Finding Chilis in Mexico City’s Mercado La Merced
Finding chili peppers in Mexico City’s largest market was not as easy as I thought. The subway exits right into the sprawling Mercado La Merced. But, instead of stepping into the wealth of tropical fruits and rare peppers I came for, I walked into a city of towering stalls of DVDs (mostly featuring whatever latest movie Dwayne Johnson is in).
Before I found the chilis I had come for, I let myself get lost in the labyrinth of the market. I walked through the meat section where entire pig skins are folded up like blankets and cow skulls are used to brace the wheels of carts so they don’t roll away.
From there the bright lights quickly gave way to dim and quiet rows of stalls selling baby rattles made from gourds and paper pinatas.
Next to Mercado La Merced is Mercado Sonora, a market dedicated to various types of witchcraft and Santeria. Here you can buy herbs to cure any problem you might have (no matter how serious) as well as purchase live animals, tarot card readings and amulets.
After Mercado Sonora, I stopped to sample some fried maggots, grasshoppers, ants and tiny crayfish.
When I found the row of nopales vendors I knew I was close to the chilis. This calm row was dominated by large baskets filled with fresh nopales. My favorite part was watching the skill with which the vendors slice off the thin sharp spines of the cactus pads.
Turning a corner from the nopales section I found what I came for, endless rows of tropical fruit, pyramids of jewel-like onions and towering woven bags of chili peppers.
I met a chili vendor named Oscar who took some time to discuss his chili varieties with me (and met my odd request of selling me one of each type).
Back home, I plan to grow these chilis. Because the chilis are already dried, saving seeds from them is easy. I simply cut them open, pull out the seeds and store them in a brown bag in a cool dry place (making sure to label the varieties).
Chilis of Mercado Merced
An ancho chili is a ripe and dried poblano pepper and one of the most popular chilis in Mexico. Because they ripen on the vine, an ancho is sweeter than a poblano and has a plum-like fruitiness. Ancho chilis make up one part of the “Holy Trinity” of Mexican chilis, three chilis that are staples in Mexican cooking, especially in moles.
A mulato chili is also a dried poblano but is picked later than an ancho and therefore has more heat. In fact, they are the hottest of the “Holy Trinity” of Mexican chilies.
These chilis make up our last chili that is part of the “Holy Trinity” of Mexican chilis. Pasilla translate to “little raisin” but they are not little, instead they have the flavor of raisins and cocoa.
Guajillo is the dried form of a mirasol chili (which were grown by the Aztecs). This pepper is often used to make a thick and flavorful sauce for tamales. Its sweetness and mild heat make it ideal for dishes where you do not want to overpower the other flavors.
Pulla chilis are Guajillo’s cousin but will give you double the heat. Their heat is dusty and dry with hints of licorice.
Morita peppers are ripe jalapenos that have been smoked. Morita’s are similar to chipotle chilis but milder in taste. They are fruity and hot with notes of cherry and rum.
Costeno chilis are very difficult to find in the U.S. They are a dried form of the mirasol chili (as is the guajillo chili listed above). They come from Oaxaca in southern Mexico (home to a distinct and world-renowned cuisine) and have an intense lingering heat.
Let us know how you use these chilis in the comments below.