Rarely does a book offer such a unique experience, but Mercados: Recipes from the Markets of Mexico, is a treat for all senses. It is a collage of beautiful images, virtuoso writing, and excellent recipes that celebrate the natural beauties of Mexico along with the culture and the food.
David Sterling did not focus so much on writing a cookbook. He wanted to create a travelogue of his Mexican escapades. For those looking for specific recipes, there is an abundance of them as well. But what separates this little gem from other books on the subject is the personal touch and an intriguing style.
It’s not just the food; it’s the intimate story of a genuine food enthusiast. Sterling came from Oklahoma City but spent most of his formative years in New York. He was a graphic designer by vocation, but left the States after 9/11 and moved to Yucatan. The gorgeous Mexican peninsula was his home ever since.
Sterling started a cooking school, that proved to be a magnificent success and garnered attention from the likes of Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy. The latter encouraged him to write his first book. Yucatan: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition was a celebration of his newfound haven told through the lens of culinary history. It received much acclaim and a couple of awards. One of them was the Art of Eating Prize in 2015.
There are 560 glossy pages that open the door to a whole new world of color and taste, rarely seen in the generic cookbooks one would usually pick as a gift. The saddening fact is that Sterling passed away while finishing the final draft, so we will not be able to see more works from this exciting author.
The book was finished by Mario Canul, Sterling’s confidant, sous chef, and fellow traveler. Canul is the man behind the lens. He took most of the evocative photos that are as fascinating as the story-telling.
Although it is not customary to mention story-telling in a non-fiction book, it does seem appropriate in this case. We are not just reading recipes, but fragments of life and emotions.
Mercados starts at Yucatan. Chapter by chapter, we travel throughout Mexico, where each region is a little universe of scents and flavors. It’s a story of discoveries and new experiences that resembles an adventure novel. Accompanied by photos that bring water to your mouth. You can feel the heat, the wind, but most importantly, you can taste and smell the atmosphere.
While writing about Southern Highlands Sterling and Canul focus on the beans. The terrain of that region is one of the most fertile and biodiverse on the planet. There are over 25 types of beans (mostly wild, but all edible), together with chocolate, coffee, etc.
Visiting a local market gives Sterling a chance to see a variety of products that do not exist anywhere else in the world. The flor de botil, for example, is a scarlet flower of the red runner bean and is available only during the summer. The locals spice it up with a little lime, chile, and salt. Mole is thickened with animal crackers (not just bread) and conquers with its subtle sweetness.
Tamales could compile a whole separate book. They seduce with the rich flavor that you can almost feel from the pages. Sterling is a master of description and transports you to the very place he is exploring. Imagine you are checking out the local market with a botanist, chef, and a historian!
Over 100 recipes are little masterpieces of their own. Though every dish has a meticulous explanation, the ingredients may be challenging to find outside of Mexico. One can get frustrated, mostly because you are instantly hooked on everything you see and need a taste as soon as possible. However, you might want to book a little Mexican adventure of your own to try some of these delicacies.
If you get a copy of the book, look out for the recipe for shrimp with garlic and chile (Camarones Al Ajillo) and tequila flambeed beef (Carne Al Tequila). Most ingredients for those two can be found easily, but the dishes are no less delicious. If you want to try a handsome Mexican dessert go for Nieve de Mezcal, which is an interesting take on ice-cream.
In the end, what is the best part of this adventure in senses is that it draws inspiration from the markets. And they are the melting pots of any place, where people meet, and where the magic happens.