In Mexico, eating and drinking are very important and form a large part of Mexican culture and the way of life. The variety of dishes in Mexico is based on the mixture of indigenous and Spanish or European culture. In general, Mexican food is very rich because the main ingredients are tortillas, meat and cheese, but vegetarians also get their money’s worth due to the variety of fresh vegetables and fruits which you can find in México.
In 2010, the Mexican cuisine and their culinary culture received special attention and was designated as a World Heritage by UNESCO. Together with French cuisine, it was the first time that food and drink were added to the World Heritage list. The traditional Mexican cuisine combines ancient ingredients and cooking techniques, rituals and spiritual customs and strongly influences the daily life of Mexicans which justifies its appointment by the UNESCO.
On your trip you will find Mexican restaurants and bars in all price ranges. You can get economimc and authentic Mexican dishes at the “loncherias”, “comedores” and “puestos de comida” (street food) which you can find almost everywhere. Here you can experience a very traditional Mexican food at reasonable prices. Smaller restaurants often offer the “menú del día“ (daily menu) or “comida corrida“. That means food which is also very cheap but yet very rich. For approx. 2-3 Euro you can have a very delicous and homemade 3 course menu which also includes coffee or fruit water.
High end Restaurants can usually be found in impeccably restored colonial buildings and they often have a “patio” where you can dine in a stylish atmosphere.
So that you know what is being served throughout your trip to México, we have prepared an overview of the most important Mexican dishes, broken down by region from north to south:
Corn is one of the main ingredients in Mexican cuisine. Mexican food is almost impossible without the famous corn tortillas. There doesn’t seem to be much of a difference for Europeans, but you’ll find that there are many variations of the tortilla using corn dough, giving the dish a different name.
When it comes to tortillas, a distinction is first made between wheat or corn tortillas, with wheat tortillas being more common in northern Mexico. Depending on the fillings and method of preparation, the corn dough is then turn into tacos, quesadillas, enchiladas, gorditas, sopes etc. Freshly made tortillas are highly recommended!
Tacos are probably the most popular dish and consist of a tortilla and a filling. This filling can consist of everything from beef and pork to chicken with a mixture of tomatoes, onions and other vegetables to vegetarian options, seafood or just cheese. Of course, a hot Mexican salsa should not be missed. Tacos are traditionally eaten in Mexico without cutlery, using only your hands. The most popular variant of tacos in Mexico are “tacos al pastor”. The filling is a mixture of beef and pork which has been marinated with a red chilli sauce. The taco is then topped with lots of white onion and fresh coriander (cilantro).
The two main ingredients for a Mexican quesadilla are tortillas and cheese. The quesadillas are baked on the traditional flat pan or fried until the cheese has melted. Quesadillas can also be filled with an unlimited number of delicious options. In Mexico, quesadillas with the less intense-tasting wheat tortillas are very popular.
To make a tostada, the tortillas are fried or baked until crispy and are very popular with ceviche and other delicacies from the sea.
In Europe these chips are known as nachos. The corn tortillas are cut into triangles and fried or baked. Totopos are served in most Mexican restaurants with various salsas for free before meals and with guacamole.
Gorditas are, as the name suggests (gordo = thick), a thicker version of the tortillas. In contrast to tacos where the meat is on top, the traditional Mexican Gorditas are cut open and filled with meat and vegetables.
In Mexico, enchiladas are tortillas traditionally stuffed with chicken or cheese and topped with spicy sauce. The best known enchiladas are those with “mole negro”, a rich Mexican sauce made from chilli and chocolate. The enchiladas can also be baked with cream and cheese.
This dish is based on the indigenous Maya culture and is typical of the Oaxaca region in southwest Mexico. It is a mass of corn flour filled with meat, cheese or bean puree, which is packed in banana or corn leaves and cooked in steam. In Mexico there is also a sweet variant which is usually filled with pineapple.
Corn is undoubtedly the most important and most consumed vegetable in Mexico – whether made into flour in tortillas, tostadas etc. or boiled or grilled corn on the cob (Elote). You can get these everywhere at small street stalls and they are particularly delicious with mayonnaise, lime, salt and chili powder!
A rather unusual vegetable for Europeans is the nopal cactus which is considered a staple food in Mexico. The easiest way to prepare the cactus is on the grill the served with lime juice, onion and coriander (cilantro). However, there are countless other ways to prepare nopal, for example as a salad or in the oven.
Beans are just as indispensable in Mexican cuisine as corn. Dried beans are used most often, there are a number of varieties here, black beans (Spanish: Frijoles) are particularly popular. Almost every dish in Mexico has “frijoles refritos”, the well-known aromatic refried bean.
In addition to the fruit known in Europe, such as pineapple, mango, melon, papaya and apples (which taste much more intense in Mexico!), There are also many rather unknown Mexican fruit. Guayaba which looks like a pear has slightly acidic flesh in a pink or yellowish hue. Zapote is a fruit with a light red, melon-like pulp and a hard, brown skin. There is also Pitthaya in the south, Mamey, a large oval shaped fruit with a woody skin and pink flesh and Nance, a yellow, cherry-like fruit with a slightly sour taste.
The most important spice in Mexican cuisine is the chili pepper. There are about 90 different types of chillies in Mexico and almost no dish can go without at least a pinch. Contrary to their reputation, Mexican dishes are not always spicy. Mostly they are brought to the table in Mexican restaurants with a good amount of spiciness and there is a selection of salsas to make the dish hotter depending on your personal taste.
The most common chili peppers are:
Chili-Ancho: Reddish brown, with a slightly fruity and sweet taste
Chipotle-Chili: Not a separate variety, but a smoked jalapeno chili
Habanero-Chili: A smaller chili ranging from green to orange, it is considered the most beautiful chili in Mexico as well as the spiciest
Serrano-Chili: Similar in shape to a jalapeño, only smaller it is typically green but can come in orage and red hues and has a considerable amount of heat in it.
Other spices that are popular in Mexican cuisine include cilantro (engl. coriander), oregano and tomillo (engl. thyme). Fresh coriander leaves (cilantro) are mainly used in Mexico in traditional soups, stews and rice dishes. With their Mediterranean note, thyme and oregano provide flavour in Mexican salsas, soups and marinades. In addition to spices and chilies, the Mexicans refine almost everything with fresh lime juice. Tacos and soups in particular are unthinkable without a splash of lime juice. That’s why in Mexico you not only get limes with tequila, but also with normal food.
Tip: if the salsa was too spicy, bite into a piece of lime with salt – this neutralizes the spiciness!
Guacamole is probably the most popular and best known salsa from Mexico. It is used in many different ways, for example as a dip, sauce, topping or side dish. The most important ingredient for the perfect Mexican guacamole is of course the avocado. You also need limes, chilies and salt for the preparation. In addition, guacamole can also be refined with tomatoes, onions and coriander (cilantro).
Salsa Verde/Roja is the basis for the two best-known salsas in Mexico consisting of tomatoes, chilies, onions and garlic. Green tomatoes are used for salsa verde and red tomatoes for salsa roja. These salsas are served with almost every traditional Mexican meal.
Pico de Gallo (engl. cock´s beak) is a fresh sauce made from finely chopped tomatoes, onions, coriander and serrano chillies with a little lime juice. Pico de gallo is served with almost every classic Mexican dish, such as tacos and enchiladas, or just to dip into totopos.
Mole is another specialty of Mexican cuisine that can look and taste very different depending on the region. For example, “mole negro”, a dark brown Mexican sauce made from chilli and chocolate, is a favourite and often eaten with enchiladas. Mole poblano is a heavy, viscous sauce that can contain a number of unusual ingredients such as peanuts, cinnamon, sesame and anise. Most Mexican “moles” have their origin in Oaxaca, in southwest Mexico. They are available in all colors and variants and are characterized by a variety of ingredients. Preparing a delicious mole from scratch is considered true culinary art.
It is not only in the coastal regions of Mexico that Mexicans love their “mariscos” (seafood) and their fish. You can find Marisquerias everywhere which offer many different fresh Mexican fish and seafood dishes at reasonable prices.
Ceviches are particularly popular. These are finely chopped fish or shrimp cooked in lime and mixed onion, tomato, fresh coriander (cilantro) or fruit.
There are also Camarones (shrimp), Filete de Pescado (fish fillet) and Pulpo (octopus) in a variety of Mexican variations. You can usually choose between “al mojo de ajo” (with garlic), “a la mantequilla or plancha” (fried in butter), “al ajillo” (with Chile guajillo and garlic) or “a la diabla” (devilish). You should be careful with the latter variant, because as the name suggests, this Mexican sauce is devilishly hot. If you still like it spicy and would like to try it first, try “a la media diabla” (half devilish)!
Desserts are usually only served in Mexico on important festive days and family celebrations. Due to the variety of exotic Mexican fruit, fruit plates and fruit salads are often served as “postre” (dessert). Of course, Helado (ice cream) is also very popular in Mexico in all possible variations and flavours. As in Europe, there are creamy milk varieties as well as more refreshing water based varieties.
The classic Mexican desserts are flan, gelatinas (jello) and Arroz con leche (rice pudding).
Apart from the desserts already mentioned, Mexico is also known for various sweets, especially from the Michoacan, Guanajuato and Querétaro regions.
Cajeta or dulce de leche, a viscous caramel-like (very sweet) syrup which the Mexicans use as a garnish is popular, but especially as a spread, on pancakes or on icecream. Another Mexican candy is cocadas, consisting of coconut flakes, condensed milk and eggs. Small balls are formed from the slightly sticky, soft mass. You can also add dried fruit, nuts or cajeta to give the little tartlets more flavor. Churros are mainly known in Spain, but are also popular in Mexico. They consist of choux pastry and are baked or frie until crunchy. Palanquetas are bars made from peanuts and honey, similar to alegrias, bars or balls made from amaranth, honey and butter.
On every street corner you can also find manzanas con chile, apples with icing and chilli coating. In general, the combination of sweets and chilli is very popular in Mexico, for example there is also ice cream with a chilli coating (Chamoy). Another classic Mexican sweet is ate, from fruit pulp with a jam-like taste, but very sweet. Ate is also often eaten with cheese in Mexico.
Tequila is and remains the most famous alcoholic drink from Mexico. Nevertheless, it has to be said that very few people outside Mexico have drunk an authentic, original Mexican tequila. 100% agave tequila differs in taste and quality very much from the commercial mass product that can be bought in supermarkets in Europe. The agave plant used for the tequila grows particularly well in loamy, semi-dry soil which makes the state of Jalisco on the west coast of Mexico an ideal growing area. There are three types of tequila: Tequila Plata (silver), Tequila Reposado and Tequila Añejo. The Plata gets its name from its clear, transparent color. It does not mature in oak barrels, but is drunk immediately after the distillation. The Reposado matures in oak barrels for three to six months after distillation which gives it its golden color. It can also taste slightly sweet and spicy. The Anejo is stored in oak barrels for up to two years and is therefore enjoyed in Mexico much like a good whiskey. The taste is spicy, sometimes with a lightly honey flavoured aftertaste.
Mezcal Although tequila is Mexico’s most famous exported liquor, the real Mexican national drink is definitely mezcal. A popular saying is: “Para todo mal: Mezcal; para todo bien: tambien! (For everything bad: a mezcal, for all that´s good as well!). Original Mexican mezcal is also obtained from the agave plant, but from a different variety than tequila. Mezcal is high-proof and usually has a smoky, rougher taste. The “gusano de maguey” worm that lives in the agave plant in Mexico is often included in the mezcal bottle as a proof of authenticity.
Mexican beer is a very popular drink in Mexico in addition to tequila and mezcal and the Mexicans are very proud of their local beers such as Corona, Victoria, Indio, Dos Equis, Tecate and Modelo to name just a few. The Mexicans call their beer “cerveza” also “chela”.
A popular way of drinking beer in Mexico is as a Michelada (with or without Clamato). It is a mixture of “clamato” (tomato juice with mussel juice), lime juice, salt, maggi, chilli and beer. This may sound like an unusual combination, but it is particularly recommended on hot days and after long nights. The Michelada is very popular in combination with Mariscos (seafood).
Wine has been grown in Mexico since the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century. The most important wine-growing region in Mexico is Baja California in the north-west of the country. Both red wines (e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc) and white wines (e.g. Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnnay) are grown here. Querétaro has also grown in importance as a wine-growing region in Mexico in recent years. Read more about wine and cheese culture in Querétaro on our Buenos Días México blog.
Juices made from fresh fruit can be found in Mexico at every street corner, market or small “juice shop”. Also very typical is Agua fresca or Agua de Sabor, ice-cold water with pulp and sugar. The most famous varieties are Agua de jamaica (from hibiscus flowers, tastes like fruit tea), Agua de tamarindo (from tamarind fruit) and Agua de horchata (from rice flour and melon seeds).
Coffee has been known in Mexico since the Aztecs and is grown in the highlands between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific coast. Today Mexico is one of the most important coffee growing countries in the world and mainly produces high-quality Arabica coffees. The best growing region is Chiapas where over 40% of the country’s total coffee grows. Other important regions are Oaxaca and Veracruz. Coffee plants are very sensitive and demanding and the balanced and constantly warm temperatures of between 18 and 25 ° C make these regions ideal.
Cocoa in addition to coffee, cocoa is an important cultural asset in Mexico and its cultivation goes back to the Maya and Olmecs. The Aztecs even used cocoa beans as a means of payment, that was how important it was. Cocoa trees grow in hot, humid and tropical areas in Central and South America, West Africa and Asia. Of particular importance to Mexico is the Oaxaca region which is known for its dishes with sauces made from chocolate and chilli (“mole”) and its unique cocoa preparations.
Before you experience any surprises while eating on your Mexico vacation, here is an overview of the most common culinary oddities:
Chapulines (grasshoppers) are a specialty of the Oaxaca region. Since the area around the Sierra Madre del Sur is often very dry, the residents have always had to resort to unusual foods such as wild herbs, cacti and insects. Chapulines and “grillos” (crickets) are dried and seasoned and mostly prepared in tortillas or just eaten as a snack. They are also used in modern Mexican cuisine and there are numerous dishes that are prepared with chapulines.
Escamoles ant larvae. This may sound very unusual, since indigenous people took it as a delicacy and they are still considered a specialty today. The larvae are white to beige and taste slightly nutty. Escamoles are fried in butter and used as a filling for tacos or served as a side dish with omelettes. You can find them mainly on the menu in Veracruz.
In México almost all parts of the animals are used. For example, tacos with stomach, intestine (Panza, Tripa) are just as normal as with brain (sesos) and tongue (lengua). In the southern regions of Mexico, iguanas and turtles also count as delicacies, but these are actually protected and shouldn´t be eaten.
As in most tropical travel destinations, there are some rules in Mexico when it comes to eating and drinking so that “Montezuma’s Revenge” does not spoil your Mexican vacation.
Drinking tap water should be avoided entirely when traveling to Mexico. When you order water in restaurants, you generally always get bottled water. Due to the warm climate, ice cubes are used in almost every restaurant. If you are not sure, it´s better to order your drink without ice.
We recommend that you enjoy the hot Mexican salsas and spices with caution, especially during the first few days of your trip. For foreigners, the excessive spiciness in Mexican dishes can be unusual and therefore lead to digestive problems and nausea. Give yourself some time to get used to the spices. If you are not sure or have a sensitive stomach you should avoid it altogether. Most dishes are not spicy and are also suitable for Mexicans with sensitive palates and stomachs.
Generally, Mexican food at street stalls and markets is harmless, but be sure to choose places and stands that are well attended as this usually speaks for the quality of the food. In the first warm weeks after the colder season (around February), eating meat and fish in markets should be avoided, as the storage must be adjusted to the hot temperatures.
You should also be careful with fruits and vegetables. Choose fruit that must be peeled and avoid pre-cut fruits if they no longer look completely fresh.