Whatever your preconceptions about Mexican food, if you’ve never eaten in Mexico, they will almost certainly be wrong. Food here bears very little resemblance to the concoctions served in “Mexican” restaurants or fast-food joints in other parts of the world – you certainly won’t find chile con carne outside the tourist spots. Nor, as a rule, is it especially spicy.
Basic meals are served at restaurantes, but you can get breakfast, snacks and often full meals at cafés too; there are takeaway and fast-food places serving sandwiches, tortas (filled rolls) and tacos (tortillas folded over with a filling), as well as more international-style food; there are establishments called jugerías (look for signs saying “Jugos y Licuados”) serving nothing but wonderful jugos (juices), licuados (fruit blended with water or milk) and fruit salads; and there are street stalls dishing out everything from tacos to orange juice to ready-made vegetable salads sprinkled with chile-salt and lime. Just about every market in the country has a cooked-food section, too, and these are invariably the cheapest places to eat, if not always the most enticing surroundings. Big cities and resorts have international restaurants – pizza, burgers and Chinese food are ubiquitous, and Argentine restaurants are the places to go for well-cooked, quality steaks.
On buses (especially second-class ones), people clamber on at stops with home-made foods, local specialities, cold drinks or coffee. You’ll find wonderful things this way that you won’t come across in restaurants, but they should be treated with caution, and with an eye to hygiene.
The basic Mexican diet is essentially one of corn (maíz as a crop, elote when eaten), supplemented by beans and chiles. These three things appear in an almost infinite variety of guises.
Beans (frijoles), an invariable accompaniment to egg dishes – and pretty much everything else too – are usually of the pinto or kidney variety and are almost always served refritos, ie boiled up, mashed and “refried” (though actually it is the first time they’re fried). They’re even better if you can get them whole in some kind of country-style soup or stew, often with pork or bacon, as in frijoles charros. You’ll find corn in soups and stews such as pozole (with meat), or roasted on the cob at street stalls. Mexican vegetables include the green tomatillo (tomate, as opposed to jitomate, which is an ordinary tomato), nopales, which are prickly pear fronds (the fruit being a tuna), and huitlacoche, a fungus that grows on corn. You may also get to eat zucchini flowers (flor de calabaza), which are especially popular in quesadillas.
As well as being eaten as a vegetable in its own right, corn is ground into flour for tortillas, basically flat maize pancakes (tortillas made of wheat flour, or de harina, are rare except in the north). The ground maize is combined with salt and water in a paste (masa) which is pressed or patted flat by hand, then heated on a comal, a flat steel sheet. While smarter restaurants serve bread rolls (bolillos), a stack of tortillas is a common accompaniment in cheaper places, and they also form the basis of most antojitos (appetizers or light courses). Simplest of these are tacos, tortillas filled with almost anything, from beef and chicken to green vegetables, and then fried (they’re usually still soft, not at all like the baked taco shells you may have had at home). With cheese, either alone or in addition to other fillings, they are called quesadillas. Enchiladas are rolled, filled tortillas covered in salsa and baked; enchiladas suizas are filled with chicken and have sour cream over them. Tostadas are flat tortillas toasted crisp and piled with ingredients – usually meat, salad vegetables and cheese (smaller bite-size versions are known as sopes). Tortillas torn up and cooked together with meat and (usually hot) sauce are called chilaquiles; this is a traditional way of using up leftovers. In the north, especially, you’ll also come across burritos (large wheat-flour tortillas, stuffed with anything, but usually beef and potatoes or beans) and gorditas (delicious fat corn tortillas, sliced open, stuffed and baked or fried). Also short and fat are tlacoyos, tortillas made with a stuffing of mashed beans, often using blue-corn flour, which gives them a rather bizarre colour.
Corn flour, too, is the basis of tamales – found predominantly in central and southern Mexico – which are a sort of cornmeal pudding, stuffed, flavoured and steamed in corn or banana leaves. They can be either savoury, with additions like shrimp or corn kernels, or sweet when made with something like coconut.
Except in the north, meat is not especially good – beef in particular is usually thin and tough; pork, goat and occasionally lamb are better. If the menu doesn’t specify what kind of meat it is, it’s usually pork – even steak (bistec) can be pork unless it specifies bistec de res. For thick American-style steaks, look for a sign saying “Carnes Hereford” or for a “New York Cut” description (only in expensive places or in the north or at fancier resorts). Seafood is almost always fresh and delicious, especially the spicy shrimp or octopus cocktails which you find in most coastal areas (coctél/campechana de camarón or pulpo), but beware of eating uncooked shellfish, even ceviche (though the lime juice it is marinaded in does kill off most of the nasties). Eggs in country areas are genuinely free range and flavoursome. They feature on every menu as the most basic of meals, and at some time you must try the classic Mexican combinations of huevos rancheros (fried eggs on a tortilla with red salsa) or huevos a la mexicana (scrambled with onion, tomato and chile).
Vegetarians can eat well in Mexico, although it does take caution to avoid meat altogether. Many Mexican dishes are naturally meat-free and there are always fabulous fruits and vegetables available. Most restaurants serve vegetable soups and rice, and items like quesadillas, chiles rellenos and even tacos and enchiladas often come with non-meat fillings. Another possibility is queso fundido, simply (and literally) melted cheese, served with tortillas and salsa. Eggs, too, are served anywhere at any time, and many jugerías serve huge mixed salads to which grains and nuts can be added.
However, vegetarianism, though growing, is not particularly common, and a simple cheese and chile dish may have some meat added to “improve” it. Worse, most of the fat used for frying is animal fat (usually lard), so that even something as unadorned as refried beans may not be strictly vegetarian (especially as a bone or some stock may have been added to the water the beans were originally boiled in). Even “vegetarian” restaurants, which can be found in all the big cities, often include chicken on the menu. You may well have better luck in pizza places and Chinese or other ethnic restaurants.
Traditionally, Mexicans eat a light breakfast very early, a snack of tacos or eggs in mid-morning, lunch (the main meal of the day) around 2pm or later – in theory followed by a siesta, but decreasingly so, it seems – and a late, light supper. Eating a large meal at lunch time can be a great way to save money – almost every restaurant serves a cut-price comida corrida (a set meal, changing daily).
Breakfast (desayuno) in Mexico can consist simply of coffee and pan dulce – sweet rolls and pastries that usually come in a basket; you pay for as many as you eat. More substantial breakfasts consist of eggs in any number of forms (many set breakfasts include huevos al gusto: eggs any way you like them), and at fruit-juice places you can have a simple licuado fortified with raw egg (blanquillo). Freshly squeezed orange juice (jugo de naranja) is always available from street stalls in the early morning.
Snacks mostly consist of some variation on the taco/enchilada theme (stalls selling them are called taquerías), but tortas – rolls heavily filled with meat or cheese or both, garnished with avocado and chile and toasted on request – are also wonderful, and you’ll see takeout torta stands everywhere. Failing that, you can of course always make your own snacks with bread or tortillas, along with fillings such as avocado or cheese, from shops or markets.
At lunch time (around 1–5pm) many restaurants serve a comida corrida (known in smarter places as the menu del día or menu turístico), usually consisting of three or four courses for US$5–8/£5–6.50 or less – sometimes even half that price. A typical comida will consist of “wet” soup, probably vegetable, followed by “dry” soup – most commonly sopa de arroz (rice seasoned with tomato or chile), or perhaps a plate of vegetables, pasta, beans or guacamole (avocado mashed with onion, and maybe tomato, lime juice and chile). Then comes the main course (usually meat or fish), followed by pudding, usually fruit, flan or pudin (crème caramel-like concoctions), or rice pudding. Other Mexican desserts worth looking out for include meringue made with pulque, and capirotada (bread pudding, especially popular during Lent).
Some restaurants also offer set meals in the evening, but this is rare, and on the whole going out to eat at night is much more expensive.
The basic drinks to accompany food are water or beer. If you’re drinking water, stick to bottled stuff (agua mineral or agua de Tehuacán) – it comes either plain (sin gas) or carbonated (con gas).
Soft drinks (refrescos) – including Coke, Pepsi, Squirt (fun to pronounce in Spanish), and Mexican brands like apple-flavoured Sidral (which are usually extremely sweet) – are on sale everywhere. Far more tempting are the real fruit juices and licuados sold at shops and stalls displaying the “Jugos y Licuados” sign and known as jugerías or licuaderías. Juices (jugos) can be squeezed from anything that will go through the extractor. Orange (naranja) and carrot (zanahoria) are the staples, but you should also experiment with some of the more obscure tropical fruits such as soursop or mamey. Licuados are made of fruit mixed with water (licuado de agua or simply agua de…) or milk (licuado de leche) in a blender, usually with sugar added, and are always fantastic. Limonada (fresh lemonade) is also sold in many of these places, as are aguas frescas – flavoured cold drinks, of which the most common are horchata (rice milk flavoured with cinnamon) and agua de arroz (like an iced rice-pudding drink – delicious), agua de jamaica (hibiscus) or de tamarindo (tamarind). These are also often served in restaurants or sold in the streets from great glass jars. Make sure that any water and ice used is purified – street stalls are especially suspect in this regard. Juices and licuados are also sold at many ice-cream parlours – neverías or paleterías. The ice cream, more like Italian gelato than the heavy-cream US varieties, can also be fabulous and comes in a huge range of flavours.
A great deal of coffee is produced in Mexico, and in the growing areas, especially the state of Veracruz, as well as in the traditional coffeehouses in the capital, you will be served superb coffee. In its basic form, café solo or negro, it is strong, black, often sweet (ask for it sin azúcar for no sugar), and comes in small cups. For weaker black coffee ask for café americano, though this may mean instant (if you do want instant, ask for “Nescafé”). White is café cortado or con un pocito de leche; café con leche can be delicious, made with all milk and no water (ask if it’s “hecho de leche”, made of milk). Espresso and cappuccino are often available too, or you may be offered café de olla – stewed in the pot for hours with cinnamon and sugar, it’s thick, sweet and tasty. Outside traditional coffee areas, however, the coffee is often terrible, with only instant available.
Tea (té) is often available too, and you may well be offered a cup at the end of a comida. You may also be offered herb teas such as manzanillo (camomile) or yerbabuena (mint). If you get the chance to try traditional hot chocolate (“the drink of the Aztecs”), then do so – it’s an extraordinary, spicy, semi-bitter concoction, quite unlike the milky bedtime drink of your childhood. Artisan chocolate shops sell the chocolate for this (you just add boiling water), and occasionally sell it as a drink too.
You’ll normally be drinking in bars, the least heavy atmosphere among which is in hotel bars, tourist areas or anything that describes itself as a “ladies’ bar”. Cantinas are for serious drinking, traditionally macho places that were closed to women (they typically had a sign above the door prohibiting entry to “women, members of the armed forces and anyone in uniform”). Especially in big cities they are now more liberal, but in small, conservative places they remain exclusively male preserves with an atmosphere of drunken bonhomie and an undercurrent of readiness for a fight, where women may not be welcome and are sometimes still even banned.
If you don’t feel comfortable in bars, you can buy alcohol from most shops, supermarkets and, cheapest of all, agencias, which are normally agents for just one brand. For bottles you pay a deposit: to get it back, keep your receipt and return your bottles to the same store. Bigger, 940ml bottles are known as caguamas (turtles), or in the case of Pacífico, ballenas (whales).
Mexican beer (cerveza) is mostly light lager (cerveza clara) – usually light in flavour as well as colour. Sol, Tecate and Dos Equis are typical brands; if you want something more flavoursome try Modelo, Bohémia or Corona, or a dark (oscura) beer, of which the best are Negra Modelo, Indio and Bohémia Obscura. Microbreweries are increasingly springing up. Try a michelada, a beer cocktail made by adding ice, lime and Worcestershire and Tabasco sauces to dark beer and rimming the glass with salt. The milder chelada is a light beer mixed with plenty of lime and salt, and both are refreshing on a sunny day.
Wine (vino – tinto is red, blanco is white) is not seen a great deal, although Mexico does produce a fair number of perfectly good vintages. You’re safest sticking to brand names like Hidalgo or Domecq, although it may also be worth experimenting with some of the new labels, especially those from Baja California, such as L. A. Cetto, which are attempting to emulate the success of their neighbours across the border and in many cases have borrowed American techniques and wine-makers.
Tequila, distilled from the cactus-like agave plant and produced mainly in the state of Jalisco, is the most famous Mexican spirit, usually taken with lime and salt, or a chile and tomato chaser called sangrita, but añejo or reposado tequila (aged in the vat), should be sipped straight, and not wasted in cocktails such as margarita (tequila, lime juice and triple sec – considered a ladies´ drink). Mexican law allows up to 49 percent cane or corn to be added to the agave from which tequila is made, so unless the label says “100% de agave”, it won’t be. The proprietary brands, José Cuervo and Sauza, make bog-standard white tequilas as well as smoother, aged versions (Cuervo Tradicional and Sauza Hornitos), but connoisseurs prefer posher makes such as Herradura or Don Julio. “Gold” tequila contains extraneous colourings and is worth avoiding.
Mescal (often spelled mezcal) is basically the same thing as tequila, but is made from a slightly different variety of plant, the maguey, and is younger and less refined. In fact, tequila was originally just a variety of mescal. The spurious belief that the worm in the mescal bottle is hallucinogenic is based on confusion between the drink and the peyote cactus, which is also called mescal, but by the time you’ve got down as far as the worm, you’ll be too far gone to notice anyway.
Pulque, a mildly alcoholic milky beer made from the same maguey cactus, is the traditional drink of the poor and sold in special bars called pulquerías. The best comes from the State of Mexico, and is thick and viscous – it’s a little like palm wine, and definitely an acquired taste. Unfermented pulque, called aguamiel, is sweet and non-alcoholic.
Drinking other spirits, you should always ask for nacional, as anything imported is fabulously expensive. Rum (ron), gin (ginebra) and vodka are made in Mexico, as are some very palatable brandies (brandy or coñac – try San Marcos or Presidente). Most of the cocktails for which Mexico is known – margaritas, piñas coladas and so on – are available only in tourist areas or hotel bars, and are generally pretty strong.
Most Mexican food is not in itself terribly spicy – the fire comes from the red and green salsa supplied as condiments on the table, and the salsa can be a good guide to the quality of a restaurant. A place with a superior salsa on the table will probably serve up some decent food, whereas a place that takes no pride in its salsa is likely to treat its food in the same manner. To a certain extent you can tell from the presentation: a place that has grubby, rarely changed salsa dishes probably just refills them from a supermarket-bought can, and will not take the same pride in its food as a casero (home-cooking) restaurant that proudly puts its own salsa on the table in a nice bowl. Usually you get a red salsa and a green one, and sometimes bottled hot-sauce condiments too.
Nowadays, the red bowl may contain a raw, California-style salsa: tomato, onion, chile and coriander (cilantro) finely chopped together. More common, though, are the traditional cooked salsas: either green or red, and relatively mild (though start eating with caution, just in case). The recipes are – of course – closely guarded secrets, but the basic ingredients are tomato (the verdant Mexican tomatillo in green versions), onion and one or more of the hundreds of varieties of chile.
Mexican cooks use at least a hundred different types of chiles, fresh or dried, in colours ranging from pale green to almost black, and all sorts of different sizes (large, mild ones are often stuffed with meat or cheese and rice to make chiles rellenos). Each has a distinct flavour and by no means all are hot (which is why we don’t use the English term “chilli” for them), although the most common, chiles jalapeños – which can be green or red, and are traditionally grown around the city of Xalapa – certainly are. The hottest is the habanero, 25 times hotter than the jalapeño. Far less intimidating is the chile poblano, a large, mild chile used in dishes such as chiles rellenos and chiles en nogada, a seasonal dish of stuffed poblano chiles in a white sauce made of walnuts and cream cheese or sour cream, topped with red pomegranate: the colours of the national flag.
Chile is also the basic ingredient of more complex cooked sauces, notably mole, which is Mexico’s version of a curry, traditionally served with turkey or chicken, but also sometimes with enchiladas (rolled, filled tortillas). There are several types of mole, the two most common being the rather bland mole verde, and the far richer and more exciting mole poblano, a speciality of Puebla. Half of the fifty or so ingredients in this extraordinary mixture are different types of chile, but the most notable ingredient is chocolate.
The Olmecs of the Gulf coast began mixing cacao beans into a bitter chocolate drink around three thousand years ago. By the time Cortés and the conquistadors reached New Spain in the early sixteenth century, the use of cacao had spread to the Aztecs, who consumed chocoatl cold and mixed with spices – this “drink of the gods” was said to be a favourite of Aztec emperor Moctezuma. Chocolate remains a popular drink in Mexico today (now with lots of added sugar), but its most distinctive use is in mole poblano, a thick sauce of chocolate and chiles that accompanies otherwise savoury dishes – particularly chicken. Though found all over the country, mole remains a speciality of Puebla in central Mexico, where the dish originated in the colonial era.
It’s easy to think of Mexican food as one cuisine. In reality, while there are common themes, each region has its own excellent specialities. Here are a few regional highlights.
In Baja, the sea is all around, so it makes sense that mariscos (seafood) and pescado (fish) dominate menus – the fish taco is an eternal favourite. Northern Baja is home to Mexico’s wine industry, and drinking wine with your meal is far more common here than elsewhere in the country.
Dining in the north, where the land is too dry to grow produce, tends to revolve around grilled meat: the asado (barbecue) is king. Cabrito asado (roast kid) is the classic dish, often served in gargantuan portions and accompanied only by tortillas and salsa. These basic ingredients combine into burritos and fajitas, dishes that have travelled north of the border to become what most of the world thinks of as “Mexican food”.
With fertile valleys and highlands that receive enough rain to sustain agriculture, central Mexico has the widest range of local ingredients. This is the land of the avocado (and therefore guacamole) and the birthplace of tequila. Mexico’s second city, Guadalajara, excels with its birria, a soupy stew, while coastal towns dish up tasty camarones (prawns). Further south, Oaxaca claims the country’s finest tamales, stuffed corn-meal dough cooked in banana leaves.
Influenced by the flavours of the Caribbean, an abundance of tropical fruits and the all-powerful burn of the habanero chile, Yucateco cuisine is a world apart from that of central Mexico. The most celebrated dish is cochinita pibil, pork marinated in a recado made from garlic, chiles, black pepper, cumin, cinnamon, oregano and vinegar, then wrapped in plantain leaves and grilled.