Some years ago we had an idea for a book, something to do with markets. I wrote part of a proposal and sent it out. My timing could have been better --- it was September 2008, right after western economies tanked. Still, I think we just might do that book, one day. (I certainly hope we have more than one in us!) Because markets are something that Dave and I keep circling back to, no matter where we are.
I've written many paens to markets: as goldmines of street food and failsafe places to explore local breakfasts, and as windows not only onto local ingredients and cuisines, but also onto social relations and the general vibe of a place as well. But for me perhaps the biggest value of markets lies in the way that they ground and orient me in unfamiliar places. Somehow being in even the wildest market enables me to figure out what's going on in the wider environment. In a market I can always find order, and something good to eat.
So it was early last month in Mexico City. Dave had picked up a photo assignment and so we appended Mexico City and Oaxaca to a four-week cross-USA trip. It was my first time in Mexico (Dave photographed a food story there a couple years ago), and in spite of its sprawl and the fact that I speak not a lick of Spanish I fell in love with MC almost immediately. But the trip was essentially Dave's -- he was working with little time to spare (and I was a little jet lagged) -- so for the first two days I tagged along in a daze, to Condesa and Reforma and Cuyoacan and San Rafael and wherever else he wanted to shoot. Most of the time I had no clue where we were. I'd done no advance planning, I rarely consulted a map and -- unusually -- I didn't take many notes.
Until our third day, when we went to Merced Market, the city's largest, a heaving mass of stalls and shops and eateries under multiple roofs. As soon as we walked in I snapped out of my overstimulated stupor, took out my notebook and started cataloguing details. Ah, here's the pinata section, and isn't it interesting how this is also where the Baby Jesus icon repairers work? Mexican cooks love metal enamelware, but why does every kitchen stall display only enamelware in turquoise? The fruit section gives way to the flower section, the potato sellers -- and there aren't many of them -- are clumped together in one corner, the fresh corn sellers are among the earliest to set up. Most of the vendors are men.
We wandered, and Dave photographed, and soon we were hungry. And we were in a market, so of course we knew where to look for lunch.
One long edge of Merced is lined with stall after stall offering menudo, a chili-based soup of beef innards that's known to be a great hangover cure (as well as being delicious). In central Mexico / Mexico City menudo is often called "pancita". We settled on Sabrosa Pancita -- Delicious Pancita, mostly because of the deeply contented faces of the diners sitting at its counter. Despite its name Sabrosa also serves pozole, a chili-based soup/stew made with dried hominy.
Dave and I are both huge dried corn fans -- it's probably one reason we so love Turkey's Black Sea coast, where dried corn stars in everything from bread to fish dishes. (Vietnamese also eat dried corn, in a delicious sweet/salty breakfast preparation called bap.) We first fell hard for pozole almost 20 years ago after my parents moved to the southwestern American state of New Mexico, where many a green or red chili stew is studded with chewy kernels of snow white hominy.
We ordered two chica (small) pozole, and within minutes two bowls appeared before us, each brimming with thin meaty, chili-forward but not-too-spicy broth packed with hominy and shredded pork, and festooned with slivered cabbage, thin coins of red radish and chunks of avocado. A fellow diner pointed to a bowl of dried oregano on the counter. "Do like this," she instructed, rubbing a generous pinch between her palms to rain a fragrant shower of the herb over her menudo, and so we did. "Put some lime in," she added, and so we did that too, along with a spoonful of smoky crimson salsa. Alongside came a short stalk of fresh flour tortillas to dab with the richest, creamiest crema (something like clotted cream with a tang) imagineable.
We dug in, but not before taking a cue from a fellow diner on the opposite side of the counter and ordering a cup of cafe de olla -- spiced coffee, served black -- and a quesadilla frita, a fried corn dumpling filled with milky Oaxaca cheese, from a vendor directly in front of Sabrosa.
As we ate, owner Isaac told us that his late father and his mother Sarafina, who sat leaning against the counter opposite a prep table supporting the press that Isaac's sister Marta uses roll out fresh flour tortillas, moved to Mexico City from southern state of Puebla in the early fifties. In 1957 they began selling vegetables in Merced and then, 30 years later, opened Sabrosa. All of the recipes are mom's and she still supervises each morning's preparations from her stool.
We talked about the United States (Isaac has relatives there, as do so many people we met in Mexico City) and Merced, about how even a week probably wouldn't be enough time to explore all the good things to eat there, and he introduced us to his young sons Jesus and Umberto. Just out of school, still dressed in their uniforms, they were eating caldos de gallina, a mild chicken soup with rice and garbanzo beans.
That, and the menudo, are on the list for our next visit to Merced. Four days we spent in Mexico City, and every meal was street food. Isaac's mother's pozole ranks among the most memorable.
Sabrosa Pancita, near Puerta 12, Merced Market, Mexico City. Early morning to late afternoon.