Mmmmm Mexican food!
So we are all familiar with Mexican food from the vast amount of Mexican-style restaurants that exist all over the world. Some are genuinely run by Mexican families and others have a more Tex Mex style, a relatively recent development in Texas that grew in popularity because of its proximity to the Mexican border. But really, ‘Texican’ food is a far cry from authentic Mexican food with the use of processed food and American ingredients, particularly wheat. Sure, Texican food items like quesadillas, enchiladas, burritos, nachos, chili con carne are found on the Mexican menu too but the quality and freshness of the ingredients, use of local produce and the traditional time consuming handmade process that goes into many Mexican dishes make for a taste sensation unique to this wonderful country. Real Mexican food uses the simplest ingredients at their freshest to produce wonderfully tasty combinations of flavours. The freshness and variety of the ingredients that pop your tastebuds makes this one of the world’s most enjoyed cuisines.
With so many diverse regions along coastlines and in mountain ranges and with the rich cultural influences of the Mayan, Aztec, Spanish and Afro-Caribbean peoples, Mexico is a unique and tantalizing foodie heaven. Corn, beans, chili, salsas, fresh herbs and spices are essential ingredients. When you get here you must try some of those unusual delicious treats so unique to Mexico. The lightness and freshness of the food is in stark contrast to the starchy heavy foods we find in Mexican restaurants in the rest of the world. In general, Northern Mexican food is more meaty, stewy and spicy, while down through the country especially along the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coastlines, fish is common and there are countless new dishes on offer. Hit the street vendors for the best of the local fare but make sure you choose one that’s popular with locals and has a good crowd, so you know it will be authentic, tasty and hygienic. Every city, town and pueblo has their own specialty, made by local families, food co-ops and in the mercados made using the fresh food available for purchase. Sure there are mid- and high- range restaurants with Mexican food and international food, but for the freshest, most authentic Mexican flavours head to the markets and street vendors with stands or search out the guys wandering around with boxes and trays full of treats. Here are some things you can try on your Mexican food odyssey!
Anything goes for breakfast really, but huevos (eggs) play a big part. Nearly every breakfast meal is accompanied by refried beans, sometimes rice and the ever present corn tortilla which will set you up for the day, or at least until taco time! Huevos Rancheros are a must try, you get tortillas topped with a couple of fried eggs smothered in a spicey tomato salsa sprinkled with coriander and red onions and served with refried beans. An excellent filling breakfast and a pretty solid hangover cure. Or have your eggs scrambled (huevos revueltos), and maybe add in some tocino de puerco or pavo (pork or turkey bacon) or vegetables and spring onions to be scrambled into it. Hotcakes (pancakes) are a popular Mexican breakfast, so you can still enjoy the familiar. But for a genuine traditional Mexican breakfast, try the local concoctions like Chilaquiles, where leftover tortillas are cut into strips and cooked with scrambled eggs, meats or vegetables and covered with a tomato or creamy sauce, or try panuchos and salbutes, native to the Yucatan peninsula around Merida, these are puffed up or fried tortillas coated with turkey meat and lettuce or cabbage. Yummy.
Ok, ok, so you’ve had these before, but not as fresh as this. Gloriously messy to eat and divine to taste, they are a cheap eat in Mexico available at so many street and market stalls and in Taquerias, so you will likely find yourself munching on many more while travelling here. They are available all over the country with some regional variation in the fillings. Mexican tacos are soft mini palm sized tortillas (made with corn in the south or flour in the North where wheat is a highly produced crop) packed full of yummies like pollo (chicken), bisteca (minced beef), carne asada o al carbón (grilled meat) and trumpo al pastor (pork, or more traditionally lamb, shaved from the trumpo, similar to a shawarma meat). A standard order usually means 5 tacos. There are many new fillers to try out that vary by region and depend on the availability of local regional produce. Try Carnitas, beautifully moist, juicey tender pork strips; chicharrón, crispy or boiled pork rinds; chorizo, spicey sausage; picadillo, a spiced ground meat; cazuela, stewed meats depending on the regional availability; pescado, mostly found coastal areas and in the Baja California peninsula, where the filling is the day’s catch, battered or fried; and Tacos arabes la oriental arabic style tacos layered with pork and other fillings in a pita style flat bread, a highlight in Oaxaca. Tacos generally come topped with onions and coriander, and spicy sauce and avocado sauce are usually on the table to add at will. In Taquieras, there is often a much wider selection of things to garnish your taco with, like fresh vegetables, radishes, corn, etc., and a greater variety of spices and salsas. Tacos are great for coeliacs as most of the time the tacos are made of gluten free corn (hecho con maís) and not from flour (hecho con harina). To be 100% sure, ask the taquero (taco vendor) ‘es hecho con mais, verdad? ‘ (its made with corn, right?). In general, flour tortillas are more common in Northern Mexico while corn tortillas reign in Southern Mexico. There are many vegetarian options available aswell. These include verduras (vegetables), papas (potatoes) and frigoles (beans).
Way too many types of salsas to mention and with so much regional variation and spicyness level you will find salsas everywhere. Just about every item of food comes with some kind of optional salsa be it sweet, chocolatey, zesty, fruity, mildly spicy, blow your head off hot, its always worth trying a dab of a new salsa before going all out and coating your food with it. Just about everywhere will have home made or locally produced roasted or fresh salsas to explore. So get testing!
Must Try Mole
A quintessential part of Mexican cuisine traditionally from Puebla and Oaxaca, this is made from a mix of chilies, spices and cocoa giving it a mildly sweet, spicy, chocolatey flavour. The sauce can take hours to prepare and can contain up to or more than 20 ingredients depending on who you believe. The consistency can vary from restaurant to restaurant and region to region depending on local preferences. Mole Poblano, probably one of the best known, is a specialty of Pueblo in central Mexico and generally gets smothered over pavo (turkey) meat and enchiladas. Oaxaca, the land of the seven moles, is famous for its variety of different coloured and flavoured moles made from different combinations of spices and herbs. You may love mole, you may hate it, but the flavours and consistency vary so much that you are bound to find one that you like. One thing is for sure, you have to try this national Mexican dish at least once.
Tacos, stuffed tortilla and tamales are all enjoyed at any snacky moment in Mexico. Food carts have a variety of popped corn, tortilla chips, ceviches, flautas (filled rolled corn tortillas), quesadillas, tostadas, roasted nuts and elote, (corn on the cob drizzled with cream and mayo, cheese and chili powder). Try a Tyaluda, a traditional dish of the Oaxaca region, similar to a pizza with a large handmade baked tortilla spread with refried beans, lettuce or cabbage, avocado, meat of choice, fresh Oaxaca cheese and salsas. And for the more adventurous foodies, grab a bag of chapulines, a snack of roasted grasshoppers also found in the Oaxaca region toasted with lime, garlic and salt. Chilaquiles are similar to nachos minus the beans and cheese with shredded chicken and are slathered in salsa. At the markets, try Esquites, a drink and a meal in one eaten with a spoon that is a mix of hot corn with spices, lime, chile and added mayo.
Soups & Salads & Sandwiches & Stuff
Soup in sunny Mexico? Eh yes, its perfect for those cities at higher elevations to keep you warm. It is also one of the cheaper, tasty options on a restaurant menu if you are on a budget. Azteca soup is a taste sensation in a bowl and comes with toppers like crispy salty chicharron (pork rind), queso fresco and creamy avocado to dunk in your soup. Try the zesty sopa de limon, with a base of chicken or vegetable stock with peppers, onions and tomatoes, topped with toasted tortillas. Avocado soup is also an authentic option being a lush creamy soup with onions, cilantro, chilies, broth and lime juice that can be served warm or cool. Tostadas are dinner plate sized baked tortillas topped with whatever you fancy. If you’re around the Yucatán, grab a cochinita pibil tostada that is topped with tangy pulled pork. Pozole, a hearty meat broth with chili and herbs served with tostadas, avocado, onion, lime wedges and chilli powder is a classic Mexican comfort food. Tortas are the Mexican version of a club sandwich that are spread with avocado, beans, onions and salsa with various choices in the filling. If you are in Peubla, a few hours south of Mexico City, try cemita poblano, a delicious torta/sandwich on a brioche style bread filled with avocado, cheese, meat, and herbs and spices. Or grab a Torta Cubana, packed with everything like juicy meat meat, fresh cheese and crunchy pickles. These are pretty big, so are perfect for sharing for a light snack. Set menus are also widely available around lunch time (~2-4pm). Head to a fondita (restaurant) for a Mexican food menu and order the comida (set lunch menu) that is basically a few courses often including soup, meat options, beans, rice and tortillas and a fruit juice. And of course you have to try cactus (nopales) when in Mexico. These are a bit of a delicacy here and are usually boiled and lightly pickled and served as an accompaniment to a meal, in a salad or in juice form. There are the usual range of salads available, and stores or restaurant can custom build salads for you in addition to what’s on the menu. While in Mexico, you have to try an authentic Caesar salad as it was created in Tijuana on the Mexican border with the USA in the 1920s by an Italian.
Tamales are a well loved street food snack throughout Mexico. There are so many types to choose from but this dumplingy gooey steamed corn parcel stuffed with meaty, spicy or sweet goodies is everywhere in Mexico, usually sold on the streets or off the back of a bike. They are usually wrapped in banana leaves or corn husks and make a tasty and filling late afternoon snack. Tamale sellers often find you before you find them! Hungry yet?
Mexico’s Caribbean and Pacific coastlines provide a smorgasbord of seafood delights. The local catch of the day is the best place to start for the freshest taste sensation. Check out seafood cocktails (coctel) with a choice of local seafood mixed with a red tomato-based sauce, onions, avocado, cilantro, and tomatoes and served with crackers. Work your way through the menu of camarones (shrimp), pescado (fish), pulpo (octopus), or ostiones (oysters), a seafood salad (ensalada de mariscos) and try a Mexican ceviche, where the seafood is generally cooked unlike the raw form you find in Peru. Empandas, quesadillas and tacos get filled with fish and shrimp here too and make a great budget beach snack. When ordering the catch of the day bear in mind that unless you ask for the filete, you will get a whole fish, head and all and specify your cooking preference like a la parrilla (grilled) frito (fried), empanizado (breaded), a la diabla (spicy) and al mojo de ajo (with garlic) to name a few options.
Boozy or not, there are a whole host of tasty thirst quenchers in Mexico. A freshly concocted juice is a must. From a simple freshly squeezed orange juice to a mixture of different fruits, like pineapple, mango, watermelon, banana, strawberry, these are a perfect refreshment any time of day. Divinely healthy vegetable mixes are also on most menus and designed to boost energy, aid digestion etc. Ice is usually added in hotter parts, but if you don’t want sugar added, say so (sin azucar, por favor), otherwise they generally lob some sugar in there. Liquados or aguas are lighter with fruits being blended with bottled water and some unique Mexican flavours to try are jamaica (hibiscus), tamarindo and horchata (sweetened rice). Grab one before hitting the beach to keep you refreshed. If feeling cold in those mountainous regions, you can’t beat a hot chocolate made with real Mexican chocolate of 65% or greater cocoa content depending on your preference and can be flavored with fragrant spices or fruits or nuts. In the markets, also try Atole, a thick warm chocolate flavored drink made with cornstarch. And don’t forget that Mexico is one of the largest coffee producing regions in the world with the major production areas being central and south Mexico in Oaxaca and Chiapas, so skip Starbucks and grab a locally brewed coffee for your morning wakey wakeys.
The Strong Stuff: But of course Mexico is famous for its Tequila, and there are countless delicious tequilas to try. Shop in the supermarket not the souvenir stalls for the best deals, and don’t wait til you hit the duty free as the selection will be much less. Tequila is only classed as tequila when it is made from blue agave (Tequiliana Weber) variety of the agave lily family. There are so may tequilas to try to suit every budget and the personal taste preference is so diverse that the best thing you can do is head to a tequila store where staff will be happy to let you try some samples so you can find the perfect Tequila for you. Mezcal can be made from other agaves, and you can find worms or tiny scorpions in the bottom of the bottle. If you have never tried Mezcal before, get yourself to a Mezcaleria, small bustling bars that only serve Mezcal, and order a taster platter of different Mezcals to give you an idea of the different tastes from suave to fuerte to dulce and smokey. Commonly produced around Oaxaca, I tried some with local friends there as it is the classic drink of the Day of the Dead Festival and some of our favorites where Beneva, Reposado and el Famoso. Brandies, like the popular Torres (Mexico is the world’s 4th biggest consumer of brandy) and Caribbean-influenced Rum based cocktails as well as all the usual western spirits can also be found in most Mexican bars. As for beer, stick with the cheaper domestic options like Corona, Sol and Dos Equios (XX), and don’t forget to squash a lime wedge in there to give it some zest. If dark beer is your thing, try Corona Familiar, Indio, Victoria or Negra Modelo. For your beach beer, head to the supermarket for the best deals, or to a bottle shop and by a caguama, Mexican slang for a 1L bottle. Don’t forget to save your empties and receipts and bring them back to where you bought them to reclaim the deposit you paid for the bottle. For something a little different, get a Michelada usually for sale at fairs and during festivities. This is beer mixed with various flavours like tomato, chili, or fruits served in a glass rimmed with chili, lime and salt power and with a stick of mildly spiced tamarind to chew on thrown in aswell. For the braver souls travelling in central Mexico, search out a pulquería and try a sip of pulque, a milky coloured super strong home brewed spirit.
Mexican Wine: Mexico has the perfect climate for vineyard cultivation but Mexican wine is still not well known internationally. It started with the arrival of the Spanish who brought vines from Europe. Most Mexican wine is produced in Northern Mexico around the Baja California peninsula in the Guadalupe valley. This region mostly produces fruity rich reds like Cabernets, Tempranillo, Merlot and Syrah and fresh Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier grape varieties. The land imparts a vague salty quality with good minerality due to its proximity to the ocean and rich fruity tones with higher alcohol levels due to the warm climate. When ordering wine at a restaurant or buying in a store, seek out the locally produced wine as not only will it surprise you but it will be cheaper than the imports from Chile, Argentina and other countries. It is a young industry and is not exported so don’t miss this opportunity to have a taste while in Mexico. If you have a particular interest, head to the Ruta del Vino in the Valle de Guadalupe to visit the wineries there and have a tasting session. Get there in August for the Fiesta de la Vendimia wine festival.
Mexican candy is famous for its unique combination of flavours. They can be sweet and spicy, salty and tangy. They can be traditional like the sugar skulls produced for Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) to more modern bags of wrapped candy obleas, not specific to Mexico, but if you haven’t been through South America yet, its good to try them here. These are thin wafers with layers of dulce de leche, a sweet condensed milk and you can add jam, coconut, fruits, nuts, cream or even savories like cheese to them. They are made right in front of you. Vanilla pods and cocoa are among Mexico’s main produce so it is no surprise that many of the deserts and sweets have these as a main ingredient. Flan, a classic luscious Mexican egg custard with a caramel crust contains subtle vanilla flavors. Street vendors sell churros that can be filled with nutella or dulce de leche and served warm rolled and coated with sugar. Buñuelos are crisp flour tortillas sprinkled with a mixture of sugar and cinnamon and topped with chocolate or honey syrup. Sweet empanadas are a puffed up flour tortilla filled with fruits, lightly fried and coated with sugar and cinnamon and are similar to sopapillas, lightly fried pastry with powered sugar and coated with chocolate or honey syrup with a decadent blob of whipped cream. Also, a must try is a Marquesita, a crispy crepe slathered with cajeta (a sharp caramel made from goat’s milk) or nutella and grated local cheese and rolled into a tube, served warm. Mmmm.