Beyond the Sea: Mexico’s Biggest Fish Market

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in: Travel

Assorted fish at Mercado de la Nueva Viga. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

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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The smell is lightly aquatic, salty, sea-weedy. Only on occasion does a breeze molest with a “bad fish” stench. The market, which caters to 25,000 visitors daily, opens about 4 a.m. and starts winding down by 10 a.m., but some vendors stay open into the early afternoon to serve latecomers.

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.

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Four kinds of shrimp spread out at the Mercado de la Nueva Viga, Mexico City’s central wholesale/retail fish market. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

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


Zester Daily contributor Nicholas Gilman is a founding member of a Mexican chapter of Slow Food International, the author of "Good Food in Mexico City: A Guide to Food Stalls, Fondas and Fine Dining" and served as editor and photographer for the book "Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler." He has a website, goodfoodmexicocity.com, and has appeared extensively on radio and TV in the U.S. and Mexico. He lives in Mexico City.

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Jorge Canavati
on: 4/24/13
excellent article

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