“I must warn you—the fish market smells a little bad,” says Silvia as we thread our way through the narrow, bustling streets off the malecon, or quay. Clearly she is worried that we will turn up our noses. It is close to noon, the sun is fiery and all four of us are perspiring in the humid air, but the prospect of buying fish just hours out of the briny deep is too alluring to be dissuaded by a little rank odor.
Veracruz’s municipal fish market is small, but exuberant—and it smells mainly of salt and seawater. We wander happily down a single outdoor aisle, extending the length of a short block, flanked by shops on either side. In front of each are large wooden crates filled with crushed ice on which the most tempting glistening seafood has been arranged. Silvery skins gleam, eyes are bright, antennas quiver--all of it seems to have been swimming just moments earlier.
“Camarones! Caracol! Robalito!” shout the fish merchants. “Que va a llevar?” Fishmongers everywhere are a raucous lot, but in Veracruz they also seem really good-humored. Like so many Jarochos or natives of the city, they are full of wisecracks, sometimes a little off color, rowdy but fun, almost as if life were a rolling party and they were the hosts.
At one shop I am transfixed by a crate of jaiba, live blue crabs artistically tied up in green palm fronds to keep them from escaping over the sides. The grinning fishmonger, looking prosperous in a polo shirt and wire-rimmed glasses, lifts a monstrous, silvery-red jurel, or jack fish, that sports a rather glum expression. “Buy him and I’ll make him smile for you,” he sings out. Jurel is sometimes used in albondigas, or fish meatballs, but I smile and shake my head. He is big enough to feed forty.
Sizing me up, the merchant picks up a much smaller yellow-bellied pompano. “Here’s the way I make pompano papelado; Stuff the fish with tomato and onion inside, and sprinkle it all over with lime and salt. Seal it up and bake it. “ A customer frowns, “You shouldn’t put the tomato and onion inside,” she says. “It’s my recipe!” he barks good-naturedly.
I recognize the pompano, but what are all these other denizens of the deep? There is champa, for instance, a plump fish with a lizard-like skin. Robalo turns out to be snook, a narrow, silvery fish with a thin black racing stripe down the side. There are clear plastic bags of frozen pink, black and cream hunks that are conch. But I nearly gasp when I see the shrimp: from head to tail, these gigantic pink wonders are at least seven inches long.
Silvia hustles us around the corner to Pescadoria Gandara, a big indoor fish market where we will buy some of those shrimp, as well as crabmeat and negrillo for the cooking class she is giving us. There are two big rooms. In the first, you pick your fish out of a long line of blue and white tiled basins packed with ice. After your catch is weighed and paid for, you take it to the next room where it is scaled, gutted and filleted.
The array of fish is almost kaleidoscopic. Sierra is thin and silvery with brown spots, sargo is round and flat with grayish stripes. I see huachinango chico, small red snapper, and suddenly the long ago taste of huachinango a la veracruzana, smothered with tomatoes, onions, olives and capers, is on my tongue. I lust for all three kinds of shrimp: pink, gray (cristal) and white (blanco). There are slithery heaps of pulpo de Veracruz, or octopus, piles of caracol del caribe, the queen conch, and spiny acamaya, or freshwater crayfish which seem to have only one claw. Pescadoria Gandara has recipes mounted on the walls,and printed copies to take away, including one for fish with tamarind sauce favored by “Bill Cleenton.”
In the room next door, a fishmonger is wielding a wicked looking mocha, a knife with a scimitar-like curved blade with a barbed hook at the end. He is gutting a cherna, a big brown speckled fish weighing 4 to 5 kilos. I ask if I can take his picture. Obligingly, he poses with his mocha raised in the air, looking appropriately diabolical. Then he winks and twirls his blade; in a few moments the fish has become a stack of meaty fillets.