molotes y castanas

I know, I know, I already mentioned that there’s not much over in Ajalpan. But if you’re going to drop by, at least make sure it’s a Wednesday or Sunday, the two days of the week where the central market opens. That’s about the only place you can find moletes for miles. Molotes are true mercado food. You won’t find these in a proper sit-down restaurant, but they’re not equated with the street taco either. If you’d like a taste, you have to get yourself to the crowded, sizzling Wednesday market.

Molotes are finger food. First, masa is mixed with potato to form a dough. Then the dough is wrapped around refried black beans that are seasoned with hinojo leaves, or fennel. (Sometimes they’re stuffed with beef, but this vegetarian was thrilled to find a simpler, plant-filled version.) In true market fashion, the doughy refried bundles are then soaked in bubbling oil. The hint of liquorice from the hinojo, like anise, adds a satisfying flavor that works with the vibrant salsa verde that tops it off. On second thought, maybe anything and everything pairs well with fresh salsa verde.

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A few plastic chairs offer a quick place to stuff your face if you really want to stay a while. But molotes are best enjoyed right then and there, standing by the market stall.

Throughout town on market days, you’ll see families walking down the streets, baskets flung over their shoulders or grasped in their hands. Although I already suggested the town is more known for popsicles and molotes, one of Ajalpan’s main industries is basket weaving. When I ask how long this tradition has been in place, I can’t seem to get an answer. Hace mucho, says our guide, Irma.

After we’re stuffed with molotes, we visit a basket weaver at his home, where he and his family create containers with their hands and feet. Yes, their feet. Traditionally, people in Ajalpan would create the star at the base of each basket by holding the fibers in place with their feet and spinning in a circle.

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We watch him slit a strand of bamboo-like stalk with a blade and weave it through the edge of the basket to create a decorative edge.

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He showed us the horno, a  brick oven inside his open-air house. But this is no pizza oven. The traditional horno for the castanas involves five layers: dry earth, stone, sand, crystal, and salt. These tiers allow the oven to grow warm enough to change the hue of the baskets, warming them to a deep caramel color. Many buyers, who suspect that the baskets are painted or dyed, are surprised to learn about this basket-baking business.

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Of course, I end up taking a small 10-peso basket home. If a man makes a basket in front of me, how could I not buy it? Is it my obligation as a tourist, or was I totally roped into another purchase? “I’ll use it for tortillas,” I thought. Sure, all of those handmade tortillas I’m always making day in and day out…. It’s more likely to hold my red pens and dry erase markers. Maybe I’ll stuff it full of molotes for a ready supply of fried food.

I initially mistook Ajalpan for a simple, nondescript place hiding in Tehuacan’s shadows. But event the quietest pueblos have a specific product to offer– some secret process rooted in family tradition.

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