Working with dried chiles is my favorite part of Mexican cooking—I find the earthy, fruity, and sometimes smoky aroma of roasting chiles intoxicating—so it was only fitting that I was met with a wall of them when first entering this vast market. Ancho, mulato, guajillo, pasilla...
Even More Chilies and Jamaica
...morita, arbol, pulla, all the varieties in abundance. Nestled within the chiles was a huge bin of jamaica—dried leaves of the hibiscus flower used to make tea and agua fresca.
We found a variety of Mexican sweet breads including conchas, so named for their resemblance, in shape and color, to a seashell.
We made an early chilaquiles pit stop at one of the many food vendors that surround the perimeter of La Merced. These tortillas stewed in a tart and tangy tomatillo sauce and topped with poached chicken, onion, sour cream, and cheese, provided fuel for the immense market exploration that lay ahead.
Cal, or slaked lime, is an alkali that, when soaked and cooked with dried corn (a process called nixtamalization), creates the masa used for tamales and tortillas.
Corn, Corn, and More Corn
There’s never a need to husk and cut your own corn with pros like these. The immense task of working through that floor full of corn seemed overly daunting, but these guys sped through each ear with incredible ease.
This variety of white corn is commonly dried and used for making hominy.
Xoconostle is a sour cactus fruit similar in appearance to a prickly pear. They’re often roasted and used as a base for salsa.
Named for its resemblance to rosemary, these sprigs from the romerito plant are in season in the months around the new year and are used in a traditional holiday dish that also includes potatoes and dried shrimp in a mole sauce.
Tower of Nopales
One corridor in the giant maze that is La Merced was completely filled with vendors of nopales—the young pads of the prickly pear cactus. Merchants sat dutifully stall after stall, cutting away all the spines from each individual piece catus.
Among the endless stalls of La Merced, a market for more common goods, I found only one seller offering more rare Mexican delicacies like chapulines—toasted grasshoppers.
A new one to me, huauzontle is a Mexican vegetable whose immature seed heads loosely resemble broccoli rabe. Of the many ways to prepare them, the most popular is to batter and fry the boiled stems that have been squeezed together with Oaxacan cheese.
Although I’m glad I made my own mole poblano, after seeing dried and paste versions of these complex sauces premade and ready to go, I think I’d forgo the entire day in the kitchen and opt to take this easy route instead.
Leaving the vegetable building(s)—it’s hard to keep track of where you are in La Merced—we entered the meat area of the market, which was no less daunting. Upon entering, I got big smiles from these fresh poultry vendors.
Huge sheets of chicharrones—fried crackling pig skin—were found around almost every corner. I could live here!
Nose to tail, you could get every piece of the swine in La Merced. I found something comforting in these “smiling” pig heads.
Walls of Meat
The overflowing stalls of the meat market gave the feeling of roaming through a building whose walls were made of meat.
Although not as plentiful as the vegetables or meat, there were a few vendors of traditional Mexican cheese like queso blanco and queso canasta—named for the impression left by the basket which serves as the mold.
I ended my market tour outside, where the traditional Mexican sweets attracted as many bees as buyers. Candied vegetables abounded, like calabaza (pumpkin), chilacayote (squash), and camote (sweet potato).