El Codo: Shopping for Dry Goods, Piloncillo, and Honey


editor’s note: In which El Codo accosts some random lady in the super market and starts lecturing her on oatmeal ingredients

A Players Cigarette illustration of a bee and honey comb.

A couple of weeks ago an exasperated gringa asked me if I spoke English. After I answered ¡Si!” she unloaded her frustration: “Where in the heck does a person find brown sugar down here?” Having chuckled many times at the outrageous price of “imported” boxes of brown sugar (that had become as hard as an adobe brick) I asked her what she was going to use the brown sugar for.

Oatmeal,” she said peevishly.

I looked in her shopping cart. Yep, there was the smiling Quaker, a stick of oleomargerine, a quart of milk, and a red box of raisins with that impossibly pretty maiden holding a basket printed on the front. And honey. (Well, so she thought). I would have guessed there was two or three hundred pesos worth of “oatmeal” stuff in that shopping cart. And most of it would make “inferior” oatmeal no matter what the price.

Follow me” I invited. We walked to the boxed whole milk section of the supermarket and I grabbed a half-pint of Lala brand “media-crema.”

“This replaces the milk and margarine, it’s natural and it tastes way better. The rest of the stuff in your basket is incredibly over-priced and inferior.”

Inferior?” she replied. “How?”

Take this honey for example” I explained, grabbing the jar. I tipped it over onto its side “See how fast the bubble inside, moves? This isn’t pure honey. It’s adulterated with a ton of cane sugar. Real honey is not the easiest thing to find in México.” She looked at me with a hurt expression.

Take this box of cream and leave the rest,” I advised. I’ll detail a simple way to get much better ingredients for far less money.” She became “all-ears.”

Every town of around ten thousand or so inhabitants has a special store. It’s known simply as “Semillas y Cereales” (nuts and cereals). Learning about the existance of semillas y cereales can become one of the highlights of learning how to shop in México. Ask anyone on the street where la tienda de semillas y cereales is and they will point you in the right direction. Big cities may have a dozen or more, while small towns may only have just a single store.”

Inside you’re going to find many items sold suelto, loose, in bulk. Not only do these stores sell “nuts and cereals,” most have dried fruit, including a variety of dark and light raisins, some so large it would make the maiden on that supermarket box of supermarket raisins blush. Bulk almonds and walnuts. Rolled oats, barley, rice (some stores even have brown rice), dried apricots, pineapple, apple slices, and piloncillo, which is authentic brown sugar. (US brown sugar has had most of the molasses removed so it can be sold apart while the “blonde colored remains” are sold for twice the price of white sugar. Piloncillo is sold compressed into a cone shape and is very dark brown.) All of the merchandise in a semillas y cereales is self-serve. So you don’t have to memorize the words for stuff you want to buy in Spanish.

But, I don’t like that stuff,” she retorted “The piloncillo I mean. I tried it. It was as hard as a rock and it would have to practically be ground-up for it to be useful.”

“That’s another reason to not buy stuff in a supermarket unless you’re forced to. Good piloncillo is not hard. It is moist, in fact. Hard pilloncillo is out-of-date, and I avoid it like I avoid brown lettuce or soured milk. Good piloncillo can be easily shaved with a butter knife or potato peeler.Take your fingernail and press it into the cone. It should make a very visible dent very easily. Put it in the pot along with the oatmeal, water, and Mexican cream. I add the raisins then too so they plump up while the oatmeal cooks”. 

I don’t understand about the cream,” she complained.

Add half a cup of cream and stir for a really big individual serving of oatmeal. Not only does it replace the butter and milk, but it actually makes the oatmeal taste better – way better.”

Really dark and thick honey stands a better chance of not being adulterated” I said. “The people who tamper with honey seldom go through the trouble of adding brown food coloring, and if they try and use piloncillo to make the honey dark, the taste is a dead giveaway,” The best honey is sold by wandering vendors or at regional roadside stands, but if you use the ‘dark and thick’ rule you’ll seldom go wrong. But beware of buying honey bottled in dark brown glass jars – that’s so obvious a trick as to be funny. I have actually purchased what finally appeared to be Karo Syrup for honey in a dark brown bottle.

She dug into a gigantic personal shopping bag and pulled out a small baggie of cookies – home made cinnamon chocolate chip cookies!

Here, this is a little reward for being so helpful!”