Megamarket: Central de Abastos

Central de Abastos is a city of fruits, vegetables, meat, grains, and any other product found in a stall of Mexico City’s markets. Its exterior walls are blocks of tall, gray, concrete that circle miles round, hovering over hot asphalt parking lots and tunnels and the occasional lone customer, slowly wheeling out giant sacks of white onions on his back. The road signs nearby point not to streets but to market sections, veer left for fruits and vegetables, slightly left for meat and chicken. This is Mexico City’s largest wholesale market, where more than thirty thousand tons of food are sold and three hundred thousand people come to shop on a daily basis. This is a market with its own zip code, where the goods of Mexico’s farms, orchards, and fields live until they meet the city’s tabletops. They say there’s more money flowing inside these walls than in the entire financial district of Mexico City.

We came here with our friend Oscar, who insisted on taking us so that we could view the enormity of Mexico’s market culture. When I lived in Istanbul and took visitors to the Grand Bazaar two hours was usually the perfect amount of time to wander the aisles of carpets, antiques, jewelry, buy several pashminas, take a wrong turn, and feel like you’d seen most and the best of the market. On our way out of the Central de Abastos, exhausted and hungry after two hours of wandering, we asked Oscar what percentage of the market we’d seen. “Ten percent,” he said.

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At 1 pm the fruit and vegetable wholesale section of the Abastos is weirdly quiet. The main buyers of the day have come and gone, leaving the vendors to their product and the long hallways that stretch to meet the stands of chiles, beans and herbs. They retie their potato sacks, rest their arms over their pushcarts and look over the mounds of jalapeños as they chat with their neighbors, or lean their backs against the stacks of onions as they look out from the sun filled loading dock. Here the prices are a third of the cost you see in a market- jalapeños are 3.8 pesos a kilo, about $0.30 USD. The man who sits between the mounds of mangos, each pile containing different colors and sizes shakes his head as we presume to know the names of small yellow ones we see at home. While we should feel amazed at the varieties, we mostly feel robbed. Because while we may have an entire aisle of sugary, colorful, diabetes delivering cereal options in the US, we rarely see mangos in so many juicy, delicious forms. The same goes as we oogle the yellow garlic, the tiny shiny avocados and the black, red and green chiles overflowing from their canvas sacs.

There’s a retail section here too. Central de Abastos began as a replacement for a smaller wholesale market in the city center called La Merced. Intended it to be a centralized place where farmers and producers supplied the demand of markets and restaurants, the change in global food policies has shifted its role. US agribusiness have set up their own buying and distribution systems, often bypassing the small farms and vendors that we saw in Central de Abastos. And while Oscar tells us that the majority of people in Mexico City still shop at traditional markets, Wal-Mart has most definitely moved in (read more here). The effect on Central de Abastos? Instead of the country’s largest supply center, it has become a giant public market with a wholesale section, and people who like a good bargain, like Oscar, come to shop here for dinner.

As we cross the bridge into the retail section of the market, looking over the parking lot of commercial trucks, passing the taco stands, the banda music kicks in, the vendors are whistling, and the sound of dollies going full speed behind us is the only cue to step out of the way. There’s mole powders the color of saffron and Balinese rice fields, and sunflower seeds that glisten like gold next to orange shelves of purple-speckled beans. There’s some kind of pork intestines pickling in hanging plastic bags, pata picada (chopped duck?) that looks like gummy candies, and winding rows of sausages. Neon signs stuck into piles of fruits and veggies bear their prices and handwritten messages like, “why not?”, “Don’t miss out on this” and “recharge here, pure viagra”. After buying a bag of lychee (the viagra sign may have swayed us) we stopped for a juice, one of papaya and one a mix of pineapple, grapefruit and celery. The juicer tells us about a popular hangover cure called la polla, it’s a mix of raw quail egg, orange juice and anise. It seems, in this hectic and beautiful mess of Mexico’s food supply system, that they can supply you with anything.

3 Responses to “Megamarket: Central de Abastos”

  1. Peggy
    June 9, 2011 at 4:29 am #

    Love the photos and all your commentary…keep it coming, chicas!

  2. gabriela
    June 10, 2011 at 5:34 pm #

    LOVE the fotos. This mercado is like a playground for Danny. I bet he is drooling just looking at these pictures……besos!!

  3. Emily
    June 12, 2011 at 1:01 am #

    Hey Hunnies!! It looks like you are having a DELICIOUS time already! The photos and videos are awesome and I always enjoy your writing, I feel like I’m on the trip with you!

    Love you!!