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What’s in the World’s Largest Food Museum?

by Eva Boynton on September 21, 2016

A woman selling chocolate at Central de Abasto, the world's largest wholesale market where Mexico's cultural heritage is also on display. (image © Sam Anaya A.)

Oaxacan chocolate rivals Swiss and Belgian chocolate in flavor, in uses (mole, hot chocolate,
sweet and savory dishes), and in cultural heritage. 
© Sam Anaya A.

Chocolate, Pineapples, and Cultural Heritage—All at Mexico’s Central de Abasto

“Zoooooom!” A cart stacked with mangos tumbles by me, almost taking my right foot along for the ride. Fortunately, Isabel Ramillo, who sells chocolate from Oaxaca, grabs my shoulder to pull me out of the way.

As I regain my composure, my nose catches a whiff of meats, flowers, and spices for Mexican mole sauce. My ears ring with the sounds of  “¡Buen precio!”, whistles, and hundreds of shuffling feet.

I’m in Mexico City at the Central de Abasto (“Supply Center”), the world’s largest wholesale market. But, considering the people, produce, and regions of Mexico represented here, to my eye it is more like a bustling food museum.

Pineapples stacked with their juice in front at Central de Abasto, the world's largest wholesale market where Mexico's cultural heritage is also on display. (image © Eva Boynton)

At this “museum,” the exhibits are interactive—buy and sell, sell and buy.
© Eva Boynton

Within the mountains of tomatoes, baskets of chile de árbol (tree chile), bags of nopal (a type of cactus), and shelves of pineapple, there are also links to Mexico’s cultural heritage. You may be surprised at what you find.

Metropolis Within a Metropolis

The Central de Abasto has everything typical of a big city: banks, kitchen supplies, laundry, convenience stores, electronics and restaurants—not to mention Mexico’s greatest show of produce, fish, flowers, seafood, milks, and meats.

Foods attract the eye in museum-like exhibits, carefully arranged for beauty and stability.

Carrots stacked in a criss-cross pattern at the Central de Abasto, the world's largest wholesale market where Mexico's cultural heritage is also on display. (image © Eva Boynton)

A carrot weaving?
© Eva Boynton

The market is a hive of activity with somewhere between 300,000–450,000 daily visitors, more than see Rome or Madrid in a day! Consider its impact:

  • 30 thousand tons of food are sold here on a daily basis.
  • The market provides 80% of the food consumption for over 20 million Mexicans.
  • About 10,000 loaders, known as diableros, operate carts that carry goods to the vendors’ stands. They are among the market’s 70,000 employees.
  • Warehouses in the market complex cover 328 hectares (810 acres).
  • Fifteen halls, totaling 11 kilometers in length, hold 100 warehouse sections each—all filled to the brim.

In fact, the market is so big that freeway-like signs direct customers to the halls, each of which specializes in one type of food or goods. In just the produce area, about 2,000 vendors sell fruits and vegetables.

Inside a hall packed with people at Central de Abasto, the world's largest wholesale market where Mexico's cultural heritage is also on display. (image © Sam Anaya A.)

In the middle of the hustle and bustle!
© Sam Anaya A.

Cultural Roots

The concept of a large central market in the area that became Mexico City goes back six hundred years to the Aztec market known as Tlanechicoloya. Throughout Mexico’s cultural history, foods and goods have continued to change hands in central markets.

In the 20th century, when Mexico City expanded around the downtown La Merced market to the point that traffic congestion impeded market operations, the government decided to open a new central supply center.

In 1982, it inaugurated the Central de Abasto in Iztapalapa, an outlying district in the eastern part of Mexico City. Over time, the Central de Abasto became its own metropolis. Today, it is not only the most important food supply and distribution site for Mexico City but also for the entire country.

Two vendors holding a papaya in front a stack of papayas wrapped in newspapers at the Central de Abasto, the world's largest wholesale market where Mexico's cultural heritage is also on display. (image © Sam Anaya A.)

Papayas travel from Oaxaca to the Central de Abasto to be sold by Enrique and Eric Mandujano. They are wrapped in newspaper to keep their color and avoid oxidation.
© Sam Anaya A.

The produce from the country travels first through the Central de Abasto and on to homes, taco stands, neighborhood mini-markets in Mexico City and even to outlets in Mexico’s different states.

A Taste of Cultural Heritage

Mexico is a country of diverse cultures and regions, all represented at the Central de Abasto by vendors offering products unique to their regions.

If the market is a food “museum” offering a collection of cultural heritage, then the foods are the cultural artifacts in the collection. These are foods that have fed indigenous and Mexican populations across centuries. They offer you nourishment and something more—a taste of cultural heritage. Tastes like these:

1. The Pitahaya

Known as dragon fruit, pitahaya or pitaya (pee-TAH-yah) comes in an exotic pink with a delicious surprise center. As a member of the cactus family, it grows in the northern desert regions of Mexico.

Every July, a pitahaya festival is celebrated in Miraflores, Baja California. A gathering contest kicks it off and is followed by traditional dance, music, and food dishes, many of which showcase pitahaya as an ingredient. The festival began thousands of years ago with the Pericúes, Guaycuras and Cochimíes, indigenous peoples who celebrated the juicy fruit in cactus “forests.”

A girl holding a pitahaya fruit cut in half at the Central de Abasto, the world's largest wholesale market where Mexico's cultural heritage is also on display. (image © Sam Anaya A.)

Pitahaya comes with a sweet chia seed-like gelatin center.
Add some yogurt for a tasty combination!
© Sam Anaya A.

2. Magnificent Mole Sauce

Coming from the Nahuatl word molli that means “sauce” or “mixture,” mole (MO-lay) is used as a base for soup, poured over different kinds of meats, or used as a sauce for enchiladas. It can include a complex arrangement of 20 ingredients, including chiles, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and sometimes cacao.

Bags filled with different spices at Central de Abasto, the world's largest wholesale market where Mexico's cultural heritage is also on display. (image© Eva Boynton)

A rainbow of mole and other spice powders
© Eva Boynton

The flavors and styles of mole vary with the region in Mexico where it is prepared: moles come sweet, spicy, red, yellow, brown, and in a variety of names. Mole poblano, named the “national dish of Mexico,” is associated with either the state of Puebla or Oaxaca. The origin of the famous dish is a mystery told in several legends.

3. Huitlacoche

Huitlacoche (wheat-lah-CO-chay) is a fungus that grows on corn kernels, a delicacy inherited from the Aztec who added it to soups, crepes, quesadillas and tamales. Though its name translates from Nahuatl as “raven’s excrement,” it makes a tasty dish when you slap it together with onion, garlic, and salt.

Huitlacoche fungus at the market, an artifact of cultural heritage at Central de Abasto (image © Eva Boynton).

Huitlacoche is also known as corn smut or Mexican truffle.
©Eva Boynton

In Chiapas, people connect huitlacoche to family, history, and life in Mexico. When families searched for the fungus in corn fields, they spent quality time together. While they walked through the fields, elders passed down stories and families built a relationship to their land and crops.

Oh, I See

The experience of the Central de Abasto is like that of a grand museum. You leave happily exhausted from looking hard at the details of the past and present.

What I took away from the market was not only some tasty cultural artifacts but also a new understanding of Mexico’s culinary cultural heritage. The Central de Abasto transforms from a food market to an epicenter of national inheritance: the gifts of the land incorporated into cultural practices.

Mexico City is the city with the most museums in the world — 128 in all. It is a city that proudly preserves its cultural heritage. Let’s put one more museum on the list—the Central de Abasto!

A table with produce bought at the Central de Abasto, the world's largest wholesale market where Mexico's cultural heritage is also on display. (image © Sam Anaya A.)

A display of cultural souvenirs
© Sam Anaya A.

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Comments:

6 thoughts on “What’s in the World’s Largest Food Museum?

    • Dana!
      Thanks for reading. The pitaya shades did not last long. It was too delicious to save. Your achiote is on the list!
      Cheers,
      Eva

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