The tacos and burritos familiar north of the border are mere appetizers on Mexico's vast and varied menu. Some staples grace plates throughout the country, but long distances and two formidable mountain ranges gave rise to distinct regional cuisines that evolved independently. It is not only possible but also one of life's great pleasures to eat your way through Mexico without downing a single taco or burrito.
When the Spanish arrived, they found Mexico's natives cooking with corn, beans, chiles, tomatoes, and squash, combined with turkey and other wild game. Local women promptly incorporated beef, pork, lamb, nuts, fruits, cheese, spices, and sugar cane (by way of the Caribbean) contributed by the conquistadors. To the dismay of the Spaniards -- and the delight of travelers today -- the result was not a simulation of European cuisine but new versions of native dishes.
Mexican cooking remains simple at its core; most of the picante flavor is added afterward with the chile and salsa found on every table. Regional variations range from the basic but nutritious dishes of the north to seafood specialties of the coastal regions to the complex variety of Mexico City and the central states to the earthy, piquant creations of the Maya in the south.
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 they introduced. It's no exaggeration to say the Maya changed the world's eating habits in the 1500s. Just try to imagine life without:
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 learned about it.
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, it has spread widely throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, and the U.S.
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 in the world.
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 Aztec, the Maya ate it many centuries earlier and used cacao beans as currency.
Corn -- The creation myth in the Popol Vuh, the Maya "bible," 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.
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.
Tomatoes -- Even the Italians had to make do without tomato sauce before discovery of 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.
Vanilla -- The elixir from a special species of orchid originally flavored Maya chocolate drinks. Southern Mexico's jungle is still the only place the orchid grows wild, pollinated by native stingless bees that produce Maya honey. The prized Tahitian vanilla, which comes from Mexican stock, must be hand-pollinated.
Tortillas -- The tortilla is Mexico's bread, and sometimes its fork and spoon, used to scoop up food. Corn is cooked in water and lime, ground into grainy masa dough, patted and pressed into thin cakes, and cooked on a comal (hot griddle). Even restaurants that serve bread always have tortillas available. The flour tortilla was developed in northern Mexico and is less common in the south.
Enchiladas -- The most famous of numerous Mexican dishes based on the tortilla was originally called tortilla enchilada, meaning a tortilla dipped in a chile sauce; variations include entomatada (dipped in tomato sauce) and enfrijolada (in a bean sauce). The basic enchilada, still sold in food stands, is a tortilla dipped first in hot oil and then chile (usually ancho) sauce, folded or rolled on a plate, and sprinkled with chopped onions and queso cotija (crumbly white cheese). It's often served with fried potatoes and carrots. Restaurants serve more elaborate enchiladas filled with cheese, chicken, pork, or seafood. In Southern Mexico, enchiladas are often bathed in a rich mole sauce.
Tacos -- 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. This is the quintessential Mexican fast food, sold in taquerías everywhere.
Frijoles -- Most Mexican households eat beans daily. Pinto beans are predominant in northern Mexico, but black beans are the Yucatán's legumes of choice. 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 might 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 own specialty. 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.
Yucatecan tamales have a distinctly Maya flavor, filled with pork or chicken marinated in achiote (an earthy, mildly tangy paste made from the annatto seed) and cooked in an underground pit or oven that chars the banana leaf black. Tabasco makes liberal use of freshwater fish and seafood, rice, and an array of exotic produce. Chiapas' eclectic assortment of tamales might be filled with mole, chicharrón (crispy, fried pork rind), or even flower buds; the best known are tamales de bola, with pork rib, a prune, and a small dried chile, all wrapped up in a corn husk tied on top to form a ball (bola).
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.
The days when you had to carry water purification tablets to return from a trip to Mexico with your intestines intact are long gone. Nearly all restaurants that serve middle-class Mexicans use filtered water, disinfect their vegetables, and buy ice made from purified water. If in doubt, look for ice with a rough cylindrical shape and a hollow center, produced by the same kind of machinery across the country. Street vendors and market stalls are less consistent; look for clean, busy places and stick with cooked foods and unpeeled fruit.
The Yucatán evolved in isolation from the rest of the country until recent decades, and its cuisine is an amalgam of native, European, Caribbean, and Middle Eastern flavors and techniques. Some of the most recognizable tastes are achiote, sour oranges, lime juice, pumpkin seeds, and pickled onions. Turkey (pavo), still the most common meat in Yucatecan homes, is prominent on most menus, though beef, pork, and chicken have also become staples. Fish and seafood reign along the coast.
Achiote and sour orange came to the Yucatán by way of the Caribbean; Edam cheese through historical trade with the Dutch; and peas likely from the English. A wave of Lebanese immigration around the turn of the 20th century also left its mark; the spit-broiled tacos al pastor is basically Mexican gyros, and you might come across kibbeh made of beef or potatoes instead of lamb or dolmas wrapped in chaya instead of grape leaves.
The Yucatán's trademark dishes are pollo or cochinita (chicken or pork) pibil, meat marinated in achiote, bitter orange, and spices, wrapped in banana leaves and barbecued or baked in a pit; poc chuc, pork slices marinated in sour orange and garnished with pickled onions; and sopa de lima (lime soup), made of shredded, lime-marinated turkey or chicken and topped with sizzling tortilla strips.
Try starting your day with huevos moluleños -- fried eggs over sliced plantains, beans, and fried tortillas, topped with a dusting of salty cheese, tomato sauce, and peas -- but only if you're ravenous. Cochinita pibil is also served in the morning. The best place to have the former is in any reputable restaurant; the best place for the latter would be a market such as El Mercado de Santa Ana in Mérida.
Customary dishes for the afternoon meal include relleno negro, turkey cooked with a paste of charred chiles and vegetables with bits of hard-boiled eggs; escabeche blanco, chicken or turkey cooked in a vinegar-based sauce; or queso relleno, mild Edam cheese stuffed with seasoned ground beef. The unique Tikinxic (or some variant of this name) is grilled fish that has been lightly marinated in an achiote paste. These also appear on the evening menu in restaurants in Cancún and on the coast. Traditional evening foods are based on turkey and include such finger foods as salbutes and panuchos, two dishes of tortillas or masa cakes layered with shredded turkey or chicken; panuchos add a layer of frijoles.
Campeche has its own culinary traditions, a marriage of Spanish cuisine, recipes brought by pirates from all over the world, and local fruits and vegetables. The signature dish, pan de cazón (baby shark casserole) -- layers of tortillas, black beans, and shredded baby shark meat, smothered in tomato sauce -- reaches its greatest heights at La Pigua. Lying on the Gulf Coast, Tabasco has more in common with the Caribbean flavors of Veracruz, which developed close ties to Cuba during colonial times. Veracruzana, a lightly spiced blend of tomato and onion, bathes fresh fish, meat, and seafood. The specialty is the fish pejelagarto, whose mild, nutty taste is enhanced by chile and lemon; La Jangada in Villahermosa is a favorite place to indulge. Camarón (shrimp), ostión (oyster), and pulpo (octopus) are ubiquitous, delicious, and cheap.
The Maya of Chiapas were great mathematicians and astronomers, like their kin throughout the Yucatán, but they also were particularly accomplished farmers. Though they depended above all on corn, native herbs such as chipilin, a fragrant, thin-leaved plant, and hoja santa, the large anise-scented leaves that characterize much of southern Mexico's cooking, flavor the many varieties of Chiapas' famous tamales, which are heavier and larger than central Mexican tamales. With the introduction of European cattle, Chiapans also became expert ranchers and, as a corollary, cheese makers. Similar to neighboring Guatemala, Chiapas' cooking uses a lot of beef, either grilled or in a stew.
Coca-Cola is nearly as entrenched in Mexico's drinking habits as tequila, having been a fixture since 1926. Pepsi is also sold in every city and town. 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. 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, cactus fruit (tuna in Spanish), and other exotic ingredients find their way into these refreshments. In the Yucatán, the most popular of these is horchata, a drink made from rice, almonds, cinnamon, and sugar. 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 is one of Mexico's most important exports, and Chiapas grows some of the best. Tarted-up coffee isn't Mexico's style. Your basic choices are café Americano, the familiar gringo-style brew; espresso and sometimes cappuccino, served in cafes; and the widely popular café con leche, translated as "coffee with milk" but more accurately described as milk with coffee. Potent, delicious café de olla, traditionally brewed in a clay pot with raw sugar and cinnamon, is harder to find.
Hot chocolate is a traditional drink, usually made with cinnamon and often some crushed almonds. Another traditional hot drink is atole, made from cornmeal, milk, cinnamon, and puréed fresh fruit, often served for breakfast.
Mexican beer generally is light and well carbonated, all the better to tame the chile burn. Brands such as Bohemia, Corona, Dos Equis, Pacifica, Tecate, and Modelo are favorites around the world. Mérida's Cerveceria Yucateca, alas, was bought by Modelo in 1979 and closed in 2002, but its León Negra and Montejo beers are still produced in central Mexico.
Tequila's poorer cousins, pulque and mescal, originated with octli, an Aztec agave drink produced strictly for feasts. Mexicans drank pulque, made from juice straight from the plant, for more than 5,000 years, but it has recently given way to more refined -- and more palatable -- spirits. The Spanish learned to create serious firepower by roasting the agave hearts, 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. It's also available commercially; pulque is found mostly in central Mexico's pulquerías.
Tequila, once consigned to a stereotype in bad Westerns, 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.
Don't overlook southern Mexico's local spirits. Kahlúa, the Arabica coffee-flavored liquor ubiquitous in U.S. bars, is the Yucatán's best-known product. Xtabentún, a honey-anisette liqueur based on the Maya's ceremonial drink produced from the morning glory whose nectar fueled local honey production, is a popular after-dinner cordial. Its best-known maker, D'Aristi of Mérida, also makes Caribe rum and the lesser-known Kalani, a coconut liqueur. Other after-dinner liqueurs are flavored with native flowers such as hibiscus (jamaica) or fruit such as bananas (plátano) and pomegranate (granada).
Tequila 101 -- Tequila is a variety of mescal produced from the A. tequilana agave species, or blue agave, in the Tequila area of Jalisco state. Its quality and popularity have soared in the past 15 years. Distillers -- 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. The coveted añejo (aged) tequila is stored in oak barrels for a year or more.
Dining Service Tips
- The afternoon meal is the main meal of the day, and many restaurants offer a multicourse daily special called comida corrida or menú del día. This is the least expensive way to get a full dinner.
- In Mexico you need to ask for your check; it is considered rude to present the bill to someone who hasn't requested it. If you're in a hurry, ask for the check when your food arrives.
- Tips are about the same as in the U.S. Restaurants sometimes include a 15% value-added tax, which shows up on the bill as "IVA." This is effectively the tip, which you may augment if you like, but make sure you're not tipping twice.
- To summon the waiter, wave or raise your hand, but don't motion with your index finger, which is a demeaning gesture. If you need your check, it's OK to summon any waiter and ask, "La Cuenta, por favor" -- or simply catch someone's eye and pantomime a scribbling motion against the palm of your hand.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.