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.

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.

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.

Grace Rubenstein

Aurelia has run this little stand for 40 years. She wears pearl earrings and looks satisfied as she digs her bare hands into piles of meat in metal vats over hot coals, serving plate after plate. A young couple across the table has come from Oaxaca city just to eat here.

From Aurelia's puesto, you press past piles of fruits and vegetables to reach the butcher stalls. They're easy to find -- just follow the haze of smoke wafting into the rafters. Sheets of thin-sliced, deep-red beef called tasajo lie stacked on the stall counters; long ropes of chorizo links and stringy tripe hang from bars above them. As a delicate foreigner, it's best to ignore how the butchers busily swat flies off their meat.

Columba, a stout young woman from Tlacolula, cheerfully cuts a small piece of tasajo and tosses it on her grill. Her slim aunt Juanita, at the next stall, does the same with a link of chorizo. When it's done, a bite of the tasajo makes me wish I ate beef more often -- simple, richly flavorful, juicy, and salty (salt is its only seasoning). The chorizo, by contrast, is powerfully spiced and delectably greasy, stuffed by this butcher family with cumin, onion, garlic, cinnamon, and guajillo chili.

It's approaching 4 p.m. and time is running out. A couple hours from now, the market will vaporize in a blur of hand carts and pickup trucks, leaving Tlacolula just a country town again.

Now I've done it. My tongue delights, but my meat-phobic Californian stomach is starting to object. That means it's time for a dose of Oaxaca's best digestive: mezcal. "It kills all your bugs," Jorge had explained earlier this morning. Oaxacans typically drink it before a heavy meal to settle their stomachs. Or anytime, just to get wasted.

Back up the main street and past the church again is Pensamiento mezcal, at No. 9 Benito Juárez. This family operation goes back 70 years. Its name means "thought," an activity that the liquor is remarkably swift at obliterating. Praying for a recovery, I sit on the curb and sip a free sample of their reposado. It's around noon.

Mezcal is tequila-like, as both liquors come from varieties of the agave plant. But mezcal, made from the maguey, is smoky and rougher. To make it, mezcaleros cook the plant with hot rocks in pits in the ground, then crush it, ferment it, and distill it in copper drums. It catches and burns in your throat, yet floods your mouth with flavor.

Within a half hour or so, I feel renewed. My wimpy tummy has been whipped into shape. "Me salvaron la vida," I tell the men running the shop. "You saved my life." They understand.

Further recovery comes with tejate. This non-alcoholic drink predates the Spaniards' arrival in the Western Hemisphere. The sweet, nutty, milky concoction is mixed with bare hands and made from a ground-up blend of corn flour, cacao beans, the seed of the mamey fruit, and a flower called flor de cacao -- a recipe that exemplifies "the alchemy that occurs in the Oaxacan kitchen," Trilling writes in her cookbook, Seasons of My Heart. The mamey oils create a creamy foam on top. Indigenous women sell it from ceramic vats throughout the market. Locals say tejate can cure hangovers, revive the malnourished, and make men more virile (which sounds dangerous when combined with mezcal).

Tejate in hand, this is a chance to take a breather to appreciate the incredible non-edible creations all around -- hand-woven wool rugs from nearby Teotitlán del Valle, Earth-red bowls from San Marcos Tlapazola, and intricately carved wooden molinillos from all over the place. The latter look like a Medieval children's toy, but really they're for frothing cups of supremely Oaxacan hot chocolate.

If you want to see -- and more importantly, smell -- that chocolate being made, press farther down the main street. Beyond the market building, turn left on Calle Santos Degollado, where you'll find a crowd of women jostling for their turn at the mills at Molinos y Chocolates del Valle. Each Oaxacan homemaker has her own recipe, a certain combination of ground cacao, sugar, cinnamon, and almonds. You can sip some, served with a dry egg bread called pan de yema, at any of the barbacoa spots inside the market building. The aroma of dark, toasted cocoa outside the Molinos could make all your cares go away.

There are a few more essential things I must try before I cry uncle. First are the fruits of the comal. The comals are metal griddles several feet wide, fired with wood coals and stained white with powdered lime to keep the masa from sticking. Women working deftly with bare hands cook gigantic tortillas fresh and stuff them with rich fillings to make empanadas or (with cheese) quesadillas. They're all over the market, and any one will do.

I try two classically Oaxacan preparations: amarillo and flor de calabaza. The amarillo, which means "yellow," is really more orange, a thick, mildly spicy sauce of guajillo chili, garlic, onion, cumin, clove, and black pepper. The women mix it with shredded chicken, cilantro, and herbaceous hierbasanta leaf. Flor de calabaza is squash blossom, which grows in abundance here year-round. The cooks combine the delicate, sweet flowers with a tangy string cheese called quesillo and a bitter leaf called epazote to make a quesadilla that approaches perfection.

It's approaching 4 p.m. now, and time is running out. A couple hours from now, the market will vaporize in a blur of hand carts and pickup trucks, leaving Tlacolula just a country town again.

Lining Calle Galeana, along the front edge of the market building, are the traditional diners called comedores. Food-wise, these are the one-stop shops within the one-stop shop, where women with experienced hands make every luscious dish for which Oaxaca is famous -- mole negro, mole coloradito, estofado, tlayudas, and chiles rellenos. This is what I've been working up to.

The street vendors outside recommend No. 5, Comedor Mary. It's bright and airy, with multicolored tablecloths. At the back, a dozen or so thick sauces bubble in white pots on the stove. The chef is Elsa Luis Morales, whose great-grandmother Maria started the business 90 years ago.

I ask for a selection of everything. With pleasure, Elsa sets before me several plates splashed with patches of color worthy of a Mark Rothko painting. First comes mole coloradito, a sweet-hot sauce made from the ubiquitous guajillo chili. As with most moles, it's served with chicken, rice, and an impossibly tall stack of warm tortillas.

The chile relleno, per tradition, is a pasilla pepper stuffed with shredded chicken, almonds, olives, and raisins, and fried in egg batter. Elsa's could be a medal winner. The sweetness of the chicken mix perfectly offsets the pasilla's decisive kick.

But the best -- the best of all in Oaxaca -- I save for last.

With the first few bites of Elsa's mole negro, I'm inclined to close my eyes. The sweetness, spiciness, and smokiness of this almost-black puree exactly equal each other. The numerous ingredients include four kinds of toasted chilies, almonds, peppercorns, cloves, and dark Oaxacan chocolate, but each of them gives up its own identity to the blend. Mole negro tastes like all your best memories -- wood smoke from a chimney on a crisp fall day, your favorite piece of candy as a kid, or a sultry kiss you've been waiting for.

"Making food is making a work of art," Elsa says.

Vendors are packing up their stalls as I walk out, gently coming down from my Oaxacan-food climax. The life-savers at Pensamiento mezcal, though, are still there and offering free samples.

"Drink up!" the lineup of little bottles seems to say; along with legions of villagers lugging wares back to their pueblos, you can take the bus home.

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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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