Not to be confused with Tex-Mex cuisine, which is often referred to as “Mexican food” in certain regions of the US and Canada.
Mexican cuisine is primarily a fusion of indigenous Mesoamerican cooking with European, especially Spanish, elements added after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in the 16th century.
The staples are native foods, such as corn, beans, avocados, tomatoes, and chili peppers, along with rice, which was brought by the Spanish.
Europeans introduced a large number of other foods, the most important of which were meats from domesticated animals (beef, pork, chicken, goat, and sheep), dairy products (especially cheese), and various herbs and spices.
While the Spanish initially tried to impose their own diet on the country, this was not possible, and eventually, the foods and cooking techniques began to be mixed, especially in colonial-era convents.
African and Asian influences were also introduced into the mixture during this era as a result of African slavery in New Spain and the Manila-Acapulco Galleons.
Over the centuries, this resulted in regional cuisines based on local conditions, such as those in Oaxaca, Veracruz, and the Yucatán Peninsula. Mexican cuisine is an important aspect of the culture, social structure, and popular traditions of Mexico.
The most important example of this connection is the use of mole for special occasions and holidays, particularly in the South and Center regions of the country.
For this reason and others, traditional Mexican cuisine was inscribed in 2010 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
Mexican cuisine is as complex as any other world cuisine, such as those of China, France, Italy, and Japan. It is created mostly with ingredients native to Mexico, as well as those brought over by the Spanish conquistadors, with some new influences since then.
In addition to staples, such as corn and chile peppers, native ingredients include tomatoes, squashes, avocados, cocoa, and vanilla, as well as ingredients not generally used in other cuisines, such as edible flowers, vegetables like huauzontle and papaloquelite, or small criollo avocados, whose skin is edible.
Vegetables play an important role in Mexican cuisine. Common vegetables include zucchini, cauliflower, corn, potatoes, spinach, swiss chard, mushrooms, jitomate (red tomato), green tomato, etc. Other traditional vegetable dishes include chile rellenos, huitlacoche (corn fungus), huauzontle, and nopalitos (cactus leaves) to name a few.
European contributions include pork, chicken, beef, cheese, herbs, and spices, as well as some fruits. Tropical fruits such as guava, prickly pear, sapote, mangoes, bananas, pineapple, and cherimoya (custard apple) are popular, especially in the center and south of the country.
It has been debated how much Mexican food is still indigenous and how much is European. However, the basis of the diet is still corn and beans, with chile pepper as a seasoning, as they are complementary foods.
Despite the introduction of wheat and rice to Mexico, the basic starch remains corn in almost all areas of the country.
While it is eaten fresh, most corn is dried, treated with lime, and ground into a dough called masa. This dough is used both fresh and fermented to make a wide variety of dishes from drinks (atole, pozol, etc.) to tamales, sopes, and much more.
However, the most common way to eat corn in Mexico is in the form of a tortilla, which accompanies almost every dish. Tortillas are made of corn in most of the country, but other versions exist, such as wheat in the north or plantain, yuca, and wild greens in Oaxaca.
The other basic ingredient in all parts of Mexico is the chile pepper. Mexican food has a reputation for being very spicy, but its seasoning can be better described as strong. Many dishes also have subtle flavors.
Chiles are used for their flavors and not just their heat, with Mexico using the widest variety. If a savory dish or snack does not contain chile pepper, hot sauce is usually added, and chile pepper is often added to fresh fruit and sweets.
The importance of the chile goes back to the Mesoamerican period, where it was considered to be as much of a staple as corn and beans. In the 16th century, Bartolomé de las Casas wrote that without chiles, the indigenous people did not think they were eating. Even today, most Mexicans believe that their national identity would be at a loss without chiles.
Many dishes in Mexico are defined by their sauces and the chiles those sauces contain, rather than the meat or vegetable that the sauce covers. These dishes include entomatada (in tomato sauce), adobo or adobados, pipians and moles.
A hominy soup called pozole is defined as white, green or red depending on the chile sauce used or omitted. Tamales are differentiated by the filling which is again defined by the sauce (red or green chile pepper strips or mole).
Dishes without a sauce are rarely eaten without a salsa or without fresh or pickled chiles. This includes street foods, such as tacos, tortas, soups, sopes, tlacoyos, tlayudas, gorditas and sincronizadas.
For most dishes, it is the type of chile used that gives it its main flavor.
The main contributions of the Spanish were meat and cheese, as the Mesoamerican diet contained very little meat besides domesticated turkey, and dairy products were absent. The Spanish also introduced the technique of frying in pork fat.
Today, the main meats found in Mexico are pork, chicken, beef, goat, and sheep. Native seafood and fish remain popular, especially along the coasts.
Cheesemaking in Mexico has evolved its own specialties. It is an important economic activity, especially in the north, and is frequently done at home. The main cheese making areas are Chihuahua, Oaxaca, Querétaro, and Chiapas.
Goat cheese is still made, but it is not as popular and is harder to find in stores.
In most of Mexico, especially in rural areas, much of the food is consumed in the home with the most traditional Mexican cooking done domestically based on local ingredients.
Cooking for the family is considered to be women’s work, and this includes cooking for celebrations as well. Traditionally girls have been considered ready to marry when they can cook, and cooking is considered a main talent for housewives.
The main meal of the day in Mexico is the “comida”, meaning ‘meal’ in Spanish. This refers to dinner or supper. It begins with soup, often chicken broth with pasta or a “dry soup”, which is pasta or rice flavored with onions, garlic, or vegetables.
The main course is meat served in a cooked sauce with salsa on the side, accompanied by beans and tortillas and often with a fruit drink.
In the evening, it is common to eat leftovers from the comida or sweet bread accompanied by coffee or chocolate.
Breakfast is generally heartier than in other countries and can consist of leftovers, meat in broth (such as pancita), tacos, enchiladas or meat with eggs. This is usually served with beans, tortillas, and coffee or juice.
Food and festivals
Mexican cuisine is elaborate and often tied to symbolism and festivals, one reason it was named as an example of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
Many of the foods of Mexico are complicated because of their relation to the social structure of the country. Food preparation, especially for family and social events, is considered to be an investment in order to maintain social relationships.
Even the idea of flavor is considered to be social, with meals prepared for certain dinners and certain occasions when they are considered the tastiest.
The ability to cook well, called “sazón” (lit. seasoning) is considered to be a gift generally gained from experience and a sense of commitment to the diners.
For the Day of the Dead festival, foods such as tamales and mole are set out on altars and it is believed that the visiting dead relatives eat the essence of the food. If eaten afterward by the living it is considered to be tasteless.
In central Mexico, the main festival foods are mole, barbacoa, carnitas, and mixiotes. They are often prepared to feed around five hundred guests, requiring groups of cooks. Cooking is part of the social custom meant to bind families and communities.
Mexican regional home cooking is completely different from the food served in most Mexican restaurants outside Mexico, which is usually some variety of Tex-Mex. Some of Mexico’s traditional foods involved complex or long cooking processes.
Before industrialization, traditional women spent several hours a day boiling dried corn and then grinding them on a metate to make the dough for tortillas, cooking them one by one on a comal griddle. In some areas, tortillas are still made this way.
Sauces and salsas were also ground in a mortar called a molcajete. Today, blenders are more often used, though the texture is a bit different. Most people in Mexico would say that those made with a molcajete taste better, but few can do this now.
The most important food for festivals and other special occasions is mole, especially mole poblano in the center of the country.
Mole is served at Christmas, Easter, Day of the Dead, and at birthdays, baptisms, weddings, and funerals, and tends to be eaten only for special occasions because it is such a complex and time-consuming dish.
While still dominant in this way, other foods have become acceptable for these occasions, such as barbacoa, carnitas, and mixiotes, especially since the 1980s.
This may have been because of economic crises at that time, allowing for the substitution of these cheaper foods, or the fact that they can be bought ready-made or may already be made as part of the family business.
Another important festive food is tamale, also known as tamal in Spanish. This is a filled cornmeal dumpling, steamed in a wrapping (usually a corn husk or banana leaf) and one of the basic staples in most regions of Mexico.
It has its origins in the pre-Hispanic era and today is found in many varieties in all of Mexico. Like a mole, it is complicated to prepare and best done in large amounts. Tamales are associated with certain celebrations such as Candlemas.
They are wrapped in corn husks in the highlands and desert areas of Mexico and in banana leaves in the tropics.
Mexican street food is one of the most varied parts of the cuisine. It can include tacos, quesadillas, pambazos, tamales, huaraches, alambres, al pastor, and food not suitable to cook at home, including barbacoa, and carnitas, and since many homes in Mexico do not have or make use of ovens, roasted chicken.
One attraction of street food in Mexico is the satisfaction of hunger or craving without all the social and emotional connotations of eating at home, although longtime customers can have something of a friendship/familial relationship with a chosen vendor.
The best known of Mexico’s street foods is the taco, whose origin is based on the pre-Hispanic custom of picking up other foods with tortillas as utensils were not used.
The origin of the word is in dispute, with some saying it is derived from Nahuatl and others from various Spanish phrases. Tacos are not eaten as the main meal; they are generally eaten before midday or late in the evening.
Just about any other foodstuff can be wrapped in a tortilla, and in Mexico, it varies from rice to meat (plain or in sauce), to cream, to vegetables, to cheese, or simply with plain chile peppers or fresh salsa.
Preferred fillings vary from region to region with pork generally found more often in the center and south, beef in the north, seafood along the coasts, and chicken and lamb in most of the country.
Another popular street food, especially in Mexico City and the surrounding area is the torta. It consists of a roll of some type, stuffed with several ingredients.
This has its origins in the 19th century when the French introduced a number of new kinds of bread. The torta began by splitting the roll and adding beans. Today, refried beans can still be found on many kinds of tortas.
In Mexico City, the most common roll used for tortas is called telera, a relatively flat roll with two splits on the upper surface.
In Puebla, the preferred bread is called a cemita, as is the sandwich. In both areas, the bread is stuffed with various fillings, especially if it is a hot sandwich, with beans, cream (mayonnaise is rare), and some kind of hot chile pepper.
The influence of American fast food on Mexican street food grew during the late 20th century. One example of this is the craving for the hot dog but prepared Sonoran style.
They are usually boiled then wrapped in bacon and fried together. They are served in the usual bun, but the condiments are typically a combination of diced tomatoes, onions, and jalapeño peppers.
Besides food, street vendors also sell various kinds of drinks (including aguas frescas, tejuino, and tepache) and treat (such as bionicos, tostilocos, and raspados). Most tamale stands will sell atole as a standard accompaniment.
Around 7000 BCE, the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America hunted game and gathered plants, including wild chile peppers. Corn was not yet cultivated, so one main source of calories was roasted agave hearts.
By 1200 BCE, corn was domesticated and a process called nixtamalization, or treatment with lye, was developed to soften corn for grinding and improve its nutritional value. This allowed the creation of tortillas and other kinds of flatbreads.
The indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica had numerous stories about the origin of corn, usually related to being a gift of one or more gods, such as Quetzalcoatl.
The other staple was beans, eaten with corn as a complimentary protein. Despite this, studies of bones have shown problems with the lack of protein in the indigenous diet, as the meat was difficult to obtain.
Other protein sources included amaranth, domesticated turkey, insects such as grasshoppers and ant larvae, iguanas, and turtle eggs on the coastlines.
Vegetables included squash and their seeds; chilacayote; jicama, a kind of sweet potato; and edible flowers, especially those of squash. The chile pepper was used as food, ritual, and as medicine.
When the Spanish arrived, the Aztecs had sophisticated agricultural techniques and an abundance of food, which was the base of their economy. It allowed them to expand an empire, bringing in tribute which consisted mostly of foods the Aztecs could not grow themselves.
According to Bernardino de Sahagún, the Nahua peoples of central Mexico ate corn, beans, turkey, fish, small game, insects, and a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, pulses, seeds, tubers, wild mushrooms, plants, and herbs that they collected or cultivated.
Mexican educator Justo Sierra said that “the grocer, not the conquistador, is the real Spanish father of Mexican society.”
After the Conquest, the Spanish introduced a variety of foodstuffs and cooking techniques from Europe. Spanish cooking at that time was already a mixture of ingredients because of eight centuries of Arab influence. The original aim of the introduction was to reproduce their home cuisine, but over time it was incorporated with native ingredients and cooking techniques. Introduced foods included olive oil, rice, onions, garlic, oregano, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, and many other herbs and spices. More importantly, they introduced domesticated animals, such as pigs, cows, chickens, goats and sheep for meat and milk, raising the consumption of protein. Cheese became the most important dairy product. The most important cooking technique introduced by the Spanish was frying.
Despite the domination of Spanish culture, Mexican cuisine has maintained its base of corn, beans and chile peppers. One reason for this was the overwhelming population of indigenous people in the earlier colonial period, and the fact that many ingredients for Spanish cooking were not available or very expensive in Mexico. One of the main avenues for the mixing of the two cuisines was in convents.
For example, the Spanish brought rice to Mexico and it has since grown well in Veracruz. New World tomatoes eventually replaced the use of expensive Spanish saffron, as well as other local ingredients. Sugar cane was brought to the country and grew as well, leading to the creation of many kinds of sweets, especially local fruits in syrup. A sugar-based candy craft called alfeñique was adapted, but often with indigenous themes, especially today for Day of the Dead.
During the 19th century, Mexico experienced an influx of various immigrants, including French, Lebanese, German, Chinese and Italian, which have had some effect on the food. During the French intervention in Mexico, French food became popular with the upper classes. An influence on these new trends came from chef Tudor, who was brought to Mexico by the Emperor Maximilian of Habsburg. One lasting evidence of this is the variety of breads and sweet breads, such as bolillos, conchas and much more, which can be found in Mexican bakeries. The Germans brought beer brewing techniques and the Chinese added their cuisine to certain areas of the country. This led to Mexico characterizing its cuisine more by its relation to popular traditions rather than on particular cooking techniques.
Since the 20th century, there have been an interchange of food influences between Mexico and the United States. Mexican cooking was of course still practiced in what is now the Southwest United States after the Mexican–American War, but Diana Kennedy, in her book The Cuisines of Mexico (published in 1972), drew a sharp distinction between Mexican food and Tex-Mex.
Tex-Mex food was developed from Mexican and Anglo influences, and was traced to the late 19th century in Texas. It still continues to develop with flour tortillas becoming popular north of the border only in the latter 20th century. From north to south, much of the influence has been related to food industrialization, as well as the greater availability overall of food, especially after the Mexican Revolution. One other very visible sign of influence from the United States is the appearance of fast foods, such as hamburgers, hot dogs and pizza.
In the latter 20th century, international influence in Mexico has led to interest and development of haute cuisine. In Mexico, many professional chefs are trained in French or international cuisine, but the use of Mexican staples and flavors is still favored, including the simple foods of traditional markets. It is not unusual to see some quesadillas or small tacos among the other hors d’oeuvres at fancy dinner parties in Mexico.
Professional cookery in Mexico is growing and includes an emphasis upon traditional methods and ingredients. In the cities, there is interest in publishing and preserving what is authentic Mexican food. This movement is traceable to 1982 with the Mexican Culinary Circle of Mexico City. It was created by a group of women chefs and other culinary experts as a reaction to the fear of traditions being lost with the increasing introduction of foreign techniques and foods. In 2010, Mexico’s cuisine was recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Corn in Mexico is not only eaten, but also drunk as a beverage. Corn is the base of a hot drink called atole, which is then flavored with fruit, chocolate, rice or other flavors. Fermented corn is the base of a cold drink, which goes by different names and varieties, such as tejuino, pozol and others. Aguas frescas are flavored drinks usually made from fruit, water and sugar. Beverages also include hibiscus iced tea, one made from tamarind and one from rice called “horchata”. One variant of coffee is café de olla, which is coffee brewed with cinnamon and raw sugar. Many of the most popular beverages can be found sold by street vendors and juice bars in Mexico.
Chocolate played an important part in the history of Mexican cuisine. The word “chocolate” originated from Mexico’s Aztec cuisine, derived from the Nahuatl word xocolatl. Chocolate was first drunk rather than eaten. It was also used for religious rituals. The Maya civilization grew cacao trees and used the cacao seeds it produced to make a frothy, bitter drink. The drink, called xocoatl, was often flavored with vanilla, chile pepper, and achiote.
Alcoholic beverages from Mexico include tequila, pulque, aguardiente, mezcal, and charanda with brandy, wine, rum and beer also produced. The most common alcoholic beverage consumed with food in Mexico is beer, followed by tequila. A classic margarita, a popular cocktail, is composed of tequila, cointreau and lime juice.
Like elsewhere in Mexico, corn is the dietary staple and indigenous elements are still strong in the cuisine. Along with a chile called simojovel, used nowhere else in the country, the cuisine is also distinguished by the use of herbs, such as chipilín and hierba santa. Like in Oaxaca, tamales are usually wrapped in banana leaves (or sometimes with the leaves of hoja santa), but often chipilín is incorporated into the dough. As in the Yucatán, fermented corn is drunk as a beverage called pozol, but here it is usually flavored with all-natural cacao.
The favored meats are beef, pork and chicken (introduced by the Spanish), especially in the highlands, which favors the raising of livestock. The livestock industry has also prompted the making of cheese, mostly done on ranches and in small cooperatives, with the best known from Ocosingo, Rayón and Pijijiapan. Meat and cheese dishes are frequently accompanied by vegetables, such as squash, chayote, and carrots.
The main feature of Mexico City cooking is that it has been influenced by those of the other regions of Mexico, as well as a number of foreign influences. This is because Mexico City has been a center for migration of people from all over Mexico since pre-Hispanic times. Most of the ingredients of this area’s cooking are not grown in situ, but imported from all of the country (such as tropical fruits).
Street cuisine is very popular, with taco stands, and lunch counters on every street. Popular foods in the city include barbacoa (a specialty of the central highlands), birria (from western Mexico), cabrito (from the north), carnitas (originally from Michoacán), mole sauces (from Puebla and central Mexico), tacos with many different fillings, and large sub-like sandwiches called tortas, usually served at specialized shops called ‘Torterías’. There are eateries that specialize in pre-Hispanic food, including dishes with insects. This is also the area, where most of Mexico’s haute cuisine can be found.
The foods eaten in what is now the north of Mexico have differed from those in the south since the pre-Hispanic era. Here, the indigenous people were hunter-gatherers with limited agriculture and settlements because of the arid land.
When the Europeans arrived, they found much of the land in this area suitable for raising cattle, goats and sheep. This led to the dominance of meat, especially beef, in the region, and some of the most popular dishes include machaca, arrachera and cabrito. The region’s distinctive cooking technique is grilling, as ranch culture has promoted outdoor cooking done by men.
The ranch culture has also prompted cheese production and the north produces the widest varieties of cheese in Mexico. These include queso fresco (fresh farmer’s cheese), ranchero (similar to Monterey Jack), cuajada (a mildly sweet, creamy curd of fresh milk), requesón (similar to cottage cheese or ricotta), Chihuahua’s creamy semi-soft queso menonita, and fifty-six varieties of asadero (smoked cheese).
Another important aspect of northern cuisine is the presence of wheat, especially in the use of flour tortillas. The area has at least forty different types of flour tortillas. The main reason for this is that much of the land supports wheat production, introduced by the Spanish. These large tortillas allowed for the creation of burritos, usually filled with machaca in Sonora, which eventually gained popularity in the Southwest United States.
The variety of foodstuffs in the north is not as varied as in the south of Mexico, because of the mostly desert climate. Much of the cuisine of this area is dependent on food preservation techniques, namely dehydration and canning. Dried foods include meat, chiles, squash, peas, corn, lentils, beans and dried fruit. A number of these are also canned. Preservation techniques change the flavor of foods; for example, many chiles are less hot after drying.
In Northeastern Mexico, during the Spanish colonial period, Nuevo León was founded and settled by Spanish families of Jewish origin (Crypto-Jews). They contributed significantly to the regional cuisine with dishes, such as Pan de Semita or “Semitic Bread” (a type of bread made without leavening), capirotada (a type of dessert), and cabrito or “baby goat”, which is the typical food of Monterrey and the state of Nuevo León, as well as some regions of Coahuila.
The north has seen waves of immigration by the Chinese, Mormons, and Mennonites, who have influenced the cuisines in areas, such as Chihuahua and Baja California. Most recently, Baja Med cuisine has emerged in Tijuana and elsewhere in Baja California, combining Mexican and Mediterranean flavors.
The cooking of Oaxaca remained more intact after the Conquest, as the Spanish took the area with less fighting and less disruption of the economy and food production systems. However, it was the first area to experience the mixing of foods and cooking styles, while central Mexico was still recuperating. Despite its size, the state has a wide variety of ecosystems and a wide variety of native foods. Vegetables are grown in the central valley, seafood is abundant on the coast and the area bordering Veracruz grows tropical fruits.
Much of the state’s cooking is influenced by that of the Mixtec and, to a lesser extent, the Zapotec. Later in the colonial period, Oaxaca lost its position as a major food supplier and the area’s cooking returned to a more indigenous style, keeping only a small number of foodstuffs, such as chicken and pork. It also adapted mozzarella, brought by the Spanish, and modified it to what is now known as Oaxaca cheese.
One major feature of Oaxacan cuisine is its seven mole varieties, second only to mole poblano in importance. The seven are Negro (black), Amarillo (yellow), Coloradito (little red), Mancha Manteles (table cloth stainer), Chichilo (smoky stew), Rojo (red), and Verde (green).
Corn is the staple food in the region. Tortillas are called blandas and are a part of every meal. Corn is also used to make empanadas, tamales and more. Black beans are favored, often served in soup or as a sauce for enfrijoladas. Oaxaca’s regional chile peppers include pasilla oaxaqueña (red, hot and smoky), along with amarillos (yellow), chilhuacles, chilcostles and costeños. These, along with herbs, such as hoja santa, give the food its unique taste.
Another important aspect to Oaxacan cuisine is chocolate, generally consumed as a beverage. It is frequently hand ground and combined with almonds, cinnamon and other ingredients.
The cuisine of Veracruz is a mix of indigenous, Afro-Mexican and Spanish. The indigenous contribution is in the use of corn as a staple, as well as vanilla (native to the state) and herbs called acuyo and hoja santa. It is also supplemented by a wide variety of tropical fruits, such as papaya, mamey and zapote, along with the introduction of citrus fruit and pineapple by the Spanish. The Spanish also introduced European herbs, such as parsley, thyme, marjoram, bay laurel, cilantro and others, which characterize much of the state’s cooking. They are found in the best known dish of the region Huachinango a la veracruzana, a red snapper dish.
The African influence is from the importation of slaves through the Caribbean, who brought foods, such as peanuts with them, which have been introduced earlier to Africa by the Portuguese. This influence can be seen in dishes, such as pollo encacahuatado or “chicken in peanut sauce”. Other African ingredients often found in the state include plantains, yucca and sweet potatoes. As it borders the Gulf coast, seafood figures prominently in most of the state. The state’s role as a gateway to Mexico has meant that the dietary staple of corn is less evident than in other parts of Mexico, with rice as a heavy favorite. Corn dishes include garnachas (a kind of corn cake), which are readily available especially in the mountain areas, where indigenous influence is strongest.
West of Mexico City are the states of Michoacán, Jalisco and Colima, as well as the Pacific coast. The cuisine of Michoacan is based on the Purepecha culture, which still dominates most of the state. The area has a large network of rivers and lakes providing fish. Its use of corn is perhaps the most varied. While atole is drunk in most parts of Mexico, it is made with more different flavors in Michoacán, including blackberry, cascabel chile and more. Tamales come in different shapes, wrapped in corn husks. These include those folded into polyhedrons called corundas and can vary in name if the filling is different. In the Bajío area, tamales are often served with a meat stew called churipo, which is flavored with cactus fruit.
The main Spanish contributions to Michoacán cuisine are rice, pork and spices. One of the best-known dishes from the state is morisquesta, which is a sausage and rice dish, closely followed by carnitas, which is deep-fried pork. The latter can be found in many parts of Mexico, often claimed to be authentically Michoacán. Other important ingredients in the cuisine include wheat (where bread symbolizes fertility) found in breads and pastries. Another is sugar, giving rise to a wide variety of desserts and sweets, such as fruit jellies and ice cream, mostly associated with the town of Tocumbo. The town of Cotija has a cheese named after it. The local alcoholic beverage is charanda, which is made with fermented corn.
The cuisine of the states of Jalisco and Colima is noted for dishes, such as birria, chilayo, menudo and pork dishes. Jalisco’s cuisine is known for tequila with the liquor produced only in certain areas allowed to use the name. The cultural and gastronomic center of the area is Guadalajara, an area where both agriculture and cattle raising have thrived. The best-known dish from the area is birria, a stew of goat, beef, mutton or pork with chiles and spices.
An important street food is tortas ahogadas, where the torta (sandwich) is drowned in a chile sauce. Near Guadalajara is the town of Tonalá, known for its pozole, a hominy stew said to have been originally created with human flesh. The area which makes tequila surrounds the city. A popular local drink is tejuino, made from fermented corn. Bionico is also a popular dessert in the Guadalajara area.
On the Pacific coast, seafood is common, generally cooked with European spices along with chile, and is often served with a spicy salsa. Favored fish varieties include marlin, swordfish, snapper, tuna, shrimp and octopus. Tropical fruits are also important. The cuisine of the Baja California Peninsula is especially heavy on seafood, with the widest variety. It also features a mild green chile pepper, as well as dates, especially in sweets.
The food of the Yucatán peninsula is distinct from the rest of the country. It is based primarily on Mayan food with influences from the Caribbean, Central Mexican, European (especially French) and Middle Eastern cultures. As in other areas of Mexico, corn is the basic staple, as both a liquid and a solid food. One common way of consuming corn, especially by the poor, is a thin drink or gruel of white corn called by such names as pozol or keyem.
One of the main spices in the region is the annatto seed, called achiote in Spanish. It gives food a reddish color and a slightly peppery smell with a hint of nutmeg. Recados are seasoning pastes, based on achiote (recado rojo) or a mixture of habanero and charcoal called chirmole both used on chicken and pork.
Recado rojo is used for the area’s best-known dish, cochinita pibil. Pibil refers to the cooking method (from the Mayan word p’ib, meaning “buried”) in which foods are wrapped, generally in banana leaves, and cooked in a pit oven. Various meats are cooked this way. Habaneros are another distinctive ingredient, but they are generally served as (or part of) condiments on the side rather than integrated into the dishes.
A prominent feature of Yucatán cooking is tropical fruits, such as tamarind, plums, mamey, avocados and bitter oranges, the latter often used in the region’s distinctive salsas. Honey was used long before the arrival of the Spanish to sweeten foods and to make a ritual alcoholic drink called balché. Today, a honey liquor called xtabentun is still made and consumed in the region. The coastal areas feature several seafood dishes, based on fish like the Mero, a variety of grunt and Esmedregal, which is fried and served with a spicy salsa based on the x’catic pepper and achiote paste. Other dishes include conch fillet (usually served raw, just marinated in lime juice), cocount flavored shrimp and lagoon snails.
Traditionally, some dishes are served as entrées, such as the brazo de reina (a type of tamale made from chaya) and papadzules (egg tacos seasoned in a pumpkin seed gravy).
Street food in the area usually consists of Cochinita Pibil Tacos, Lebanese-based Kibbeh, Shawarma Tacos, snacks made from hardened corn dough called piedras, and fruit-flavored ices.
Mexican food outside of Mexico
Mexican cuisine is offered in a few fine restaurants in Europe and the United States. Sometimes landrace corn from Mexico is imported and ground on the premises.
Most Mexican food found outside of Mexico is limited, loosely based on the food of far northern Mexico and the Southwest US. Nachos, burritos, fajitas, chile con carne and chimichangas are examples of American food with Mexican-origins known as Tex-Mex. However, with the growing ethnic Mexican population in the United States, more authentic Mexican food is appearing slowly in the US. One reason is that Mexican immigrants use food as a means of combating homesickness, and for their descendants, it is a symbol of ethnicity. Alternatively, with more Americans experiencing Mexican food in Mexico, there is a growing demand for more authentic flavors.