Xochimilco means flower field in Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs. This region has always been important not only for its flower production, but also for the crops grown here that have been destined to Mexico City since pre-Hispanic times. The Xochimilcas were farmers and founded their first dominion under a leader named Acatonallo, who is credited for inventing the chinampa system of agriculture in order to increase production. The chinampa is an agricultural method that uses small, rectangle-shaped areas of fertile arable land to grow crops on the shallow lake beds that existed in the valley of Mexico. These chinampas eventually became the main producer with crops such as corn, beans, chili peppers, squash and more. The Aztecs became such an important empire in part because of the implementation of this method.
The city of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire, was a man-made island in the west side of the Texcoco lake. This city was connected to the mainland by causeways and canals, getting to it was done by foot or boat. The city state of Xochimilco, around 11 miles south of Tenochtitlan, was also an island city, so most of the communication between the two islands was made by boat. All the goods harvested in the Xochimilco chinampas were transported to the capital by trajineras (boats) navigating the complex canal system. The lake, and consequently the canals, was drained by the Spaniards because after the conquest of the Aztec capital they neglected the dike system that protected the city from flooding. It was easier for them to drain the lake for some reason.
The destruction of the lake continued until the 1950’s when the city of Mexico started to look for alternative sources of fresh water for the sprawling city. This prompted authorities to seek World Heritage Site status for the canals and the pre-Hispanic chinampa fields, in order to give them more environmental protection, which was granted in 1987. A lot of effort has been put into preserving and cleaning the canals that are the last trace of what the valley of Mexico used to look like before the Spanish conquista. Today around 170 kms (105 miles) of canals still exist in Xochimilco.
Although now part of Mexico City, going to Xochimilco is like going to a different world. It’s a very closed community with it’s own traditions, foods and in many cases language. Spanish is the official language of the country, but many Xochimilcas still speak Nahuatl at home and in their communities. Xochimilco has always fascinated me and now that my friend Ruth Alegria has been teaching me more about its culture and food I find it even more fascinating. That’s why my proposal for this month’s 24 event sponsored by Foodbuzz was A Day in Xochimilco.
Ruth, her friend Gabi from Portugal, my cousin Zureima and her fiance Markus from Germany and I started for Xochimilco very early in the morning, around 8:30. Ruth has always said that the earlier you get there the more you can see. And one of the main reasons to get there early is to try the best Oaxaca tamales in the city, according to her, right outside the Xochimilco market. We were there just in time to try some of the last tamales they had left for the day.
We started walking towards the food section of the market when we found a lady selling some gorgeous looking homemade bread. She explained to us that her bread is baked in wood ovens which gives it a better flavor. And of course, we had to try some.
Our next stop was the antojitos section of the market. Ruth took us to the busiest stand of the whole food court where we had some amazing quesadillas, gorditas and sopes. The secret of their success? They use heirloom corn from out of state to make their masa. The better the tortilla, or the masa in this case, the better the final product will be.
In the same section we visited one of the smallest stands. But don’t let its size fool you. It might be the smallest stand in the whole market, but what they sell there has an amazing flavor. Can you guess what it is by the pictures?
You are not hallucinating. That really is pork snout, ears, cheeks and the rest of the head. They make some of the most delicious tacos I’ve ever tasted. Can you tell we are enjoying ourselves? But of course. a meal is not complete in Mexico with a traditional agua fresca (fresh fruit juice). Our favorite place to get them is just in front of the pork head taco stand. They have some of the most delicious tepache (lightly fermented pineapple juice), chia juice and root beer I’ve had in the city.
The tlacoyo hall, how I like to call it now, is one of my favorite parts of the market. Here some local ladies sell tlacoyos (oval shaped tortillas) stuffed with beans, potatoes or fava beans. They have regular white corn as well as blue corn tlacoyos. If you want to eat them here they prepare them by adding nopales (cooked cactus leaves), cilantro and cheese on top. It’s really a feast on a plate.
There’s a spot we never miss when we visit this market, the sweet corn patties and the chileatole stands. Chileatole is a drink made with corn, peppers, epazote and water that it’s served hot. It’s spicy, very spicy which pairs perfectly with the sweet patties. These patties are made with corn masa, sugar and cinnamon. Their preparation is very simple, but eaten hot with a cup of chileatole is a culinary experience that you must try.
By this point we were stuffed, but walked back to the main square because there was a festival going on there and we had seen a sign that advertised zacahuil. Zacahuil is a traditional tamal made in the Huasteca region of Mexico. This is the only tamal that is made by men (in Mexico still today traditional food is prepared by women) and only because of its size. Some of them weigh up to 25 pounds and have whole pieces of meat, chicken or pork, cooked inside. I’ve had this kind of tamal before at the SlowFood tamalada back in February. But I must say that this zacahuil was far better in texture and flavor. We just loved it!
After so much food we needed to walk around for a little bit. So we checked out the festival and found some interesting stuff. What caught my attention the most was a stand where they were promoting native Mexican crops. There are so many kinds of squash and corn that we don’t know that I think this kind of work is very important to fight the introduction of GMOs to Mexico. Our culture, food and way of life is threatened by evil corporations such as Monsanto. But that is a topic for another post.
We can’t leave the sweets out. Xochimilco is known for its amaranth, remember the amaranth and olive fair? Alegrias, made with amaranth and honey are a great sweet snack when you need energy for a busy day such as the one we had. Xochimilco is also famous for its ice creams and sorbets. We had a small tasting of that at the main square where I tried a very delicious pecan ice cream.
It was time to visit the famous Xochimilco canals. We walked to the closest dock, there are over 30 in Xochimilco, and boarded a small trajinera driven by two very young boys. I have been on many trajineras before, but every time the experience is unique. This time it was so relaxing that we almost fell asleep with the rocking movement of the little boat. I could try to explain to you what this trips are like, but pictures and videos can do a much better job.
Xochimilco is the last remaining trace of a lost empire. Its people, food, religion, canals and way of living might have been influenced by the outside world, but the core of Xochimilco remains intact. This community has a lot to offer to the country and the world that it’s worth fighting to preserve it. The chinampa system is a sustainable, organic and local agricultural method that could feed the whole city if it was used and exploded correctly. That’s why I am committed to writing about this beautiful part of my city. We need to create awareness about places like this where agricultural methods used for a thousand years can still be beneficial today. For now I will continue to enjoy Xochimilco and share this amazing part of my city where there’s something to celebrate every day, even if it’s only being alive.