Mexico City is my second home. I lived there for four years up until January, and I fell in love with its wild, chaotic energy. I fell even harder for the food — so much so that I went to Mexican cooking school and started my own culinary tourism business there.
In a few weeks I'll make my third trip back so far this year. I pack lightly as a rule, but when traveling to DF, I always take a second fold-up bag to fit all my purchases. (They're almost always food-related.)
Here are five essential ingredients that I like to buy when I'm back:
1. Dried chiles. You can get dried chiles in the United States, but in Mexico they're fresher and, of course, cheaper. I particularly like buying chiles de árbol, which are difficult to source here in New York. (Usually they're old and discolored, or they've been imported from Asia.) I also buy chile pasilla oaxaqueño, a super smoky, fruity pepper that tastes great in anything. I buy my chiles at the Mercado San Juan.
2. Chocolate. Mexico City's undergoing a bit of a chocolate renaissance, with a handful of new boutiques in Roma and Polanco. My favorite is La Casa Tropical, a sleek, well-designed brand that uses 100 percent Mexican cacao from Chiapas and Tabasco. Once you've tried it, La Abuelita will be a distant memory.
3. Mezcal. I'm a big fan of this distilled spirit, particularly the artisanal varieties that use wild agave. I usually buy two small-batch bottles from friends in the industry, or from places like Sabrá Dios in Condesa, a tiny shop at Veracruz and Puebla streets.
4. Cheese. Mexico City has become a repository for good cheeses from all over the country. I buy cotija — the real stuff is earthy and slightly funky — from Lactography, an artisanal cheese distributor. I also love the Oaxacan vendor (there's only one) at the Mercado San Juan, who sells luscious, balled-up ropes of quesillo, a tangy string cheese. Wrap a few pieces in a tortilla with some bright green salsa, and my husband and I are instantly brought back to our old life.
5. Mole powder. Who makes mole from scratch anymore? Very few chilangos, it turns out, unless there's a wedding or other important festival coming up. The average person buys mole powder or paste — a homemade concentrate that's reconstituted with broth. Add the desired amount of liquid, and either chicken or veggies, and voila, you've got a mole dinner. The best part: you can pack the powder in your carry-on without hassle.
→ Visit Lesley's Culinary Tourism Tours: Eat Mexico
→ Visit Lesley's Culinary Blog: The Mija Chronicles
(Images: Lesley Tellez)