Lesley Téllez, the author of Eat Mexico, gives us the lowdown on why food in Mexico City is unlike any other place (read: not just tacos).
When I moved to Mexico City in 2009, I was surprised at how enthusiastically people ate. In the mornings, I’d watch office workers drink atole and nibble on pan dulce from little stands set up on the sidewalk. Crowds tucked into thick, corn masa gorditas at 10:30 A.M., in theory not too long after they’d arrived to work. At lunchtime, they strolled to fondas, casual homestyle restaurants, for comida corrida, a three-course meal sold at an economic price.
The longer I lived there, the more I came to love Mexico City’s food. Here are 5 more things you may not know about the way this city eats.
1. The traditional Central Mexican diet is full of fruits and vegetables.
Fresh juices are available on the street year-round, and markets carry beautiful guavas, papaya, mamey, pineapple, and melon pretty much all the time. Cactus is used in all sorts of preparations, the most popular being a delicious salad of lightly boiled cactus strips, onion, and herbs.
And the native Mexican greens—quelites, as they’re collectively called, are nutrient-rich and sold by the kilo at markets. They’re most often eaten steamed or in salads. My favorite types of quelites are amaranth greens, called quintoniles, and lambs quarters, called quelite cenizo, which are great sautéed and stuffed in tortillas or with scrambled eggs.
2. Even after thousands of years, corn still rules.
Flour tortillas are eaten with gusto up north, but in Central Mexico—where corn is thought to have first been domesticated—corn is still the most important item in the Mexican diet, followed by beans and chile.
Corn tortillas can be found on every table at every meal, and corn leaves—both fresh and dried—are used to wrap tamales. And different types of corn are used for different things: Cacahuazintle, a large, chewy hominy, is used for pozole. Maíz rojo, or red corn, is used for making pinole, a mix of ground corn, cinnamon, and sugar sprinkled into water or atole and imbibed. Blue corn is often turned into masa. Mexican corn, as a rule, is starchier and heartier than American corn, and it’s not sweet.
3. Mexico City is a mecca for wild and cultivated mushrooms.
In the summer, cool rains drench the capital and nearby Mexico State, sending bushels of mushrooms into the city’s Mercado San Juan and some local tianguis, or outdoor markets. The pickings include fat morels, and juicy, large yellow mushrooms called yema de huevo (egg yolks) and chanterelles, called trompetas (trumpets). At the market in Milpa Alta, the southernmost borough of Mexico City, the mushrooms are particularly beautiful—many vendors bring them directly from nearby farms.
4. At the markets, many foods are still handmade in small batches.
Most of the produce from the outdoor tianguis comes from industrialized farms across Mexico. But some stands still have farm fresh goods: homemade cheeses, thick blue corn tortillas, homemade tamales, freshly prepared cactus, and fava bean salads, to name a few. At the market in Xochimilco, southeast of the city center, women sell blue corn tlacoyos and tortillas out of baskets lined with cloth. None of the items are called “local” or “artisan”—they simply are what they are.
5. Lunch is more popular than dinner.
Fondas, the casual restaurants that serve a daily three-course menu, are open for lunch only, from about 1 to 6 P.M. Cantinas—a hybrid of a fonda, a bar, and a restaurant—tend to be the most boisterous at lunch and just after work, many of them petering out around 8 or 9 P.M. The upper classes eat dinner out (usually starting around 9 P.M.), but you don’t see the same density of restaurants or food stands open in the evenings.
All photos by Lesley Téllez, except author photo by Penny De Los Santos.