A Foreigner’s Guide to Mexico City's Markets

Foolproof tips on how to act like a local at Mexico City’s markets

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

Markets are the ideal place to find souvenirs and authentic flavors of Mexico.

When one thinks of Mexico, a few distinct things usually come to mind: tacos, tequila, sombreros, beaches, colorful dresses, and of course, markets. Chilean poet Pablo Neruda once said, "Mexico is in its markets." The aroma of fresh-cut flowers, bubbling sauces, fish, and meat waft through the air as you travel down row after row. Indigenous women with their long gray braids and regional dress approach from every angle to offer their colorful textiles, foraged bugs, or hand-pressed tortillas and men sing out hoping to capture the wandering shopper by guaranteeing the best price. Piles of aromatic chiles, paper piñatas, draping tapestries, hanging meat (most with the heads still on), produce stands resembling Aztec temples, women behind steaming cazuelas of moles, men wielding cleavers and stuffing tortillas — this is Mexico.

There are two types of markets within Mexico: mercados públicos, or fixed markets, and tianguis, pop-up markets. These markets can be a bit overwhelming for any foreigner, so here is a general guide that will help in any market throughout the country.

Just about everything in Mexico is weighed and sold by the kilo. However, there is no need to be fully versed in what a kilo of limes looks like — you can just ask. "Me muestras un kilo?" means, "Will you show me one kilo?" If you are satisfied with what the owner shows you, just say, "Me da un kilo por favor" (I will take one kilo please). If you would prefer half, simply say, "Me llevo medio kilo" (I will take half a kilo). As a general rule:

Limes (large): 18 to 20 per kilo

Avocados: 5 per kilo

Figs: 8-10 for half a kilo

Guavas (large): 8 per kilo

Potatoes (medium-sized): 4 per kilo

Tomatoes: 3-6 (depending on size) per kilo

Mexican Squash: 6 per kilo

There are two produce items one must never pass up while in Mexico: squash blossoms and huitlacoche. Pronounced huít-la-co-che, the mysterious-looking gray/black fungus grows on corn and is sold front and center at just about every stand in the market. This fungus is the truffle of Mexico! Try not to head back north without chowing down on squash blossom or huitlacoche quesadillas — you won’t be sorry.

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When it is time to buy meat or poultry, don’t worry! The chicken is meant to be yellow and the meat sitting out on the counter is fresh (typically). In Mexico, farmers often feed their chickens marigolds, turning their skin a dark yellow color. This is a service-driven country, so take advantage! Tell the butcher exactly how you want your bird, "entero" (whole), "pedasos" (pieces), "solo pechugas" (just breasts), or "para milanesas" (for milanesas, which means pounded thin). Just like with chicken, when you are looking for pork, beef, lamb, or goat, tell the butcher what cut of meat you want and how you want it. If you don’t know how to say it, you can always point.