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The Mexican Market
El mercado (the market) is a key part of Mexican life, a big deal with the emphasis on BIG. Cities throughout the country are blessed with markets that are a combination of food hall, discount store, meeting place and social club. These markets are often found in the city center, and most cities of any size have one primary market and several lesser markets. Foodies traveling through Mexico should add the mercado to their list of requisite stops: some of the best can be found in Oaxaca, Guanajuato, Toluca and Mexico City.
On a recent trip to Mexico, I visited the market in Toluca with Gabriel O'Farrill, chef of Los Danzantes, a stylish Mexico City restaurant where the accent is on nueva cocina Mexicana. While the market is open every day of the week, Friday is the market day. An infinite number and variety of stalls are spread out over many square blocks next to the central bus station. A new Wal-Mart has opened up across the way, but don't even think about it: you're in the right place.
What will you find at the Toluca market? People for starters, and lots of them. A sea of humanity courses between rows and rows of food, clothes, trinkets, gadgets, games and more. Tables are piled high with the reddest tomatoes and the pinkest strawberries you've ever seen, while buckets are filled with beans of every color, size and shape. Young boys peer into tubs of hot oil as they fry gigantic pork rinds. Shiny fish and swirly sausage compete for your roving eye, while hawkers do their best to sell you a bowl of soup or a plate of stew. This experience is not for the faint of heart, nor is the food for the faint of stomach. Tripe and potatoes chopped on a super-smooth tree trunk and then deep-fried? Chef O'Farrill didn't have a bite (neither did I), but it was sure fun to watch.
Strolling through a Mexican market lets you see first-hand the bounty of the land and its many uses. Among my favorite things: charales, tiny river fish which are fried crisp, making for a sorta-fishy chip; piloncillo, hunks of sugar cane candy which are used to sweeten cafe de olla ("piloncillo is especially common at wakes," says O'Farrill -- "all the calories in that sugar help give people strength"); mango manila, small, super-sweet mangoes; and some of the biggest, reddest and juiciest watermelons I've every seen. This last item gives O'Farrill the opportunity to share a tale with me: "Watermelons are indigenous to Mexico," he tells me, "and they're also how we got the colors of our flag. During a hot and bloody battle in Chilpancingo (the capital of Guerrero state) in the 1820s, the fighters took a break and cooled off with some watermelon. When they sliced into it and took note of the bright green, white and red tones, they decided those would be the colors of our new flag." Viva Mexico!