Great Markets in Mexico

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Mercado de la Merced, Mexico City

Before I enter Mexico City's sprawling central market (pictured below), I always pick up an ear of fresh roasted corn seasoned with lime and red chile powder (see Mexican-Style Roasted Corn) from a street-corner vendor. La Merced is a gold mine of utilitarian items such as woven palm-leaf baskets, which I use for serving tortillas at my restaurant in New York City, or nested cookie cutters shaped like moons, heart, and stars. My last stop is always the Mercado de Flores, or the flower-market section, where I pick up my papel picado, elaborately cut folk-art paper designs (I pre-order monogrammed paper for my restaurant). (Anillo de Circunvalacion street between General Anaya and Adolfo Gurrion streets.)

Mercado Benito Juarez, Oaxaca

I vividly remember my first visit to this market in the capital city of Oaxaca state. I rushed in through the heavy wooden doors of the mercado's entrance into a riot of vivid colors and a cacophony of regional languages I did not understand. I nearly tripped over an old woman sitting on the ground selling huge, lightly charred corn tortillas called tlayudas. Everywhere, there was the intoxicating aroma of the gardenias and tuberoses for sale. I found an ice cream stand with wooden signs announcing the flavors of the day, including the caramel-like leche quemada, or "burnt milk." The stand is still there today, as is stand No. 46, an excellent breakfast counter run by the daughter of a woman named Doña Nicolasa, who once said I'd "bewitched" her into giving up her recipe for chilaquiles. (Madero street between Hidalgo and Antonio de Leon streets.)

Mercado 5 de Septiembre, Oaxaca

I found the main market in the largely indigenous Oaxacan town of Juchitan de Zaragoza by chance. Driving through the streets of the city on a visit years ago, I caught sight of three women in brightly patterned skirts riding in the bed of a pickup truck. I followed the truck until it stopped in front of the market building; the women hopped off, strode toward an archway, and uncovered baskets filled with guetabinguis, small tamales stuffed with dried shrimp, and totopos, crispy tortillas that had been cooked in a tandoor-like oven. On that first visit, I spotted a woman with live iguanas tied to her head, armadillos on leashes, and other wonders that spoke to the region's distinctive indigenous culture. (Efrain R. Gomez street between 16 de Septiembre and 2 de Abril streets.)

Tianguis Vendors, Jalapa

Tianguis, or itinerant-street-vendor markets, are fixtures in Mexico, but the ones in Jalapa, the capital of Veracruz state, are unlike others I know. I usually grab a breakfast of picadas, tiny tortillas filled with tomato or tomatillo salsa browsing produce sold by vendors from mountain villages: wild mushrooms, quelites (wild herbs and greens), and edible flowers, including fleshy orange colorin, which are made into patties and pan-fried—all culinary staples in this part of Mexico. (Various locations within the city.) —Zarela Martinez, author of   _The Food and Life of Oaxaca: Traditional Recipes from Mexico's Heart (Wiley, 1997)_