Touring the Mercado de la Merced with Pilar Cabrera Arroyo

My first day in Oaxaca was thrilling and something I was looking forward to for quite some time! I walked from Las Bugambilias B&B to Pilar’s cooking class at Casa de los Milagros, operated by Pilar’s brother Rene. (Three beautiful rooms each with private bath @ $120USD each.)  Our group of seven included a couple from Guadalajara celebrating their anniversary, two couples from Washington state who come to Oaxaca frequently, and me.

I was as enthralled by the kitchen arranged around a U-shaped maize-colored concrete counter with commercial cooktop and sink strategically positioned, as I was about the Amarillo menu: quesadillas with mushrooms and Oaxaca quesillo (string) cheese, sopa de flor de calabaza (squash blossom soup — my absolute favorite), mole Amarillo de pollo (yellow mole with chicken), and for dessert — arroz con leche.  For the salsa, Pilar chose Salsa de chile pasilla oaxaqueno.

Squash blossoms ready for stuffing with quesillo, perhaps?

Today, no one is vegetarian, so we go with the menu as presented, pick up our colorful shopping bags and climb into Pilar’s CRV and a taxi to travel to the Mercado de la Merced, eight blocks from the casa, at the corner of Calle Republica and Murguia.  Pilar grew up in Barrio de la Merced.  She personally knows each vendor and going through it is an expedition in determining and selecting the very best, freshest, most fragrant ingredients.  She knows that what she buys is organic , grown by small farmers from the local countryside. Our shopping list includes fresh masa for making homemade tortillas, quesillo for the quesadillas, rice, fresh whole milk (not pasteurized and likely coming from a contented cow early that same morning), mushrooms (and we also find corn smut — huitlacoche, considered a delicacy that we will add to the quesadillas). We also buy epazote, a leafy herb for the quesadillas, and cream for the soup.

Pilar describes huitlacoche

Someone asks and Pilar advises that it is fine to take photos of the food and to ask people if they would agree to have their photos taken.  She never pays anyone for taking a photo, although people ask for 10 pesos (about a dollar). Sunday is the best day to go to this market, when vendors come with folk art and crafts.  She points out the comedor “La Guierta” frequented by Rick Bayless.

La Guerita, a Rick Bayless favorite

We pass by ancient women vending calla lilies (alcatraz), roses from Ocotlan (Pilar says she loves rose petal sorbet), piles of chiles, handcrafted cheeses, and arrays of beautiful squash blossoms.  We stop at the family-owned chocolate stand where I buy molded treats to take home for hot chocolate and choco-cafe (100 pesos for one kilo).  We open our bags like little birds opening our beaks as Pilar buys and deposits chile pasilla (smokey and dark red), a plastic bag filled with fresh whole milk, squash blossom, choyote squash, mushrooms, and masa.

A young woman sits on the ground in front of two large baskets of chapulines. Pilar points to them.  These are not fresh, she says. See how dull they are, they must be shiny to be good.  We sample tejate, a pre-Hispanic drink made from ground maize, cacao, and the seed of the mamey fruit.

Sipping tejate

We learn that poblano chiles are from Puebla, and are not popular in Oaxaca.  Chile Oaxaca is small and yellow.  Chile serrano is called jalapeno when it is green and chipotle when it is red.  Black chilehuacle is the principle ingredient for mole negro (the most complex and difficult to prepare).   Never wash dried chiles, says Pilar, it degrades the flavor.  Clean it instead by wiping with a cloth.

Piles of basil, rosemary and other herbs grown for herbal cleansing and aromatics lean against the rough wood walls of the herbalists’ stall.  These are not used for cooking like in North America, Pilar says.  Bright yellow chicken is either painted or dipped in a corn-coloring; these are not organic.  Only white chickens are organic.  Chico zapote is a brown-yellow color but tastes like a sugary pear.  There are many types of mango, and mango pina is sweet and juicy with a green skin.

La Petrita vendadora de chocolate

We meandered, sampled and savored, breathed in the aromas of the small diners assembled around the inner courtyard, soaked in the visual excitement of colors, shapes and people.  After an hour of food shopping, we climbed back into our liveries and returned to the kitchen where we would get down to serious business.

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