Before heading to the market, we visited the central plaza in Xochimilco. In addition to a "honey fair," we found a stand selling crystallized fruit. Pictured here: Carrots, beets, nopales (in the upper left), pears, pineapple and, just above the carrots, tunas (prickly pears).
Day of the Dead Bread
You're forgiven if you think these resemble a strange, technicolor bagel and a pretzel. The "bagel" is called a goyete. The purple sugar recalls Mexica burial rites, in which the bodies of important figures were covered in red dust. The "pretzel" is an alamar, and its shape mimics the crossed arms of a corpse.
These breads, though edible, are mainly used to decorate Day of the Dead altars.
Dozens of flower vendors had set up shop outside the market. As it was the weekend before Day of the Dead, the place was a sea of cempasúchil (Mexican marigolds).
I included this photo mostly because the two children behind the flowers are adorable. That's enough reason to publish a photo, right?
Just outside the the market entrance, you'll find someone sitting in a chair, tending a tub full of tamales. We tried the bean and the quelite (Mexican leafy greens) tamales.
On this particular day they seemed to have gone a little heavy on the lard. In fact, you can even see the greasy sheen in the photo. Just a little less lard, and these would have been lovely.
The quelite filling made for a slightly spicy, herbaceous and earthy tamal. The masa was good, but, again, just too heavy on the lard.
There was also an impromptu taco stand outside the market entrance. They were selling tacos dorados with a potato filling, and soft chicken tacos.
Right next to the tacos, we found a stand selling Mexican plums, and tejocotes (pictured here). These guys, which are part of the hawthorn family and are sweet and sour in flavor, are indispensable if you want to fix up some ponche, the Mexican fruit punch traditionally prepared around Christmastime. Tejocote syrup is also a popular topping for raspados, or traditional Mexican shaved-ice.
Tlacoyos, a thick masa cake stuffed with a variety of ingredients that traces its culinary roots to pre-Hispanic times, is one of my favorite snacks. Just past the market entrance there is a row of women selling tortillas and tlacoyos. We tried a tlacoyo stuffed with rajas (strips of roasted poblano chilies), topped with nopales, cilantro, green salsa, and a bit of cheese.
The poblano had a sweetish, smoky flavor, and its mild heat coated the interior of my mouth. The salsa verde, on the other hand, set my lips on red alert.
Mole Pastes and Powders
Inside the Market, at Moles Guillo, we saw an impressive variety of mole pastes and powders -- everything from mole negro to pine nut mole.
Mole pastes and powders are prepared by toasting and grinding the chilies and other ingredients. This is the most labor intensive part of the mole making process, which most home cooks, for obvious reasons, skip. The prepared paste or powder, however, can be simply mixed with water or broth and simmered until it forms a thick, rich mole sauce.
Moles Guillo had a wide variety of products beyond just moles: dried chilies, canned goods, and (pictured here) piloncillo.
Piloncillo is an unrefined, unfiltered sugarcane product.
Moles Guillo also had two huge bins full of jamaica (hibiscus flowers). If you've ever been to any sort of Mexican restaurant, you've probably tried agua de jamaica -- a sweetened, chilled jamaica infusion.
What's interesting here is the difference between the jamaica displayed in the two bins. More on that in the next slide.
Which would you buy?
The jamaica on the left is paler in color, and completely dry. It's the more expensive of the two. The jamaica on the right is more intensely colorful (though in the photo it would seem to look mostly black), has a more satiny texture, is oddly damp and is cheaper. It's also from China.
Jamaica is one amongst several traditionally Mexican products, including beans and dried chilies, that are facing stiff competition from cheaper Chinese imports.
At the aguas frescas stand, I went straight for the fermented stuff. Traditional root beer (cerveza de raíz), which is not carbonated and is was far too sweet for my taste, and tepache. I preferred the tepache, which, while also sweet, has a far crisper, more refreshing and slightly acidic taste and is less viscous than the root beer. Typically, tepache is made by fermenting pineapple and pineapple rinds.
Sopes at Puesto 200
Tepache in hand, we headed to "Puesto 200," for some sopes. The sopes I grew up look nothing like what we had here. They were smallish masa cakes with pinched edges and a little peak of masa in the middle. On top we'd pile meat (usually chicken or beef), chopped cabbage, onions, salsa and cheese.
The sopes at Puesto 200 resemble a fat, oversized tortilla, and are topped with a layer of refried beans, a guajillo salsa, chopped onions and some cheese.
While they prepared our sope, another customer ordered up a huitlacoche quesadilla.
The tip jar seemed to look on hungrily at our chicharron gordita.
Here's the finished sope. The masa in the sope was so much more delicious than the masa in the gordita, that we got curious and asked the owner what was going on.
Javier explained that his stand uses two different kinds of masa. The masa he uses for the quesadillas and gorditas comes from a run of the mill provider in Xochimilco. However, for his sopes, he uses a special masa from a source in San Salvador Atenco, outside the city.
On our way out the side exit of the market, we ran into an atole stall. There were two kinds of atole: a sweet atole with piloncillo, and the green, chile atole pictured here. I went for the chile atole, which is prepared with masa, chile serrano, epazote and whole kernels of cacahuazintle corn.
I thought it was the perfect treat for a cold day: thick and hearty, with a mild, mouth-enveloping heat that I wouldn't have expected from serrano chilies. Munching on the crunchy cacahuazintle kernels was an added bonus.
You may know gorditas as a fried masa pouch with a savory stuffing (see slide 16), but there's another type of gordita here in Mexico. Small, sweet corn cakes prepared on a comal. Along with my atole, I picked up a few of these.
The masa was outstanding, and the gorditas were prepared on a clay comal, which is increasingly rare.
Finally, back in the main plaza, we saw a special Day of the Dead ofrenda built in honor of pulque, the milky libation made with fermented maguey sap. Xochimilco is home to a large concentration of pulquerías, institutions, which after years of decline, are finally beginning to make a comeback.
Sadly, there was no pulque available at "La Muerte Mamona" until two days after my visit.