Fruits & Vegetables
Don't be put off by the appearance of local fruits and vegetables, which will rarely have the smooth uniformity you are accustomed to at home. Pick through carefully using your nose and sense of touch. Avoid those with gross blemishes. Produce purchased in supermarkets will look a little better than what is available in market stalls, but will not usually taste as good. Tropical fruit tastes best when quite ripe and a little soft. You will know which fruit or vegetable is in season because all stalls will usually have it on display. Each stall tends to specialize in a few items, however, so give all of them a quick check before beginning your purchases.
Beans and Rice
Packaged beans (frijoles -- free-HO-lehs) and rice (arroz -- ah-ROHZ) in Mexico almost always contain all sorts of debris, including odd seeds and small stones. Some of these are so uniform in shape and so ubiquitous that we assume they are there to evade price-controls by adding weight. Always pick through and remove foreign matter before cooking. Mexican rice is not very good and must be washed thoroughly to remove powdery starch. Use somewhat less water than you normally do when cooking. Chabacano now carries a good brown rice in plain plastic bags. Imported rice -- sold sometimes in San Francisco de Asis -- is your best bet. For beans, see El Chabacano, below.
Mexican corn is real tough. Elote is somewhat more tender, but hardly White Shoe Peg or Gentleman Jim. Street vendors sell steamed elote in the evenings on Av. Tulum.
Mercado 28 $1
For the treat of your life, try a freshly opened coconut, sold by vendors at the entrances to Mercado 28. Ask for a young one, ternero -- ter-NEHR-oh. Usually, the bigger the coco, the sweeter the milk, which you drink with a straw. When finished, ask the vendor to open it for you.
"Open it, please."
Abrirlo, por favor.
Ah-BREER-loh, pour fah-VOR.
Scoop out custardy meat with the chip of the husk that he will give you. Quality of cocos varies greatly. Some can be a little salty tasting instead of sweet, but they are always refreshing. A good coco is better than any French champagne, especially if it has been allowed to ferment just the slightest bit and has a sweet crackle.
The coconut crop is only beginning to revive here, as a plague called the Yellow Death (really!) killed 90% of the Jamaican Tall variety of coconut palms in the northern section of Quintana Roo and is slowly spreading across the peninsula. Fortunately, a variety called the Malayan Dwarf is resistant to the disease and is being planted everywhere. These are the low-riders you see all over the Hotel Zone. The most mature of these are at most about twelve years old, still rather adolescent and only beginning to bear fruit. They remind me of Maya girls -- sturdy, not too tall, with ripe cocos.
Bananas --Even if you don't like bananas at home, try them here. The taste doesn't travel. Don't buy green bananas. They don't seem to ripen well. Look for a full yellow, which will ripen in about eight to twelve hours. Fully ripened bananas will have black spots on skin, be soft to touch and just about falling off the stem. `Apple' manzana bananas have blunt ends and are quite hard, have a spicy, apple-like flavor when fully ripe and quite soft. Don't try to eat a firm apple banana, which will be unbelievably bitter. Large macho bananas are eaten sliced and fried.
Chico Zapote -- Looks like a brownish peach with a pointy end. Fruit tastes like cinnamon peach, but is indescribable. Like Saramullo, these used to be widely available, but are now hard to find. Sometimes have small white worms inside. Worth buying for the fantastic flavor, even if you have to throw some away. Eat only when very soft. Chicle (as in Chiclets) is the sap of the chico zapote. Still a thriving industry here. The chicleros, or chicle gatherers, have discovered most of the ruins. They were also the first workers in the construction of Cancun. (See "Our Cancun" link to come). The oral obsessions of the Anglo-European world financed the opening of Quintana Roo. While we were chewing gum, they were gathering it. Sort of leads to a psychic picture of humanity chewing through the jungle.
Mango --Yellow looks like a flattened pear, except for Tomi or Haydn variety, which resembles a gigantic nectarine and is flushed with reddish orange. Sweet and messy. Peel before eating.
Papaya -- Mexican papayas are huge, usually at least 18 inches or more in length and eight inches or so thick. When ripe, the skin will be a mottled yellow-green and a little soft to the touch. If you are accustomed to Hawaiian papayas, which are small and quite regular in appearance, you will find Mexican papayas rather ugly on the surface, but delicious inside. Most fruterías will have cut papayas on display. Look for deep salmon-pink flesh. You can smear meat with papaya skin to tenderize it, as meat tenderizer consists mostly of papaya extract and salt.
Saramullo -- sa-rah-MUH-yo. Resembles a large (sometimes giant) artichoke, but rougher and rather gray-green. Must be very soft. Break open to eat. Meat is pinkish-white surrounding large black seeds. Take segments in mouth and spit out seeds. Spoon out custardy pulp inside skin. Exquisite flavor.
Tuna -- Not the fish, but the fruit of the nopal cactus. Shaped somewhat like a smooth-skinned potato with lighter spots where spines have been removed. Handle with care as some spines may still remain. Peel and eat seeds and all.
Zapote Negro -- sah-POH-teh NEH-grow. Resembles a persimmon in shape, but is larger and has bright green smooth skin. Cut in half and spoon out soft black pulp, which should have the consistency of a firm custard when ready to eat. Flavor is subtle. Said to have relaxing effects and recommended for insomnia.
Mamey -- Shaped like a very regular sweet potato with a grainy skin, the flesh resembles banana in texture but color and flavor will remind you of candied yam. Cut open, remove single large seed and eat with spoon. Babies love mamey. Makes an excellent milk shake, sweetened with a little sugar and dusted with cinnamon or nutmeg.
Downtown, Mercado 28 Cheap
Large selection of fruits, vegetables and grains
The last store in the string of vegetable stalls counting from the Post Office side of the market, El Chabacano has a much larger offering, frequently including mushrooms -- champignones, small tender potatoes in bags (check for freshness), peanuts -- shelled and unshelled, bulk spices (nice stick cinnamon), peaches imported from the USA, many different kinds of dried beans and whole grains of much better quality than supermarket. Sells brown eggs, usually quite good, although quality does vary.
La Flor de Michoacan
Downtown, Av. Tulum, across from Palacio Municipal. 65¢.
Fresh fruit oasis
Great fresh-made fruitades and ices. Made with purified water. We even let the children have these and have never had any problems. Go with whatever fruit is in season at the time. Good bets: Sandia -- watermelon, Mandarina -- tangerine, Limonada -- lemonade. Freshest drinks will be in full bins.
Fruits & Vegetables
Hotels Ice Cream
Zona de Tolerancia
Words to live by.