Mexican Cuisine

I’ve seen zero evidence of any nation on Earth other than Mexico even remotely having the slightest clue what Mexican food is about or even come close to reproducing it. It is perhaps the most misunderstood country and cuisine on Earth.”

Anthony Bourdain

The cuisine from the country of Mexico is both unique, exciting, and yes, misunderstood. It is the culmination of centuries of rulers, conquerors and immigrant influence combined with local ingredients and conditions to create a cuisine uniquely Mexican. Exploring the dishes, and their stories, is a journey well worth taking. Cooking and sharing those same dishes will be an experience you’ll never forget.   

The cuisine of Mexico is as complex as any other ancient cuisine, such as those of India, China and Japan. It began almost 9,000 years ago with hunter-gatherers and solidified around the Mayan domestication of maize (corn) just a few millenniums later. From the corn and beans of the Mayans to the chili peppers, tomatoes, cocoa (chocolate), vanilla, avocados, and squash of the Aztecs, the stage was set for the introduction of the European foods and techniques brought to Mexico in the 16th century by the Spanish conquistadors. Foods like domesticated animals, dairy products, and rice, and techniques like wine growing and cheese making, enhanced an already unique cuisine as sophisticated as French cuisine and as exciting as any other cuisine on earth.

Mexico’s most prominent flavors come from corn, beans and chili peppers. These three ancient ingredients are the foundation of most dishes in Mexico. Vegetables play an important role in Mexican cuisine, especially tomatoes, garlic, squashes, zucchini and avocado. Meat and fowl, especially beef, pork and chicken, can also be found in most dishes but usually are secondary to the type of sauce used. Corn tortillas and beans are always present, either on the side, or part of a dish, wrap, or sauce.

The Spaniard Bartholomé de las Casas wrote in the 16th century that “without chiles, the indigenous people did not think they were eating.” Even today, most Mexican believe that their national identity would be lost without chilies and the many varieties of salsas and sauces created with them. Not always hot, chili peppers can be used dried or fresh to add depth, sweetness and, of course, heat to most any dish.   

There are seven distinct regional cuisines in Mexico, each with its own unique dishes reflecting local ingredients, historical influences, neighbors, and geographical landscape. A brief description of each is important in understanding the breadth of this huge country’s diverse cuisine and the regional differences between them:

Norteño (Northern Mexico)

“The North” makes up close to half of Mexico, stretching from the Pacific Ocean 2,000 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s hot and arid climate has limited agriculture and settlement throughout most of its history. The Spanish found this area ideal for developing a new ranch culture around cattle, chicken and sheep. Cooking techniques were the simple grilling of meats over fire pits and cheeses making, along with preserving dried meats and pickling vegetables. Baja California is a peninsula that sits in Mexico’s uppermost north-west corner and borders Southern California. It should come as no surprise that the Mexican food of San Diego and Los Angeles are like Baja when you consider California was part of Mexico until 1848. Surrounded on three sides by ocean, the cuisine consists of many fresh seafood dishes.

Notable Northern Dishes – Cabrito (roast goat), Machaca (dried shredded meat), Carne Asada (grilled marinated skirt steak), Burritos (rolled flour tortilla filled with meat, rice, beans and salsa?), Quesadillas (pan fried tortillas filled with cheese), Chilorio (Sonoran pulled pork), Queso Fresco (fresh cheese), Tortilla Blanco (white flour tortillas), Caesar Salad (romaine topped with dressing, croutons, anchovies), Ensenada Pesce Tacos (fried fish in soft tacos), Puerto Nueva Langoustine (grilled lobster tails), Camaron Frio (cold shrimp cocktail), Margarita (tequila in lime juice).

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Jalisco es Mexico” (“Jalisco is Mexico”) is a reasonable motto for this region that runs along the Pacific coast and is just west of Mexico City. Many of Mexico’s most beloved traditions originated here. Among them are mariachi, charreria (rodeo), and tequila. Its cuisine reflects it rich cultural and natural resources with over 200 miles of coastline and a large part of Lake Chapala, and to the interior, arid plains and snowy peaks. It is also home to Puerto Vallarta, the second largest city in Mexico.

Notable dishes– Birria (Chile Lamb stew), Pozole Rojo de Jalisco (hominy pork stew, originally made with human flesh), Caldo Micha (fish soup), Torta Ahogadas (sandwich drowned in chili sauce), Tequila.  

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The Bajio

The Central Mexican region is a massive plateau bordered by rugged mountains and closely resembled the central plains to the early Spanish “visitors”. The Spanish influence remains strong in the region with dishes built around rice, pork, and European spices mixed with indigenous herbs and spices. Although well known for it rice based dishes like moriquesta (rice and beans) and arroz con leche (sweet rice pudding), it is the carnitas Michoacan (crispy fried pork) that are quite possibly the jewel of all of Mexican cooking. Lakes and rivers are abundant in the region, contributing several fish dishes to go with the seafood dishes from coastal areas of the region. The gastronomic center of the region is Guadalajara due to its strong agricultural and cattle-raising industries.   

Notable Dishes – Carnitas (crisp fried pork), Cotija (crumbly cheese like feta), Morisqueta (sausage and rice with beans and tomato sauce), Cajeta (goats milk caramel), Chongos (cheese curds in syrup), Bunuelos (fritters), Arroz con Leche (rice pudding).

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Central Mexico

Two different worlds make up this region. The first is the state of Puebla, located between Mexico City and Veracruz. Its cuisine has been influenced by both indigenous and Spanish ingredients. That diversity is reflected in two of their most famous dishes; the complex mole poblano and fried beef sandwiches called cemitas. The other side of the coin is Mexico City, whose cuisine is not its own but rather that of the rest of the country. Since pre-Hispanic times, this urban center has been the center of migration for people from all over Mexico. Every region and period is represented here by restaurants serving anything from Mexico’s pre-Hispanic foods, like grasshopper, to Mexican haute cuisine. Mexico City is most famous for its street cuisine called antojos. Street foods provides easy access to foods like tacos and tortas, in addition to specialties from all over the country like barbacoa, cabrito, carnitas, and moles.

Notable Dishes Cemitas (fried steak cutlets on rolls), Mole Poblano (sauce made with 20+ ingredients, including chocolate), Chalupas (crisp masa dough cups with fillings), Chiles en Nogada (picadillo-stuffed chilies in walnut sauce), Barbacoa (fire-roasted lamb).

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The state of Oaxaca (woe-hock-a) is revered as a culinary center in Mexico and beyond. The region is characterized by mountains and deep valleys. Although Oaxaca’s cuisine was the first to experience the intermingling of food cultures after Spanish colonization, it is the most indigenous cuisine in Mexico and the least affected by Europeans. While pork and chicken have been added to its culinary repertoire, it maintains strong ties to the culinary traditions of the indigenous Mixtec and Zapotec peoples. Oaxaca is often called the land of seven moles and known for its reimagining of the stringy Italian mozzarella cheese originally brought by the Spaniards, creating queso Oaxaca.

Notable Dishes – Moles de Oaxaca (negro, verde, amarillo, rojo, colordito, chichilo, manchamantel), Blandas (large corn tortillas), Tlayudas (Mexican pizza), Enfrijoladas (pureed black bean and tortilla casserole), champurrado (chocolate drink). Oaxacan empanadas (Quesadilla-like folded and grilled tortillas filled with Mole Amarillo, Oaxacan cheese and squash blossoms), Mezcal (distilled spirit from agave plant).

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The coastline of the state of Veracruz stretches over 400 miles along the Gulf of Mexico. The balmy, easy going region is both culturally and geographically an extension of the Caribbean. Its cuisine is a mix of indigenous, Afro-Caribbean and Spanish influences. Many of the dishes reflect the herbs and spices from the Spanish Mediterranean like capers, olives and bay leaf along with flavors of the Caribbean such as plantains, peanuts and sweet potatoes. With so much coastline, it’s not surprising fish and seafood dishes abound, including the famous Huachinango a la Veracruzana (red snapper in a light tomato sauce with capers, olives, and sweet yellow peppers).    

Notable Dishes – Huachinango a la Veracruzana (“Pescado a la Veracruzano”- red snapper in piquant tomato sauce), Arroz a la Tumbada (wet paella-like seafood rice dish), Pollo Encacahuatado (chicken in peanut-tomato sauce), Mole Iqueno (mole from Xico with bananas, almonds, peanuts and chocolate).

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The Yucatan Peninsula (3 states of Merida, Yucatan, Quintana Roo) separates the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico, and its geographical location has directly influenced its cuisine. It maintains many of the culinary traditions of the Mayans, with influences from French, African, Caribbean, Spanish, and Middle Eastern cuisines. The Peninsula’s geographic and cultural isolation has led it develop a distinct cuisine that rivals that of Oaxaca in world recognition. Like the Mayans, corn is the basic staple. The achiote (red annatto seeds) and habanero peppers from the Caribbean are used often, as is sour orange, red onion, and spices like allspice and oregano.

Notable Dishes Cochinita Pibil (buried and cooked marinated pig), Papadzules (baked pepitas-dipped, egg-filled corn tortillas), Chilomate (habanero and tomato salsa), Sopa de Lima (lime soup), Pavo en Escabeche (pickled turkey).          

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