Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.
It felt a little like trying to traverse a freeway on foot, at rush hour, with traffic screaming by on both sides and no ascertainable way across. Around me roared a city of industry – chicken merchants slicing and dicing their birds with giant pairs of scissors, merchants shucking corn and chopping chicharron with fists of fury, mariachis wailing on their horns and the sizzle of a thousand cooking burners sending up clouds of steam.
Having momentarily lost sight of my guide in the Central de Abasto market – Venezuelan Maycoll Calderon; at 32 he's one of Mexico's top young chefs – I moved ahead tentatively only to be swept aside, first, on my left, by a small, stout man in a dirty white apron pushing a handcart piled perilously high with lettuce, and then, on my right, by another man pushing another handcart packed to the gunwales with corn. I tottered, but only for a second, before surging forward and catching up with Calderon. He flashed me a knowing smile; he had warned me on the drive down here to embrace the chaos – noting that the massive clamour creates beautiful food. "Everything is so fresh and so perfect," he told me. "Every day I go, I fall in love with it."
Central de Abasto is the wholesale market that feeds the vast majority of Mexico City's millions. The largest in Latin America – or maybe the world, depending on whom you ask – it spreads over hundreds of acres, employs tens of thousands and welcomes some 300,000 visitors (mostly locals) every day. By some estimates, 80 per cent of the food that will end up on the plates of Mexico City residents, also known by the slang chilangos, comes through here. Sitting on the outskirts of town, it's a long way from the Zocalo, the city's central square where many travellers start their sightseeing (and where the new James Bond flick Spectre opens with feverish action during a Day of the Dead parade). But Calderon would show me that it was worth the drive.
Entering the market, I assumed we would start by browsing the produce vendors or meandering through the meat sellers. Calderon had other thoughts. "Taco time," he said, pointing to the only open table at a bustling little restaurant called Ricas Carnitas. Here a little machine cranked out corn tortillas while workers sliced the pork filling. Calderon explained that the entire operation – and dozens like it – operate wholly within the market, with everything made fresh and all supplies coming from nearby vendors. He had never seen the restaurant closed. "There's nothing better than tacos at seven in the morning," he laughed.
Sufficiently sated, we made our way into the labyrinthine market, an interconnected network of buildings the size of airport hangers and maze-like tangles of covered outdoor stands. Calderon, made his name as a chef at the St. Regis Hotel's JG Grill in Mexico City and Jean-Georges in New York before opening his own place in Mexico City's trendy Roma Norte neighbourhood. Called Huset, it specializes in a Mexican country kitchen approach to dining, with farm-to-table ingredients cooked over charcoal and wood, with a barbershop and yoga studio attached. ("It's all very hipster," he admitted later.)
Wandering through the market over the next few hours, it felt as if we walked a hundred miles and saw a thousand different stands. Calderon made sure I knew who sold the freshest peppers, and how to select the best avocados (firm and soft at the same time), and why I should eat huitlacoche, a black corn fungus that makes the kernels funky and delicious. We sampled from the stalls along the way, at one point dipping into some esquites, a warm corn salad that's a common Mexican street food. On the Day of the Dead, Calderon tells me, many families cook up earthy foods such as this (as well as tacos and stews), take them out to the graves of their ancestors and share them with family and passersby.
Soon I was back at the Zocalo square, which had a bustle all its own. I took in the city's stunning cathedral and strolled past the National Palace, then marvelled at the ancient Aztec ruins of the great pyramid of Tenochtitlan and at the giant Mexican flag that flapped over it all. But soon, I was hungry, so I wandered to a nearby hole-in-the-wall that a chilango friend had recommended. The rest of the city awaited me. But first – it was time for tacos.
The writer's accommodations were provided by the St. Regis Mexico City Hotel. It did not review or approve this article.