On my return to Merida after ten years a lot has changed. Back in the day if you said the word vegetarian you’d get a bewildered look and a plate of beans (or for that matter, chicken). But now they have a slow food market with whole wheat muffins, locally made herbal supplements and organically grown veggies. The owner of a health store told me that vegan is all the rage. And the restaurant scene has made a complete transformation.
But, as always, I don’t look to restaurants first for the best food in Mexico. Because it’s when meals are homecooked, served on the street or hidden in a busy corner of a market that they taste best. Here are three markets in Merida to sample the city:
Mercado Lucas De Galvéz
This is Merida’s main market. The vegetable and fruit section really doesn’t visually compare to markets in other major Mexican cities like Oaxaca or D.F. All the banana leaves, papayas and chiles are there but I always feel bad for the sour oranges sitting in perfect pyramids, the top one losing any glory to the gross concrete backdrop of the parking lot-like market building.
There’s an entire butchery section, the majority of stalls covered by curtains of beef and pork cuts, and a small section in the back with turkeys. If you’re cooking in Merida you may want to know that turkeys are the only animals at the market raised de patio, literally meaning in people’s backyards just like other animals used to be raised. This (plus their range in size) makes them a little more expensive, which is why a lot of typical Yucatecan dishes in restaurants that should have turkey now use chicken. If you’ve been in Merida for a few days, you may already be familiar with recados. These are the spice mixes that flavor a lot of dishes like relleno negro or tikin-xic. I was lucky enough to be shown around the market by Mario Canul of Los Dos Cooking School and he pointed me in the direction of his favorite stand, called Escamilla. I personally fell in love with a company making recados called Semilla de Dioses but more on them later. I was at the market in the days before Hanal Pixan, the Mayan version of Dia de Los Muertos. Literally meaning Food for the Soul, there was a lot of food preparation going on. A woman cut pieces of candied pumpkins, camotes, yuccas, and a year-round treat, sweet papaya into plastic baggies, spooning in a ladle of caramel-colored syrup.
For tortillas, head to La Flecha, where they are still grinding their own corn to make real corn tortillas (although they also make tortillas with processed corn flour, called Maseca). For a solid snack, head to the row of cochinita pibil vendors and look for the stand La Socorrito. The owner has long greasy hair and tattoos, reminding me a little bit of a pirate (albeit a very courteous one). You have two options here, taco or torta. The torta is smaller than most, be sure to ask for it mojado (with the drippings) and ask for it sin grasa (without the fat) so that you get the more meaty pieces. They’ve got a few juices here too.
This is a small local market next to a lovely church and plaza in the Santiago neighborhood, just a five to ten minute walk from the centro. One thing I love about Mexican markets is how they change so drastically from one product to another. Turn the corner from the tortilleria and there’s a tailor, flip around from the lunch stands and you’ll see a pile of marigolds. And right across from the beauty products there’s a really great place to eat breakfast and lunch.
Breakfast in parts of Mexico often means tacos or tortas, things that I typically eat for lunch or dinner at home. But the market is mostly closed by the later afternoon, so I went to La Lupita for second breakfast around 11 a.m.
I guess my ears picked up the chopping sounds, because right outside of the stand were two men in black aprons and blue shirts with a heaping pile of chopped white onions sitting next to them as they rapidly knocked their knives against the wood cutting boards. The blue cursive lettering of La Lupita matched their shirts, which made me feel like there’s some extra thought going into this stand to be so matchy-matchy.
I ordered one taco of cochinita pibil, it came rolled up, juicy and flavorful. I also ordered a polcan, a thick disc of masa slit on one side and stuffed with small white lima beans, tiny pieces of breaded and fried pork, onions and lettuce. It’s a little dry without salsa and all the fried makes it a little heavy for the morning, but overall it’s delicious and filling. Apparently, pork tacos are no longer heavy for me in the morning but polcanes are.Slow Food Market
My first morning in Merida a friend took me to the Merida Slow Food Market. She ran into friends right where the organic bread stand met the stand of bottled chiles. Suddenly I didn’t feel so far from Temescal.
I think this is more of a haven for locals of a certain income and ex-pats than for tourists, but I certainly learned a lot just strolling the market. Don’t miss:-Natural supplements from Maya Natura. What can I say? The guy running this stand had skin like it had been airbrushed. We had to ask what he used. Apparently, it’s the herb called Moringa, a powerful antioxidant. He showed me the plant and suckered me into buying a bottle of capsules for $12. He grows and dries all his herbs.
-Chaya, chaya everywhere. Towards the end of the market there’s a woman selling organic vegetables, cocos, agua frescas, and chaya snacks. Chaya is a local green that seems to have taken off like kale. Everywhere you look you’ll see green juices spiked with chaya and at this stand you can find chaya tortillas, chips and the plant itself. The corn tortillas looked beautiful, speckled with green almost the color of Balinese rice fields— nothing compared to the dull and mysterious green of “spinach wraps” that tend to make me violent. -Cold tea from Yum Kaak. Next to fruit juice there’s nothing I want more than a cold caffeinated beverage to survive the heat in Merida. I’ll admit that I had at least three Frappuccino-like beverages during the week and one of them came with whipped cream. The bottle of iced black and green tea infused with tamarind I got from this tea stand was a delightful relief. The vendor also took the time to teach us how to make it (brew black tea and then add a little bit of tamarind pulp and sweetner to taste). She also had a passion fruit tea blend. I told her to start a franchise, she’s starting with a store on Paseo Montejo.
There’s a mix of locals and ex-pats making cheese, tamales, dips, and selling vegetables. Some of them are making good food and doing nothing related to slow food, like the couple from New Hampshire who have a smoker and smoke things. Like the salmon they buy at Costco. Can I report them to the slow food police please? Still, this is a fun market with a diversity of products you probably can’t get elsewhere in Merida.
Markets are morning activities and are usually closed by the late afternoon.
Mercado Lucas De Galvéz
Calle 56A, roughly between 67 and 69, Centro
http://www.los-dos.com Does a cooking class and market tour worth checking out. Mario also does a street eats tour, which sounds like a whole lot of porky fun.
Calles 59 and 70
Slow Food Market
Centro Comercial Colon- Avenida Reforma with Avenida Colon
9 am- 2 pm
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