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One of the World's Most Delicious Markets : Shopping: The town of Santiago Tianguistengo is the home of one of Mexico's largest open markets.

March 07, 1991|PATRICIA QUINTANA and MEG ROSE | Quintana is the author of "Taste of Mexico," published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang, and "Mexico's Feasts of Life," published by Council Oak Books. and

Nestled in the valley of Toluca, surrounded by mountains and tall pine trees, is the colorful town of Santiago Tianguistengo. It is the home of a weekly market--the largest of its kind near Mexico City--that takes place every Tuesday without fail.

Prepared dishes are cooked early in the morning or the night before. Barbacoa, a mutton dish wrapped with maguey leaves and baked the pre-Hispanic way in an underground pit, is sold as a main course or taco stuffing. Accented with garlic, guajillo chiles and the distinctive flavor of maguey, this succulent meat is a must for vendors and buyers alike. The juices from the mutton are converted into a steaming-hot, deliciously hearty broth, welcomed to stave off the chilly morning air.

The stands are quickly set up to the music of hands patting out freshly shaped tlacoyos or oval tortillas (prepared with fresh blue corn masa), to be filled with a bean or lima bean paste. The tlacoyos are topped with a green molcajete (volcanic stone mortar) sauce prepared from hand-ground tomatillos, onions and finely chopped cilantro.

Alongside the marchante (vendor) selling tlacoyos is another stand stacked with fish tamales that are stuffed with tiny white fish known as charales , and yet another selling acotxiles (tiny fresh-water shrimp).

The vendors promote their wares by shouting directly at the housewives, trying to catch their attention. "Take them home for a snack to fill a taco, to prepare with onion and chile. They're delicious. Come on and buy them while they last."

Fresh ducks from Lerma are prepared in a green pipian mole sauce made from pumpkin seeds and from the more familiar red mole sauce. Stacks of homemade bread laced with anise and piloncillo (raw brown sugar) give off an enticing aroma.

Next to them are piles of golden egg-yolk bread, wheat-flour powder cookies, and pambazo sandwiches (fried in oil until crisp and stuffed with diced potato, shredded lettuce, chile and other spices). Long rows of women are sitting on the ground, selling fresh white tortillas, kept warm in tenates (tortilla baskets).

The Santiago Tianguistengo marketplace is also known for such delicacies as oval-shaped quesadillas--tortillas filled either with mashed potatoes and cheese, with cheese and poblano chile strips or with fresh mushrooms stewed with epazote or cilantro. The quesadillas are accompanied in this market by chile strips that have been pickled in fresh-fruit vinegar seasoned with oregano.

For beverages, there are warm mugs of atole prepared either from ground cacahuatzintle corn (which resembles hominy) flavored with cinnamon bark, or made from a base of rice flour and sweetened with sugar and chocolate.

A brief walk along the aisles of the market introduces you to the fresh cheeses and cream sold in earthenware mugs covered with corn husks and the freshly churned butter wrapped in green corn husks to keep it fresh.

The gigantic market tacos, referred to as taco placero in Spanish--a six-in-one taco--are piled high with guacamole, tomato, onion, cabbage, fresh cheese, pork hocks, cactus paddles that have been cooked with chile de arbol and carrots, cooked pork chopped for a taco stuffing and topped with indispensable fresh herbs.

Long strings of green and red chorizo sausages are hanging from wooden frames. The chorizo from the area of Toluca is famous, and the herbs used (such as epazote and cilantro) give the product its unique colors. And there is cecina , a dried cut of pork that is aired and sold uncovered.

We cannot miss the long rows of dried beans and corns used for making tortillas. Shown in piles or woven sacks, these wares are still sold by the cuartillo --an obsolete measurement that is approximated by a makeshift scoop from an old sardine can.

Piles and piles of dried chiles line stalls--the yellow chile manzano that is typical of the region, giving local cuisine its distinctive flavor, plus the red, brown and smoky varieties from around the country.

Baskets woven here are different in design from those in other areas of the country. Pulque --a fermented maguey sap beverage--is doled out of drums by the cupful. People still barter here, exchanging animals such as horses, hens, sheep, donkeys, roosters, pigs, cows and calves for other necessary wares.

Cazuelas (earthenware cooking pots), metates (volcanic grinding boards), molcajetes , cazuelitas and other utensils dating back to pre-Hispanic times add to the authentic atmosphere of an Indian marketplace. Each region uses a different technique and glaze, making the pottery distinguishable from village to village.

Three different fillings and ways to prepare the masa are included in this quesadilla recipe, along with two sauces. Use fresh masa, masa harina or corn flour masa for making fresh tortillas.

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