A Foreigner's Guide To Mexico City's Markets

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.

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.

Now for the proverbial icing on the Mexican cake: dried chiles! Chiles (as well as spices) are sold by the gram, but it's good to tell the merchant the exact number of chiles you're looking for, for example, "Me da cinco chiles de arbol por favor" (give me five chiles de arbol please). Not all chiles are alike, and just because they are dry does not mean they don't pack a punch. Chile de arbol is a long, thin red chile that can be really spicy. A chipotle is a dried, smoked jalapeño and is typically beige in color. A morita chile is dark red in color and shriveled looking; it poses the smokiness of a chipotle with about half the heat. Chile cascabel (named for the bell sound it makes when you shake it) is a mild chile with a pleasantly nutty flavor. The chile ancho comes from the poblano and is arguably Mexico's most popular chile; it is large and deep red and possesses a medium heat and loads of flavor. Last on our list we have the chile guajillo, a flat reddish-brown chile that's another one of Mexico's king chiles. When cooking with any dried chile, be sure to toast it first and reconstitute it in water or grind it down into a dry powder. Chiles are used in making everything from a variety of salsas to condiments to moles, so if you plan on cooking Mexican food, you better learn your chiles.

Now that you are fluent in market vernacular, it is time to pick a market. If you are looking for an authentic Mexican food adventure, look no further than the Mercado de San Juan in downtown Mexico City. This market is a one-stop-shop for everything on your list; produce, butter, whole birds, whole pigs, fresh seafood, exotic chiles — they have it all! If you have seafood on the brain and want to see every option Mexico has to offer, head over to La Nueva Viga. This is Mexico's premier fish market and everything caught from Baja to the gulf is flown in fresh every morning where it is sold and dispersed throughout the country. La Merced, also found downtown, is quite possibly the cheapest of the three markets and has more variety. Here you can shop for souvenirs, pick up groceries, and grab a quick bite to eat. The quality is not as high as you would find in the Mercado de San Juan, so it might be smart to stick to produce. Lastly there is the Central de Abasto, the market that feeds every single market in the city and is the largest market of its kind in the world. Go here in a group and only if you are looking for 25 chickens and 15 kilos of potatoes — think of it as your Mexican Costco.

Markets are the ideal place to find souvenirs to bring the flavors of Mexico home. Pick up a jar of freshly made cajeta (goat milk caramel), candies, mole paste, or native chiles. As you walk down the aisle of whatever market you choose to visit, make sure to stop for a taco and steaming cup of atole; some memories are best eaten on the spot.