The best way to get to know a city is to wander the market aisles; Oaxaca is no different. At the humble open air markets you'll find the regional ingredients that everyday chefs and hotshot chefs transform into southern Mexican delicacies: mole, hot chocolate, and tamales. So grab your bag because we're heading out. Here are seven markets within walking distance from any downtown hotel that you'll want to sample.
Mercado Sánchez Pascuas
Lots of visitors to Oaxaca miss this neighborhood spot, but it's well worth a stop for its local food and produce. You can find yellow plum aguas, homemade headcheese, and guaje beans for snacking. Also known as the Carmen Alto market, before the current-day structure was built 40 years ago its vendors sold in the atrium of the Templo de Carmen Alto. The biggest market day is Sunday. Go early for a traditional Oaxacan breakfast at one of the market's comedores.
Mercado Hidalgo (also called the Mercado de Reforma)
The Hidalgo market is a small, locals market in Colonia Reforma. For a market its size there are a surprising number of imported foods and prepared salsas, jams and gourmet spices. We visited on a Sunday to take advantage of the weekend barbeque hosted by the market's carnicerías. Each butcher shop chips in portions of chorizo, tasajo, cecina and other meaty offerings and the market's female vendors set up an industrial-size grill on the back patio – surrounded by comedores and picnic tables. Here vendors, locals, and tourists bond over beef kebabs and grilled green onions.
Mercado Alternativo Pochote Xochimilco
This weekend market is an organic, open-air farmers market for the foodies and gourmet types in Oaxaca City. A handful of stands (about 20) sell organic produce, homemade jams, prepared foods, goats' milk ice cream, crafts, and more. Some of the surprise finds are tejate, a drink made with cocoa blossoms and ground corn, shallot-flavored goat cheese, electric-orange poppy flowers, and heritage tomatoes. The food stands tempt you with homemade barbacoa and tostadas with herby requesón cheese, steamed greens, and creamy refried beans. This market is made for impromptu breakfast and people watching – there is always something happening at the Santo Tomás church that hosts the market each week in its plaza.
Mercado La Merced
Each Friday at this tiny market tucked between Ave. Morelos and Calle de la República, women come in from the countryside and set up shop at the market's entrance and exit selling comals covered in cal, tiny, tangy, jeotillas (cousin to the prickly pear), homegrown chiles, turkey eggs, criollo apples, and mountain wildflowers. Inside, the market is a short, delicious circuit where you can find tamale dough by the kilo, salty queso fresco, and Oaxacan oregano – lighter and more critic flavored than the oregano you generally find in the rest of the country. Towards the back of the market you can watch butchers expertly slicing beef for tasajo and taste some of the different varieties of Oaxacan chocolate, each used for a different culinary purpose.
Central de Abastos
No one would call Oaxaca's Central de Abastos quaint but it's a necessary stop if you want to get to know the buying and selling rhythm of the city. The Central is the city's oldest and largest market, just outside of downtown near the bus station. Everything there takes on larger-than-life proportions and yet you can still buy a handful of carrots and a good steak for dinner. Massive displays of medicinal herbs sit alongside mounds of whole chickens and barrels of grains. The most impressive section of the market is the bread aisles, where most smaller city vendors come to buy in bulk. Wooden displays creak with kilos of sweet pan de yema and pan amarillo, and the aroma is intoxicating.
Mercado Benito Juárez
Located right beside the 20 de Noviembre market, Benito Juárez houses the produce and prepared foods of the two and is more of a shopping than an eating market. Expect to find Oaxacan cuisine fundamentals: chocolate, mole, dried chiles, and quesillo along with souvenir stands selling everything from woven baskets to leather goods to turquoise jewelry. It's a good place to stock up on Oaxacan coffee and try the many varieties of roasted chapulines (crickets) that the area is famous for. Both 20 de Noviembre and Benito Juárez markets were built for vendors displaced from the Plaza de las Armas and Plazuela de los Cántaros, when the two spaces were converted into the Alameda and the Zócalo in the late 1800s.
Mercado 20 de Noviembre
This Oaxaca City market is a favorite for breakfast – some of the pan de yema (egg yolk bread) and cinnamony hot chocolate that Oaxaca is famous for. There are also hardier things on the menu like enmoladas and chilaquiles made with Oaxaca's giant, white-corn tortillas in addition to rows and rows of sweet bread, if you want to take your breakfast to go. This market is also often called Mercado de las Carnes Asadas for its narrow passageway of roasting meats, raw or cooked, for carrying out or eating in (often with an afternoon serenade).