The Pop-Up Food Shops of Oaxaca

Pulque, squash-blossom quesadillas, and fried grasshoppers. Just another day wandering the market in the village of Tlacolula de Matamoros, where street vendors sell just about everything.

Grace Rubenstein

When I am lucky enough to be in Oaxaca, I have a singular, unalterable purpose each Sunday. No matter how late I may have been out salsa dancing the night before, I get up and hoof it to a certain unmarked street corner by the Mexican-league baseball stadium. I squeeze myself, flesh to flesh, into a shared taxi with five oaxaqueños of wide-ranging ages, and we speed east toward the market in the village of Tlacolula de Matamoros.

This is my weekly journey into Oaxaca's soul -- and into its ever-surprising, delicious, intoxicating mouth, which is almost the same thing. "The markets are the thing that keeps Oaxaca Oaxaca," says chef, teacher, TV show host, and cookbook author Susana Trilling. "The markets are like the heartbeat of everything."

Oaxaca (say wah-HAH-kah) has taken a one-two punch to its reputation, first from the teacher strikes that turned violent in 2006 and now from the bloody drug war staining all of Mexico, although in reality this colorful southern state, and its capital city of the same name, remain quite safe. The Oaxacan people are hurting, scraping to get by with far less tourism.

As they struggle, they derive comfort and celebrate their still-strong identity through food -- theirs being one of the world's richest cuisines, rooted in fertile soil and more than a millennium of shifting indigenous civilizations, with a sprinkle of Spanish influence. And scarcely anywhere is the full diversity of that cuisine more visible (and taste-able) than the Sunday market in Tlacolula, where the main aisle alone is nearly half a mile long.

On my latest visit, I set out to try everything -- everything -- Tlacolula has to offer. With the right approach, you can treat the market as a one-stop buffet laden with Oaxaca's famous specialties. In its maze of aisles, you find tamales, chocolate, squash blossoms, chiles rellenos, sizzling meats, hard liquor, and several of the state's renowned seven moles, including mole negro, the queen of them all.

"From pre-Hispanic times the marketplace was always where people would bring what they had to sell to get other products," explains Trilling, founder of the Seasons of My Heart cooking school outside Oaxaca city. "They'd be there for a long time, so they'd eat."

Pulling away from the baseball stadium, I watch the familiar landscape roll by to the tune of bouncy Mexican ranchera music on the cab driver's radio. Beyond the city, heavily creased green mountains frame the flat, dry Tlacolula Valley, spotted with corn and cane fields and the gray-green spines of maguey. Periodically, a mezcal shop marks the turnoff to some little pueblo, its Spanish church spires just visible in the distance.

Twenty-five minutes out, we reach Tlacolula, which feels smaller than its population of 19,000 would suggest, and the cab drops us off at the Pemex station in the middle of town. A block down Avenida Benito Juárez, the market stalls begin.

The foodie's tour begins with a little necessary fuel: pulque. The tart, frothy brew made from the maguey plant is in vogue among the young and hip in Mexico City, but here in the South it's still poor man's liquor. And yes, it is traditional to swill the stuff before lunch.

Jorge, a young, jovial, seventh-generation pulque maker, is in his usual spot in front of the Movistar cellular store, a few hundred yards down on the right. For 10 pesos, or about 80 cents, he grabs a jicara, a traditional cup made from a dried gourd, and gives me an ample pour. I'm going to need it.

Like a sprawling, raucous pop-up shop, the Tlacolula market transforms a quiet country town into a throbbing metropolis of commerce. Stalls line the streets, which pulse with people, for blocks on end. Vendors string up blue tarps overhead to create shade. In Walmart fashion, you can get everything here -- mangoes, fresh herbs, live chickens, jeans, cowboy hats, pirated CDs, embroidered shirts, plastic dishes, and electric blenders.

People come from far-flung mountain villages, some traveling up to eight hours by bus to buy and sell. Women wear traditional long braids and embroidered aprons in designs that distinguish each village. Some still trade goods without money. The atmosphere is as much social as commercial, like doing your weekly shopping in the churchyard after Mass.

From the pulque stand, the main artery leads a few blocks south to the churchyard. The beige façade and pink-and-white belfries of the Templo de Nuestra Señora de la Asunciación de Tlacolula rise above an expansive, walled courtyard. Tamale sellers set up shop in the gateways in the high walls. In the southern gate sits Flor, a shy young woman selling tamales out of a woven basket.

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Tamales are a world-champion comfort food -- steaming-hot cornmeal stuffed with salsa and meat, laced with pork fat, and available on street corners from Cancún to Mexico City. Oaxaca, reputedly the birthplace of corn, is one of their most traditional homes. The state's myriad microclimates are also home to countless crops, some so specialized that certain chilies grow only in a single town. In rural villages, women still use traditional cooking tools, grinding corn by hand on stone slabs called metates and concocting sauces in a cazuela, or clay pot, over a wood fire. That's what you get at a market instead of a restaurant, says Trilling -- the sabor casera, that authentic, homemade taste.

I find a shady spot among the stone pathways, pine trees, and bougainvillea in the churchyard to eat. Flor's tamal de mole contains a spicy-sweet chili-chocolate mix tucked with shreds of chicken into a dense, smooth masa, or cornmeal paste. It's a little preview of the full mole meal to come later. A hungry visitor could go home happy now. But the tour has just begun.

Beyond the church is the municipal market building, the only permanent part of today's makeshift megastore. The entranceways are a good place to look for chapulines, fried grasshoppers. It helps to close your eyes and banish thoughts of little legs and wings from your mind when you try this favorite Oaxacan snack. The bugs are crunchy and come in flavors like garlic and chili-lime -- like Doritos, only with antennae.

Inside the market building I navigate past sheets of chicharrón, fried pork skin, taller than my head and plunge into the barbacoa wing, the mecca of meat.

In the cacophonous hall under a vaulted metal ceiling, Trilling's favorite purveyor, Aurelia Ramos, works under a sign reading "Puesto de Barbacoa Aurelia." Barbacoa is meat cooked over wood coals in a covered pit in the ground. I squeeze onto a crowded bench at a communal table, and before me lands a taco de burrego, or lamb taco. Crunchy, light cabbage, carrot, radish, and cilantro offset the chewy, sweet meat, with a kick from fresh green salsa.

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Grace Rubenstein is a reporter and multimedia producer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Parenting and Edutopia magazines.

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