Streets & Markets
soups and beverages, and the husks (and occasionally fresh corn leaves, when in season) are used to wrap tamales. I've even had charred cornsilk in certain types of atole. Mexico is connected to corn in a way that I can’t fathom as an American who grew up in California. But living in Mexico for four years, I developed a deep appreciation for corn and its history, and its array of colors and textures. Taking pictures of Mexican corn seemed like a natural thing, in my eyes. How else do you capture a thing of beauty? Here's a small selection of corn photos from my archives. Feel free to share your favorite corn dish in the comments!There’s a saying in Mexico: sin maíz, no hay país. It means without corn, there is no country. This isn't really an overstatement -- corn has been domesticated in Mexico since at least 2,500 B.C., and it's still the most important ingredient in the Mexican diet. Corn is used in everything from tortillas to
Pancakes in DF can be a dinnertime snack. The most typical Mexican breakfasts offer a lovely array of textures: the half-crunch, half-sog of a perfectly executed plate of chilaquiles; the spongy curl of a piece of chicharrón drowned in salsa verde, the toothsome bite of a grilled cactus paddle paired with a slab of queso panela. Everything comes with a stack of hot corn tortillas, either wrapped in a cotton towel or a straw basket. Breakfasts at restaurants and fondas can sometimes stretch into two hours, but no one ever hurries you. Here in New York I’ve been eating muffins or oatmeal in the mornings, which has been fine, because you know, es lo que hay. But I'm totally missing the presence of chilaquiles, cecina, huevos divorciados, and those thick, dreamy bean sauces they used to serve in the cafeteria at my old gym. Here are some of my favorite Mexican breakfast photos from my archives. Hope you'll enjoy them as much as I do. Please feel free to share your favorite Mexican breakfast (and why) in the comments!Breakfast in Mexico City is one of my favorite meals. Usually it's a fruit plate or a glass of freshly squeezed juice, followed by a heavy, spicy, substantial dish that will keep you satiated until the 3 p.m. lunch hour.
kaffir lime leaves. The ones I smelled were frozen, sheathed in a little plastic bag at the Inthira Thai Market in Woodside. Event through plastic the smell was unforgettable: sharp and green and sour like lime juice, with the flowery perfume of a lemon and maybe the grassiness of a curry leaf. I inhaled deeper and actually moaned a little, which might’ve scared my friend Vikas but I think made the Thai lady at the cash register smile. The market, just a few subway stops from my house, had other goodies. Little cans of curry pastes with colorful labels lay stacked on a shelf, above packages of Mama-brand instant noodles that Vikas, who grew up in Bangkok, swore were loads better than Top Ramen. The freezer case had galangal in both chunks and thin slices, and the back fridge carried a half-dozen varieties of basil with names like “holy” and “Thai lemon." They'd run out of most of them. For nearly every item I pointed at, the Thai shopkeeper had an answer about how they’re used in Thai cooking, or what the item tasted like. Very few people have been this friendly to me so far in New York, particularly people in grocery stores. (My representative experience so far has been when I asked the cashier at my local Chinese market about the banana leaf-wrapped bundles near the register. She told me they were not banana leaves, and that was that.) The shopkeeper chatted with my friend Vikas in Thai and in English, and she even gave me a bag of Thai lemon basil to try, just to see if I liked it. “Make sure you take off the brown leaves,” she advised. “And don’t eat the stems.” I bought some massaman curry paste (interestingly one of the few Thai curries that does not call for bamboo shoots, she told me) and a few cans of coconut milk, as well as some sweets made with banana, coconut and palm sugar. I also bought Singha beer and chicharrones sealed in a Ziploc bag. The market's open late every night -- I'm sure I’ll be back. Inthira Thai Market 64-04 39th Avenue (a few blocks from the 69th Street 7 Train Stop) Open Mon-Thurs 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Fri-Sun 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. (718) 606-2523Until yesterday, I’d never smelled a handful of
Tlacoyos are small, flattened masa pockets that are stuffed with either beans, cheese or fava beans and then grilled on a comal. They're a Mexico City street snack made almost exclusively by women, and usually you can find them near any subway station, market or tianguis. A well-made tlacoyo has a crisp exterior, creamy innards and a tang from a drizzle of salsa and a handful of diced nopales on top. They're also healthy, since most tlacoyeras don't add oil. I have enthused about them before. But I'm not sure if I've ever made it clear that tlacoyos are actually my favorite Mexico City street snack. A freshly made tlacoyo is -- as I have just learned in my slightly vulgar Mexican slang dictionary, purchased in the Centro Histórico -- chingonométrico. Here are some of my favorite tlacoyo photographs that I've taken over the years.
1. The Tamales Course at Fundación Herdez. This four-day course was probably the best cooking class I've ever taken in Mexico City. The instructor gave an exhausting overview of tamales from prehispanic times to the present, and we supplemented our knowledge with a trip to the Botanic Garden at UNAM. 2. Judging a small-town tamale fair. We arrived to Tetepango, Hidalgo thinking we'd peruse the tamales and atoles and that would be that. Instead we ended up judging more than 100 homemade tamales and atoles, in flavors like cajeta con whisky and bean maguey-worm. It was a blast. 3. Making homemade tortillas at the Escuela de Gastronomía Mexicana. This was my second-favorite cooking class of the year. We made tortillas with guajillo chiles, and tortillas embedded with quelites. Mine inflated (ya me puedo casar), and I realized that a huge part of making good tortillas is a hot comal. I'm blaming my non-inflated tortilla failures at home on my stupid electric stove. 4. Visiting the farmers of Xochimilco. I'd heard of De La Chinampa, a group that supplies organic, locally grown produce to restaurants and local residents in Mexico City. In March, I finally had a chance to see the chinampas up close during a trip with Ricardo Rodriguez, the organization's director. We met a farmer, who explained his farming practices to us; then we floated around the most tranquil part of Xochimilco that I've seen. 5. Touring Queens with Madhur Jaffrey. In April, I was one of the few lucky ones who got to take an Indian food tour of Queens with Madhur Jaffrey, part of an event with the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Ms. Jaffrey was gracious and kind, and she taught us the history and preparation of every food we tried. This ranks in my top food experiences ever. 6. Puebla's International Mole Festival. In May I tasted some of the best foods in the state of Puebla -- moles, molotes, tlayoyos and more -- and listened to Rick Bayless, Marcela Valladolid, Mark Bittman and others share their personal experiences with mole and Mexican food. Completely worth the journey there and back, and I'm already looking forward to the festival again next year. 7.The joy of Oaxacan tamales. I thought I had tasted tamales before I went to Oaxaca. Let's be clear: I had not tasted tamales. These tamales have ruined me on all other tamales, now and into the future. Every time I make tamales, I know they will not be as good as the Oaxacan ones, and that is the cross I have to bear. 8. Burning a tortilla on an outdoor stove, for homemade mole. During the same June trip to Oaxaca, I took a cooking class with Susana Trilling. I volunteered to make the chichilo mole (no one else wanted to do it), which entailed burning a whole tortilla on the clay comal and then adding the ash to the stew. Can I tell you how fun this was? 9. Roast suckling pig in Mealhada, Portugal. When we were in Portugal in July, Crayton insisted (yes, Crayton!) on taking a side trip to Mealhada, also known as roast suckling pig central. We got lost on the way there, so we had to pull over and ask for directions in Crayton's Brazilian-style Portuguese. Eventually we found Pedro Dos Leitoes, a huge restaurant with skewers of pigs roasting in the front lobby. We gobbled down an entire lechón with the crispest skin, plus potato chips, salad, bread, olives and dry, fizzy white wine. 10. A long weekend in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz. So what if the city is feíto? The food is fantastic, and I'd love to go back. I had the best time touring the markets with my friend Janneth and her mom, Martha. We stopped at little restaurants and I helped make homemade tamales de masa colada. 11. A food tour of Tijuana. I'm going to write about this soon -- hey, it barely happened in October (wince) -- but Crayton and I had the pleasure of taking a food tour with Bill Esparza, a blogger and Mexican food expert who lives in LA. Of the places he showed us, my favorite was Mariscos Ruben. The goopy, creamy taco de marlin still lives on in my dreams. 12. My first homemade chile en nogada. In hopes of channeling the 19th-century Poblana nuns who invented this dish, I went to Puebla to buy my ingredients and I peeled walnuts for six hours. When it came time to fry the chiles, curls of smoke wafted out of my kitchen and floated over my guests' heads. In the end -- the chile was spectacular. I forgot one more thing that I'm thankful for: you reading this blog, and commenting (or not), and generally making The Mija Chronicles a lovely place to be. I wish you a wonderful New Year, and hope you get a few moments of reflection before all the craziness begins. Un abrazote a todos!I'm grateful for so many things this year. We saw a little bit more of the world. We had lively conversations with good friends and stared out at gorgeous vistas and sipped excellent wine. (And excellent mezcal.) I got to come back to a city that I love like no place else -- fetid air, crushing traffic, raw chicken vendors who hoot at me and all -- and I got to learn and share everything I know about Mexican food, a job that I still cannot believe is mine. My family, thankfully, stayed healthy, and my husband did not complain when I had to work weekends, on vacation, or until 9 p.m. on a weeknight. (Thank you honey, and I promise not to make you visit any more markets if you don't want to.) I'm also thankful for the vendors who said hi to me when I was walking down the street, and for the stoic tlacoyo lady who prepared her last tlacoyo of the day for me, for free -- "Un regalo de navidad," she said. I'm thankful for the roof over our head and the abundance of food in our lives. I really don't know how I ended up with this life, but I am so glad it's mine. Here are some of my favorite food moments of the year:
I spotted these at the edge of the Condesa tianguis a few weeks ago, at the stand in front of the Oxxo. The stand is staffed by a man and a woman from Ixtlahuaca, in the State of Mexico, and I like to buy there because they always have farm-fresh produce and homemade tortillas and wild mushrooms when it's mushroom season. I hadn't seen these specific quelites before, so I asked the woman what they were. She said chivitos. I liked their long stems and thin, tender leaves, so I bought a bag for around 15 pesos. Thought about combining them with quelite cenizo in a salad and figured the contrast in shapes would be nice. It was -- the cenizo-chivito salad was the best I think I've ever made in my life. It was grassy and green, and I was overwhelmed with the sense that I was eating something directly from the ground. According to my helpful quelites research guide ("Los quelites, tradición milenaria in México" by Delia Castro Lara, Fracisco Basurto Peña, Luz María Mera Ovando and Robert Arthur Bye Boettler), it turns out chivitos (calandrinia micrantha) are one of the handful of "collected" greens in Mexico, which means they're not cultivated. They tend to grow in corn fields or in the milpa, and they are are also called lengua de pájaro, or bird's tongue. The taste is interesting. Chivitos have the crunchy juiciness of lettuce, with a slight bitter aftertaste, like spinach. And they're herbal and grassy. Besides the quelites salad, I also used chivitos plain on their own, topped with a little lime juice and olive oil, as a side salad to roasted chicken and potatoes. This morning mixed them with scrambled eggs, topped with some roasted tomato salsa. Yum. If you want to seek them out, the man-and-woman team usually arrive to the Tuesday Condesa tianguis around 11 a.m. If they're out of quelites, you could also try another farm-fresh stand on the opposite end of the tianguis, sort of catty-corner to the chicharrón.
Coatzacoalcos for months, ever since she came back from Coatza one day and started telling me about all the things she saw there that didn't exist in Mexico City -- tubs of small freshwater fish, crackery tortillas, and puffy, airy quesadillas called empanadas, which were served covered in shredded cabbage. Crayton and I finally had some free days in September so we decided to take a long weekend. Coazta isn't usually where folks stop in Veracruz. It’s an oil town along the state's southern edge, and nobody really goes there unless they work for Pemex or they know someone who works for Pemex. There is a beach but no one swims in it. One person commented on my Instagram feed that I should visit other cities in Veracruz, because Coatza was bastante “feíto.” (Ugly.) Coatza has nothing in the way of cool architecture or museums -- a reviewer on Trip Advisor called their Museum of Olmec Culture "a pirated version of Epcot Center" -- but it’s got good food, which makes it a perfectly reasonable destination in my eyes. After this trip I’m more convinced than ever that good food can be found anywhere in Mexico, even the most feíto towns. The best of Coatza: gorditas and markets Janneth grew up in Coatzacoalcos (her dad retired from Pemex), and she graciously offered to not only drive, but let us stay at her parents' house. Our first morning there we drove to La Picadita Jarocha for breakfast, a bustling cafe open to the street. She insisted we try the balloony sweet gorditas, made with masa speckled with anise seeds and stuffed with mole. They arrived liked little bubbles, and then we cut them open to reveal the mole underneath. I cannot tell you how good these things were. Afterward we wandered around Coatza's market with Janneth’s mother Martha, a wonderful cook and local food expert. She pointed out more things I’d never seen: black camarones reculones, called as such because they walk backward; little nubs of homemade achiote paste, and hoja blanca leaves used to wrap tamales. She also showed me the cracker-like totopos that came from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where she’s from. I'd seen them before outside the 20 de Noviembre Market in Oaxaca, but they seemed to be more prolific here. Then we made a quick stop at Janneth's aunt's restaurant to watch the staff make tamales de masa colada. I'd never actually seen masa colada up close -- it's a tamal dough made from nixtamalized corn that's cooked almost to a Cream-of-Wheat consistency. A team of two women worked fast on the back patio, laying down an hoja blanca leaf, a banana leaf, a heaping spoonful of masa colada and then chicken, epazote and red chile sauce. Then they wrapped everything neatly and tying the tamal with a little knot. I tried to make one and the sauce oozed out one end. We ended the day at an open-air restaurant with a dirt floor called Tio Chon, located off the old two-lane road to Minatitlán. Janneth instructed us on the proper Coatzacoalcosian way to eat camarones enchipotlados -- place the whole shrimp in your mouth, suck off the sauce, then dip it in more sauce when no one is looking. (Her mom immediately told us, don't do it that way, she's wrong.) The Minatitlán market Crayton was not exactly enthused to visit another market, but he was powerless against the trio of Janneth, Martha and I, who could together probably spend eight hours talking to vendors and scribbling down recipe notes. We visited another market -- the Mercado Popular Campesino -- in Minatitlán, a small town about 20 minutes from Coatzacoalcos. The heat was stifling even at 10 a.m. Ladies in checkered smocks, their faces shiny with sweat, sold various vines and fruits and vegetables, some of which I hadn't seen at the Coazta market the day before. We tried pópo, a beverage made from toasted cacao beans, rice, cinnamon and a vine called asquiote. One vendor was selling asquiote, too, which excited all of us to no end. "Look, it's asquiote!" I told Crayton. He just looked at me and continued checking his Blackberry. I loved the tortillas de frijol, a crispy plate of a tortilla -- sort of like a tlayuda -- made from masa mixed with beans. Martha said you eat it with cheese and very hot salsa. I bought one and munched on it while we shopped. There was one more food-related activity -- hunting down the famous carne de Chinameca -- but I'll save that for the next post. After only a few days together, I told Janneth and Martha that we should plan another trip together, to Martha's hometown in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in 2013. If we do go... sorry Crayton, you're not coming.Janneth and I had talked about me visiting her in
One day a year, the vendors at Mexico City's Mercado de la Merced throw a crazy, wild party to honor the Virgin of Mercy, known in Spanish as the Virgen de la Merced. Her saint's day is Sept. 24. On that day and a few days after, the vendors host musical groups inside the market and mount large, gorgeous altars dripping with flowers. The day also coincides with the market's anniversary, the 55th this year. I was lucky enough to visit the market with a group of photographers, part of an expedition organized by Luisa Cortés, a neighborhood resident. Cortés said the vendors save money throughout the year to pay for the altars and live music, which can cost as much as $300,00 pesos (roughly $30,000 USD) per aisle inside the market. The altars lent an eerie beauty to what's usually one of the most chaotic places in the city. Mostly the vibe was festive and fun. Vendors dished out enchiladas de mole and carnitas, and bands played ballads, cumbia, rancheras. It was a spectacular day to be there. If you're in the city on the same day next year, I highly recommend going. Some photos of the day:
All About Puebla, an English-language online city guide. She's a badass go-getter type of gal, so when the two of us get together it always feels like we can conquer the world. She took me to some of her favorite places to eat, and interestingly, few involved corn. Puebla is full of savory breads: the pambazo (a plump, flour-dusted bread, not in any way similar to the Mexico City pambazo); the pelona (a fried roll); the chancla (a fried roll covered in sauce); the telera (a flat, soft roll used for tortas); the cemita (an airy, sesame-seed dusted roll), and the torta de agua (a crunchy, rustic bread). All are used in different sandwiches. The most Poblano of tacos, the taco árabe, is traditionally served on pita bread and not corn tortillas. The two of us hit Puebla's Centro last week for a food-fest, filling up on as many snacks as our stomachs could handle. (This may be why my stomach can suddenly only handle rice and applesauce. The travails of being a food researcher.) Here's a quick look at what we tried: I've got some exciting Puebla news to share in the next few weeks, so stay tuned...I was in Puebla this weekend visiting my friend Rebecca, who runs the excellent
It's been hot in Mexico City lately, which means it's the best time to buy nieves, or street-side ice cream or sorbet. A few days ago I found probably the best nieve I've never tasted, from a guy named Benny (that's him under the hat) who set up on calle Ramón Corona just a short walk from Circunvalación. The street is just west of Mercado La Merced on the way to the Zócalo. Benny's helper, a young man, shouted "Hay nieveeees! Dulce de leche, mamey, limón!" The sun shone high and bright. We wandered over. Benny lifted the aluminum lid and a creamy lagoon of orangey-peach mamey lay there, waiting to be scooped. It was the slightest bit runny, like freshly churned ice cream. My friend Ben and I split one order of dulce de leche and mamey, and I think I might've moaned on the sidewalk. Benny says he makes the ice creams himself using fresh fruit and ingredients. He also takes special orders for birthday parties. His minimum is one bote -- the size pictured above -- which feeds about 300 people. If you don't have any weddings or baptisms coming up, you should seek him out for a scoop. He takes his cart along Ramón Corona, Mesónes and Pino Suárez, and he says he works year-round. He doesn't venture onto the more touristic side of the Zócalo, where street vendors aren't allowed. Here's a handy map of where I found him below.