Mercado de Cholula
Sunday mornings in Mexico are strange. It's apocalyptically silent: streets are empty, stores are closed, even stray animals are too tired to roam the alleys. The only sound that can be heard is that of church bells, and it's pretty much a guarantee that even there, most of the people are hung over. It's Sunday, a day of rest and a time to spend with family. Things are slow-paced and laid back. One place is an exception, however: the local market. Almost all towns have some form of a mercado central, a market where fresh local fruits and vegetables are sold, as well as an abundance of smoothies, snacks and homemade foods for comida. While the rest of the city is asleep, the football-sized market rings with knives chopping, customers shouting, and and the satisfying sound of hundreds of crisp tortilla shells cracking all at once.
The closest market to where I've been staying here is the Mercado Central de Cholula. It always has something great on the menu. While it's open every day, Sundays are the busiest which means fresher foods: things sit for a lot less. Vendors sell fresh pico de gallo and deep-fried chicharrones made to order.
Some of the stands are equipped with stools and tables so the foods can be eaten in place. The lunch of choice is a cemita, the local sandwich created just a few miles away in the state's capital, Puebla. The sandwich consists of thinly pounded deep-fried chicken or beef, generous slices of avocado, quesillo, white onions and salsa roja. Often red peppers or chipotle are added. The cemita always has a signature egg-based bun sprinkled with sesame seeds. The bun is slightly crispy and very airy, yet supportive enough to carry the overflowing abundance of vegetables and cheese. The texture of quesillo is similar to queso oaxaca, a stringy cheese with the texture of mozzarella.
Bread vendors, particularly around Día de los Muertos (day of the dead), bake pan de muertos, a sweetened bread shaped like a bun sold throughout the entire country. The bread is often sprinkled with sesame seeds or sugar and garnished with a crucifix. It comes in all sizes big and small. The bread makes a tasty snack but dries out very quickly, so be sure to buy some early in the morning.
Around a few turns and past many people one can find whole cinnamon sticks sold by the kilogram for a fair price. Mexico is one of the largest importers of cinnamon in the world, particularly for its use in Mexican desserts. The smell of cinnamon can be smelled hundreds of feet away; the sticks smell warm and spicy, a reminder of autumn.
Another highlight of the market are the quecas de huitlacoche con flor de calabaza, forest green tortillas of huitlacoche filled with quesillo and zucchini flower. These giant vegetarian quesadillas are as pretty as they are delicious. The fattiness of the cheese prevents the huitlacoche from tasting overly sandy, bringing all the ingredients together in harmony. All the tortillas are handmade with a base of corn.
Tacos de barbacoa de borrego can be found towards the back of the market, corn tortillas filled with slow-roasted sheep meat and garnished with fresh cilantro and salsa verde. Barbacoa is traditionally slow-cooked over an open fire pit dug in the dirt. The slow cooking process ensures a smoky flavor with a soft and stringy texture that is full of moisture. The slightly acidic cool salsa verde cuts through the hot fatty meat, brightening the flavor and adding temperature and textural diversity. The cilantro just makes everything taste fresh and exciting. The double-layered tacos are made from pure maize. Upon close examination, one can see the gritty stretch marks from hand-kneading the dough into tortillas. These are outstanding.
A trip to Cholula would not be complete with a visit to the Mercado Central. Sure, the city also has the world's largest pyramid, but what good is sightseeing on an empty stomach.