Central de Abasto: Jump in with both feet


by Blair Richardson

While learning Spanish, my wonderful teacher, Beto, would supply me with weekly vocabulary lists: animals (zorro, ballena, tlacuache), office supplies (lápiz, borrador, sacapuntas), and the words needed for a successful dental visit (encías, caries, limpieza). But when he brought me a list of food terms, I began correcting his work. “Poro in English is actually leek, not leak,” I explained. “And cebollín is an herb called chives, different from green onions. It’s related, though.” My market Spanish was already perfect.

I grew up in Southern Virginia, in the heart of the fertile Appalachian Mountains. The rural landscape surrounding my small hometown is dotted with family farms growing heirloom tomatoes, squash (the yellow, crooked-neck kind), and delicious sweet corn. As a kid, my mom and I would head downtown to buy fresh produce directly from the farmers that set up shop along the concrete tables that the city installed in the 1940s as a permanent addition to the sidewalks lining the main city square. Until the farm-to-table movement hit other major cities, years after I’d left home, I did not fully understood the significance of this daily, regional farmers market as a cultural benchmark that not only supported agricultural families throughout generations, but also developed my palette and curiosity for fresh food.

I first set foot in a Mexican market in 2009, and instantly fell in love. It may have been Mercado Medellín in Colonia Roma, or perhaps the market in Coyoacán. The colorful aisles overflowing with piñatas, stationery, and freshly butchered goats looked decidedly different than the tidy sidewalk market of my youth, but the smell was the same: a green, verdant smell, slightly putrid, faintly refreshing . . . alive. As before, the carefully arranged mountains of produce captivated me, and I quickly recalled my mother chatting with her favorite merchants about the weather, the quality of this year’s okra, the health of an aging parent. This personal connection, I realized, does not happen in the sterile arena of the supermarket.

My elementary Spanish meant that I still couldn’t converse with the majority of the vendors, but that didn’t stop me from trying to learn everything about the new (to me) fruits, fresh vegetables, and fistfuls of herbs that spilled from each local. A vendor wielding a dull, wooden-handled knife cut open a fruit I had never seen before: my first mamey, creamy and cool and so unlike anything I had ever tasted. As he reached for a bright orange granada china, I observed the spirit of hospitality and discovery that permeates market life. Shopping this way feels personal. It’s less about a commercial interaction and more about being part of a community—a more intentional, intimate exchange. Though I was in a new country where I didn’t speak the language or know much about the culture, connecting with the merchants through quality ingredients made me feel completely at home.

I began to visit the community market in any new neighborhood I happened upon, and a strong Spanish food vocabulary developed as I chatted with vendors. I learned about santería-style herbal mixes for every ailment, chico zapote and zapote negro, miltomate and tomate verde, setas vs. hongos, and how to identify all the mangoes (Manilla is the best, and I’ll fight you on it). Only years later would I realize that the natural, happy immersion in market life played an important role in my settling comfortably into a new life in Mexico.

Several years passed before I bravely ventured to the motherland of Mexican markets: Central de Abasto. Curiosity and a desire for bragging rights first drove me to explore such a chaotic space, but I return for the prices; a dinner party for eight costs half as much if I travel across the city for the ingredients. And though I can now navigate its complex corridors, I’m still shocked at the market’s size (slightly smaller than Central Park in New York) and its overwhelming maze of hallways that vibrate with thousands of carretilleros and their heavy loads. Aisles stretching half a kilometer selling nothing but onions is a far cry from my quaint, hometown farmers’ market, but somehow losing myself within its passageways gives me a unique perspective on what it means to live in this megacity. I’m part of this system, part of this giant community, and we all eat from the same plate. Chances are, the food sustaining us all on a daily basis arrives via Central de Abasto.

Within the fruits and vegetables section, you’ll find a mini-market: vendors in Aisle I-J sell to the public in smaller quantities at wholesale prices that are hard to believe. Costs fluctuate daily, but on a recent trip, a kilo of white onions ranged from $5 to $7mxn, and a kilo of jicama was only $4. A kilo of avocados was priced at $58 mxn, while at my neighborhood tianguis, the price is soaring around $90. (The rumors are true: the recent spike in the cost is the fault of my paisanos, I’m sorry! They really, really love avocados.) I paid $45mxn for ¼ kilo bag of almonds, half what I’m charged at my local market.

Topping the mounds of produce at Central de Abasto are bright paper signs advertising the daily price, alongside general phrases to encourage sales. Here, I quickly realize, is where my market-Spanish gets rusty.

Many phrases are easy to understand: “¡No busque más!” and “Sólo hoy” have equivalents in English. And many are simply fun, such as “¿Cúal crisis?” or “¡Como lo vio en TV!” But suddenly, I read phrases such as “El Brody No. 1,” “El yerberito llegó,” or “Que chulada.” I laugh without knowing what these signs actually mean, and realize I still have a lot to learn. Obviously I’m not going receive vocabulary lists of slang or groserías from a professional language teacher like Beto, so I have to dive in, the way I used to point at a handful of quelites and ask, “¿Que es?” In fact, it took a 10 minute conversation full of embarrassed giggling with a potato vendor for him to explain “A gui gui” to me. But I got it. And this, I know, is my community. And I love it.