If you’re looking to relax by glittering seas, explore ancient ruins, visit volcanoes or go whale watching, then book your holidays to Mexico. You’ll find subtropical rainforests, vast deserts, bustling cities and age-old temples. By night, the Mexican party springs to life, and the streets are alive with the sounds of traditional music. You’ll also be tempted at every turn by the smell of freshly-cooked Mexican food.
Dining is a huge part of the Mexican culture and extends way beyond the tequila and tacos you’ll find in UK restaurants. To help you treat your tastebuds to some of the best food in Mexico, we’ve put together a quick guide on what to eat while you’re here.
Influences in Mexican cuisine
While the staples of Mexican cooking such as chillies, corn and chocolate, have been used for centuries, a variety of cultures have helped Mexican cooking evolve into a unique cuisine. The early Mayans were experienced hunters and gatherers, who made tortillas from bean pulp and filled them with fish, game, wild fruit and cultivated vegetables. When the Spanish invaded during the 16th Century, they brought with them a wealth of new ingredients. Farm animals were introduced such as pigs, sheep and cows. Cheese and dairy products were other new arrivals, along with garlic and other spices. As prolific travellers, the Spanish also arrived with other culinary influences from Portugal and France, as well as the Caribbean and Africa.
Most of the meals we associate with Mexico, such as nachos, fajitas and burritos owe their roots to America rather than Mexico. Authentic, modern Mexican cuisine can take the form of complex dishes served up in high-end restaurants to spicy, simple street-food eaten on the go. If you’re new to Mexican food, be sure to kick things off with chilaquiles. Like many dishes, these started with humble beginnings, but have now found their way onto exclusive restaurant menus as well as being sold in the street.
Typically, chilaquiles will consist of fried corn tortillas, which are broken up and smothered in salsa. However, don’t necessarily expect the salsa to be of the red variety. While in the regions chilaquiles are often served that way, the preference in the capital city is to present them with green salsa made from tart tomatillos and smoky ancho chillies. Sometimes the dish is accompanied with shredded chicken, onion rings, or even a fried egg. Traditionally, chilaquiles are thought to be a potent hangover cure, so look out for them if you happen to overindulge on your Mexico holidays.
Pozole is one of the few dishes to remain unchanged since it was first cooked up by the Aztecs. Having said that, there are regional variations with at least three states claiming that they invented this spicy dish. Somewhere between a soup and a stew, most pozoles start off with the same trio of ingredients: pork, garlic and dried maize kernels. Shredded lettuce, chillies, onion, lime and mashed avocado are other common ingredients.
There are three types of pozole: white, red and green. A white pozole doesn’t include the addition of a red or green sauce. A red pozole will have a red sauce mixed through it, usually made from red chillies such as ancho, piquin, or guajillo. This is a popular dish in the Jalisco area of the country. The green sauce in green pozoles is milder and uses ingredients such as green tomatillos, coriander and green jalapenos. You’ll find this served up throughout Guerrero, where it often contains seafood.
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you’ll be in for a treat in Mexico. Churros are another local dish that has travelled across the world, but you haven’t really tasted them until you’ve eaten them in their birthplace. A Spanish influence, traditional churros are lengths of dough batter, deep-fried and dipped in sugar and cinnamon. Some restaurants and street vendors will sell them with a serving of rich dipping chocolate, making them even more. While some people tend to think of these as a breakfast food, churros are eaten by the locals at any time of day.
Not to be mistaken for ‘barbecue’, this method means to steam-cook meat until it’s tender. Conventional Mexican preparation would see barbacoa cooked in an underground brick-lined oven. Moving with the times, modern methods now use a stovetop or a slow cooker.
First, prepare your meat. It’s customary in Mexican cooking to use sheep, goat or beef. Marinate overnight or for several hours to your taste, taking the opportunity to experiment with a range of herbs and spices. Orange juice and cloves will give you a sweeter finish. You can add chillies to give it a kick, or even play around with vinegar if you’re looking for more of a bitter taste.
When ready, wrap the meat in leaves. Typically banana or maguey (agave) leaves work well. Pop these into a large pot with vegetables and water, seasoned accordingly. It’s important not to let the meat touch the bottom of the pan in order to keep it juicy. Using a platform in your slow cooker will help.
The essential part of brilliantly-executed barbacoa is slowly cooking your protein to the point that it’s melting off the bone. This will leave you with a succulent filling to add to any Mexican dish. Try experimenting with a range of cuts and herbs for a different finish.
If you’re more of a fruits de mer fan, this seafood alternative will whet your appetite. Although it’s not native to Mexico, ceviche has been a part of Mexican cuisine for aeons. This full-flavoured recipe is easy to make but will leave you craving more. It’s simply raw fish cut into manageable chunks, marinated in lime juice. The acid from the lime ‘cooks’ the fish without taking anything away from its fresh taste. A typical Mexican ceviche will use shrimp, tuna, squid, or mackerel. Chop the fish and leave it to marinade in a mixture of lime, chillies, salt, onions and coriander.
When thinking about Mexican food, there’s one treat that stands out as the world’s long-standing favourite. It’s undeniably the taco, but we don’t mean the crunchy shelled ones you get in the yellow boxes. Soft corn tacos have been the lifeblood of the Mexican family meal since the 15th century. A real contender for versatile cooking, the taco has hundreds of taste combinations and it’s ideal for on-the-go eating. One of the beautiful things about the taco is the fact you can play around with delicate flavours and use herbs and spices that you wouldn’t expect. Marinated salmon and dill will really wake up your taste buds. Why not try chicken, prawn and vegetables topped with tangy mango salsa? Our recommendation is chilli pulled pork with a mouth-wateringly fresh apple and avocado salsa.
No culinary experience is complete without being washed down by the perfect drink. With the mouth-warming spice that comes with authentic Mexican food, beer makes an excellent pairing for any entrée. The hoppier, the better. The refreshing cooling power of the liquid amber allows you to savour the delicious flavours of Mexican cuisine.
If beer isn’t to your taste, you can opt for something else that offers cool refreshment with a sweet edge. A margarita is an outstanding selection. The harmonious balance of salty, sweet, sour and bitter is the ideal way to complement even the spiciest of Mexican feasts.
For pairings that are more on the flavoursome rather than the hot scale, a glass of wine that complements the meat in your meal would work well. We recommend avoiding chardonnay. Its robust and rich flavouring takes away from your food and will cloud your palette. Instead, try sticking with something that has a crisp taste. A sauvignon blanc, for example, would enhance your dish. If you’re using dark meats, you could elect for a fruity pinot noir.
If you’re looking for a classic Mexican drink, there are plenty of choices. An alternative to the margarita is the paloma. Mix grapefruit juice, a wedge of lime and soda into a glass and top with tequila. Be sure to coat the rim of your glass with salt to heighten the flavour of the agave, the cactus from which tequila is made.
Translated as ‘beer cocktail’, the cerveza preparada is a mixture of beer and tomato or clamato juice (tomato and clam juice), with a squeeze of lime. Beer and tomato juice with a hint of seafood? Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
Pulque or agave wine is a milky beverage that was once considered sacred, and you could only drink it if you were of a particular class. This 1,000-year-old delicacy is made by fermenting the sap of the maguey (agave) cactus. It’s said to have health benefits and was traditionally given to pregnant women and the elderly as a tonic. It’s also famous for packing a powerful punch, so make sure you pace yourself.
Eating out in Mexico
Often, the best food in Mexico is the simplest, such as corn-on-the-cob dusted with chilli powder or crispy empanadas, stuffed with meat and spices. However, Mexican cuisine has come on leaps and bounds in recent years and has made its way into five-star restaurants. Look out for dishes such as pork steamed barbacoa-style and served with dainty pickled vegetables. Along the coast, fish and seafood are incredibly popular and are often accompanied by fragrant green rice, delicious and inventive salsas, and spicy sauces. While you might be taking your holidays to Mexico with bronzing on a beach in mind, the sheer quality and choice of the food available will add a delicious dimension to your downtime.