A Salute to Mexico’s Unusual Edibles
(This article was written for Vallarta Tribune, edition # 1163.)
One of the truly gratifying aspects of walking into a traditional market in Mexico is the enormous array of edibles one is bound to find. By traditional, of course, I mean the mercado municipal, or municipal market commonly found in just about any town or city in the country. Some are small and simple, in accordance with the size of the town. Others, such as Guadalajara’s legendary Mercado San Juan de Dios, are multi-level shopping extravaganzas with entire sections devoted to specialty products; from exotic fruits and vegetables to counterfeit designer clothes; from fresh meat (including cow parts you probably can’t imagine eating) to live animals. With 40,000 square-meters of shopping, it is, after all, the largest indoor market in Latin America.
Whenever I find myself in Guadalajara, I try to stop by for a visit, if anything, just to take in the lively atmosphere, or the vendors enticing shoppers to buy something from their booths in a quasi-singing chant. And if I’m traveling anywhere else in Mexico, a visit to the town or city’s municipal market is a must for me.
What about grasshoppers? Well, in most cases it is at the mercados that you’ll find the most traditional (and sometimes unusual) items that are part of the Mexican diet. Including grasshoppers. Dried grasshoppers are consumed throughout Mexico and can be found in many markets. In Puerto Vallarta, they are served at Mexican specialty restaurants, such as El Arrayan, and it’s always fun trying to dare visitors to try them (they are served in quesadillas).
What about those worms found at the bottom of mezcal bottles? We eat those too. Gusanos de maguey (maguey being the plant used to make mezcal, tequila and raicilla) feed on the leaves of the plants and are often added to the liquor bottles as a sign of authenticity. Some even swear by their aphrodisiac properties!
Then there are those flying ants that take over our living spaces when the rain season begins, attracted to any light source. We call them chicatanas, and in the state of Oaxaca, they are a huge delicacy. They are usually ground into a chile paste and turned into a unique salsa. Meanwhile, in Puebla, ant larvae (known as escamoles) is served at the finest restaurants between March and May. And in Yucatan, it is not uncommon to find clear sugar lollypops with black scorpions or escamoles ‘frozen’ inside them. The dare, of course, is to get past the sweet flavor of the lollipop to then taste the woody flavor of the insects. Let’s not get into beetles. There are over 80 edible species in Mexico.
Let’s switch over to the fruit department. Like many countries around the world, Mexico produces a huge variety of fruits you may have never heard of and a few that you know well. A trip to a Mexico City mercado with a New Englander friend of mine comes to mind. At a single fruit stand, a vendor allowed us to try five different mango varieties, each with subtle differences in flavor, sweetness and texture.
The cactus fruit is called tuna, and is not to be confused with the fish, which in Spanish is called atun. Tunas, or prickly pears, are commonly found in supermarkets. Peeling them is easy, although some varieties feature tiny, almost invisible needles, so it is important to hold them with a plastic bag or gloves as you cut them. This is why they are frequently sold pre-peeled and in plastic bags on the street. They are low in calories and an excellent source of Vitamin C. Chew them carefully as tunas contain many small seeds that are perfectly ok to swallow. In fact, you want to swallow the seeds as they are good for your digestive system.
Have you driven down the Libramiento or the highway and seen vendors selling neatly stacked, oval-shaped fruits that look like avocadoes, but are light brown in color? We call those mamey. They are eaten raw or blended in a smoothie and have a starchy, honey-like flavor. To eat them raw, you slice them in half, remove the giant seed, and hold one half in one hand as you use a spoon to carve bite-size portions with the other. Mamey ice cream is delicious, somewhat similar to pecan!
There are many other unique fruits available throughout Mexico, and we haven’t even talked about vegetables! What’s important here is that you broaden your comfort level at your own pace and try some of the edible wonders available here. If they are served at a restaurant, trust your waiter or chef and indulge in a new experience. And if you decide to wander into a local mercado, Puerto Vallarta has several. Going with a Spanish-speaking local will help you immerse yourself in the local culture with ease!
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