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Some ‘Yellow’ Tastes in Oaxaca

Walking through markets and perusing street-side stands, yellow fruits and vegetables catch my eye with their cheerful, sunny glow.

It’s Springtime in Oaxaca City.

Chayote blanco, Chayotito (cha-yo-TEE-toh) / White CHayotechayote-oaxyelo

Little pale yellow chayotitos (also called Chayote Amarillo or Chayote Blanco), are nestled here amidst a variety of greens common to the Milpa, like verdolaga (purslane) to the far left and quintoniles (aka: quelites), which are the greens of any of a number of types of amaranth plants. Chayotito has a mild, sweet flavor with a tough, leathery skin – they need to be boiled whole, and then they can be peeled. Cubed or mashed with butter or olive oil and some salt they are a delicious substitute for boiled potatoes. And, like other chayote, you can eat the soft, flat, almond-shaped seed in the centre.

Where: fringes of markets, laid out on cloth on the floor.

 

Nanches / Nances  (NAN-shez)nanches-oaxyel

These little yellow “berries” are nances or nanches– an odd little fruit with a funky slightly tart, cheesy taste and dry, somewhat cottony texture, Definitely an acquired taste, which I have yet to acquire. I was told these were brought in from Puebla, a few hours north, as they are not  in season in Oaxaca, but there is a demand for them, apparently. For the most part, they are preserved: in liquor (mezcal), in syrup (en almíbar), in ice cream (nieves) but here they are snack-ready– “enchilada” – with a hearty dousing of chile, lime and salt, because when in doubt…

Where: streetside, often from wheelbarrow/ cart

 

Mango en vinagre/Green Mango in Vinegar
mango-vin-oaxyel

When mango are abundant, and in season, at some point you have to accept that it’s not going to be possible to eat them all when ripe. In Oaxaca, the green fruits are peeled, halved and pitted and immersed in a fruit vinegar, usually made primarily of pineapple peelings. Chile spices things up and these are eaten as a snack. I can think of many ways to use these as a pickle/ chutney as you would see in Indian food, but I haven’t run across them used as a condiment here.

The same green mangos are also simply sliced up and served “enchilada” from bags – again as a refreshing, tartsnack.

Where: streetside carts, or in residential doorways or small shops along with numerous other preserved fruits and vegetables either pickled or in syrup

 

Flor de Chícharo (florr deh CHEE-chuh-roh) –  Pea flower

florchicaro-oaxyelI was so struck by these pretty bowls of edible flowers, which I found first in the corridor of  Mercado Sanchez Pascuas, that I didn’t pay good enough attention to the type of pea that the vendor next to this was shucking. I had at least noticed that they looked starchy and weren’t the bright green of a fresh sweet Spring pea.

Now, I have gone on to find out that these are the the flowers of the pigeon pea, which originated in India and came to Mexico via African and the Caribbean. This would have been in the early days of the slave trade and by now, they are naturalized and are sometimes planted where the soil is poor.  The pea itself, even when cooked, contains indigestible sugars, so it’s going to cause you some bloating unless sprouted… but the flower can be used as a green vegetable – blanched quickly and then sauteed with onions and garlic, or added to vegetable dishes, rice or egg dishes and so on.

Where: Look for these sold by vendors who come in from the villages — they set up on blankets or makeshift tables at weekly Tiánguis and some may have a little spot in/outside mercados.

 

Yuca (YOO-kuh) – Cassava Root or Yucayuca-oaxyel

Oftentimes you’ll see that savvy vendors, for the sake of economy,  have taken care of some of the labor that can get in the way of preparing certain foods. Yuca is one of many tubers  best boiled whole because they are troublesome to peel and they do take some time to cook. So first they are cut into 6in lengths, then  into one big pot they go. Cooked, they are easy to peel. Some are cut into sticks and a blob of sweet syrup (‘miel’ can mean corn syrup as well as honey or a combination of the two) is added to give market shoppers a carb-fuelled burst of energy. I took a few whole cooked tubers home and mashed them with salt, pepper and olive oil for a healthier dose of this complex, fibre-rich carb!

Where: At weekly tiánguis, markets and streetside.

 

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Flor de Maguey – the Bud of Mezcal.

the maguey flower is not typical fare in the market stalls
the maguey flower is not typical fare in the market stalls

florr day muh-GAY.

I was recently in DF (Distrito Federale) on a search and discover mission to see what seasonal goodness I might find in the markets. I had some idea of what was in season, but was ready to be surprised. I’d read about the Sullivan Tianguis (this is a Nahuatl word, used to refer to a weekly traveling market) on Culinary Backstreets,  and not only was it was a quick bus ride away from my AirBnB room, it promised not to be a huge rambling affair, which on that particular day I was not in the mood for.

It’s easy to be distracted and pulled in by any of the vendors plying you with tastes of the fresh pick of the day. I did take a few handouts of mamey… more on that in another post– let’s just say for now, I was converted! But already familiar with mamey, I was here to find something new.

Then, a lovely pile of maguey flowers  stopped me dead in my tracks. I knew  these were edible, but had expected that if I wanted to get my hands on any, I’d likely have to get someone to harvest some for me. The vendor pointed to the long stamens sticking out of some of the buds and explained in Spanish that I should remove these. I bought a few bunches and wrapped them carefully for the long journey  home. They are in no way fragile like flor de calabaza (squash blossoms)and, in fact, are more like daylily buds – firm and slightly rubbery.

Maguey flowers are definitely special because this plant–a cousin to Agave tequilana from which tequila is made– blooms only once in its 30+ year lifespan. As it reaches the end of its life, it sends up a single central stalk, rapidly shooting up a foot or more a day to a height of up to 40ft. If that stalk is cut before the flowers bloom (the stage these buds were at),  a sweet liquid sap called aguamiel collects in the central core of the plant. It is from this aguamiel that mezcal is made.

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I had an idea to pickle them in escabeche – treating them kind of like okra. I made a simple spiced vinegar solution with onion, garlic chiles and oregano, then blanched some of the buds whole before letting them do their thing in the pickling brine. Later, I viewed a few YouTube links describing traditional preparation and learned that not only were you supposed to remove the stamens, the stem also was to be discarded, leaving only the petals. So much waste! While there was a slight bitterness from the stem and stamen(?) I didn’t find it at all unpleasant and thought the bright yellow whole buds were lovely, intact.

Supposing that I should follow a recipe for a change, I invited my friend Pueblito over to prepare the remaining buds as described in several similar recipes I’d seen. This is a pre-Columbian food and not in the culinary lexicon of the average Mexican householder, so she was delighted to have the opportunity to cook and eat this plant. Basically, after tearing the petals off, they were to be cooked with the usual suspects: onion, garlic, oregano, tomato and chiles. According to a few of the videos they had a “sabor como pollo”. Tastes like chicken? We’ll see…

We proceeded to take apart the blossoms…

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And we were not left with much…

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 I followed the recipe: onion, garlic, chiles, tomato and oregano, and added a sprig of epazote…

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Of course we served them in tortillas with a crumble of queso fresco.


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In the end, I guess what they mean when they say it tastes like chicken is that the petals have a mild flavor… and it’s the seasonings that make the dish. The pickled buds were more tasty,  Pueblito and her husband Antonio agreed, with a little crunch and squeak. Next time, I’ll see if I can remove just the stamen keeping the bud as whole as possible and definitely keeping the stem… unless I find evidence that these are toxic ( I monitored my gastrointestinal response after eating several whole pickled buds and felt perfectly fine). But if anyone knows, I’d be eager to hear about it.

 

 

RESOURCES:

Sullivan Tianguis: in Mexico City every Saturday and Sunday. Location is convenient to la Alameda, Museo del Chopo and lots of other points of interest. At Reforma Metrobus stop– it runs alongside James Sullivan Park just off Insurgentes.

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El Tianguis- the traveling market

Tianguis : TYAHN-gees

While most larger Mexican towns will have at least one centralized market (mercado) where locals shop for their fresh foods, many towns also host a weekly traveling market, held usually near the edge of town where there’s plenty of space. 

Once, sometimes twice, a  week, vendors  from near and far arrive with their goods  and set up a rambling network of stalls festooned with colorful tarps for shade from the elements.  Here in San Miguel de Allende, the tianguis takes place every Tuesday on the edge of town. Gringos refer to it as “The Tuesday Market”.

This is the place to go to experience free enterprise in action. Poultry, alive, or freshly plucked… next to this, a rainbow array of bras…next to those, mountains of  slightly dated designer clothing…then there are blender jars, tools of all descriptions and bootleg videos..  the list is endless, the scene a controlled chaos. For the foreign visitor, it can be dizzying.

Outside Oaxaca City you'll find el Tianguis in Tlacolula–  one of the country's most vibrant traveling markets.
Outside Oaxaca City you’ll find el Tianguis in Tlacolula– one of the country’s most vibrant traveling markets.

Indigenous and Local Produce.

If you are interested in seeking out the indigenous and non-commercial fruits and vegetables, here you’ll find vendors who bring you the best of the region, and those nearby. One vendor may have a complete array from white onions to eggplants (which are farmed here for export and not part of the local diet), but right next to that stall, you may find a wizened old woman from the campo (countryside) offering only  her recent harvest of cleaned nopal paddles or bundles of té de limón (lemongrass, used in Mexico to make tea, but you can use in Asian cooking!) and a few other herbs.

The Wisdom of the Viejitos

Viejito(a)/Viejo(a)– VYAY-ho: Old person

It’s these hardworking folks you want to look for– they offer the wisdom of generations past and are well aware of the health benefits of the foods they are selling. Although wizened and bent, their health issues are less likely the result of poor nutrition, than due to a lifetime of hard work and simply, old age. They’re indeed the backbone of this country. If you show  interest, and attempt to phrase any questions you have in even clumsy Spanish, you will  find them pleased to share their knowledge with you.

When you arrive in a new town, ask about the weekly Tianguis– and immerse yourself in the authenticity of this cultural experience.

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