Black Market Bonanza

The sky is partly cloudy, the sun teasing me with its warmth on this chilly Sunday afternoon. There is a melodic murmur of vendors selling their goods, and buyers inspecting and haggling prices for future purchases. The feel of the hustle and bustle of a busy Mexican mercado, or marketplace, is in the air. An amazing, colorful array of fruits, vegetables and chiles adorns the plentiful stalls.

Groups of families, out for a Sunday-afternoon stroll and some leisurely shopping, pass by as I linger at a stall, pinching, inspecting and smelling the tomatoes I am about to purchase at this Swap-A-Rama. As I select my plump, red tomatoes I am caught by the bright yellow of a stack of guayabas, almost hidden, toward the back of the stall.

"Guayabas?" I ask as I point to my rich discovery. I am excited to have found the guavas; they are almost impossible to find in Arizona. I used to buy them in Florida, where they grow abundantly. But in Arizona? Here, they have to be brought in illegally, since it's against the law to import fruit with seeds from Mexico.

Almost as if caught off guard, the petite, brown-faced vendor smiles and acknowledges my find. Looking around, she cautiously hands me one for my inspection. The aromatic, sweet smell of this most-delicious fruit is intoxicating. For a moment I forget where I am.

Sometimes I feel like I am in search of the holy grail. My quest has taken me to the darkest and seediest corners of the Valley. I will stop at nothing in my search for those hard-to-find Mexican ingredients and cooking tools. A molcajete (Mexican pestle and mortar), for example, must be made out of volcanic stone in order to give a salsa or guacamole that one-of-a-kind flavor.

Sometimes, if I am diligent in my quest, I can find guajillo peppers to make delicious adobado marinade for pork and chicken tamales. Banana leaves can be found by those who know where to look. But fruit from Mexico is a different story.

I stand for a moment, transported to a typical mercado in any Mexican city. The guayaba has bewitched me. I quickly purchase the entire supply that this beautiful vendor is so hesitant to display.

If you are adventurous and willing to go to any lengths for good and hard-to-find ingredients, the dog track is your best bet. Every Wednesday night and Sunday morning, vendors line the Swap-A-Rama at Washington Street in Phoenix, selling their black-market goods: authentic mole paste from Puebla, real volcanic-rock molcajetes, sugar cane and, if you are lucky, guayabas.

Silvana Salcido Esparza is a local chef and restaurant owner.

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Silvana Salcido Esparza