If you think you’ve sampled nearly every Mexican dish, this list will put you to the test. We had a hard time narrowing it down, but this is our final selection of ingredients, beverages and dishes that best represent the flavors of Mexico. Join us on this mini voyage of discovery into the fascinating world of Mexican cuisine.
TEN PANTRY ESSENTIALS
Where would Mexican cuisine be without the chili pepper? There are way too many varieties to mention here, each with its own distinct color, flavor and pungency. The king of the Mexican kitchen most definitely deserves to top the list.
Classed as both a fruit and a vegetable, avocado is the main ingredient in that delicious and quintessentially Mexican dish guacamole.
Native to America and an excellent source of iron, proteins and vitamins, beans have been a staple of the Mexican diet since Pre-Colombian times, when they were eaten by the Mexica.
So prized was this grain in Pre-Colombian times that the Aztec used it as currency. Even after the Conquest it continued to be much appreciated: Hernán Cortés claimed his soldiers would drink xocolatl to give them more energy before going into battle.
According to the Popol-Vuh, the Mayan book of creation, man was made of corn, which just about sums up its cultural importance. No wonder corn is known as the sacred foodstuff of Mexican cuisine!
The word tomato is derived from the Náhuatl xitomatl. The red variety is used to make red salsa and the green variety green salsa.
This strong, aromatic herb grows in the wild and is widely used in Mexican cuisine. It is an acquired taste, but a pot of black beans wouldn’t be the same without a leaf of it.
This beautiful orange flower adds a touch of color to soups and other Mexican dishes. They are eaten battered and even used as a filling for quesadillas.
Yes, we eat cactus plants in Mexico. A highly nutritional food, the prickly pear or nopal is another staple of Mexican cuisine. Most people don’t have a problem with its taste, but its texture can be a bit off-putting.
ROOT BEER PLANT
A magical herb with hints of mint, anise, eucalyptus, tarragon, nutmeg and even a touch of black pepper. How could it not be a mainstay of our cuisine?
TEN UNUSUAL BREWS
Named after its birthplace, the municipality of Te- quila in Jalisco, it’s only tequila if it’s made from the blue agave and has been produced in one of the five states —Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Tamauli-pas or Nayarit— covered by its appellation of origin.
Mezcal, from the Náhuatl word mexcalli (cooked maguey), also comes from the agave plant, but unlike tequila, as many as 30 species can be used to make it. The distillation process is completely different to that of tequila and, naturally, so is its taste.
Neither mezcal nor tequila, sotol is a brew apart, characterized by its strong, smoky flavor. It is made from the Dasylirion wheeleri or desert spoon plant, an evergreen shrub that belongs to the Asparagaceae family and grows in the arid deserts of North Mexico. In 2002, sotol was granted appellation of origin. To this day it is distilled the traditional way in the states of Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila.
Pulque is another alcoholic beverage made from fermented maguey, the difference being that the plants aren’t cooked. It has a frothy, almost viscous milky appearance and dates back to Pre- Hispanic times.
Sold on the streets of cities the length and breadth of Mexico, tepache is a fermented pineapple beverage. Sweet and refreshing, it has a very low alcohol content.
Charanda is a brew traditionally made in Michoacán that is obtained by fermenting musts or distilling sugar cane. First produced in the 19th century, it has preserved its Purépecha name.
The agave yaqui or yaquiana grows exclusively in Sonora and is used to make bacanora. Sweeter than tequila and with a higher alcohol content, he who tastes it never looks back.
Of Maya origin, Pox is distilled from a type of corn native to the state of Chiapas and is used mainly in rituals and religious ceremonies by the Tzotzil people of this region.
From the Náhuatl tecuin meaning “beating of the heart”, this romantic-sounding brew is actually a corn beer popular among the Yaqui, Pila, Tarahumara, Tumbar, Huichol and Zapotec. It has a light, pleasant flavor and low alcohol content.
The elixir of the Maya, this beverage is produced in the Yucatán from the honey of bees that feed on the nectar of the xtabentún flower. It has a sweet, anise-like flavor and can be drunk straight or with ice as a digestive and is widely used in cocktails.
TEN EXOTIC FOODS
Rich in vitamins and minerals like zinc, magnesium and calcium, grasshoppers are also a good source of protein because they feed on corn, beans, wheat, alfalfa and wild grasses. Easy to digest and very low in calories. Still not convinced?
Escamoles are the larvae of the Liometopum apiculatum ant. This high-protein delicacy is also rich amino acids, but because the larvae are only collected during March and April, it is an expensive dish that is hard to come by.
You’ve probably seen one of these floating at the bottom of a bottle of mezcal. These larvae grow on the agave plant and are generally eaten fried. They have a higher protein content than beef without the uric acid.
Come May and June when the rainy season begins in Oaxaca, chicatanas or flying ants flee their nests. They are captured by the locals and turned into a delicious high-protein salsa.
These are red maguey worms that resemble caterpillars. They feed on the juiciest parts of the maguey plant, so it’s no surprise they’re bursting with proteins, B-complex vitamins, calcium, magnesium and sulfur. They also help strengthen the immune system and aid digestion.
These green caterpillars live on the palo verde tree endemic to the Zapotitlán Salinas region of Puebla. The composition of the soil lends them a slightly salty flavor, so they are usually seasoned with only garlic and chiltepín chili. Aside from being potentially addictive, they contain proteins, vitamins and an excellent combination of amino acids.
These are eaten mainly in Durango. Crispy and with a bitter, somewhat acidic flavor, they are cooked in garlic or butter or sometimes even battered to neutralize their toxins and enhance their proteins.
This is the larva of an aquatic mosquito found around Lake Texcoco. A major food source in Pre-Hispanic Mexico, it is now extremely hard to find. The larvae are milled into a flour that is used to make egg patties.
In Mexico, some 88 species of beetle are eaten. The most common are rhinoceros beetles or chahuis, which feed on the mesquite tree, hence their woody, smoky flavor.
We’ve left these to the end of our list for a reason: if you’re not brave enough to try any of the above, you certainly won’t want to tempt fate with stink bugs. The custom is to eat them alive and many people say they enjoy the sensation of them wriggling around in their mouths. If that’s too creepy, you can try them grilled or in a sauce. These bugs adhere to and feed off holm oak leaves, which accounts for their delicious cinnamon flavour. We promise they taste good enough to make it worth taking the plunge.
TEN ALL-TIME MEXICAN FAVORITES
The Mexican fast food par excellence, tacos come filled with practically everything under the sun. The most famous has to be the taco al pastor, sliced from a spit of red annatto-marinated pork.
These come with just as many fillings as tacos, but are heated on a hotplate and usually have cheese.
SOPES, PELLIZCADAS, CHALUPAS, MIGADAS
This handmade tortilla with “pinched” edges goes by a multitude of names. Filled with potatoes or beans (sencillo), toppings vary and you can choose from lettuce, cream, cheese and red or green salsa as a garnish.
A Mexican take on the humble sandwich. The classic is ham, cheese, avocado, refried beans and tomato, but the options are endless. Some like theirs with breaded steak, egg, braised pork or even Iberian ham!
A bread bun filled with potato and chorizo, cream, cheese and lettuce and bathed in a red annatto salsa. Typically eaten during Independence Day festivities.
Corn dough filled with pork cracklings, beans, fresh cheese, broad beans —some like theirs with seafood— and fried in oil or lard. The light version is cooked directly on a hotplate.
Tlacoyos are a variation on the gordita, except they are oval shaped and much thinner. They are usually served with a prickly pear salad, onion and tomato. As nutritious as it gets!
The most famous street jingle in all of Mexico goes: “Oaxaca tamales! Come get your delicious Oaxaca tamales!” And yes, tamales can be eaten for breakfast or dinner. They come wrapped in banana leaves —the Oaxaca variety— or corn husks and with a variety of fillings and salsas —red, green or mole—, steam-cooked to keep the corn dough nice and moist.
In 2010, the tlayuda was declared immaterial cultural heritage of the state of Oaxaca. The tlayuda is basically a large, thin tortilla topped with beans, string cheese, shredded cabbage, beef jerky and salsa and cooked on a hotplate until irresistibly crispy.
Corn kernels, a dollop of mayonnaise, a splash of lime, a pinch of salt and a dash of chili powder served in a polystyrene cup. Delicious street fare that tends to show its face only after sundown.
TEN COMFORT BROTHS
A Jalisco classic, the star ingredient of this dish is goat meat placed in a clay casserole, covered with maguey stalks and slow cooked in an earth oven over hot stones for five hours.
This is a kind of chicken or pork broth made with corn kernels that are cooked for hours until they literally “pop”. Topped with oregano, radishes and lettuce, it is generally served with cream and fried tortillas or tortillas baked in the oven until crispy.
The traditional way of preparing barbacoa is to dig a hole in the ground, cover the goat with maguey stalks and let it cook in in its own juice for 12 hours. A regional dish consumed widely in Hidalgo, it is also popular in Tlaxcala, Querétaro and Estado de México.
No hangover can survive a good shrimp consomé. This spicy soup has shrimp, cubes of potato and carrot, spices and a leaf of wormseed.
MENUDO OR PANCITA
A broth whose main ingredient is cow’s stomach, seasoned with chili, garlic, onion, avocado leaves and occasionally the same type of corn used to make pozole.
Due to its high humidity, Estado de México boasts a huge variety of mushrooms. This soup is very popular in the area and is normally made using the pick of the day, sautéed with onion, garlic, butter, wormseed and sometimes even a shot of tequila.
Taking its name from its main ingredient, this is perhaps the most traditional of Mexican soups. The tortillas are cut into julienne strips, fried and added to a tomato broth seasoned with parsley and dried chilies and topped with pork cracklings, avocado, cheese and cream.
Eaten the length and breadth of the country, there are many variations of this dish, but common ingredients include beans, chili, bacon, pork cracklings, chorizo and a leaf of wormseed, decorated with tomato, onion and a chili sauce.
A dash of lime juice adds pizzazz to this Yucatán classic made of chicken, tomato, bell peppers and coriander, and served with fried tortillas or tortilla chips.
BONE MARROW SOUP
This dish is common in Estado de México. The beef marrow is simmered with chipotle chili, tomato, chicken consomé, onion, garlic, bay leaf and, of course, a leaf of wormseed.
By Paola Valencia
Original: Negocios ProMexico