Now that I’ve been here for over three weeks, it’s finally hit me that I’m actually living here, in Oaxaca, Mexico. The raw newness of the city has worn off, and there are areas I can navigate without looking at a map. Best of all, I’m starting to have favorite places, and at the top of the list is the little park of El Pochote.
You could walk by El Pochote and not even know it. It’s built into the old aqueducts of the city, with only one small wooden door in a brick wall of arches leading into the enclosed space. Once you’re inside, it’s mainly red dirt with a brick walkway, a small pond with a brush of bamboo, and not much greenery, but there’s something so lovely about its quietness and feeling of secrecy. Oaxaca, despite being a city less than 1/12th the size of New York, can still feel noisy, crowded, and polluted at times, and it’s always a relief to find myself inside El Pochote.
The park regularly shows free art films and hosts events like the bicycle-power generator demonstration I went to Saturday night (inexplicably paired with a series of animated shorts by a Czech filmmaker I’d never heard of, Jan Svankmajer). But the biggest draw of El Pochote for me is undeniably the organic market on Fridays and Saturdays.
Like organic markets in the U.S., the customers appear generally middle- and upper-class, along with a lot of the type of gringos who like to visit places like Oaxaca, lefty, green, well-meaning. The whole market is very well-groomed, pretty white tents on wooden poles, instead of helter-skelter plastic tarps. The only non-food items are tasteful, traditional pottery and all-natural soaps and shampoos, no plastic cups with Disney characters printed on them. And as much as I like the crazed chaos of piñatas juxtaposed with raw meat, I have to admit it’s often a little easier to enjoy the Mercado Organico.
And no market in the U.S., neither the Union Square Greenmarket, or my beloved Alemany Market in San Francisco, or even the gastronomic playland of the Ferry Building in San Francisco has the tlayudas, enchiladas, and tacos I can get at El Pochote. Actually, I don’t think there’s any other market in Oaxaca where I could get the food I ate at El Pochote. Looking at the wide range of sautéed vegetables—squash, mushrooms, dark leafy greens—I suddenly realized what I’d been missing in my diet for the past three weeks. My stomach cried out for something that would taste fresh and simple, not cooked or pureed or seasoned.
I started with a fantastic “taco” of a tortilla rolled around diced chicken piquant with sautéed sweet peppers, mixed with a bit of black bean spread and such lovely, tasty sautéed mushrooms.
I then had two enchiladas smothered in coloradito mole with some shredded chicken, lettuce, and queso sprinkled on top. I think prices here are slightly higher than elsewhere, but they’re still so low by American standards: 23 pesos or a little under $2.30 for a plate of food that would have been more than enough for my lunch. I felt particularly lucky eating these, that I’m here long enough to try multiple versions of my favorite foods. This coloradito had a sophisticated touch of bitterness, but still slightly sweeter and better, I think, than the one I’d tried at Casa Oaxaca.
I drank some chilacayote, a pulpy drink with seeds and all made of a type of sweet squash. I didn’t like it very much, and wished I had gotten tejate in a pretty little gourd instead, like my classmate who graciously wasn’t surprised when I asked to take a picture of her drink.
I bought some candied figs, squash, and chilacayote, which were pretty good, but a little too sweet to eat in the huge chunks they sold them in.
And then I finally tasted some chapulllines, the Oaxacan specialty of fried grasshoppers. I’d been waiting for July or August, when they would be bigger and better, according to Soledad my cooking guru from ICO, but the little old lady selling them was so insistent, I ended up buying a tiny $1 bag. They tasted salty more than anything, not as crunchy as I’d thought they would be, maybe a bit like anchovies. I love anchovies, but I don’t snack on them, and I didn’t finish the bag.
And to take home, I bought a little chocolate crescent-bread from the Korean woman who runs an organic farm and restaurant in Etla, a pueblo outside Oaxaca. I think she and her half-Korean daughters were as surprised to see me as I was to see them, but I was too shy to get her story. I had hovered by her stall for so long, though, that I felt obliged to buy the bread. Lucky for me, it was really good. I loved the cinnamon-y texture and flavor of the bit of chocolate running through the swirls of sweet, eggy bread. It wasn’t at all like eating a crappy pain au chocolate with a stingy bit of chocolate at Au Bon Pain. Most Mexican bread tastes too dry and/or too bland to me, organic or not. This was so much better, wholesome without being boring. (My friend wants to organize a trip to her restaurant, so I hope to get her story sooner or later.)
Heh heh, when I have my own apartment, I can take more food home.