It can't be a coincidence that on a map, Mexico looks like a giant cornucopia. All the Mexican food you've ever encountered at home has merely been skimmed off the top, leaving all of the interesting, lesser-known fruit at the intriguing bottom of the bounty. Yes, Mexicans eat beans, rice, and tacos, but they also eat complex dishes like the countless variations of mole, an intricate sauce that can contain 100 different ingredients and take up to 3 days to prepare; almejas rellenas, fresh clam baked in its shell with butter, ham, jalapeños, tomatoes, and onions; and pozole, a hearty pork or chicken soup served with radishes, cilantro, avocado, and fried pork rinds as garnish.
Despite a multitude of regional differences, some generalizations can help you navigate. Most Mexican food isn't spicy-hot or piquant when it arrives at the table (though there are exceptions). The picante flavor is added with chiles and salsas; you'll never see a table in Mexico without one or both of these condiments. Mexicans don't drown their cooking in cheese and sour cream, a la Tex-Mex, and they use a greater variety of ingredients than most people expect. But the basis of Mexican food is simple -- tortillas, beans, chiles, squash, and tomatoes -- the same as it was centuries ago before the arrival of the Europeans.
A Debt of Gratitude
Lost among the laurels heaped upon the ancient Maya for their contributions to science, mathematics, architecture, astronomy, and writing is the wide array of foods these masters of agriculture introduced to the world. It's no exaggeration to say the Maya changed the world's eating habits in the 1500s. Just try to imagine life without:
- Chocolate -- The Maya's "food of the gods," made from the toasted, fermented seeds of the cacao tree, is arguably the New World's greatest gift to civilization. Though Cortez learned of chocolate from the Aztecs, the Maya ate it many centuries earlier and used cacao beans as currency.
- Vanilla -- The elixir from the world's only known edible orchid originally flavored Maya chocolate drinks. Southern Mexico's jungle is the only place the orchid grows wild, pollinated by native stingless bees that produce Maya honey. The prized Tahitian vanilla, from Mexican stock, must be hand-pollinated.
- Corn -- The Popul Vuh, the Maya creation myth, attributes humankind's very existence to this domesticated strain of wild grass, easily the most important food in the Americas. Thousands of years after corn became a dietary staple, the Maya started cultivating it around 2500 B.C. and abandoned their nomadic ways to settle in villages surrounded by cornfields.
- Chiles -- Chiles have been cultivated in the Americas for more than 6,000 years. Blame Christopher Columbus for calling them "peppers," but credit him for their worldwide reach. Southern Mexico's Capsicum annuum species, with its many cultivars, is crucial to nearly every fiery cuisine.
- Tomatoes -- Even the Italians had to make do without tomato sauce before Columbus set out for the New World. Precursors originated in Peru, but the tomato as we know it came from the Yucatán, where the Maya cultivated it long before the conquest.
- Black beans -- Archaeological digs indicate the black bean originated in southern Mexico and Central America more than 7,000 years ago. Still the favorite in and around the Yucatán, the black bean spread widely throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, and the southern United States.
- Avocado -- From its origins in southern Mexico, where it was used as an aphrodisiac, the avocado spread to the Rio Grande and central Peru before the Europeans found out about it.
- Papaya -- The large, woody, fast-growing herb -- commonly referred to as a tree -- was used to treat stomach ailments. After spreading from southern Mexico, it now grows in every tropical country.
Tortillas -- Like the crusty baguette in France, a perfect tortilla can truly round out your meal. Flour tortillas, which were developed in northern Mexico and until recently were difficult to find south of Chihuahua, are arguably the most popular north of the border. However, the traditional corn tortilla, made from corn cooked in water and lime, ground into masa (a grainy dough), patted and pressed into thin cakes, and cooked on a hot griddle known as a comal, remains king in most of Mexico. Whether they're sopping up shrimp molcajetes in Jalisco or beans and rice in Oaxaca, Mexicans often use tortillas as an alternative to silverware, ripping off large pieces and using them to scoop up food.
Salsa -- You can usually tell whether you're going to like a restaurant based on its salsa alone -- if the cooks are inventive with tomatoes and spices, imagine what they can do with steak. Top marks go to places that bring out a tray with three or more choices, beginning with pico de gallo, the most simple and common variety of fresh cilantro, tomatoes, jalapeños, and onions. Another favorite is salsa chipotle, which gets its smoky taste from the chipotle chile. Salsa verde, made with tomatillos instead of regular red tomatoes, can be tangier and milder. Beyond these three, there are as many salsas as there are colors in the rainbow.
Tacos -- Whether it's tacos al pastor made with gyro-style spit-grilled meat in Mexico City, or beer-battered shrimp tacos in Ensenada, just about every region has its own take on this quintessential fast food. Anything folded or rolled into a tortilla -- sometimes two, either soft or fried -- is a taco. Flautas and quesadillas (except in Mexico City, where they are a different animal) are species of tacos.
Frijoles -- Most Mexican households eat beans daily. Pinto beans are predominant in northern Mexico, while black beans are the legumes of choice in the south. Mexicans add only a little onion and garlic and a pinch of herbs, as beans are meant to be a counterpoint to spicy foods. They also may appear at the end of a meal with a spoonful of sour cream. Fried leftover beans often appear as frijoles refritos, a side dish commonly called "refried beans." In fact, they are fried just once; the prefix re means "well" (as in "thoroughly"), so a better translation may be "well-fried beans."
Tamales -- The ultimate take-out meal, tamales (singular: tamal) developed in pre-Hispanic Mexico and became more elaborate after the Spanish introduced pork and other ingredients. To make a tamal, you mix corn masa with lard, beat the batter, add a filling, wrap it, and cook it. Every region has its specialty; in some places, a single tamal is big enough to feed a family; in others, they are barely 3 inches long. The most popular rellenos (fillings) are pork and cheese, but they might be anything from fish to iguana, augmented by pumpkin, pineapple, rice, or peanuts, and tucked into a blanket of yellow, black, or purple masa. Tamales are usually steamed but may be baked or grilled; the jackets are most often dried corn husks or fresh corn or banana leaves but may be fashioned from palm, avocado, or chaya (a spinachlike vegetable) leaves.
Chiles -- Hardly a traditional dish in all of Mexico lacks chiles. Appearing in wondrous variety throughout Mexico, they bear different names depending on whether they are fresh or dried. Chiles range from blazing hot with little discernible taste to mild with a rich, complex flavor, and they can be pickled, smoked, stuffed, or stewed. Among the best-known are the pimiento, the large, harmless bell pepper familiar in the U.S.; the fist-sized poblano, ranging from mild to very hot; the short, torpedo-shaped serrano; the skinny and seriously fiery chile de árbol; the stubby, hot jalapeño; the chipotle, a dried and smoked jalapeño usually served in adobo (vinegar and garlic paste); and the tiny, five-alarm pequín.
If you suffer from misadventure by chile, a drink of milk, a bite of banana or cucumber, a spoonful of yogurt, or -- if all else fails -- a bottle of beer will help extinguish the fire.
If you want bottled water, ask for agua natural or agua embotellada bottled water (con gas for carbonated, sin gas for still). Coca-Cola and Pepsi are nearly as entrenched in Mexico's drinking habits as tequila, and they taste the way they used to in the U.S., before the makers started adding corn syrup. These and other American refrescos outsell Mexican brands such as Manzana, a carbonated apple juice. If you like your soft drinks cold, specify frío, or you may get them clima (room temperature).
Better yet, treat yourself to licuados -- refreshing smoothies of fresh fruit (or juice), milk, and ice, sold all over Mexico. (A note of linguistic caution: In Spanish, the word for tuna, atún, is perilously similar to the word for a small cactus fruit, tuna. Make sure you know which one is going in your licuado.) Aguas frescas ("fresh waters") are lighter drinks made by adding a small amount of fresh fruit juice and sugar to water. Hibiscus, melon, tamarind, and lime are common, but rice, flowers, tuna, and other exotic ingredients find their way into these refreshments. And inexpensive, fresh-squeezed juices from every fruit you can name -- and a few you can't -- are one of Mexico's greatest pleasures.
Coffee, one of Mexico's most important exports, is generally good, but latte addicts beware: Tarted-up coffee isn't Mexico's style. Your basic choices are café Americano, the familiar gringo-style brew; espresso and occasionally cappuccino, served in cafes; and the widely popular café con leche, translated as "coffee with milk" but more accurately described as milk with coffee. Traditional hot drinks are hot chocolate, usually made with cinnamon and often some crushed almonds, and atole, made from cornmeal, milk, cinnamon, and puréed fresh fruit, often served for breakfast.
Mexico has a proud and lucrative beer-brewing tradition that comes from the German immigrants who arrived in the early 1800s. With the exception of Minerva beers out of Guadalajara, Jalisco, you'll be hard-pressed to find any variety beyond amber and light. You will, however, find a variety of beer concoctions, including the chelada, beer with lime juice and salt, and its sophisticated cousin, the michelada, which may contain hot sauce, Worcester sauce, salt, and lime. The names and recipes vary regionally, so if you're squeamish, ask your waiter.
Tequila's poorer cousins, pulque and mescal, originated with octli, an Aztec agave or maguey drink produced strictly for feasts. Mexicans drank pulque (now found mostly in central Mexico's pulquerías), made from fermented juice straight from the plant, for more 5,000 years, but it has recently given way to more refined -- and more palatable -- spirits. The Spanish learned to create serious fire power by roasting the agave hearts and then extracting, fermenting, and distilling the liquids. Thus were born tequila and mescal. Mescal, famous for the traditional worm at the bottom of the bottle, is more potent than pulque but easier to swallow. Mescal comes from various parts of Mexico and from different varieties of agave. It's available commercially, while pulque is found mostly in central Mexico's pulquerías. Tequila is a variety of mescal produced from the a. tequilana Weber species of agave in and around the area of Tequila, in the state of Jalisco. The tequila distilling process is more sophisticated than that of mescal. Once consigned to a stereotype in bad Westerns, the drink has lately acquired a sophisticated aura. A growing coterie of connoisseurs has spotlighted high-quality varieties and is making inroads on the knock-back-a-shot mentality in favor of sipping and swirling as you would with fine Scotch or French cognac.
Tequila Sun Rising -- You can tug on Superman's cape, you can spit into the wind, but don't ever mess with tequila in Mexico. Tequila lovers savor the subtle flavors of the agave spirit and prefer to take it like wine, sip by sip, over the course of an entire meal. They will likely gasp in horror if you throw back a shot of Jose Cuervo like a coed on spring break, and pity you when you wake with a monster hangover.
The makers of tequila -- all but one still based in Jalisco -- have formed an association to establish standards for labeling and denomination. The best tequilas are 100% agave, made with a set minimum of sugar to prime the fermentation process. These tequilas come in three categories, based on how they were stored: Blanco is white tequila aged very little, usually in steel vats; reposado (reposed) is aged in wooden casks for between 2 months and a year; añejo (aged) has been stored in oak barrels -- often reused whiskey barrels from the U.S. -- for at least a year. A good way to ease into the world of tequila appreciation is to order a bandera (flag), which consists of a shot of tequila and shots of lime and tomato juice. Each glass represents a color in the Mexican flag.