Travel notes: inspiration from Mexico City’s food markets

4 September, 2017

I spent most of August travelling around Mexico, soaking up the beautiful weather as well as enjoying as much of the local food as I possibly could. Tacos and other Mexican cuisine have been a huge food trend in London this year, with an influx of new restaurants putting their own spin on the style - look out for Mexican chef Martha Ortiz’ restaurant Ella Canta, which opens this month, and offers a tasting menu of seven moles. I was curious to see what else the country has to offer by way of culinary delights that hadn’t made it into a trendy Soho restaurant just yet.

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We had fantastic meals in farm-to-fork jungle kitchens and top-notch, casual bites from taco huts on the beach, but it was the markets that really get to the culinary heart of Mexico. As much a multi-sensory experience as it is a shopping trip, the vibrant stalls gave me a wealth of fresh ideas that I’ve brought home to inspire my menu and dish development in my own kitchen. Not only do you get to see the freshest in-season produce, but you can keep an eye on what the locals are buying. Whilst in Mexico City, we did exactly that.

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Here are my culinary travel notes from Mexico City’s vibrant, booming food markets.

 

La Merced

La Merced is the largest food market in Mexico DF (that stands for Distrito Federal – and it’s what the locals call Mexico City), sprawling across a maze of streets and alleyways. There’s been a market in the same spot for hundreds of years, and La Merced itself dates right back to 1860 as the primary food wholesaler for the entire city.

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It’s a heady mix of fresh produce piled high as well as street food vendors cooking all manner of local dishes and delicacies. You’ll see local fruits and vegetables Sainsbury’s could only dream of, mounds of spices and moles, overflowing bowls of chicken intestines and calves heads – even whole carcasses up for sale. There are more varieties of chilli than I could even name, a rainbow of corn (it’s not just yellow out there!) and edible cacti. This being Mexico, there’s also an area dedicated to crispy, fried insects – which, given their rising popularity as a sustainable source of protein, might be a familiar sight at home before long.

The street food at La Merced is easily some of the best to be found in Mexico DF. I’d recommend trying a taco de cabeza, which is stuffed with slices of freshly-cooked calf’s head, or a bowl of pancita – a restorative, bright red soup of chilli and cow’s stomach. If you’re not keen on offal, there are all sorts of tamales, quesadillas, tortas and huaraches on offer which might be more familiar.

 

Ingredients and produce

Roaming a market like La Merced is essentially an education in and introduction to a whole new world of local, seasonal ingredients to experiment with. Here are some of the ones that best captured my gastronomic imagination.

Huitlacoche

Also known as (rather appetisingly) ‘corn smut’, huitlacoche is a fungal disease that blights maize and corn. To many farmers it’s a pain, but in Mexico it’s revered as a delicacy – almost like a truffle. In fact, the US-based James Beard Foundation has been leading a campaign to rename it as Mexican Truffle in an attempt to make it more desirable to US consumers.

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As a food source, it dates back to Aztec times and today is used as a luxurious – and expensive – addition to tacos, quesadillas, and soups. It can be eaten raw or cooked, and has a sweet-yet-savoury, woody and earthy flavour similar to that of mushrooms. In the markets it’s usually sold fresh (it’s in season from May through to November, so we were there at just the right time), but is sometimes preserved either frozen or in jars and cans.

“It is very exquisite,” says Rodrigo Flores, chef at the Hacienda de los Morales restaurant in Mexico City’s upscale Polanco district. “Demand for it is rising every day. In our restaurant, we consume 2 tons of it a year.”

How to use it

On the Riviera Maya, on the Yucatan Peninsula, it’s a popular addition to omelettes. The local classic dates back to Mayan times – so it’s really stood the test of time. If you manage to get hold of some at home, try it in an omelette with goat’s cheese and epazote (a pungent Mexican herb, which can be swapped out for fresh coriander or oregano if you need to).

Purslane

Purslane is an edible succulent with thick, rubbery emerald-green leaves that are piled high in La Merced. It’s called ‘vedolagus’ in Spanish and has a mild, sweet flavour with Chayota cucumber-crisp crunch and tart, apple-like acidity as well as peppery notes. A complex and refreshing mouthful.

How to use it

Its young leaves add vitality and lift to chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and radishes. It’s also delicious sautéed briefly in olive oil with garlic and jalapeño, then wrapped in warm tortillas with crumbled queso fresco.

My favourite way to use it, however, is in a salsa verde – blitz up purslane, garlic and olive oil and use to braise tomatillos, chicken thighs or pork ribs. Its natural pectin has a thickening quality not dissimilar to okra.


Cactus

When you think of cacti, you probably think of spines, leathery flesh, and liquid. Not that appetising? Well, they’re packed with vitamins and nutrients (Flavour Feed tells me Cactus Water is the new Coconut Water) as well as flavonoids, phenolics and antioxidants. In other words, the ultimate hangover cure. Its unique flavour reminds me of lemon-y green beans, and is often used in place of meat for a vegetarian dish or during Lent. But don’t go mad on a big plant – it’s only the young, tender paddles that are edible.

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How to use it

Preparation is important – it needs to be cleaned carefully and have the needles cut away, following the grain. Any rough patches also need to be removed, and the remaining flesh marinated overnight before being drained of any juices that escape. It’s excellent sliced up and pickled in coconut vinegar with habanero chilli and sugar to be used as a tangy taco garnish, or simmered in hot water with a pinch of baking powder for 20-25 minutes and tossed into a tricolour salad with jicamas and tomatoes.

 

Jimcama

Better known as a Mexican turnip, this native root vegetable has become popular in China and South-East Asia as well as parts of India, where it’s integrated into local dishes like rojak and popiah. It’s a juicy and sweet tuber with a nutty flavour and satisfying crunch. Think part potato, part apple and part cucumber (but without any seeds). It’s often eaten raw (don’t forget to peel it before eating), but can also be cooked – if cooking it, quick blanching is best to retain its distinct crispness.

How to use it

At Hartwood, the famous Jungle Restaurant in Tulum, it’s shaved in ribbons into a zippy salad of oranges and mint, with toasted pepitas and sunflower seeds to add crunch and a mint crema dressing that enlivens and soothes. It also makes a racy summer salad with watermelon, pimped with a tequila, honey and lemon dressing.

 

Chayote

A gourd belonging to the same family as melon, cucumber and squash, chayote is native to Mesoamerica. It’s the fruit that’s most often eaten, but the root, stem, seeds and leaves are also all edible. It’s full of vitamin C and amino acids as well as having diuretic properties.

How to use it

It’s cooked much like a summer squash – briefly to retain its crisp texture, but it can also be eaten raw in a salad or salsa, or marinated with citrus juice.

Try tossing it with olive oil, sea salt and black pepper before grilling briefly on a barbecue. This makes a wonderful accompaniment to barbecued fish. Alternatively, it can be added to a black bean soup (another Mexican classic), topped with Salsa Mexicana, crumbled queso fresco and tortilla chips.

 

My favourite UK suppliers for Mexican produce

Gringa Dairy  – Authentic Mexican cheeses made in a railway arch in Peckham.

Mexgrocer – Online specialists for Mexican ingredients.

La Tiendita – Mexican breads, groceries and cheese available online or from their Fulham store.

Cool Chile – Another online supplier of moles, sauces, mescal and tortillas.

 

My favourite Mexican and Mexican-inspired restaurants in London

Santo Remedio – soon to re-open in bigger and better premises.

Corazon – for tacos and cocktails.

El Pastor – authentic, Mexico City-style tacos.

Ella Canta – Martha Ortiz at The InterContinental.

Breddos Tacos – trendy and delicious taco spot in Farringdon.

La Bodega Negra – Beach-style Mexican street food in Central London.

Temper – fresh tortillas and lots of mezcal.

Taqueria- A Portobello Road street food vendor-turned restaurant.

Mestizo – Restaurant and shop.

Wahaca / DF/Mexico – bringing Mexican food to the masses.