A little more than a mile away from Mexico City’s historical district sits the Mercado de la Merced, the city's largest farmers' market. A favorite of chefs, locals, and tourists that dates back to the 17th century, the market offers a diverse array of dishes and ingredients indigenous to the country—including squash blossoms, blue masa, and pomegranates—at low prices. It’s worth spending a few hours exploring, but if you’re the adventurous type, consider the eight-minute walk to its enchanting sister marketplace: the Mercado de Sonora.
"You don’t go there to buy fruits or vegetables,” says Top Chef alum Katsuji Tanabe, who was born and raised in Mexico City. “You don’t get the smells of a traditional market from the food vendors. The market has its own soul and is a place where you go to get exotic animals, and mysterious and spiritual items like limpia candles and potions to make someone fall in love with you.”
Put simply, the market specializes in witchcraft and the occult.
Established in 1957 by the Mexican government, the market sells altar and ritual items associated with white and black magic, Santeria, voodoo, and pre-Hispanic religions. The deeper you work your way into the labyrinth of stalls, the more likely you’ll come across a tarot reading, a shaman conducting a limpiadora—the cleansing of bad energy with smoke—or peacock eggs.
And these items have inspired some of the city's most unique food and beverage items.
Romeo Palomares, the former head bartender of Luciferina in Mexico City, recently visited the market to find inspiration for a Dia de los Muertos cocktail. While there, a vendor offered him the chance to sample tarantula venom. At first, the drop on his tongue was salty, then became tingly, similar to a numbing agent. This venom is now the main ingredient in his "Aragog" cocktail, named after the giant spider in Harry Potter. Palomares is no longer at Luciferina, but the drink is. (Today, the venom gets sourced from a lab for quality control.)
Though the promise of unusual finds is part of the market’s allure, it’s the local ingredients that attract the city's top chefs and mixologists.
Ari Ruiz of Limantour Roma in Mexico City built her “Sonora” cocktail with the three basic pillars of Mercado Sonora—herbs and spices, santería, and animals. She uses the herb toronjil, or lemon balm, which is commonly bought for limpias—a spiritual energy cleanse—and potions. In the drink it is used as an herbal distillate. Her creation is garnished with a tarot card, as readings are a popular fixture in the market. The taste resembles a dry martini and is served with a frozen stone as ice. The white stone isn’t merely decorative; it represents a connection with the Orishas, deities of the Yoruba culture.
The herbs and spices found at Sonora play a dual role: They make wonderful ingredients, and they've played a key role in the rituals associated with witchcraft and Aztec ceremonies.
Anthropologist Shoshaunna Parks, Ph.D., says it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how rituals worked in the pre-Hispanic era, as most materials used, such as plants and animals, were perishable. She says that people would have likely been incorporating the plants and animals around them for healing and spiritual ceremonies. Evidence of their existence comes from caves, which are well-preserved due to their dry environment.
Yet there's no definitive answer as to how ancient rituals of Mayans, Aztecs, and other cultures like Santeria became reclassified as "witchcraft." But Parks has as theory.
“I suspect it has to do with the fact that many indigenous forms of spirituality were pushed underground during the colonial period,” she says. “Anything that fell too far outside of Catholicism was likely to have been considered subversive and dangerous by the colonizers, and subsequent leaders molded from the Catholic cloth.”
Throughout history, she adds, accusations of witchcraft have been used to contain and frighten those who are deemed threatening to the status quo. But it's also possible that by categorizing indigenous rituals as "witchcraft," their power was increased among those who were performing them.
As a result, Sonora is teeming with herbs associated with medicinal properties and unique flavor profiles.
Chef Ezequiel Hernandez of Campobaja uses moringa, an herb closely associated with traditional herbal medicine, in his tortillas. He also uses the market to source pericon—allegedly used as a powder that's blown into the face of people about to become human sacrifices in Aztec rituals; poleo—an ingredient that helps soothe the stomach but, if taken in large doses, is also said to induce miscarriage; and melissa—a sleep and digestive aid.
And though many of the ingredients found in Sonora are thought to have magical properties, others offer important reminders of the country’s eco-heritage. Take for example huauzontle, a plant native to Mexico, which resembles a taller, bushier broccolini. The plant is as old as maize, and during the time of the Aztecs, it was used to pay tribute to rulers.
Today, Chicago's Julio Cano of the Bien Trucha Group, uses huauzontle to introduce the flavors of Mexico to America, with his tacos de huauzontle. The idea for the dish came to him while wandering the stalls of Sonora.
“It’s an ingredient we grew up with but our customers and American friends have never seen before,” says Cano. “It adds an extra dash of flavor to our tacos, and introduces a piece of our home to the Chicago area.”