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Entering by foot through the main gate, the aura here is clean, fresh, like the docks of a Spanish port. But the sea is hundreds of miles away, and airplanes buzz overhead in this flat, nondescript part of the megalopolis that is Mexico’s capital. This is one of the biggest fish markets in the world, larger than Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji, and it satisfies the oceanic cravings of all of central Mexico. It’s the Mercado de la Nueva Viga, Mexico City’s central wholesale/retail fish market.
The interminably long parallel aisles, at least 10 of them, present about 150,000 tons a year of the fish and seafood, proffered by small vendors whose wares lie in a seemingly disorderly array of size and type.
MEXICO'S LARGEST FISH MARKET
Central de Pescados y Mariscos la Nueva Viga
Location: Prol. Eje 6 Sur No. 560 Piso 1, San José Aculco, Iztapalapa Mexico City
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Noble silvery blue tuna come in all sizes and lie neatly stacked. Next to them are gigantic glowing warm red snappers, the king of Mexican fish, from little gold-striped jewel-sized ones that can fit in the palm of a child’s hand to enormous mammas the size of a seal. Silver mackerel, here called sierra, are long and fat: Their black eyes, which appear to stare in a fixed, knowing gaze, are crystal clear as if they just jumped out of the sea. And then there are squid and prawns and octopus and cuttlefish. The purplish calamari comes from cold waters afar; it’s been thawed, but smells clean and fresh. Mounds of deep magenta octopi have been boiled and are waiting to be sliced into ceviche de pulpo by the vendor. For those who want to take them on, slimy, grey blue fresh pulpos — all eight legs attached — are available as well.
The hazy morning rays of sun enhance the translucent red of the big fishes’ flesh. That light highlights the silvery glitter of the smaller ones’ skins, in varying shades of cool metallic blues. Long narrow cintilla are an astonishingly brilliant chrome, as shiny as the bumper of a restored ’57 Chevy. There are trout, fresh and from the sea; besugo; bonito; ferocious sharks called cazón; and innocuous whitebait named charal. Sting ray are splayed out, their dangerous tails now stilled. Velvety gray pámpano tempt almost as much as the lenguado (aka sole) whose skin is luminescent like a natural pearl.
The aisles become congested with shoppers and vendors. A portly, besmocked porter beseeches the crowd to part so he can wheel his barrow of gigantic whiskered catfish. Another swarthy monger, bare arms muscled and tattooed, holds up a fat 10-kilo (22-pound) extraviado (a type of bass), whose scales glimmer like a set of polished medieval armor.
The eye passes more rapidly over the heaps of severed fish heads with melancholy deep eyes — good for broth. There are low-cost oysters, barrels, sacks and piles of them, big ones and small. They can be shucked on request. Unattractive dirty grey clams, ostensibly for soup, and beautiful rust-colored large ones, called chocolates, for ceviche. Giant white Pismo clams, rare in these parts, weigh upward of a pound, and should be eaten raw, or as a simple ceviche. Blue-black mussels come in neat mesh bags. Live crabs, also scarce, are sold by one proud purveyor. Almost anything that swims in the sea can be found at the Viga, although the best is fresh and comes from the warm waters of the Caribbean or the cooler Pacific.
Seafood empanadas near Mexico’s biggest fish market
Around the corner and along the sides, dozens of merchants prepare seafood empanadas to eat here or take away. They roll out dough, fill it with crab, fish, octopus or shrimp and deep-fry to a flaky golden crisp. Bought by the dozen by hungry shoppers and sellers alike, they can be eaten at the stand: the warm pastry is pried open and filled with avocado and salsa, cream or mayo for those who need.
Meanwhile, in a large open area, workers will patiently and expertly clean, carve and fillet anything for a small gratuity. The slam of cleavers on block, the whoosh of scales being stripped and the murmur of instructions being offered are set to a background of old-fashioned Cuban son emanating from someone’s transistor radio. This is a serious place; nobody has time to fool around or loiter. But proud vendors will pose jauntily with a marlin, offer a taste of smoked sierra, pull some flash-frozen sardines out of the cooler to show them off.
At mid-morning closing time, unsold fish are tossed into ice-filled bins and trucks, buckets of water are emptied onto floors and swept off with large wide brooms, trails of ruby fish blood running off in every direction. The tables, stands, counters and tubs are cleaned and refreshed for this never-ending bounty, always and forever to be replenished.
Top photo: The assortment is endless at Mexico City’s la Nueva Viga fish market. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
Suddenly street food is cool. Perhaps it’s a reaction to lofty trends like molecular gastronomy, vegetable foams and chefs in lab coats. People are ready for more accessible cooking. Some call it street food. Hugo Ortega, a home-schooled chef from Mexico, presents the most recent and best book on the topic in “Street Food of Mexico.”
ZESTER DAILY LINKS
By Hugo Ortega
and Penny de los Santos
Bright Sky Press, 2012, 256 pages
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In my hometown of Mexico City, the phrase “street food” might connote a low-class, unsavory, health risk from which tourists and locals alike are warned to stay away. But foodies on the cutting edge are busy promoting this popular cooking. Restaurants with names such as Street in L.A., Fonda in N.Y. and Ortega’s own Hugo’s in Houston are pulling in crowds. Anthony Bourdain and the Los Angeles Times are touting street food as trendy, reminding us that the best cooking is often found in the most humble places. We fearless global eaters could have told them.
Writing about Mexican cooking in his heartfelt introduction, Ortega’s description could apply to the popular cooking of any culture:
“… street food is actually “slow food,” prepared in someone’s own kitchen with little to no shortcuts, from family recipes handed down through the ages. The food is cooked all through the night on the outskirts of the towns and villages, in kitchen ovens or in deep earthen pits, and brought into city and town centers each morning … Rich with tradition and heritage, street food is the purest form of true authentic … cuisine.”
While other cookbooks on the subject might employ “street food” as a catchphrase, an excuse for simple, plebeian cooking (“easy” usually shows up in the title of these books), this one is true to its subject. Recipes are for dishes really found at stalls on the street or in markets.
The book is divided into chapters delineating seven styles of foods by their Spanish titles: antojitos, tacos, salsas, tortas, ceviches y cocteles, dulces and bebidas. Thankfully, Spanish names come first with descriptions underneath in English — no condescension here.
Recipes reflecting the spirit of the street
Recipes are tweaked, updated but only minimally, without losing their true homey nature. For example, empanada de camarón (half-moon pie stuffed with shrimp) is commonly found at every seafood stand in Mexico. Here, the dough calls for butter and the filling for olive oil, two ingredients undoubtedly too expensive for market and street stalls to stock. But nothing else about this recipe is compromised. It’s just as grandma would want you to make it, with good old butter and olive oil instead of the cheaper versions thereof.
The section on tacos is especially informative, and again true to the streets of Mexico — the most interesting recipes have been culled from the author’s travels around the country and interpreted to re-create authentic flavors. Occasionally a cooking method is altered, but to good effect. Tacos al pastor, Mexico City’s famous spit-grilled marinated pork, is impossible to reproduce in the home kitchen. But Ortega’s oven-roasted version will approximate the flavor and texture of the original.
One of the most visually astounding features of street and market stalls is the rainbow of colorful fresh and cooked salsas. This chapter gathers the best multi-regional examples and explains the essentially Mexican techniques, such as dry-roasting chilies, in detail.
Tortas get their due in ‘Street Food of Mexico’
The torta, Mexico’s version of the sandwich is not well known outside the country, but ubiquitous within. Ortega covers the topic thoroughly — even a recipe for the bread is given. He includes interesting regional items, like the capital’s guajolota (a tamal within a roll), a “gilded lily” to some, a divine treat to others.
Although essential beach food, ceviches are found in street stalls throughout Mexico. Ortega’s simple ceviche de huachinango (red snapper) is a textbook example that should be in any Mexican cook’s repertory. The caldo de camarón, a rich soup made with chilies and dried shrimp, is true to the stand, Mexico City’s El Caguamo, from which the recipe is gleaned.
This is a fine cookbook — user-friendly, well written, uncompromising in transposing recipes for the home cook, and beautifully illustrated by renowned food and travel photographer Penny de los Santos. “Street Food of Mexico” is an important addition to any library of Mexican or world cuisine.
Máximo Bistrot Local opened its doors at the beginning of 2012, and quickly became the hottest place in Mexico City. It’s an unpretentious European-style bistro in the once opulent Colonia Roma neighborhood, which is in the midst of a redevelopment boom. Cool and chic Máximo replaces a dowdy medical supply store; once a trash-strewn corner with little foot traffic is now a well-known gastronomic destination. You can find the best brandade de morue this side of the Seine here. Or a classic ceviche. While Mexico-born chef and owner Eduardo García likes rustic French cooking, his feet are firmly planted on native ground, and he often includes typical Mexican ingredients such as chilies, hot and mild; cuitlacoche, the rich corn fungus known as “Mexican truffle”; or country herbs like epazote in his dishes.
The chef formerly worked under Enrique Olvera of Pujol, the esteemed local palace of experimental gastronomy, and also toiled in Manhattan’s star-strewn Le Bernardín where seafood reigns.
García represents the new generation of Mexican cooks who, while well aware of what’s going on in Spain, California and New York, have come back home, incorporating these ideas into their native cuisine.
Eduardo García puts ‘local’ in Máximo Bistrot Local
The chef has brought expert gastronomic skills to his own place, opened on a shoestring and run with his wife, the affable Gabriela, who acts as host. Máximo Bistrot Local’s publicity claims that materia prima is local and organic, if possible. The chef visits the city’s spectacular markets daily, choosing what looks best, then adroitly improvising a new menu each day. The food coming out of his kitchen is worthy of hyperbole.
How is what you cook related to classic Mexican cuisine?
Our menu is based not only on Mexican cuisine, but also on local ingredients — hence the name “bistro local.” But I like to include a few “authentic” dishes. The relationship between my cuisine and Mexican cooking is all about ingredients, methods and philosophy. I think my growing up in Mexico and having trained here infuses everything I do. For example, I often take advantage of the huge variety of chilies used in our cooking, and the specifically Mexican ways of preparing them, such as toasting and grinding.
And to classic European cooking?
I wouldn’t say “classic European” but French and rustic Italian. Again, the methods are a big part of the relationship. I take what I consider to be the best techniques from the aforementioned European traditions.
What are the advantages of running a restaurant in Mexico City?
In the city, purveyors are more focused than in other parts of Mexico. We’re in the middle of the country and everything is available here; I can get seafood from either coast hours after it is caught.
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Tips from Nicholas Gilman
Also guests here are more open to experimenting with food than they might be in the provinces — Mexicans tend to be conventional when it comes to food.
What’s coming up on your menu?
I’m planning a trip to visit small restaurants in Europe to get more inspiration for my menu. I’m more interested in experiencing local, time-honored cooking than the avant-garde stuff.
What is you latest ingredient obsession?
Fresh seafood from Ensenada. There are extraordinary ingredients there. Percebes, for example, are barnacles not well-known outside of Spain, where they cost a fortune. Here they are accessible and I’ve been experimenting with them: I included them in a ceviche recently.
What is your favorite restaurant/chef in town?
I don’t hang out much with the “top” chefs or at fancy restaurants. My favorite place is Fonda Las Margaritas in Colonia Del Valle [a quiet residential neighborhood south of the center]. It’s where I like to eat on my day off. It’s a simple old-fashioned neighborhood fonda that does really authentic no-frills Mexican food.
And out of town?
Casa Oaxaca, in Oaxaca City. My friend, Chef Alejandro Ruíz, is doing incredible things with local market foods there. I always look forward to seeing what he’s up to.
Where do you see the restaurant scene headed here in Mexico City?
The culinary scene here is expanding, as are people’s palates. I think that Mexico City is becoming one of the top destinations for food. New restaurants as well as old established ones are using more fresh and local products. And that’s a real good thing.
And what are your life plans?
I’ve been offered jobs here and abroad, book deals, even a TV show! I’ve turned them all down. Because I just don’t have time to do anything but cook, and make sure everything in my place is the best it can be.
I’ve seen some of my contemporaries fall prey to the “star chef” phenomena — and their restaurants suffer for this. You can’t be a star and maintain a great kitchen unless it is established and you are able to train younger chefs to be as good as you. I know I’m not there yet. We’re doing amazingly well, are always full and now have sidewalk rights so a few more tables. But it’s very hard work, six days a week, exhausting. I hope I can keep it up.
Colonia Roma was Mexico City’s first “modern” neighborhood, designed on the Haussmann ideal of mixed-class housing. Now the center of the Mexican capital’s restaurant renaissance, La Roma emerged at the turn of the 20th century with tree-lined boulevards of single-family homes and elegant mansions, reflecting the popular French Belle Époque style. The fashionable residences were equipped with running water, city sewer, electric and even telephone lines.
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Until the 1940s, La Roma was the place to live for famous artists, politicians and even bullfighters. Noir movie star Andrea Palma occupied a large mansion. William S. Burroughs famously shot his wife there in a game of William Tell gone awry; the muralist David Siqueiros and legendary reclusive painter Leonora Carrington worked there.
The cooking going on in these homes would have been a fine-tuned blend of traditional Mexican and French-Spanish, a typical repast might have started with a vichyssoise followed by a filet of sole in caper sauce topped by Mexican manchamanteles served with homemade tortillas.
The fall and rise of Roma
After World War II, the wealthy moved west to Polanco and Lomas, and La Roma began its slow decline. The 1985 earthquake hit this area hard.
As residents fled, many old homes became auto repair shops, offices or schools, or were simply left to decay. Other buildings were demolished to make way for mirrored glass behemoths and parking lots.
But Roma has been rising from its ashes in recent years, coming to life with a speed not often seen in Mexico. A renewed appreciation for the architecture and the area’s proximity to the center of the city and to its pricier neighbor Condesa has made Roma appealing to artists and yuppies alike. Their presence has created a market for upscale dining and nightlife options. New restaurants and bars open every week. And some of the most creative cooking, from high to low, can be found in the area.
Always a hotbed for the culturally eclectic, Roma has recently been a crucible for a new generation of Mexican chefs who are well aware of what’s going on in Spain, California and New York, but whose feet stay firmly planted on native turf.
Rosetta is set in a turn-of-the-century French-style mansion that has been lovingly renovated. It is hands down the best Italian restaurant this side of the Rio Grande. Cunning chef Elena Reygadas works with surprising and exotic seasonal material prima from the Mexican countryside such as duraznillo mushrooms (aka chanterelles) or the rarely seen pavón, a homely freshwater fish encased in Acapulco sea salt and herbs. While her menu is classic regional Italian, everything from the period decoration of the space to the adroit combination of familiar and uncommon market ingredients points to a new, global — but very local — sensibility.
Mexico City dining: A Roma venture without capital
Since Máximo Bistrot Local opened its doors on a shoestring at the beginning of 2012, it has become one of the most talked about restaurants in Mexico City.
This low-key, unpretentious corner place replaced a dowdy medical supply store, where wheelchairs and artificial limbs were once sold. It is emblematic of the new, sophisticated-but-casual small restaurants appearing in the area: There’s no place else in the city where rents are low enough, and the clientele savvy enough, to carry off such a venture.
While Mexican-born chef and owner Eduardo García, who worked at New York’s star-strewn Le Bernardin, likes classic French bourgeois cooking, Mexican ingredients typically appear in his dishes with regularity.
A light sole meunière that would make Julia Child happy is pepped up with a drizzle of guajillo chile emulsion. Or a tender slab of octopus only hours away from its Pacific home, is shrewdly paired with sautéed huitlacoche, the subtlety flavored corn fungus sometimes called “Mexican truffle.” The food coming out of García’s kitchen is worthy of hyperbole.
A hip deli
Chef/TV diva and neighborhood resident Monica Patiño owns the New York/Paris-style deli, Delirio. She celebrates the recent surge of artisanal foods with her own brand of products, all hecho en México (made in Mexico). Olives and olive oil from Baja California are green and fruity. A small, but well-chosen stock of national wines is worth sampling — many are unavailable elsewhere. There are European-style raw milk cheeses and preserved meats, all made in central Mexico.
An advocate of “slow” and local foods, Patiño explains that she decided to put her money where her mouth is. “Almost all of what we offer is Mexican-made and organic as well,” she proudly proclaims. Her refreshingly modern sensibility is something new in a culture that until recently looked to the U.S. and Europe for inspiration and denigrated local products as inferior.
A new kind of market
In Mexico, land of vendors, one could misquote Shakespeare: “all the world’s a market.” Happily, old-time markets continue to thrive despite the proliferation of chain supermarkets. Roma’s excellent Mercado Medellín is a fine example of a traditional neighborhood covered market. And in 2011 a new type of mercado was inaugurated: the Mercado el 100. This weekly tianguis (open-air market) recalls Paris’ wildly successful marchés biologiques or New York’s see-and-be-seen Union Square market — all products sold are produced within 100 kilometers, hence the name. The market provides a venue for small local producers of organic and artisanal products to strut their stuff. It all takes place in Roma’s picturesque Plaza Río de Janeiro, in the shadow of a 20th-century copy of Michelangelo’s “David” (sans fig leaf) and attracts people from all walks of life for its fresh-from-the-farm produce.
Old Colonia Roma continues to bubble with creative energy, and new venues seem to open every day. Chef García (of Máximo) predicts that Mexico City will soon be one of the top dining capitals in the world. Perhaps it already is.
Photo: Walkway next to Rosetta restaurant in the reborn La Roma neighborhood in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
Mexico City is a pescavore’s paradise. This sprawling capital, set atop a central plateau — nowhere near any large body of water — is nonetheless within five or six hours from either coast. The Nuevo Mercado de la Viga, the huge central fish market, provides the populous with a cornucopia of creatures that swim. Mexican cooks work magic with their oceanic bounty in myriad ways: Spanish-style rice dishes, spicy soups and stews, lemony cocteles, and seafood quesadillas.
But it is ceviche, the quintessentially Latin tradition of marinating raw fish in an acidic bath, that is the pride and joy of Mexican chefs. It’s found at marisquerías — seafood restaurants ranging from street stalls to elegant venues, all over the country. Perhaps first imagined in Peru or Ecuador, ceviche usually contains lime juice to macerate the fish, and some combination of tomato, onion, chili, cilantro, and, in the “Acapulco” variety, even ketchup. Marinating time, which can vary from 15 minutes to overnight, is the most disputed element in its preparation.
The search for ceviche
So this landlocked food writer set out to find the best ceviche Mexico City has to offer, a daunting task in a metropolis of over 40,000 eating establishments. Here are the highlights:
– El Caguamo (slang for a liter-size beer bottle) is a humble street stall always packed with hipsters and old-timers chowing down on fried fillets, shrimp cocktails, tostadas and, of course, ceviches, which are served in a parfait glass or on a tostada. They can be made of pescado, jaiba, calamar or pulpo, (fish, crab, squid or octopus), with the addition of chopped tomato, chili, onion and cilantro. Ceviche here is marinated in lime juice and white herbal vinegar, then finished off with a little olive oil and a few slices of avocado — a perfect balance of salty, sour and fishy umami.
– Colonia Escandón is a solid middle-class neighborhood of single-family homes and small apartment buildings, built in the ’40s and ’50s. Its market has one big attraction, Marisquería Playa Escondida, where foodies make the pilgrimage for a sophisticated array of classic seafood. The young chef concocts a simple ceviche de pescado with strips of fresh snapper artfully seasoned in a strong, lemony vinaigrette. Its closer to the way they do it in Lima, more Peruvian than Mexican. Acerbic and briny, biting and vibrant, it was made muy Mexicanoby the lashings of green chilies that gave it heat.
– Tucked into a corner of an old house in trendy Colonia Roma, La Veracruzana, Fonda de Mariscos has a charming retro décor and sunny patio. It offers a bit of Veracruz, the city on the Caribbean Gulf Coast known for seafood influenced by the Spanish settlers and the African slaves they brought with them. (Huachinango a la Veracruzana, red snapper in tomato/caper sauce, is well known all over Mexico.) This pleasant lunch spot frequented by local artists serves an exemplary, if generic, ceviche de pescado. Sergio, the chef, explains that sea bass is marinated overnight in a light solution of white vinegar, onions and herbs such as oregano and bay leaf. Chopped tomato and chili are added later. Despite the long maceration, the fish tastes fresh and the texture holds its own. The dressing is light and zesty — a winner.
– In the fashionable art deco neighborhood, La Condesa, Mero Toro’s kitchen is in the capable hands of master chef Jair Téllez, formerly of Ensenada on the Pacific Coast. The California-influenced menu is small, unpretentious and creative. Ingredients are chosen strategically, with an eye to freshness, smart combinations and the occasional salute to cultural tradition. Chef Téllez offers a ceviche de jurel con pepino, limón y salicornia: Chunks of rosy yellowtail repose on a pool of tart aromatic dressing. The salicornia, a salt-water loving plant, is strewn about, imparting its briny bite. But the fish is barely macerated, if at all, and the result is more like a sauced sashimi. This preparation strayed far from the ceviche tradition — interesting, but in my mind a bit off the mark.
– Not far away, in the even trendier Colonia Roma, is Máximo Bistrot Local, a newcomer on everyone’s list. Chef Eduardo García worked at Le Bernardin in New York, and at Mexico City’s chichi food temple, Pujol, so he knows something about fish. A Mexican, he loves a traditional ceviche. His version, made with octopus and sea urchin, hits all the marks. The understated salsa tatemada, made with charred chilies, sets off the two distinctive ocean creatures in a thought-provoking whirl of heady aromas, like a Bach fugue. This is a ceviche for the 21st century — thumbs up.
– All of these ceviches, which range from the humbly noble to the gloriously creative, satisfied different parts of the gastronomic brain. There was no best. So I offer my own version, a compromise between the beach and Le Cordon Bleu. Perhaps, as Dorothy of “The Wizard of Oz” discovered, the answer was at home all along.
Ceviche de Pescado, Pacific Style
½ cup fresh orange juice
½ cup lime juice
½ cup tomato, seeds and pulp removed, in a ¼-inch dicer
¼ cup finely chopped sweet onion (such as Vidalia), or shallot
2 tablespoons good olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1 jalapeño (or to taste) finely chopped
1 teaspoon grated orange rind
a pinch each of sea salt, pepper and oregano
½ to ¾ pound fish (sea bass, snapper, or another firm white fish), cut in ½-inch cubes
1. Combine all ingredients except fish, in a glass or ceramic bowl; leave for at least 15 minutes for flavors to blend.
2. Add fish and let macerate for one hour. Serve in small bowls or on tostadas, preferably freshly fried (from yesterday’s tortillas). Top with thin slices of avocado.
Top photo: Octopus and sea urchin ceviche at Máximo Bistro. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
Poland. Just the mention conjures chilly, bleak landscapes and bombed-out cities rebuilt by Communists in grim, no-nonsense style — a place you want to leave, not visit. Or so I thought until I went there.
Upon arrival you exit the airport and trudge down a dreary road flanked by barbed wire to a train station, a set of tracks and a small shelter, where a woman in a beige raincoat and a scarf waits with her suitcase. Perhaps these are the same tracks that once served the camps just an hour away.
Things start to look up in downtown Krakow. Unlike Warsaw, the city was unscathed by wartime bombs. The old Renaissance-era center, which has been restored in recent years, survives. Wawel Castle sits peacefully like a storybook picture atop its hill, surveying the scene. Restaurants, shops and bars line street after street of eclectic 18th- and 19th-century buildings. A music scene thrives in underground jazz clubs filled with tourists from all over the globe.
A market illuminates a culture
In a new town, the first thing I look for is the market. Seeing what people eat gives you an insight into their culture. I didn’t expect much from a Polish market, in fact I didn’t even expect there to be one. But there are indeed two large open markets in downtown Krakow. Entering the Stary Kleparz market is like stepping through Alice’s looking glass, into a vanished world — that of old New York.
When I grew up in Manhattan, old-style Jewish delicatessens flourished. Every neighborhood seemed to host one, magical places with a signature mix of scents — oily smoked fish, garlicky pickles, fresh baked bagels and caraway-dotted rye bread. Chickens twirled and roasted in the window. The glass case and counter afforded a spectacular view of bins of fresh gleaming coleslaw, potato salad, pickled and creamed herring, bright and muted olives, pickles, tangy cucumber salad, creamy rice pudding.
There were Katz’s and Ratner’s and of course, Zabar’s, the place Woody Allen made famous. Until the 1970s, this celebrated Upper West Side venue was a small and simple Jewish deli. Back then, the wait at the smoked fish counter, where pushy customers lined up six-deep, was interminable. Portly, gruff voiced patrons scolded equally rough countermen for slicing the nova too thin or too thick. “Com’on, Murray, you know how I like it!”
Now only a few old-time delis remain in Manhattan, and their style has changed. Zabar’s sells more balsamic vinegar and white lasagna than lox and cream cheese. The ‘new New Yorkers’ don’t know from matzo balls.
So entering the ‘old’ Kleparz market in Krakow is a mind-blowing experience. It becomes immediately apparent that tradition lives on here; it’s like a New York deli circa 1964. This is the source. There are few Jews now in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus or Russia, the countries from which many New York Jews had emigrated, and one might assume their food had disappeared with them. But here it is in all its appetizing glory.
From flowers and cheese to smoked venison
Despite the chilly weather, shoppers browsed the aisles of this vibrant traditional marketplace. An old-timer donning a jaunty cap sold perfumy bunches of lilacs for about $1, competing with a babushka-clad lady across the way. An ancient crone, nary a tooth in her head, proffered soft, white fresh cheeses, while her neighbor sold pretty molded smoked versions from a basket.
Vegetables were as limited as one might expect during springtime in Northern Europe, but those available were of fine quality. Bright green cucumbers looked off-the-vine fresh, as did leeks, parsley, lettuce, cabbage and the requisite dill; fruits looked imported. Some potatoes — yellow, white, reddish — were as big as grapefruits, others small as marbles.
Best of all: the deli food
But what stole the show was the elaborate deli food, proudly prepared, displayed and consumed. Rows of brilliantly colored salads are on display, some familiar, others more exotic: herring in tomato sauce, Greek style cod, Hawaiian herring. One whose label Google translated simply as ‘vegetable’ turned out to be archetypal New York coleslaw.
The preserved fish counter, whose smoky pungency was discernable from ten yards away, seemed a re-creation of Zabar’s, even though it’s the other way around. Smoked salmon, whole and in chunks, translucent white sturgeon, blue-striped oily mackerels — it was all there. At the end of this aquatic display a few familiar packages of pre-sliced lox were tossed along with a couple of jars of creamed herring. At the bread stand, hunks of exemplary rye with textbook perfect golden crusts were offered alongside dark pumpernickel and bagel-like rolls.
The charcuterie stand had more than 100 items, including a foot-long krakowska, the local specialty, a narrow, deep red, tightly pack hunk of pork redolent of garlic and hot pepper. And, of course, the paradigmatic Polish kielbasa, in multiple variations from pale white to deep crimson.
Thriving markets are the soul and essence of a great city, bringing a warm humanity to an otherwise alienating, detached environment. For one Jewish New Yorker nostalgic for the sights and sounds of his vanished youth, Krakow’s market was a homecoming.
Top photo: Kielbasa at Stary Kleparz in Krakow. Credit: Nicholas Gilman