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75 Facts About Mexican Food Culture: The Ultimate Foodie Guide

mexican food culture

Most people may be surprised to learn that Mexican food culture is almost 9,000 years old. Even though many are familiar with modern Mexican cuisine which has evolved with a mixture of old and new influences into one of the most distinctive styles in the world. Traditional Mexican cuisine is unique, though, which is why UNESCO inscribed it on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in 2010.

The Evolution of Mexican Food Culture – Origins, Influences and Traditions

Much of Mexican food culture developed far in antiquity, with the various indigenous cultures – starting with the Mayas who domesticated maize and thus presented corn to the whole world

They were followed by successive Mesoamerican cultures such as the Olmec, Teotihuacanos, Toltec, Huastec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Otomi, Purepecha, Totonac, Mazatec, Mazahua and Nahua. This last group evolved to become the second greatest empire on what is now Mexican soil – the Aztecs who created their own cuisine.

The traditional foods of the Mayas and the Aztecs focused heavily on living off the land, which meant a predominantly vegetarian diet featuring the likes of maize (corn), beans, squash, avocados, tomatoes, agave, sweet potato, cactus and chili pepper. The main meats consumed were poultry – namely, chicken, turkey and duck. Cacao was another indigenous mainstay.

After the Spanish under Cortez took over Central Mexico after their conquest of the Aztecs in 1521, they completed their annexation of the Mayas in the Yucatan Peninsula and South East Mexico. Their food styles inevitably crept in, mainly in the form of red meat (beef, pork, goat and sheep), dairy (cheese and milk) and most importantly, rice. 

While these influences impacted the cuisine strongly, especially in Northern and Central Mexico where the Spanish first congregated in force. However, the traditions continued to be strong all over the country, especially in the Southern parts of the country and the Yucatan Peninsula. 

After the Spanish conquest, European influences from Spain, Germany and Italy came into Mexican food, along with later influences from the Middle East, Africa and Asia due to immigration and slavery. The last phase was the integration of Spanish food with US styles, which has given rise to the Tex-Mex style of cuisine.

The evolution of Mexican cuisine can thus be viewed through the lens of three broad eras: the Pre-Spanish Times, dating Back to antiquity; the Post Spanish Invasion (mid 16th Century to mid 19th Century) and Modern Mexican Cuisine, including the development of Tex-Mex styles.

Traditional Mexican Food Culture is Driven by Geography and Regional Cuisine Influences

As discussed, Mexican cuisine is a blend of the traditional and the European and other influences post 1521. The Northern Region of Mexico has the most outside influence, while Central, South and South Eastern Mexico tends to maintain many of the ancient traditions that came down from the thousands of years of Mesoamerican history and culture.

Some of the major culinary regions in Mexico are listed below:

  1. El Norte (Northern Mexico including Baja California): The broad northern border of Mexico, stretching 200 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, is famous for its ranchero culture which gives rise to its expertly grilled beef (dishes such as machaca, arrachera (fajitas) and cabrito (baby goat). This region also has the widest of cheeses in Mexico, especially queso fresco, ranchero (similar to Monterey Jack), cuajada (mild, sweet creamy curd of fresh milk) and requeson (similar to risotto). The area has more than 40 different types and styles of tortillas. Baja California, besides its seafood, is noted for its wine district – one of the oldest in Mexico.
  2. Oaxaca (South Western Mexico): Oaxaca is best known for its seven variations of mole sauce, their distinctively styled tamales, Oaxacan cheese, mezcal and chapulines (described below). Oaxaca has a rich gastronomic history – corn and many beans were first cultivated here. There is rich variety as well – coastal areas with seafood, fresh vegetables in the central region and tropical fruits as we get close to Veracruz. A classic dish from here, tlayuda (large crunchy tortillas topped with Oaxacan cheese, meat, chilis, avocados etc.) combines many of the local ingredients.
  3. Veracruz (Eastern Mexico): Veracruz cuisine has three strong influences – the Mesoamerican tradition (from the Olmecs, Huastecas and Totonacs), followed by Spanish and finally the Afro Cuban style. Vanilla has been traditionally grown here, along with corn, squash, avocados and a variety of tropical fruits. The Spanish first introduced rice here. The coastal regions are rich with fish dishes. This area also has strong French influences dating back to the 19th century.
  4. Yucatan and Campeche (South Eastern Mexico): Food in the Yucatan Peninsula is very distinct from the rest of Mexico due to its strong Mayan influence, along with later influences from the Caribbean Islands, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The main staple is corn, the use of certain spices such as achiote gives the dishes a reddish color. Yucatan is home to the pibil style of cooking, where seasoned meats and other food is wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a pit oven. The use of spicier chilis such as habaneros is also a feature of this cuisine. Seafood is abundant as are fresh fruits and vegetables in the summer months.
  5. Puebla (Central Mexico): This landlocked region, nestled between highland Hidalgo, coastal Veracruz and rugged Oaxaca, is an interesting mix of cuisines due to strong influences from both its Mesoamerican past and the strong Spanish presence in the area. There are many dishes and condiments from Pueblo, such as Poblano pepper and seven varieties of mole sauce – which have now combined to make what has been called the national dish of Mexico – mole poblano. Puebla was also one of the places where corn was first cultivated. It’s a region where meat is wrapped in fragrant leaves and roasted underground, where braising in tomatoes or tomatillos has become an art form and the use of pumpkin seeds is widespread.
  6. Chiapas (South Western Mexico): The Chiapas valley features some of the fieriest chilies in Mexico, the best known being the fiery chile de siete caldos. Corn is the staple in this region, and black bean is also liberally used in soups and sauces. Blandas tortillas are used to make empanadas, tamales and other dishes in the region.
  7. Mexico City (Central Mexico Plateau): Mexico City, being the capital, is also the site of Mexico’s haute cuisine. Food here is plentiful and is brought in from all over the country. Street food is popular, with a taco stand on every corner. Influences from Aztec cuisine are strong, but so are European and other immigrant styles. Other popular dishes here include carnitas, barbacoa, moles, tortas and a variety of tacos. A number of insects – including fried grasshoppers – are sold on the streets as snacks.

Other regions, such as Michoacan, Jalisco and Colima, as well as the Southern US with Tex-Mex, all have their distinctive food style. 

Mexican Food Influences/Imports from Other Cultures

As mentioned before, Mexican cuisine was heavily influenced by the culture of the Mesoamericans, beginning with the Mayas and continuing down to the Aztecs. Later influences from Europe came predominantly from the Spaniards, followed by the Germans, French and Italians, many of whom relocated to Mexico, Central America and South America in the past couple of hundred years, shaping the cultures of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and many other countries. Over time, Levantine, African and Asian influences crept in due to growing influences from slavery and other immigration. The final part was the confluence with US cooking, which has led to the more commonly available Tex-Mex style of cuisine.

Food for Major Mexican Holidays and Special Occasions

Traditional and holiday meals in Mexico are often specialized based on regions. A lot of fiestas (feasts) are held based on what is locally available and popular, as well as styles that are commonly accepted. 

Some types of dishes are cooked based on the time and effort it takes to prepare them – in other words, while tradition may dictate specific dishes, people may cut corners due to lack of resources or time and fall back on certain staples. 

Regardless, some dishes consumed during a few major festivals are as follows:

  1. During Candlemas (February 2), Mexicans traditionally eat tamale. They are wrapped in corn husks in the highlands and desert areas and banana leaves in the tropics.
  2. On Cinco de Mayo (May 5), Mexico’s Day of Independence from Spanish rule, a great number of parties and parades are held. Traditional foods consumed include mole poblano in Puebla, Chiles en Nogada (described below, has the colors of the Mexican Flag), tamales, Birria de Borrego (described below) and Queso Fundido (Mexican Cheese Fondue). Avocados are also popular, in guacamole or other forms. 
  3. Dia de Muertos (The Day of the Dead, celebrated Nov 1 and 2, at par with Western traditions of All Saints’ Eve and All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day): This multi-day event is a celebration of people gathering to remember friends and family members who have passed on from this world (that is, died) and to help them along their spiritual journey. Families will eat food and beverages that were favorites of the dear departed, but some traditional foods are also consumed. They include Tamales, Mole, Barbacoa, Carnitas, Pan de Muerto (sweet rolls) and Calaveras (sugar skulls). Drinks such as aioli (non-alcoholic) and pulque (alcoholic) are consumed, along with favorite beverages.
  4. On Christmas Eve, as well as a variety of other festive occasions such as dia de Muertos, weddings and birthdays, the main serving is often mole – especially Mole Poblano, described below. It is a complicated dish and as such, usually reserved for special occasions. Dishes such as barbacoa, carnitas and mixiotes, some specific variations of which are described below, have also become common over time. 

List of 10 Popular Mexican Cooking Styles, Customs and Preparations

The Mexicans are food connoisseurs, and as such, they have elaborate settings for the main meals of the day – breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

The main types of popular food include:

  1. Sopas and Guisadas (Soup, Cream Soup and Broth and Stew): There are a rich variety of stews and soups including Chicken Tortilla Soup, Carne Guisada and Birria de Borrego, all described below. Mexican soups are usually made with broth or tomato paste, and garnished with avocado, cilantro, green chile and creme fraiche. Stews can feature rich broth, especially when they feature red meat such as beef, lamb or pork.
  2. Asada, Barbacoa, Fajitas, Carnitas and Chorizos (Grilled Dishes, Barbecues, Sizzling Steaks and Sausages): Grilled dishes, steaks, sizzlers and barbecue are traditions in Mexico, especially during large fiestas and street parades. Some popular dishes, including Carne Asada, Barbacoa and Fajitas are described below.
  3. Tacos, Tostadas, Tamales, Burritos and Nachos: These are all various uses of corn and flour. Tacos are wrapped food, tostadas are open tacos, tamales are made from masa and wrapped in corn husk or banana leaves, burritos are completely wrapped large, soft tacos and nachos are chips made from various types of corn.
  4. Tortas, Gorditas and Empanadas (Sandwiches): A torta is a Mexican sandwich with the bread often fried. Gorditas and Empanadas are pastries typically made with masa (or flour) and stuffed with various savory stuffing. Some specific examples are described in the next section.
  5. Frutas and Nueces (Fruits and Nuts): Mexicans from certain regions, such as Puebla and Veracruz prefer fresh fruit and nuts as snacks, as ingredients in sauces and sprinkled on salads. Different versions of nuts are often found in different regions. Pine nuts, almonds, chestnuts and hazelnuts are popular. Among fruits, avocados, apples, oranges, lemons, lime, melons, cantaloupe, pears, and strawberries are common, along with a wide range of citrus fruits. Some specialized fruits, such as Agave flowers, have been described in the next section.
  6. Verduras and Ensalada (Vegetables and Salads): One of the main contributions of Mesoamerica to the rest of the world was the cultivation of corn. Additionally, a wide variety of vegetables are commonly used in Mexican dishes – including potatoes, tomatoes, agaves, pinto beans, black beans, carrots, zucchini and other squashes, bell peppers, poblano pepper, mushrooms and assorted leafy and salad greens. Vegetables can be used as core ingredients or garnish and be served in the broth or on the side. Fresh salads are also common.
  7. Arroz (Rice): Rice was introduced to the Veracruz region first by the Spaniards in the 16th century. The classic version served in restaurants is arroz rojo (Spanish Rice), made with tomatoes, garlic, onions and rice. Rice is often served on the side, usually garnished with cilantro or parsley and lightly sprinkled with lime. It is also used in desserts, such as Arroz con leche (Rice Pudding), described later.
  8. Tortilla (Bread): No Mexican food would be complete without the accompaniment of tortillas, made with either masa (corn) or flour. Tortillas are used in versatile fashion, including the making of various pastries and tart-like preparations such as Gorditas and Empanadas described above.
  9. Queso (Cheeses) and Creme (Cream): Dairy was introduced to Mexico by the Spanish, though indigenous uses abound. Some well known cheeses include Monterey Jack, Queso Fresco and Oaxacan cheese. Cheddar and mozzarella are also used in many dishes. Creme Fraiche (thick sour cream) and milk are also staple additions. 
  10. Desserts: The rich desserts from Mexico are typical of what you expect to find in tropical climates where refrigeration and the use of ice was not known for thousands of years. Some classic examples, including Arroz con leche, Tres Leches and Churros are described in the next section. 

In addition to the food servings and styles mentioned above, Mexico is famous for its cerveza (beer), Tequila and Mezcal. Mexicans love to eat, drink and make merry, with family and neighborhood parties and parades.

List of 17 Mexican Ingredients, Sauces, and Condiments You May Need

Mexican cuisine thrives on a mix of traditional and newer influences. Some of the strongest influences from Maya and Aztec times, such as the use of staples like corn, tomatillo, cactus, chili peppers and cacao, along with the use of rice and cheeses that have developed since Spanish times, are blended into the preparations of this wonderfully fragrant and rich food. 

We begin here with all the usual spices and herbs used, which are similar to what is found in the rest of the world. After that, some ingredients that are specific to Mexican food culture are listed.

  1. Common Mexican spices, herbs and seasonings used in Mexican cooking include garlic, brown and white onions, tomato paste, lemon, lime, pine nuts, cumin, cloves, bay leaves, coriander/cilantro, black pepper or peppercorn, sea-salt, celery, marjoram, (regular) oregano, parsley, ginger, thyme, rosemary and turmeric. 
  2. Avocados: The Avocado tree is thought to have originated in South Central Mexico. The avocado pear is essentially a large berry, with a dark, thick skin, soft mushy green insides and a large pit. The berry may be egg-, pear- or orb-shaped. Ripened avocados are eaten with lime and salt, used as garnish in hundreds of Mexican dishes or used to make delicious fresh guacamole.
  3. Tomatillos: The tart green tomatillo, also known as Mexican Husk Tomato, is a native of Mexico and has been cultivated for thousands of years. It is used extensively in Mexican dishes and can be easily distinguished due to the dish changing color from red (rojo) to green (verde) – as in the case of the salsa verde sauce.
  4. Agave: The leaves, stalks, flowers and the sap (“aguamiel” or honey water) of the succulent Agave plant are used often in Mexican cooking, including of course the use of the Agave azul (Blue Agave) in making agave nectar and tequila.
  5. Nopal (Cactus): Nopales are common, with over 110 varieties endemic to the region. Traditional dishes with cactus have been around for thousands of years. They are used in marmalades, stews, soups and salads. Both the pads and fruits (“prickly pear) are considered edible. They have a light, slightly tart, green-bean like flavor.
  6. Poblano Pepper: This distinctive pepper is from the Puebla region of Mexico. Green Poblanos have a sweetish, milder flavor which can be used to offset spicy hot dishes. Red Poblanos can be significantly spicier. Another variation is the mulato, which is darker in color than regular green poblano peppers and even milder in taste.
  7. Mexican Oregano: This herb comes from a flowering plant that is native to Mexico, Central America and Southwestern US. It is in the same family as lemon verbena, so it has distinct citrusy undertones. It’s a popular seasoning for many Mexican dishes, including pozole, beans (see Borracho Beans, described below) and meat dishes. 
  8. Jalapeno, Serrano, Anjou and Chipotle Chili: Various styles of chilis, ranging from the mildest (Anjou) to the hottest (habanero) with everything in between, is a staple of Mexican food. In some places they are even served as a side dish.
  9. Dried Chile (Guajillo Chile): Dried chili is often used in Mexican cuisine.
  10. Mole (Sauce): Mole is a fruit or vegetable-based sauce, mixed in with chili pepper, nuts and a mix of spices such as black pepper, cinnamon or cumin. The classic version, known internationally, is mole poblano, a chocolate-based sauce which is described below. A green mole sauce, mole verde, is made with pumpkin seeds and green chili. Mole from Oaxaca and Puebla are considered to be the most famous.
  11. Achiote Paste: The base for this spicy paste is made from Annatto seeds, Mexican oregano, coriander and cumin seeds, black peppercorn and cloves, plus sea salt to taste. On this is added fresh garlic and 1 spicy chili pepper, bitter orange juice, fresh lime juice and white vinegar.
  12. Taco Seasoning: There are many versions of this, but the base recipe calls for powdered garlic, oregano, cumin, chili pepper and paprika. 
  13. Guacamole: The classic guacamole dip, often eaten with nacho chips, is made simply with ripe avocado and salt, garnished with lime and cilantro. There are, however, many possible variations – such as Three Chile Guacamole, which has seared jalapeno, serrano and poblano peppers mixed in, or the Chipotle Guacamole (a Tex-Mex recipe) which has garlic, red onion, jalapenos and cilantro with salt and fresh lime squeezed in.
  14. Salsa (red and green) and Pico de Gallo: Salsa and pico de gallo each feature common ingredients. but the base is different in one case. Red salsa and Pico are both made with tomato, sauce is in the first case and chopped tomatoes in the second. Jalapenos, onions, cilantro are added in, with salt added to taste and fresh lime squeezed in. The distinction is with Salsa Verde (Green Salsa), which gets its distinctive color from the use of tart
  15. Chipotles in Adobo Sauce: This sauce, often used in dishes like Barbacoa, is made from smoked and dried jalapenos, which are rehydrated and canned in a tangy puree of tomato, vinegar, garlic and a mix of spices. The process generates a very spicy mix,
  16. Walnut Sauce: This sauce is used for traditional dishes such as Chiles en Poblano, described below. The sauce must usually be marinated at least overnight for maximum effect. Shelled walnut sauce is mixed in with milk, Queso Fresca (farmer’s cheese), Creme Fraiche (thick sour cream), ground cinnamon and sugar.
  17. Cooking Oil and Oleos: Mexican cooking uses olive oil for healthier cooking, along with a variety of vegetable oils, including Corn Oil, Canola Oil and Sunflower Oil. Butter or Margarine is used in some heavy dishes, as is lard.

Many of the ingredients above are condiments to be used in the preparation of rice dishes, stews and regular dishes, or used as garnishes, or served mixed in with other ingredients. Specific regional dishes use specialized recipes that use one or more of the specific sauces.

List of 28 Popular Mexican Dishes Around the World

The following list of Mexican dishes also includes some Tex-Mex favorites, which are identified as such. There are many regional variations in terms of ingredients and preparation styles, the basic recipes mentioned below are the most commonly found forms. One notable absence from the list below are fajitas, which are prepared the same as skirt steak and served as a classic Tex Mex dish – since it is not actually considered to be a traditional Mexican dish. Fajitas were invented in Texas and are an example of the impact on Mexican cuisine. 

1.  Huevos Rancheros (Rancher’s Eggs)

This rich vegetarian breakfast features fried eggs served over warm corn tortillas with a covering of cheese and warmed salsa. Huevos rancheros are often served with either black, pinto or refried beans. The main ingredients are simple – besides eggs, tortillas and queso, you need tomatoes, onion, fresh cilantro, jalapenos if you like your breakfast spicy, salsa and sea salt. Olive oil can be used for a healthy meal.

2.  Nachos with Beef

This preparation can be made in a variety of ways. A fresh, healthy style would be to fry ground beef in Taco Seasoning, along with salt and pepper. Oil or butter can be used to prepare this. Once the meat is browned and mixed in with the spices, warm up the tortilla chips and pour melted queso on top. Next, add the ground meat, along with guacamole and sour cream. Add fresh jalapenos and cilantro to taste.

3.  Chicken Tortilla Soup

This classic Mexican and Tex-Mex recipe features chicken with corn, black beans and other ingredients based on taste. The basic preparation is to saute onions and jalapenos, add in shredded chicken and create a base from either tomato or chicken broth. Once the soup is boiling, add in cotija cheese, guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream, cilantro and fresh jalapenos, along with fried or baked crispy tortilla chips. Fresh lime is often thrown into the soup or squeezed in.

4.  Elote (Corn on the Cob)

Elote is a classic Mexican street food, which can be prepared for a restaurant dinner as well. Char grill corn on the cob, then top it with Mexican crema (a tangy, creamy sauce). Sprinkle cotija cheese (or parmesan if you need a substitute) on top till there is a white layer. Squeeze lime on top. Add salt to taste.

5.  Ceviche

Ceviche is one of the ultimate fresh delicacies – fresh fish, squid or shrimp tossed with cilantro, cucumber and avocado (optional), then squeezed with fresh lime. For spice, ceviche could be garnished with fresh jalapenos or habaneros.

6.  Chalupas

This dish is from South Central Mexico, eaten in Hidalgo, Pueblo, Oaxaca and Guerrero. The basic recipe calls for creating corn cups by spreading masa dough around the outside of a small mold, then deep frying to produce shallow corn cups. The cups are then stuffed with ingredients – meat (shredded pork or chicken typically), chopped onion, chipotle pepper, red salsa and/or green salsa. Shredded lettuce and cheese are often added. Chorizo or refried beans may be added or substituted in certain variations.

7.  Chicharrones

Chicharrones can be prepared dry or with sauces. They are typically pork rind fried till puffy or crispy. They can also be prepared fatty or meaty with other cuts of pork (though other meats such as chicken or mutton could also be used). In Mexico, they are seasoned with garlic, oregano and lemon and either eaten in tacos or stuffed in a gordito with salsa verde. Chicharrones may be served as a main or side dish.

8.  Chapulines

This is a Mexican delicacy that is served in street markets everywhere, though it may take a strong stomach to eat it. Chapulines are a type of grasshopper indigenous to Mexico and Central America, which are available only during summer. The grasshoppers are first toasted on a comal (the heavy, flat iron cooking pans traditional in Mexico), then seasoned with garlic, lime juice and salt. An extract of Maguey worms (a species of edible caterpillars found in the region) is sometimes added. The end result is a sour-salty-spicy botana (snack) or something to be served on a tortilla with cheese. This dish is popular in Central Mexico, especially around the Mexico City area.

9.  Frijoles Borrachos and Frijoles Charros (Drunken and Charro Beans)

These two bean dishes are very similar in preparation, except that Borracho Beans are cooked with beer and charro beans are not – instead, they are boiled in water or meat (chicken or beef) broth. The main ingredients are pinto beans, bacon, onions, jalapenos, garlic, brown sugar, diced tomatoes, chili powders, salt and Mexican oregano to taste. The bacon should be cooked in a way as to leave the fat in. To make borracho, add one bottle of dark lager beer. Here’s a recipe.

10. Tamales

Tamales are a Mesoamerican specialty, made with masa harina (corn cooked and soaked in lime water, then ground to flour) shells filled with savory vegetarian or meat-based fillings. The resultant mixture is then wrapped in either a corn husk or banana leaf and steamed. The masa harina shells are made with baking powder, avocado oil and broth. Avocado oil is a healthier version of the tamales, instead of lard which is used traditionally. Green chiles, onion and garlic are added in the filling.

11. Keto Taquitos (Deep Fried Tacos)

Taquitos are made with meat, cheese and other ingredients piled into a small corn tortilla, rolled up and deep or crisp fried. The recipe is similar to flautas, except they are made out of flour tortillas. The ingredients used include shredded chicken, garlic, onion, cumin, chopped cilantro, chili powder, kosher salt, Monterey Jack and cheddar cheese. For a healthy option, use extra virgin olive oil. Sour cream and extra cilantro is often used as topping and garnish.

12. Fish Tacos

Fish tacos can be made with either flour or corn tortilla and any type of white fish, salmon or shrimp. To prepare the fish, use a baking sheet – arrange the fish and sprinkle with cumin, cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper. Prepare fish taco seasoning sauce (sour cream, mayo, lime juice, garlic powder and sriracha to taste) and add. Drizzle olive oil and a drab of butter and bake at 3750F for around 25 minutes. You may broil for 3-5 minutes at end to brown the edges. Serve on top of tortillas with chopped cilantro, jalapenos, avocados and sour cream. 

13. Tacos al Pastor

This is a street food dish that combines Lebanese cooking styles with Mexican. Variations of the dish include taco de adobada (found in Baja California) and tacos arabes (found in Puebla). The main ingredient is grilled pork, which has been marinated in a combination of dried chilies, spices (Guajillo chile, garlic, cumin, clove, bay leaves and vinegar are always included, with cinnamon, dried Mexican oregano, coriander and black peppercorn added to taste), pineapple and typically achiote paste, the slow grilled over a charcoal or gas flame on a trompo (a vertical rotisserie). The meat is sliced off in thin slices and served on corn tortillas with onions, cilantro and dried pineapple, sometimes with fresh lime and salsa on the side.

14. Cheesy Beef Empanadas

These meat pies are stuffed with ground beef, cooked with onions and garlic in a cast iron frying pan, dusted with seasonings, doused with tomato sauce and jalapenos then simmered. Once the stuffing is ready, they are folded into pie crusts with two types of cheese (typically Monterey Jack and Cheddar) and baked for 15-20 minutes till they turn a flaky, golden brown.

15. Mole Poblano (Mole from Puebla)

The moles made in Puebla has now become known as the “national dish of Mexico”. While mole poblano contains most of the ingredients listed under classic mole sauce, its dark texture and color usually comes from chocolate (or a mix of cocoa and sugar). The contrast of sweetness with chili sauce (mulato peppers are usually used) makes for a great contrast. The sauce is poured over poultry dishes – turkey in traditional Mexican cooking, chicken in Tex-Mex – and is consumed during Christmas and Cinco de Mayo in Puebla.

16. Carne Guisada (Beef Stew)

Carne de res (Beef) cubes or round meat is the main ingredient of this dish, as well as Carne Asada described next. The difference is that guisada is a stew preparation, while asada is a grilled dish. The main ingredients are onion, poblano or green pepper (or jalapenos if made spicy), fresh tomato sauce, ground cumin, fresh garlic, black pepper, all-purpose flour (to thicken the stew) and salt to taste. A tablespoon of lard, bacon grease or oil is usually mixed in while the stew is made in a traditional cast iron skillet. This dish is usually served with a side of rice and beans, flour tortillas or mashed potatoes.

17. Carne Asada (Beef Skirt Steak)

Skirt steaks may need to be tenderized (with standard tenderizer or beer) before being used. Garlic, lime, onion, cilantro, chilies and bitter orange juice are often used to marinade the beef. Sazon seasoning made from annatto seeds may also be used. The beef is charred at high heat and served with homemade flour tortillas, rice and beans with cilantro and onions as garnish with fresh lime. 

18. Enchiladas

Enchiladas are meat (chicken, beef or pork), sauteed with onions and green chilies, rolled up in beans and cheese inside flour or corn tortillas. The end rolls are smothered in enchilada sauce (made with chili powder, garlic, cumin, dried oregano, oil, flour and fine sea-salt) and cheddar cheese with other garnishes. 

19. Shrimp Tostadas

Traditional tostadas (open faced tacos) can be made by frying tortillas in a little oil or baking them in an oven after brushing with a touch of olive oil. The ingredients – shrimp, olive oil, chili powder, garlic powder, cumin, salt and pepper – are then prepared separately and put on top of the tostadas. Salsa is poured on top.

20. Chicken Quesadillas

This tasty party serving is used extensively in Tex-Mex cuisine as well. The recipe calls for boneless chicken breasts, fajita seasoning, onions, green and red bell peppers, cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese, bacon bits, all fried or sauteed in vegetable oil. They are then wrapped inside warm flour tortillas which are fried on a flat skillet till the cheese melts inside, creating the quesadilla.

21. Barbacoa

This is a traditional barbecue recipe, traditionally cooked on an open fire or charcoal pit. Beef can be seared in a tablespoon of oil in a saute pan prior to being barbecued or cooked in a slow cooker – this creates extra crispiness. Traditional recipes call for seasoning with chipotle peppers in adobo, onions, cilantro, green chile and lime. The meat is traditionally served in a style where it’s shredded or falling apart.

22. Birria de Borrego (Spiced Roasted Lamb Stew)

This traditional dish, popular during Cinco de Mayo, made with lean lamb and lamb shank pieces in lamb broth, can be made extremely spicy by adding three types of chilies (ancho, Guajillo and Chipotle) as well as black pepper. Other ingredients include brown and white onion, tomatoes, garlic, cumin, oregano, marjoram, thyme, bay leaves, coriander, avocado and sea salt. Fresh lime is squeezed in to make a delicious, fresh flavored stew.

23. Chipotle Chile Chilaquiles

This Mexican dish is meant to be rustic and family style, using leftover tortillas, chiles, shredded chicken and cheese. The ingredients also include tomatoes, onions, garlic, chipotle in adobo, chicken broth and soil, blended and then cooked in a cast iron skillet with vegetable oil. It may be served in the skillet itself.

24. Pork Pozole

This is a traditional New Mexican recipe – using boneless pork loin, red chili and white and yellow hominy. The ingredients also include green chili peppers, garlic, onions, black pepper, chili powder, cumin, all cooked in olive oil before being boiled in water and chicken broth.

25. Chilies en Nogada (Chilies in Walnut Sauce)

This dish is a favorite during Cinco de Mayo, given its green, white and red colors – akin to the Mexican flag. The traditional recipe features Turkey Picadillo which is made from ground thigh meat, onion, cinnamon, cloves, fire roasted tomatoes, apple, almonds, black pepper, butter and oil (olive or canola). The other additions are Poblano Chiles, which are stuffed with the Picadillo and have Walnut Sauce poured over them. Common garnishes include pomegranate seed and either cilantro or parsley.

26. Spicy Pork and Green Chili Verde

This dish can be made thinner, stew style, or thickened. The main ingredients are pork tenderloin, butter, poblano peppers, red or yellow pepper, garlic cloves, chili powder, onion, jalapeno pepper, ground nutmeg and salt to taste. It’s typically topped with sour cream, shredded Monterey Jack cheese, crumbled tortilla chips and lime wedges.

27. Tres Leches (Milk Cake)

This classic Mexican layered cake is made with cake at the bottom, then filling and finally topping. It’s a treat for milk lovers, since it uses 4 types of milk – whole milk, condensed milk, evaporated milk and creme fraiche. The cake is made with all-purpose flour, baking powder, creme fraiche, unsalted butter, eggs, vanilla extract and sugar. The whole, condensed and evaporated milk are combined and poured over the cake after it cools. The whipped cream is added on top.

28. Churros

This fried-dough pastry sprinkled liberally with sugar is a Mexican street food near and dear to anyone with a sweet tooth. Churros resemble a pretzel, only ridged due to the dough being piped from a syringe like tool called the churrera. Churros found in Mexico can be filled with chocolate, vanilla or dulce de leche or cajeta (caramel made with thickened goat’s milk) and sprinkled with sugar.

There are regional variations of many of the dishes outlined above, though most of the major recipes are nationalized if not internationally known by now.

The Verdict … Mexican Food Culture Will Keep Growing Worldwide

The food items and spices above will be familiar to people all over the world, but especially in the US, where Mexican food has literally exploded due to the large Latino communities. Many of the sauces and shells can be found readymade, but the recipes above have typically focused on making things from scratch. Mexican food is stunning to the palate, whichever way you cut it. The spices used are usually from chilies, which means you can control how much you put in. Go back to your favorite Mexican restaurant and dig in if you find dishes mentioned above that you have not yet tried. Muy Bueno and Adios!

Chef Deno

Follow my journey as I explore food culture around the world - easily from the comfort of your own home. Proud of your food scene? I travel often and we can plan to meet up so you can share the food culture in your town.

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