. Criollos are a variety of avocado native to Mexico. They are prized for their extra buttery flavor and consistency, and for the fact that they can be eaten skin and all. Their striking, reddish skins are thin and not at all bitter.

María Luisa, proprietor of Local 27 for over 30 years, was a bit put off by the gaggle of gringos ogling her produce, and wanted to know who we were, why we were taking so many photos, and whether we planned to buy anything. But she warmed to us pretty quickly, and explained that the avocados were from Michoacán (where most avocados in Mexico are grown). The chapulines were from Oaxaca, where they are collected (not farmed), parboiled, and toasted on a comal. I'd never tried chapulines before, and decided to pop a few in my mouth while we strolled through the market.

I have to admit that at first I was unconvinced. Later that afternoon, however, I tried few more with a cold beer and decided they weren't half bad—they were crunchy, salty and had an aftertaste that reminded me somewhat of green tea. A fine beer snack.

20101020-pasilla.jpgAt "Materias Primas Vicky", counterintuitively run by Isabél Sánchez, we came across all variety of Mexican herbs and quelites (leafy greens). What caught our eye first was a massive bunch of huazontle, which in Mexico is used in salads, certain types of moles, or prepared alone as a snack: parboiled, dried, dipped in egg batter and deep fried with cheese. We also saw some very fresh looking pipicha and papalo, two quelites used in salsas, tacos and even tortas. Mark spent a good two minutes trying to nail the flavor profile for pipicha, before deciding that it was reminiscent of parsley, celery and chard.

Isabél then showed off her chilaca chilies, as well as few chilies she was drying to make chiles pasilla. There was some argument as to whether what she was showing us were real chilaca chilies, which tend to be of a dark, chocolaty hue when fresh. These seemed suspiciously green. Of course, talking about chilies can be a daunting task in Mexico. The names change depending on whether you are talking about fresh or dry chilies, and vary widely by region. However, there was no argument about the pasillas being pasillas, and since pasilla chilies are simply dried chilacas—well, that was a close as we got to an answer.

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Having worked up quite an appetite since our quesadilla breakfast, we headed to the center of the market, where a group of competing tostada stalls wage a daily battle for customers. "Don't be fooled, jefe," one of the hawkers yelled out. "That stall isn't the real deal." We took the gentleman's advice, and sat down at Tostadas Coyoacán, the first of the tostada stalls in the market, which the other locales cleverly imitate by using the same color scheme and similar uniforms. Tostadas Coyoacán has been around since 1956, when they started serving beef foot tostadas. Twenty-five years ago they added seafood tostadas to their menu, and that's what they've become famous for.

We ordered octopus tostadas: a deep-fried tortilla doused in tomatillo, avocado and serrano salsa, then piled high with octopus, tomato, onion and lettuce. "They're okay," said Mark. "This is frozen octopus, though. It's not fresh." I was just happy to be eating something other than grasshoppers.

Mercado de Coyoacán

Ignacio Allende, between Malintzin and Xicoténcatl
Open daily, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

About the author: Steven McCutcheon-Rubio is a Mexico City-based food writer. His work has appeared in the Mexican editions of Elle, Travel + Leisure and Endless Vacation, as well as Chilango and CNNMéxico. He is currently craving a piping hot plate of birria de chivo.

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