Food in Mexico
Mexican cuisine is best described as a collection of different regional cuisines rather than a standard list of dishes for the entire country. Due to climate, geography and ethnic differences, we can divide Mexican cuisine into four broad categories, depending on the region:
- North – Meat dishes, mainly beef and goat. These include cabrito, carne asada (grilled meat) and grilled meats. It is influenced by international cuisine (mainly from the United States and Europe), but retains much of the Mexican flavour.
- Central – This region is influenced by the rest of the country, but has a distinct local flavour in dishes such as pozole, menudo and carnitas. The dishes are mainly based on maize and with different spices.
- Southeast – Known for its spicy vegetable and chicken dishes. Caribbean cuisine has influences here due to the location.
- Coast – The focus is on seafood and fish, but corn-based recipes are also readily available.
Ask for the town’s “platillo tipico”, this is the local speciality that you may not find anywhere else, a variation or the birthplace of a recipe, also bear in mind that most recipes change from one place to another, such as the tamales, which are made with the leaves of the banana plant in the south, and in the Huasteca region the tamales are very large (they are called “zacahuil”), we are OK for a whole family.
Traditional Mexican food can often be very spicy; if you are not used to peppers, always ask if your food contains them. (“Esto tiene chile? Es picante?”).
There are many food carts in the streets of Mexican towns and villages. Travellers are advised to eat in these carts with caution, as the hygienic preparation practices are not always reliable. In doing so, you may (or may not) find some of the most unique and authentic Mexican food you have ever eaten. At these vendors you will find tacos, hamburgers, bread, roasted field corn or elote served with mayonnaise or light cream and sprinkled with fresh cottage cheese, roasted sweet potatoes called camote, and almost any kind of food and service you can imagine.
- Chicharrón – Fried pork skin. Quite crispy and, if prepared well, slightly greasy. Heavenly spread with guacamole. Or sometimes cooked in a mild chilli sauce and served with eggs.
- Enchiladas – Soft tortillas filled with chicken or meat, covered with green, red or mole sauce. Some may have cheese melted inside and/or on top.
- Tacos – Tender corn tortillas filled with meat (asada (strip steak), pollo (shredded chicken), carnitas (fried shredded pork), lengua (tongue), cabeza (beef skull meat), sesos (beef brains), tripa (beef intestine) or pastor (pork with chilli). In the north, flour tortillas are sometimes used. Don’t expect to find the crispy shell of the tacos anywhere.
- Tamales – corn dough shells filled with meat or vegetables. Tamales Dulces contain fruits and/or nuts.
- Tortas – Mexican fantasy sandwich. Lightly toasted roll topped with meats such as tacos, lettuce, tomatoes, jalapeños, beans, onion, mayonnaise and avocado. Torta with American-style cold cuts are starting to be found in cities.
- Huitlacoche – (wit-la-ko-che) A mushroom-like fungus found in maize. This dish is usually an addition to others. Foreigners may find it hard to digest, but Mexicans swear by it. Although most Mexicans like huitlacoche, most don’t prepare it very often at home. It can be found in most markets or shops.
- Quesadillas – cheese or other ingredients grilled between corn tortillas. Note: heavier on cheese and lighter on other items such as chicken, pork, beans, squash blossoms and others.
- Mole – A sweet or medium hot pepper-based sauce with cocoa and a hint of peanut on the meat, usually served with shredded chicken or turkey. (“Pollo en mole” and this is known as Puebla or Poblano style). There are many regional moles and some are green, yellow, black and can have a very different taste depending on individual talent or preferences.
- Pozole – Chicken or pork broth with homemade corn, seasoned with oregano, lettuce, lemon juice, radish, chopped onions, ground dried chilli and other ingredients such as chicken, pork or even seafood, usually served with a side of tostadas, fried potatoes and cream cheese tacos. Very fortifying.
- Gorditas – cornmeal patties filled with chicharron, chicken, cheese, etc., topped with cream, cheese and hot sauce.
- Grillo – Grasshopper, usually cooked and placed in another dish like a quesadilla. You can often find them in markets in the state of Morelos and other central Mexican states. It is not common in Mexico City.
- Guacamole – mashed avocado sauce with green serrano chilli, chopped red tomatoes and onions, lime juice, salt and served with slightly thick (1/8 inch) fried tortilla slices or “totopos”.
- Tostadas – fried flat tortilla topped with refried beans, lettuce, cream, cream cheese, red tomato and onion slices, hot sauce and chicken or other main ingredients. Consider a corn chip dip, with low-dose steroids, for salsas and as above. Note that in many parts of Mexico you will not automatically get a dish of this type as you would in the United States, although they are starting to appear in resorts that automatically accept American nationals.
- Huaraches – a larger version (in the shape of a shoe), a gordita.
- Sopes – a corn cake filled with a variety of ingredients such as chicken, cheese, mashed beans and various hot sauces.
- Carnitas – roasted pork served with a variety of “salsa” to dry it out with less fat.
- Chile en nogada – A large green poblano chilli with a beef or pork filling, topped with a white walnut sauce (usually walnuts, called nuez) and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, which happen to be red. The three colours represent the national flag and the dish is served throughout the country around Mexican Independence Day, 16 September.
- Barbacoa – sheep or goat meat cooked with maguey leaves in an oven dug into the ground. Think of a barbecue paradise without hickory smoke and ketchup-based barbecue sauce. Served with spices and salsas in corn tortillas and sometimes torta bread.
- Sopa de Tortilla – a soup made with tortilla chips, usually prepared with chicken broth, plain or with a hint of tomato flavour, and usually sweet and not spicy at all. Usually served with diced avocado and crumbled cottage cheese.
- Chilaquiles – Tortilla chips with green tomatillo, red tomato or sweet chilli sauce, usually with chicken or eggs on top or inside. It is usually a light dish.
- Migas – is a typical dish from the centre of the country, which is a broth of chilli guajillo with soaked bread, to which you can add pork bones with meat or eggs.
You can judge the quality of food by its popularity. Do not eat in out-of-the-way places, even if they are restaurants or hotels. Remember that Mexicans have their main meal in the middle of the afternoon (around 3 p.m.), while breakfast or “almuerzo”, a mid-morning affair, is very early in the morning after a very light snack, such as a small plate of fruit or a roll with coffee. However, many Mexicans eat a big breakfast in the morning. Later, in the evening, the meal varies from a very light meal, such as sweet rolls or breads, coffee or hot chocolate, to a heartier meal, such as pozole, tacos, tamales, etc. Plan your meals accordingly and you will have a better idea of the occupancy (popularity) of a restaurant.
Drinks in Mexico
Tap water is harmless, but is generally not recommended for consumption. Some exaggerators even claim that tap water is not suitable for brushing teeth. Hotels usually give their guests one (large) bottle of drinking water per room per night. Bottled water is also readily available in supermarkets and at tourist attractions.
- Absinthe is legal in Mexico.
- Tequila distilled from agave (a certain type of cactus).
- Pulp, ferment from Maguey
- Mezcal, similar to tequila, but distilled from maguey.
- Tepache, pineapple-based
- Snorkel, made from coconut tree
There are also some Mexican beers, most of which are available outside Mexico, including Corona (popular, but not necessarily as popular in Mexico as many foreigners think), Dos Equis (XX) and Modelo Especial.
Lighter Mexican beers are often served with lime and salt, although many Mexicans do not drink beer this way. In some places, beer is served as a ready-made drink called “michelada” or simply “chelada”. The recipe varies from place to place, but it is usually beer mixed with lime juice and various sauces and spices on ice, served in a glass with a salty rim. Another variation called “Cubana” contains the Clamato cocktail, soy sauce, salt and some hot sauce.
Northwest Mexico, including Baja California and Sonora, also produces wines. Mexican wine is often quite good, but most Mexicans tend to prefer European or Chilean imports.
- Horchata (rice drink)
- Agua de Jamaica (hibiscus iced tea, similar to karkadai in Egypt)
- Licuados de fruta (fruit smoothies and milkshakes)
- Champurrado (thick chocolate drink)
- Refrescos (ordinary sodas, usually sweetened and made with cane sugar, not corn syrup as in the United States).
The legal minimum age for drinking alcohol in Mexico is 18, but it is not strictly enforced. In many places, drinking alcohol in public (“open container”) is illegal and usually punishable by one day in jail. Watch out for waitresses and bartenders, especially in nightclubs. If you don’t know how much you are drinking and how much you have already spent, they may add a few extra drinks to your account. Some do, but not all.
Alcoholmeters are widely used in road traffic. Driving under the influence of alcoholic beverages is punishable by 1 to 3 days in prison.
Mexico, especially the southern state of Chiapas, produces excellent coffee. Very popular is the coffee con leche, which usually consists of one part coffee and one part steamed milk. Unfortunately, many places in Mexico that are not cafés serve Nescafe or other instant coffee – you have to look for the right coffee, but it is there.