What’s “real” Mexican food, anyway?
Cuisines are constantly evolving, never set in stone for eternity. So words like “real” or “authentic” are always loaded. But we’ll do our best to get to the heart of authentic Mexican cuisine and lay out a diverse spread of recipes for you to savor and explore. ¿Suena bien?
The history of Mexican cuisine is long and deep, pre-dating the Republic itself by centuries. Many of the foods we find in the Mexican pantry carry ancient pedigrees. Beans, tomatoes, corn, chile peppers — they rank among the world’s first cultivated foods and were staples of ancient Aztecs and Mayans.
Avocados, peanuts, and squash were also native to Mexico. In 1521, conquest profoundly influenced the Mexican cuisine we know today. The Spaniards brought livestock as well as dairy products like cheese. Pigs, cows, and sheep had never been seen before in the New World. The Spanish also introduced herbs and spices, including garlic, sugar cane, and cilantro.
Until the conquistadors arrived, there was no wheat in what is now Mexico. Even today, burritos are scarce in southern Mexico, where tortillas are still made the traditional way, with corn. Colonization also brought the assimilation of cuisines and cooking techniques from France, the Caribbean, Portugal, West Africa, and South America.
Mix it all up, add time, and you get Mexican cuisine as we know (and love) it today.
Okay, so that’s a brief blast into the past. How about we take a peek into the Mexican pantry, and see what we find? These are the core ingredients that have built the dominant flavors in Mexican cuisine.
Corn (Maize or nixtamal)
Corn, “the Gift of the Gods,” is a cornerstone of Mexican cuisine. It appears in almost everything: tortillas, enchiladas, tamales, tacos, soups, and stews, even atole, a thick drink made with ground corn. When the hull is removed and corn is treated with an alkali, it becomes hominy, a key ingredient in posole. Masa harina, the “dough flour” in tamales and corn tortillas, is made from ground dried hominy kernels.
The Spanish brought the first rice to Mexico before you were born, around 1522. Along with corn, rice is among the most important of Mexico’s grains. Red rice (or “Mexican rice”) is made with blanched rice cooked in hot oil with tomatoes and broth. Green rice incorporates parsley and chiles. Arroz con pollo is a rice-based chicken casserole. Mix rice flour with sugar and cinnamon and you have a popular drink called horchata.
Another Mexican staple dating back to pre-Columbian times, beans are often prepared simply by simmering them in water, perhaps with fresh herbs like epazote, a native wild herb. Interestingly, the term “refried beans” is actually based on a mistranslation of the word refrito, which means well-fried, not fried again.
For centuries, corn has been ground, turned into dough (masa) and then shaped into small, very thin cakes called tortillas. After the Spanish introduced wheat into Mexico in the 16th century, flour tortillas became known, mostly in the north. Whether corn- or flour-based, tortillas are stuffed with meats, stews, beans, and rice, and eaten like tacos; or filled, rolled, and baked as enchiladas — or deep-fried as chimichangas, an Arizona invention.
There are some 60 varieties of chile peppers, from very mild Anaheims to fiery hot habaneros. Jalapeños — from Jalapa (Xalapa), the capital of Veracruz — are the most recognizable, alongside chipotles — jalapeños that have been dried and smoked — the primary flavor in adobo sauce. A favorite Mexican main course, Chiles Rellenos, features large poblano chiles stuffed with cheese or spicy meat. Jalapeño poppers, an American bar-menu staple, are a version (some might say “perversion”) of these.
Chili, on the other hand, as in spicy chili con carne, is an American creation unrelated to the Mexican pepper, and not a Mexican dish. Other non-traditional, gringo versions of Mexican food include the American-born nachos and fajitas.
The avocado has been cultivated in Mexico for at least 5,000 years. Mashed, avocados are the main ingredient in guacamole. Sliced avocados are often added to soups. The leaves of the avocado plant often flavor stews or are ground and added to moles and other sauces.
Dairy foods arrived with the Spanish. Cotija cheese is dry and crumbly with a salty taste somewhat like feta, an adequate substitute in a pinch. However, an even better sub for true Mexican cotija cheese, which is unavailable in the U.S., is probably Romano cheese. Cotija, as well as queso fresco and queso blanco, can be used to top tacos, beans, enchiladas — the works. These cheeses don’t melt well, so they’re typically added at the end of cooking or as a garnish.
Incidentally, bright yellow cheese on your Mexican food? It’s a not-so-subtle sign that it might not be authentically Mexican. Mexican dishes favor Queso Monterey, Queso Chihuahua, and Queso Fresco instead.
Another of Meso-America’s great gifts to the world, tomatoes were first domesticated by ancient Mayans and Aztecs. Mexican cooks use tomatoes in fresh and cooked salsas, in rice dishes, and stews. Kitchen Tip: Keep tomatoes at room temperature — the cold of refrigeration dulls flavor and destroys texture.
Ancient Mayans and Aztecs were making salsas centuries before European contact. The word simply means “sauce,” and can refer to both cooked sauces and those made from raw ingredients. The version most familiar to Americans — salsa fresca — is made with fresh tomatoes, chiles, onions and fresh cilantro. Simmered, it becomes salsa ranchero. But there are many other types of salsas, including some with exotic ingredients like huitlacoche, a corn fungus.
Introduced by the Spanish, the herb cilantro is the green leaves of the coriander plant. Fresh cilantro is featured in so many Mexican dishes. And it’s a must in salsas. Cooked, it begins to lose its anise-like flavor, which is why it’s typically added to dishes just before serving.
These are the bright red seeds that come from a tropical bush that grows in Mexico. Ground into seasoning pastes, annatto seeds add deep red color and pungent flavor to Mexican dishes like Cochinita Pibil. Achiote also gives Cheddar cheese its orange color.
Tomatillos are sometimes called “Mexican green tomatoes” or “husk tomatoes,” although they are not botanically related. Fresh tomatillos are covered in thin husks. Their taste is tart, and they are often roasted or boiled and used in cooked or fresh salsas or with pork — as in chile verde — or sometimes beef or fish preparations.
Milder than Mediterranean versions, Mexican oregano is found in chili powders and all manner of Mexican dishes. If you substitute Mediterranean oregano, cut back just a bit to account for Mexican oregano’s more subtle flavor.
This root vegetable looks like a giant turnip and has the same crisp texture of a raw potato with a mild, slightly sweet flavor. Jicama is eaten raw (often in salads) or fried, steamed, baked, or boiled.
Cumin is characterized by a strong musty, earthy flavor which also contains some green/grassy notes. Cumin is a critical ingredient of chili powder, achiote blends, and adobo sauce.
After they’re peeled and safe to handle, nopal cactus paddles are eaten fresh, canned or jarred, pickled, and candied.
Also called a “vegetable pear,” chayote are mild-flavored, pale green squash with a thin skin that can be smooth or prickly, depending on the variety. Chayote can be eaten raw, stuffed, pickled, or fried. Smooth-skinned chayote don’t require peeling.
Pumpkin Seeds (Pepitas)
Pumpkin seeds were used in pre-Columbian cooking. They are an important ingredient in moles, pipián (pumpkin seed sauce) and other Mexican dishes. They are often sold roasted and salted. With the white hull removed, pepitas are green and mild flavored.
A member of the lily family (along with leeks, chives, onions and shallots) garlic is the strongest-flavored, most assertive member of the group. Spanish conquistadores brought garlic to Mexico; today, garlic adds bold flavor to rubs, marinades, soups, and sauces.
Made from the bean of an edible orchid, vanilla has been enjoyed in Mexico since ancient times. Real Mexican vanilla extract is deeply fragrant and flavorful.
The world’s love affair with chocolate began in Mexico, where for centuries pounded cocoa beans were frothed into a foamy drink99 that was usually bitter, not sweet. When Cortes arrived in the New World, he was welcomed with this beverage. A little bit of Mexican chocolate adds depth to mole sauces.
The Spanish introduced citrus into Mexico. The bright flavors of lemons, limes, and bitter Seville orange are integral to many Mexican dishes, from salsas to tortilla soups to ceviches. If Seville oranges are unavailable, you can approximate their distinctive, tart flavor by combining a little grapefruit, lime, and orange juice in equal amounts. Small Mexican limes enliven meats, corn dishes, and add refreshment when squeezed into a bottle of cold Mexican lager or a spicy, refreshing Michelada.
Introduced by the Spanish, pork is a primary meat in stews and as fillings for tortillas in tacos and enchiladas. Fresh ground pork is also used in Mexican chorizo sausage (Spanish chorizo is made from smoked pork).
Lard is a shelf-stable cooking fat that is used throughout Mexico for frying, as well as in tamales, beans, flour tortillas, and in baking. Lard is rendered from the layer of fat around pork kidneys.
In other cuisines, the term “chili powder” refers to a single ground red chile, such as cayenne. Mexican chili powder is a particular spice blend made from different dried chiles, Mexican oregano, cumin, coriander, and sometimes garlic, cloves, and salt.