I have 4 hours of Spanish classes in the morning and after lunch my lessons continue with 2 hours of one-on-one conversations each day. My guide/conversation partner changes each week and so far I’ve had the pleasure of working with Orlando, Eduardo, Walther, Natania, and most recently, Vera. Vera has been by far the most motivated and active guide of them all, planning out our week in advance and really making a big effort to show me around. We usually meet in the afternoon for 2 hours but she thought it would be better if we spent 2 hours in the morning one day to visit a typical Mexican market. I simply loved the idea (I can spend hours and hours anywhere with food, fruits, vegetables, drinks) and didn’t hesitate when she asked me to meet her downtown at 8AM.
There are two markets in Merida and we chose the old market, Mercado Lucas de Gálvez, for our outing. When we arrived it was already packed with people having breakfast (tacos and tortas made out of various pork parts, cochinita pibil, and what have you) and dozens of ladies dressed all dressed in huipiles selling vegetables from their gardens. I use the word garden here because no one had more than a handful of calabazas or a few dozen limes to sell. They definitely did not bring their vegetables on a giant truck from a large farm.
We spent some time by the spice section of the market where I was overwhelmed with the sheer number of powders, pastes, seeds, and spice mixes, not to mention all the different types of salsas. The vendor was patient and kind, answering my questions about achiote paste (he wouldn’t tell me what exactly goes into this mixture that includes ground annatto seeds) and all the moles he had. None of the little bags of things he was selling was labeled so we had to ask what they were. It reminded of India, and how I used to be perplexed and completely lost in the spice aisles seeing all the packets of spices without labels. I suppose you learn to cook by watching and follow your Mom or Grandma, and eventually just know what to do and where to get your ingredients?
I learned about some of the local vegetables, especially about the different pumpkins and zucchinis used in various Yucatecan soups and stews. Of course there was no end to all the peppers/chilies in every shape and form. There were also mountains of dragon fruits (patahaya), bananas (they were mostly from Chiapas at this market, on sale for 4 pesos per 1 kg or $0.30 for 2.2 lbs), papayas, and plums. In one corner of the market there were small mounds of little brown balls that I didn’t recognize at all. Vera told me they were called “zapotes” and asked whether I’d ever had one. So for 10 pesos (~$0.80) I bought 5 of them.
But before I could dig into one, we still had more to see. We walked around to the part of the market where all I saw were stalls filled with everything sweet, a whole different section dedicated to shoes and sandals (Vera told me they were special sandals worn by those who dance the jarana), then there were vendors selling flowers, rows of guys with display cases full of fried meats, and we stopped at a tortilla shop to see their operation.
On top of the counter sat an old-fashioned scale and what appeared to be about 100 lbs of masa, loosely covered in plastic. There were customers lining up to get their stacks of tortillas, machines running in the back grinding kernels of corn, and bags of tortillas being packed. The ladies behind the counter were very sweet. They were all smiles looking at me, as I stood on my tipi toes trying to see what was going on. They handed me a fried tortilla to taste (it was warm, crunchy, and salty), I thanked them and returned a big smile myself.
Once outside we found a shady bench to sit down and eat the zapotes. Vera told me she would eat it with the skin and all if it were clean, but we should peel it first. The skin was very thin and we could have used our fingers, but I had packed my little Swiss army knife and some wet towels for this very reason- one always needs to be ready to cut open a delicious mystery fruit when visiting a market in a foreign country.
What an interestingly mysterious fruit it turned out to be! It was fibrous but a bit gritty like how a pear can be gritty. It was so soft that it practically melted in my mouth. It wasn’t very sweet but it definitely wasn’t a vegetable. It was juicer than I had imagined, but because of the lower sugar content my fingers never got very sticky. But the little fibers and sugar clung to the blade of the knife and I had a tough time getting it clean later. Oddly, first two zapotes I ate didn’t have any seeds at all but the second did had one large black seed. I think this means I should get some more and really find out whether I like them or not.
All in all, it was a great way to start my day and made me like Merida and Mexico just a bit more.
Mercado Lucas de Gálvez: Calle 56 x 65 y 69, Mérida (56th Street between 65 and 67). The pale pink building on the north west corner of the market is the main post office.