(originally posted on “Maps and Solitude“)
Sometimes there are things you associate specifically with the cities you live in or visit on a regular basis. Mexico City has many such unique characteristics that I may return to in future posts but one of the things that I will always associate with it is the smell of corn. If Mexico City would have to bring out a signature perfume it would smell of corn (and maybe some vegetable oil). I mean there is already a town named after it. From this point on, only the sky is the limit. If I had to explain it the most basic way there is, then corn is in Mexico what dates are in the Middle East. Staple food.
Maybe it was for the various corn tortillas frying in the round, hot grill plates in the narrow streets. Or maybe it was all due to the fresh or dried tortillas that one could find in abundance at any supermarket. Or it was because almost any pastry in this town is somehow related to corn. If you don’t like pastries, there is still no way around the yellow vegetable for you. Ever wondered why the chicken meat here is always yellow? Well, guess what chickens are fed.
Even though my last visit was quite a while ago, I am not sure I still like to eat corn or anything made from it.
On Tuesdays there was finally a change of scenery for my corn-tortured taste buds. On Tuesdays, all the way down Pachuca street, stretched out a tremendous street market, luring in visitors with its colors and smells and the piercing cries of the local vendors.
It was a labyrinth of all sorts of goods with unusual names, bright colors and exotic scents. I walked past stands with fruit I could only find occasionally at my favorite Turkish supermarket in Berlin, or which I have never seen before to begin with, one of those being light green tomatoes or avocados with edible skins.
Elderly women with silver hair and white traditional dresses walked in the dense crowd, their braided baskets full of caramelized nuts. From time to time they would pick a shopper at random, Mexican or not, offering him or her a sweet treat for as little as 10 pesos.
The vendors at the stands all of whom were men on this particular ocassion addressed me with guapa, complimenting my natural beauty and held pieces of fruit out to me on the tips of kitchen knives. Some of them would literally run after their potential customers with their knives in hand and had there not been a piece fruit on the tips of their kitchen knives, one could have mistaken the whole ongoing for a murder scenario.
The numerous packets of medicinal charcoal which I had brought with me from Europe kept crossing my mind while I bit into a slice of avocado sprinkled with lime juice. The vendor had eventually caught up with me.
A few stands past the avocados lay stacks of round, light green cactus leaves. The Mexicans use the word nopal, originating from the ancient language Nahuatl to name it. The bundles were available for 10 pesos each (a common price for most things on Mexican markets). When faced with exotic foods, markets are the best if not the only place where you will always find someone to explain how to prepare this mysterious… fruit? plant? vegetable? How do you categorize a cactus anyway?
“Toss it in a pan with some onions, then add salt and pepper to it”, said the vendor and handed me my change along with a full plastic bag of cactus. Luckily at this point, my Spanish had gotten good enough to not ask for everything to be repeated twice.
Done as told, even without salt or pepper, the green leaves had a sour taste to them. I could have been eating fried gherkins or pickles for all I knew. Other countries, other dishes.