Mexico City dishes out tantalising street food. Angela Goh tours the vibrant markets and explores a residential heartland for authentic flavours “AN important experience here is the food,” said a contact, who phoned me from Mexico City weeks before my arrival. “The best though is the simple street food but I wonder if you are comfortable with that,” sounding somewhat apprehensive.
Assuaging his fears, I told him of the equally strong street food culture in Malaysia, our obsession with food and our literal hands-on approach to eating. These crucial traits connect us easily to the people and culture.
The food scene is familiar. On a busy street, well-dressed professionals gather by a food vendor, standing up or sitting on a plastic stool while eating off a plastic plate.
The scene may be rustic but the food comes with credentials. In 2010, Unesco recognised Mexico’s traditional cuisine as an intangible cultural heritage, the first national cuisine to garner that honour.
To further boost tourism, a national drive to promote its gastronomy was unleashed last August by President Enrique Pena Nieto under the banner Ven a Comer (Come and Eat). Certainly an enticing offer few can resist.
Embark on an urban culinary adventure with a food tour. More than just to gather gastro intelligence such tours are highly immersive and interactive.
Typically in small groups (generally no more than 10), the tours are mainly half-day affairs, taking up to four or five hours either in the morning or afternoon. Each involves walking, sightseeing, and tasting at a combination of stalls, cafes and restaurants.
The food outlets are carefully selected to avoid upsetting tourist stomachs but with our street food-accustomed tummies we have little to worry.
Indulge in more than just one to savour several distinctive neighbourhoods. The common food trail covers the touristy historic centre and trendy enclaves of Roma, Condesa and Polanco. Purists and purveyors of good food, however, will desirably eschew these well-regarded haunts to discover lesser known gems unlisted in major travel guidebooks.
SANTA MARIA LA RIBERA
For the real deal, I divert from the tried and tested culinary path to sample conventional fare in an unconventional location, Santa Maria la Ribera. This quiet, leafy neighbourhood, whose name packs a mouthful, is 4km from the city centre and is one of the earliest planned housing estates.
A young, intelligent Bernardo Ortiz Jr. (or better known as Kuny) guides me on a customised private tour of this traditional residential borough, where he lives with his parents. They operate a boutique tour outfit, Netouring.
In the capable hands of this neighbourhood “insider” original Mexican standard is assured with not a tour bus in sight. The rustic dishes may not be photogenic but you are rewarded with honest flavours, unpretentious appeal and down to earth prices.
We meet at the area’s landmark Forum Buenavista mall, the usual sleek modern shopping monstrosity filled with chain stores of international brands. This is the new face of a neighbourhood which had its heydays in the 1930s.
“It has evolved from first attracting the wealthy and intellectuals, later the middle to lower income residents moved in when cheaper housing was built,” says Kuny, as we stroll a few blocks away from the mall to feast first on graffiti art, for which Mexico is world-acclaimed. We spot several from the masked professional wrestler Blue Demon to stylised Aztec symbols and abstract works.
Having worked up an appetite we make our way to the old centre of town, stopping first for a taco.
The ubiquitous taco is a classic street cuisine. In its simplest form a taco is comprised of corn tortilla topped with your choice of meat and condiments, then fold into half for eating.
Tortas Rio Sella is a corner shop with space enough only for a kitchen. Patrons sit at a narrow counter, pack or eat standing up, as we do. Though popular for hearty torta sandwiches, I opt for the less-filling taco campechanos topped with meltingly tender mixed meat, potato and strips of cactus, which resemble capsicum.
The highly nutritious pads of the prickly pear cactus called nopales are commonly eaten as vegetable. The name prickly pear actually refers to the edible cactus fruit similar to the small soft guava.
Across the main square Alameda de Santa Maria is the tiny restaurant Oaxaca Aqui. As the name indicates, it proffers dishes from the southern province of Oaxaca, the country’s culinary powerhouse. Calling itself the land of seven moles, you must try at least one.
The mole (mo-lay) refers to both a sauce and a dish. Used as a paste base for a stew or as a sauce to be poured over meat, mole consists principally of chilli, sesame seeds, tomatoes, dried fruit, nuts and when combined with a slew of other ingredients such as chocolate and pumpkin seeds, result in different variations.
Oaxaca Aqui’s yellow mole beef stew is robust and peppery, giving a slight boost to the senses. Either slurp the stew on its own or soak it up with the warm, soft corn tortilla (a usual accompaniment to many dishes).
“The neighbourhood has attracted many migrants not only from different parts of Mexico but also from other countries. Some of them have established ethnic cuisine restaurants such as this place,” says Kuny.
“With a richer cultural landscape the neighbourhood is starting to become more cosmopolitan.” A clutch of international restaurants have sprouted much to the delight of residents.
Our final stop is at the street food stalls outside the National Polytechnic Institute where Kuny studied. The pavement is cramped with food stands, overflowing with every imaginable classic dish.
At makeshift stalls, equipped with plastic chairs and foldable tables, cooks whip up a frenzy of quesadillas (cheese-filled tacos cooked on a griddle), gorditas (deep fried small cakes made with corn dough with cheese, meat fillings), pozole (corn soup) and more.
We observe the preparation of pambazo, a huge sandwich common in central Mexico. “It gets the name from the bread which is soaked in salsa and stuffed with mash potatoes, meat, cheese and lettuce,” Kuny explains.
A noteworthy dish is chilaquiles, “a renowned hangover remedy.” The dish consists of corn tortillas cut into small pieces, then fried and drenched with red or green salsa or mole. “It’s believed that the spicier the chilli the better,” he says, with much conviction.
Whether you are full or not filled, a takeaway is still a wise option, more so when there’s an expert to help with culinary choices.
By the end of the tour, my dinner is already sorted. It is a sumptuous feast of sope de cochinita (fried tortilla topped with meat, lettuce and refried beans) packed from the charming, historic La Casa de Tono restaurant and a spicy green mole tamal stuffed with anchovies from a tamales shop-factory.
A tamal is a steamed dumpling-like corn mix wrapped in corn husk or banana leaf. It tastes sweet (fruit flavoured) or savoury depending on the region. “The version from Chiapas consists of almonds and bell pepper, while Veracruz style contains chipotle, fish or chicken,” explains Kuny, as we peruse a list of tamales at the shop.
This underrated neighbourhood looks destined to be a new dining hub, enticing those looking for a sedate place to unwind.
“Being in the central part of Mexico City, Santa Maria la Ribera is poised to be an inexpensive yet sophisticated cultural offer.”
MARKETS FOR FOLKS AND WITCHES
I join a group tour of the markets when I happen to find one which only two other tourists sign up. This is one of the perks of travelling during October’s low season.
I meet the other two, a couple from the UK at Madero Street near the Zocalo and from there we walk a few blocks to Abelardo L. Rodriguez Market, a thriving traditional public market. The market’s biggest draw is the murals by students of muralist, Diego Rivera. The works, which cover the ceilings and walls, generally depict socialist themes.
For breakfast, we head for tamales stall #219 next to one of the main entrances to the market, distinguished by a long queue in the morning. I order my favourite green mole tamal, which pales against the one from Santa Maria la Ribera as very little mole is used.
In the market proper, the display of fresh produce is a colourful spectacle. Then we realise why salsa and guacamole taste so good here. The base ingredients are Mexican varieties such as serrano pepper, tree pepper, jalapeno, coriander, small green tomato, white onion and avocado.
The Mexican avocado, for instance, is lighter in taste and texture, such that it doesn’t offend this avid avoider of avocado.
Next is by taxi to Sonora market or better known as the witches market. It looks like a normal market except for the goods being sold — spices, potions, figurines, incense, voodoo dolls, amulets and animals — essential items for witchcraft. As we enter, a van load of sacrificial lamb passes, their bleating cries make grim greeting.
A quick getaway from the eerie place is on the Metro train. The extensive network (the second largest in the Americas behind New York City’s subway) offers the fastest and cheapest way to bypass the traffic-clogged roads.
Jamaica market is one stop away. The name Jamaica refers to the hibiscus flower which is commonly made into syrup. The market houses a flower wholesale section and the normal fresh produce area.
Among the labyrinth of pathways are mounds of mole paste in varying shades, different types of corn kernels, stacks of corn husks to wrap tamales, cut up pads of prickly pear cactus and more.
Then it is time for a pit stop of barbecued lamb taco. The lamb is tenderly cooked to perfection and washes down well with freshly squeezed juice of pineapple, guava, alfalfa and bearberry (pinguica) seeds, a medicinal herb.
For dessert or snack, try fried grasshoppers. Don’t squirm, these crunchy, salty source of high protein have been a staple before the Spanish introduced farmed animals. As host to the world’s highest number of edible insects, Mexico is an insect-eating hub.
My trip coincides with the country’s most important celebration, the Day of the Dead or All Souls’ Day on Nov 1. In the days running up to that there are special mildly sweet “bread of the dead” (pan de muerto), decorated with bone markings and treats including skull-shaped sweets and chocolates.
Nothing elevates an experience as much as good food. In Mexico, not tasting the food is like not visiting at all.