You can always spot a tianguis, or outdoor market, in Mexico. They spring up as if by magic, sealing off streets and causing tangles of traffic. Trucks and cars are double and triple-parked by entrepreneurial attendants expecting 50 centavos or a dollar for their services. Plastic awnings, blue, yellow, or most often, red, enclose the rows of stalls as thoroughly as concrete encloses a shopping mall, casting everything inside with improbable tints. The strains of the latest pirated CD compete with the gossip of the shoppers and the calls of the merchants: “Que vas a llevar?” “What are you going to take?”
The word tianguis comes from tianquiztli, the indigenous Nahuatl word for market. While many of Mexico´s permanent markets built in the 1930s are suffering from lack of parking, aging wiring and plumbing, and vendors reluctant to change with the times, tianguises are booming. There are more than 1,300 in Mexico City alone, offering selections and prices that compete with Walmart and Costco and that change with the whims of their customers. Run by a loose association of merchants and a boss who decides what vendors get the prime spots, tianguises differ from farmers markets in that the vast bulk of their produce and meat are sourced from Mexico City’s enormous wholesale market, the Central de Abastos.
More fun than Walmart
My local tianguis, four blocks long and three or four aisles wide, springs up on Fridays at Avenida del Iman in the south of the city. It’s not the biggest; that distinction goes to San Felipe de Jesus, which covers 10 miles and houses 7,000 merchants. Nor is my tianguis the most up-market. Those are in areas such as hip, gentrifying La Condesa and Colonia Roma, where customers appreciate artesania and organic vegetables. In this lower middle-class neighborhood, shoppers are looking for what’s missing in the similarly priced Walmart Supercenters that dot the city: more fun, more contact with sellers, fresher fruits and vegetables, offal as well as muscle meat, specialties from their hometowns, those pirated CDs and counterfeit versions of up-market goods: Montblanc pens, Louis Vuitton bags and Yves St. Laurent ties. They like hunting through piles of secondhand clothing smuggled in from the U.S., greatly prized for being cheaper and of much better quality than locally produced garments, and appreciate the chance to have their nails manicured, their eyes examined and their pressure cookers mended.
Tianguis fruits and vegetables, most of which are Mexican grown, are invariably much fresher than the supermarket alternatives, which often look distinctly tired. In summer, there are ready-shelled peas, white corn kernels that are chewy and delicious when dry sauteed, huge bunches of watercress, crisp small green onions (cambray), tiny avocados with anise-scented skin and the round zucchini that have much more flavor than their cucumber-shaped cousins. Figs are in, melons are at their best, and the little wild cherries known as capulines that never appear in grocery stores make an appearance.
Pozole and shrimp cocktail
In the very middle of the tianguis, in the most strategic position, are long tables where you can sit with your plastic plate of fried fish; tacos of every kind; quesadillas stuffed with zucchini blossoms, cheese or beans; or a bowl of pozole, studded with pork and corn, rich with red or green chiles. Shrimp cocktail serves simultaneously as hangover cure and aphrodisiac. What more could you ask for?
Drink stalls are everywhere. Some have rows of glass jars filled with fruit water, agua fresca — tamarind, watermelon, lime — and horchata. Other stalls have licuados, milk and eggs prepared in a blender with fruits. And from a wooden barrel, you can get tepache, a wonderfully refreshing, lightly alcoholic drink of fermented pineapple that’s reminiscent of English cider and served in plastic bags with straws or, for a bit more money, plastic glasses.
At the seed stalls, you can pick up dried legumes, cacao beans, nuts, sticks of canela (true cinnamon) and little dried fish which can be eaten as snacks or made into tortitas (croquettes). Chia seeds, now best known in the U.S. for sprouting on pottery pigs, are floated in limeade, blossoming into gelatinous spheres, miniature copies of tapioca pearls in bubble tea. At the dairy stalls, between the plastic cups of rice and tapioca puddings, are fresh cheeses with epazote or green chile, unflavored yogurt, and joy, oh joy, nata, clotted cream to go on a roll for a late night snack.
PIgs feet and cracklings
The meat stalls offer the customers all the odd bits that the supermarkets do not carry. Here are pigs feet in abundance, ears if you want them, shanks to stew, half a head if brawn or headcheese is your fancy, tripe of all kinds, oxtails and hearts, and spinal cord to go in soup. The butchers will cut whatever piece you want, however big or small, on their heavy slab of tree trunk. Alongside is a vat of boiling oil into which pig skin with meat scored on the inside is plunged. Or you can buy just the cracklings to put into gorditas.
Vendors come from surrounding cities, bringing in their local specialties. Two girls from Puebla have a basket of egg-enriched traditional breads. A man from Toluca has neatly arranged rows of grilled freshwater fish wrapped in mixiote (the thin skin of the maguey plant). A couple from Oaxaca has set out green cherimoya and golden papaya. A man trundles a wheelbarrow full of fresh honey ready to be ladled into plastic pots. Other vendors take advantage of the latest product or gadget: popcorn or ramen noodles quickly prepared in a microwave, chocolate chip cookies hot from a convection oven. No sooner had chocolate fountains made their appearance in the United States than vendors set them up in the market, offering chocolate dipped fruits.
It has to be said that not everyone likes tianguises. Neighborhoods become impassible, piles of trash are left behind, and no one wants to inquire too deeply about all those Montblanc fakes. But as long as the markets offer customers the bread that they’ve missed since moving to the big city, the chocolate-dipped strawberries they have seen on TV, a family meal of fried fish, and the best papayas and oxtail, they are irreplaceable.
Rachel Laudan is a historian and freelance writer based in Mexico City. Her book, “The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary History“ earned her the Julia Child/Jane Grigson Prize from the International Assn. of Culinary Professionals, and she recently served as keynote speaker at the national meeting of Les Dames d’Escoffier. She is currently completing a book on the history of the world’s cuisines which will be published next year by the University of California Press.
Photos from top:
Canele (cinnamon), piloncillos (raw sugar cones) and honey for sale at Mexico City tianguis.
Freshly fried chicharron.
Credits: Rachel Laudan