The staples of Mexican cookery are typically corn and beans. Corn, traditionally Mexico's staple grain, is consumed fresh, on the cob, and as a component of numerous dishes. Most corn, however, is used to produce masa, a dough for tamales, tortillas, gorditas and several other corn-based foods. Squash and peppers also play significant roles in Mexican cuisine.
The most significant and regularly used spices in Mexican cookery are chilli powder, cumin, oregano, cilantro, epazote, cinnamon and cocoa. Chipotle, a smoke-dried jalapeño chilli, is also common in Mexican cuisine. Many Mexican dishes also contain garlic and onions.
Next to corn, rice is the most common grain in Mexican cuisine. According to food writer Karen Hursh Graber, the initial introduction of rice to Spain from North Africa in the 4th Century led to the Spanish introduction of rice into Mexico at the port of Veracruz in the 1520s. This, Graber says, created one of the earliest instances of the world's greatest fusion cuisines.
Mexican food varies by region, because of local climate and geography and ethnic variations among the indigenous inhabitants and since these different populations were influenced by the Spaniards in varying degrees. The north of Mexico is known for it’s beef, goat and ostrich production and meat dishes, in particular the well-known Arrachera cut.
The six regions of Mexico differ greatly in their cuisines. In the Yucatan, for example, a unique, natural sweetness (instead of spiciness) exists in the widely used local produce along with an unusual love for achiote seasoning. In contrast, the Oaxacan region is known because of its savoury tamales and celebratory moles, while the mountainous regions of the West (Jalisco, etc) are known for goat birria (goat in a spicy tomato-based sauce).
Central Mexico's cuisine is largely influenced by the rest of the country, but has unique dishes for example barbacoa, pozole, menudo and carnitas.
South-eastern Mexico, on the other hand, is known because of its spicy vegetable and chicken-based dishes. The cuisine of South-eastern Mexico has a substantial Caribbean influence due to its location. Seafood is commonly prepared in states that border the Pacific Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, the latter having a famous reputation because of its fish dishes, à la veracruzana.
In the Yucatán, the Mayan people have practiced beekeeping for 1000’s of years. Honey is an important ingredient in lots of Mexican dishes, such as the rosca de miel, a bundt-like cake and in beverages such as balché.
In Pueblos or villages, there are also more exotic dishes, cooked in the Aztec or Mayan style (known as comida prehispánica) with ingredients ranging from iguana to rattlesnake, deer, spider monkey, grasshoppers, ant eggs and different kinds of insects.
Recently other cuisines of the world have acquired popularity in Mexico, thus adopting a Mexican fusion. As an example, sushi in Mexico is often created using a variety of sauces based on mango or tamarind, and very often served with serrano-chilli-blended soy sauce or complimented with habanero and chipotle peppers.
Mexico has long been among the world’s most popular holidays destinations attracting sun seekers and food lovers alike. If you’re lucky enough to be planning a trip make sure you sample the best tastes and flavours the country has to offer with our round up of the top 10 dishes to try while you’re there.
Don’t leave Mexico without trying…
Chilaquiles - This popular traditional breakfast dish features lightly fried corn tortillas cut into quarters and topped with green or red salsa (the red is slightly spicier). Scrambled or fried eggs and pulled chicken are usually added on top, as well as cheese and cream. Chilaquiles are often served with a healthy dose of frijoles (refried beans).
Pozole - According to anthropologists, this pre-Hispanic soup was once once used as part of ritual sacrifices. These days chicken, pork and vegetarian pozole versions are readily available in more everyday surroundings. Made from hominy corn with plenty of herbs and spices, the dish is traditionally stewed for hours, often overnight. Once ready to serve, lettuce, radish, onion, lime and chilli are sprinkled on top.
Tacos al pastor - This historic dish is one of the most popular varieties of tacos, with origins dating back to the 1920s and 30s and the arrival of Lebanese and Syrian immigrants to Mexico. To create tacos al pastor (meaning ‘in the style of the shepherd’), thin strips of pork are sliced off a spit, placed on a corn tortilla and served with onions, coriander leaves and pineapple.
Tostadas - What should you do with stale tortillas? Why, fry them of course! Literally meaning toasted, tostadas are a simple but delicious dish involving corn tortillas fried in boiling oil until they become crunchy and golden. These are then served alone or piled high with any number of garnishes. Popular toppings include frijoles (refried beans), cheese, cooked meat, seafood and ceviche.
Chiles en nogada - Boasting the three colours of the Mexican flag, chiles en nogada is one of Mexico’s most patriotic dishes. Poblano chillies filled with picadillo (a mixture of chopped meat, fruits and spices) represent the green on the flag, the walnut-based cream sauce is the white and pomegranate seeds the red. Originating from Puebla, history tells that the dish was first served to Don Agustin de Iturbide, liberator and subsequent Emperor of Mexico.
Elote - You’ll find someone selling elote, the Mexican name for corn on the cob, on nearly every city street corner in Mexico. The corn is traditionally boiled and served either on a stick (to be eaten like an ice-cream) or in cups, the kernels having been cut off the cob. Salt, chilli powder, lime, butter, cheese mayonnaise and sour cream are then added in abundance.
Enchiladas - Date back to Mayan times when people in the Valley of Mexico would eat corn tortillas wrapped around small fish. These days both corn and flour tortillas are used and are filled with meat, cheese, seafood, beans, vegetables or all of the above. The stuffed tortillas are then covered in a chilli sauce making for a perfect Mexican breakfast.
Mole - Three states claim to be the original home of mole (pronounced ‘mol-eh’), a rich sauce popular in Mexican cooking. There are myriad types of mole but all contain around 20 or so ingredients, including one or more varieties of chilli peppers, and all require constant stirring over a long period of time. Perhaps the best-known mole is mole poblano, a rusty red sauce typically served over turkey or chicken.
Guacamole - Is undoubtedly one of Mexico’s most popular dishes but few know that this traditional sauce dates back to the time of the Aztecs. Made from mashed up avocadoes, onions, tomatoes, lemon juice and chilli peppers (and sometimes a clove or two of garlic), guacamole is often eaten with tortilla chips or used as a side dish.
Tamales - Were first developed for the Aztec, Mayan and Inca tribes who needed nourishing food on the go to take into battle. Pockets of corn dough are stuffed with either a sweet or savoury filling, wrapped in banana leaves or cornhusks and steamed. Fillings vary from meats and cheeses to fruits, vegetables, chillies and mole. Remember to discard the wrapping before eating!