The Quest for the Elusive Mung Beans -- A Visit to Abastos from Ajijic / Lake Chapala

Kan, on Kung FuLike an aspiring knight in a medieval fairytale who had been told to bring back the egg of a fire-breathing dragon or a nascent American Indian brave who had been given the task of producing a specific feather from a fearsome bird on some faraway mountaintop, I now had my challenge: bring me the mung beans.
In this case, the one issuing the challenge was none other than my wife, Jet, a devoted cook who sees the world as her laboratory.  “Lakeside is a ‘pot luck culture,’ where friends and neighbors share the foods of their heart,” she said.  “To participate, I need a breadth of ingredients.  Please get me those beans.”
Just like the rites of passage challenges described above, the result of my quest would be binary: I would either succeed and be rewarded not only with the satisfaction of knowing I had achieved The Next Level of Life here at Lakeside (Lake Chapala / Ajijic) and the fabulous culinary creations of my wife; or I would fail, and with that failure would come not only domestic disgrace and disappointment, but it would also put the lie to my off-handed, uninformed assertion: “Of course you can get anything you want here at Lakeside.  Guadalajara is right by and it’s a city of five million people.”
Would my previously impetuous and ignorant bravado be rewarded with salvation or with repeated and prolonged ignominy?
We were about to find out.
On top of the request issued by my wife and it’s predicted success foolishly elevated to a point of honor by me, I had added two kickers: the price had to be somewhat reasonable and the sought after ingredients had to be available in larger quantities.
There are some who would say: “You’re in Mexico now.  Stop trying to make Mexico like the US!  Just use the local ingredients and forget about items like mung beans and moong dahl (also on my list).”  To these people I would respond in two ways.
The first is a question: Is that how you lived before you moved to Mexico?  Did you never use any items that were not grown within the immediate vicinity of your home?  If this is you, OK, for you, you’re right; do the same here.  For the over 95% of us not in this category (just a wild guess) who would like to make their lives richer and more interesting, let’s continue.

The second response is a visual and an observation.  Every time that our alternating housekeepers Sol and Gaby come to our home, Jet provides lunch, usually complete with a dessert of some type, exactly what Jet and I ate. Jet delights in offering up items such as Vietnamese pho soup and Sri Lankan eggplant with mustard seed and gingerbread with crystalized ginger, usually foods neither Sol nor Gaby have ever tasted, and all with ingredients not generally used in Jalisco cooking.  Sometimes, we’re around as Sol or Gabby try out the special of the day.  First the look of anticipation and then, upon her first taste, the joy on Sol’s face, which often lights up like a Christmas tree, is all you need to know.  Would you have the heart to deny Sol this pleasure?  And what would you say after you found out that right after lunch, Sol or Gaby’s first call is to the other one, so they can talk about what Jet just served them?
Back to my mission.
We had been told by wiser and more experienced locals and expats of a magical land not so far away in Guadalajara called Abastos.
“What is this land like, oh Maestro?”
“It is enormous, oh One Who Seeks Mung Beans, with all the food items you can imagine.  For example, there are streets that contain just candy wholesalers and one devoted just to oranges.”
“But are there exotic items not easily available at Lakeside at reasonable prices and in bulk?”
“You ask a lot, Ferreter of Food Exotica, but perhaps you will find that which you desire.”
“If you please, Wise One, please explain more.”
“You know those vendors at the tianguis who visit on Wednesdays in Ajijic?”
“Of course, I do, Master.”
“And you think they get most of their items directly from the farmers?”
He could see from the perplexed look on my face that that was exactly what I thought.
“Harrumph,” he guffawed, slapping his well-fed belly, which jiggled with what I could only imagine was lots of the unusual and interesting food he had eaten in years past.  “Most of them just buy at Abastos and bring it here to Lakeside.”
In stages orchestrated by my sagacious instructor, I was beginning to understand, which must have showed on my face.  This pleased the Giver of Knowledge, who must have felt I was ready for deeper understanding.  Nodding, and then slightly squinting his eyes, he studied me and then paused for a moment.  Bringing me close, he said in a whisper barely audible: “And where do you think the exotic restaurants here in town get their ingredients?”
It was a rhetorical question, and like all good rhetorical questions, one that did not need to be answered.
I must go there.
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Our first stop was to Cereales y Hojuelas A Granel, located in the shadow of the very modern and impressive SAT building adjacent to the main Abastos food area.  There they had herbs, seeds, bark, roots, culinary and medicinal plants, all in bins and jars, in bulk, and very reasonably priced.  There was preserved fruit of all types, including kiwi, pear and starfruit, nuts (whole and broken), including pistachios and cashews, whole cardamom, whole leaf teas, dried celery, fenugreek, white peppercorns, coriander seeds, anise seeds, dried potatoes and… frijole mungo (mung beans).
We purchased them all.
Our next stop was Abastos Gourmet, which very much lived up to its name.  The manager, Alonso Muro, was very gracious and quite an expert on the world’s foods.  Alonso’s store had smaller quantities of imported food from all over the world, including Middle Eastern (Jet bought Bulgur Wheat #2 for tabouli), American (corn meal and molasses), Indian, Asian and Greek (Alonso had us try several varies of olives).
As just one example, Alonso told us that he currently had oily moong dal, which he had on special because he said that most people prefer the dry moong dal.  Almost on cue, a man who was obviously Indian and who had not heard our conversation asked Alonso for moong dal, but said he preferred the dry.  Turning to me, Alonso raised his eyebrows and palms in the universal “See I told you” gesture.
Abastos Gourmet had seeds and beans that are hard to find at Lakeside, including red moong dal (made into chicken mulligatawny soup), poppy seed (perfect for holiday baking), Chinese five spice powder (for Chinese pork bao dim sum), reasonably priced prepared horse radish, preserved black beans (great over steamed fish), and much more.
Right next door to Abastos Gourmet, they had baby bok choy, regular Napa cabbage (for kimchee), okra, taro, and bitter melon, all hard to find at Lakeside.
Jet was ecstatic.
And I was redeemed.

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This column originally appeared in the Ojo Del Lago, the very widely read English-language magazine for expats and others in the Lake Chapala / Ajijic area.

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