It would be easy to get lost in Merida’s huge mercado. It stretches between calles 65, 69, 54, and 56. More than 2,000 vendors set up shop every day to accommodate the 100,000 or so customers who come to shop for just about anything and everything imaginable. These are not the prettiest blocks in town nor the best organized or neatest, but it all works. It’s wild. Crowded and noisy. You have to watch where you’re stepping to avoid “puddles” of water (or something) and holes and loose boards and maybe even an escaped fish or two. The fish mongers behind table after table are cleaning and sorting and stacking and hosing down at a fast pace while other vendors hack up beef with machete-like cleavers or hang chickens by the feet. I feel like a rat in a maze and I’m thinking: it would be so easy to get lost!
We are cooking at the Los Dos Cooking School a few blocks from the market and have come to buy our produce and seasonings. There are ten of us, including Chef David, and we have to weave our way through the market single file. Though we try on occasion to chat with each other as we meander through the alleyways and around the stalls, it is near impossible. There’s hardly elbow room as we bump (and get bumped) from one vendor to the next, trying to keep the person in front of us in sight.
I love all the colors! The peppers (in first photo above) are only an example of a handful of the peppers available. There are endless varieties of sweet and spicy, short and plump, long and skinny, big and round, tiny and HOT. Lots of sapotes, too. The Mamey sapote is brownish with woody looking skin and orange/red flesh. It’s used in fruit salads and drinks and ice cream. The black sapote (the green, shiny, and wrinkled fruit above) is deep brown inside, like chocolate pudding. It can be spooned right out of the skin (and best sprinkled with a little rum or vanilla). Bags of sweet, sweet meringues also come in many shapes and colors.
Vendor after vendor sells sour oranges as they are used in many Yucatecan sauces and marinades. One favorite that shows up with a lot of dishes is marinated red onions. And there are bags of elote pibil. Maize. Not as sweet as our variety, but soaked in salt and baked in an underground pit (pibil) it tastes like…smoked corn.
Ripe fruit. Black sapotes, white sapotes, mangoes, football-sized papayas (upper right). Colorful meringues, tortillas (center), and lots of small bags of beans? peppers? herbs? And bananas in all sizes and varieties (with shoes and religious figures in the background.)
More sour oranges, peppers, and beans, but as I look through my photos I realize that I don’t have any pictures of avocados! There must have been a million avocados in the market and some types have a lovely yellow flesh. We ate guacamole every day, everywhere and sliced avocado was on just about every dish. Also no photos of the bright pink pitayas, the cactus fruit we call dragon fruit in the markets here, or guaya (similar to lychee) or nance (a small, tart cherry-like fruit that can be eaten raw or cooked in a dessert or made into a sugary candy). Stacks of cebollina, a cross between chives and spring onions, and more stacks of tuna (not the fish — tuna in Spanish is the sweet prickly pear, the fruit of the nopal cactus. It can be eaten raw or used in drinks or made into jam, and it has an intense purple-red juice that leaves a permanent stain. When you’re trying not to lose your place in a weaving line of market goers you can’t stop for every photo op.
Many dishes also have beans, red and white and black, whole and mashed and pureed. The liquified black bean is spooned inside the “pocket” of a corn tortilla to make panuchos, a Yucatan favorite appetizer or snack that can be served at any meal.
We bought banana leaves for the pollo pibil (chicken wrapped in banana leaves). This was the first time I had made this famous Yucatan dish, but I’d tasted it some years back when I was staying at the Hacienda Chichen near the ruins at Chichen Itza. I didn’t see it on the menu at dinner, so I mentioned to the waiter that I had read about this dish and would like to try it sometime. The next night someone knocked at the door of my cottage with a plate of pollo pibil courtesy of the chef. This sort of thing happens often in this corner of the Yucatan where I have met some of the friendliest people in the world.
I have never seen so many bags and bottles and pyramids of seasonings in one place! Lots of recado rojo or achiote paste (the bag to the left of this pile of seasoning and the stuff that gives everything that bright rusty red color). It tastes like everything and nothing else at the same time. A blend of spices — annatto, Mexican oregano, peppers, cinnamon, cumin, cloves, allspice, garlic…
Since so many dishes are cooked in the pibil — smoked underground in a pit — there are many “flavors” of wood chips. And, if you don’t want to dig a hole in the ground, you can use a big pot on top of the stove, line it with foil, and leave a space in the middle for the wood chips to create a stove-top smoker.
The people here work very hard, long hours. Men push heavy carts overflowing with crates or boxes or huge bags of produce or grain, spare parts or tools. Women, like the woman in this photo (above) carry enormous bags on their heads. An elderly woman, one who may be considered frail in another setting, hurried past me carrying a large wooden crate on her head. And the tortilla maker’s job is never done.
We were at the market to buy supplies for our meal, but there was so much more than fruits and veges, spices and sweets. Some people were having breakfast or buying fruity drinks or caramels. There were stacks of car parts and machine parts and unknown metal thingies. Live birds and rabbits, dogs and cats and chickens. Leather shoes and belts and bags. Novelties and herbal remedies. Metalwork. Woodwork. Hammocks. If you wanted it or needed it or just wanted to look at it, you could find it here.
I love markets and would like to go back to this one and take my time, stroll through the aisles and stop to smell the spices. But I’d probably hire a guide, so I would be sure to find my way back out again!
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