Explore the city where indigenous cooking traditions and Old World ingredients combined to produce modern Mexican gastronomy.
Hundred and twelve kilometers southeast of Mexico City, at the foot of the great volcano Popocatepetl, lies the city of Puebla. Built by the Spaniards, this showplace of baroque architecture is surrounded by much older Indian towns.
The inevitable culinary commingling of the two cultures is nowhere more evident than in Puebla’s markets. The aroma of spicy stews being cooked in clay pots over wood fires is joined by the scent of flowers from fields outside the city. To the clapping of women patting out corn tortillas, a sound called ‘the heartbeat of Mexico’, is added the cry of the vendor, who hawks everything from regional candies to hand-carved wooden spoons.
Wind your way through aisles lined with stacks of fruits and vegetables, basketsful of aromatic spices, piles of bright green chilies and dried red ones. Stop to try the blue corn quesadillas filled with squash blossoms, wild mushrooms, and local cheese.
Quench your thirst with an Agua de Jamaica, a refreshing hibiscus flower punch. Get herbal remedies, candles, and amulets from the hierbero (herbalist) and cooking advice from the pollera, whose freshly plucked chickens sit on an intricately embroidered cloth. Then carry your purchases home in a hand-woven market bag.
When to go: A temperate climate makes Puebla a year-round destination. During the day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) on November 1-2, markets are filled with the best produce of the harvest season, as well as candy skulls and adornments for family altars.
Planning: One of the oldest and best tianguis (indigenous street market) is held on Sundays and Wednesdays in the pre-Hispanic town of Choula, 12km west of Puebla. At this market, go to the Las Cazuelas stall to buy excellent mole and pipian pastes top take home. These are also sold at the very traditional Mercado Del Carmen in downtown Puebla, located on 21 Oriente Street. While there, try the cemitas, crunchy sesame-topped rolls filled with meat, Oaxaca cheese, avocados, and chipotle chilies.
Websites: www.advantagemexico.com, www.planetware.com, www.mexconnect.com
* Mole (pronounced moh-lay) is a rich, dark, sweet, and spicy sauce, the product of Spanish-indigenous culinary fusion.
• Mole poblano (mole with turkey or chicken) was probably invented in the 16th century in Puebla’s Santa Rosa convent.
• Native chilies and chocolate were ground with cinnamon, cloves, and allspice to create a sauce with sophisticated layers of flavor.
• Not all moles contain chocolate. Seed-based mole is called pipian-green when made with pumpkin seeds and fresh chilies, red when made with sesame seeds and dried chilies.