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Image of corn varieties at Central de Abasto - the enormous food market in Mexico City. Words and photo by Julia Georgallis. First published in June 2020 for The Bread Companion.
Before I backpacked around the Yucatan, Oaxaca, Mexico City and Chiapas in 2016, like many Brits, I had never really been exposed to real Mexican cuisine, aside from those really shit Old El Paso fajita ready-mix boxes that I bought as a student. How very ignorant I was. Mexican food is so much more than greasy, fast food as it is often portrayed to us through the media. It is, in fact, deeply diverse, historically rich and enormously delicious. It is a shame that Europe and the UK has not really adopted it as voraciously as the States and I doubt most Europeans have ever really eaten VERY GOOD Mexican food. Here are a list of things that I wish my 18 year old Old El Paso-eating student self had known about Mexican food... (although I would like to point out that this list doesn't even scratch the surface of the variety of food across the country. Potentially no list ever will - there's just so much!).
1. Don't call it a taco
There are a million ways to wrap up food in Mexico, and tacos are just the tip of the carbohydrate iceberg. When we talk about tacos we are referring to the small, soft round corn or flour tortillas, laden with various toppings like cochinita pibil or baja fish. Hard shell tacos, as we are used to buying in ready-made packets are actually an invention of the USA. Burritos, from the north of Mexico and heavily adopted by the States, are larger, rolled up versions of filled tortillas and enchilladas are kind of like burritos, but dipped in chilli sauce, filled, baked and covered with even more toppings. If you have a hankering for just a regular sandwich, you can find yourself a torta or a cemita, which is the Mexican equivalent of the burger. I also really like molletes - a cross between a bruschetta and grilled cheese sandwich. There are a million more regional uses for tortillas or bread throughout the country - in Oaxaca for example, you will find very delicious tlayudas, which are fried tortillas/flatbreads. And as for the fajita? Well the word actually means ‘filling’ and refers to a regional dish of fried meat strips, like steak or chicken, usually cooked with peppers and onions — it doesn’t refer to the flour tortilla that envelopes it.
Champulines are fried grasshoppers coated in chilli. They are vinegary, crunchy and filling. My favourite memory of eating these was as a bar snack in Chiapas, where we ate these with potato salad and beers. Delish. You can buy them by the kilo in the markets like Mercado de Benito Juarez, Oaxaca City. If you do find yourselves at this Oaxacan institution and grasshoppers don’t appeal to you, you can pick up other specialities like Oaxaca cheese and courgette flowers at market as well.
3. Spicy Street Fruit
In most parts of Mexico, you can buy packs of fruit coated in chilli and doused in lime from street vendors - it makes a good snack when you're travelling! Two excellent chilli vs. fruit combos are mango and jicama (white yam).
4. Who lived here?
There seems to be some kind of vague, global acceptance that it was the Aztecs of Central America who introduced Europeans to chocolate (although, it has to be said that the Aztecs boiled cacao beans to produce a bitter drink that was used in ceremonies, instead of mixed with sugar and milk to be eaten after dinner) and that these folks mainly resided in Mexico. Aside from Aztecs, however, there were many other great civilisations who lived in Mexico, such as the Olmec, Mayans, Teothuacan, Zapotec and Toltec. All these cultures gave influence to many of modern day Mexico's daily food rituals, such as chipotle, tamales and tortillas — the recipes for these things have in fact changed very little over thousands of years. Other immigrants who influenced Mexican food include the Lebanese who introduced tacos al pastor (shwarma tacos) and tacos de para (rice and ground meat tacos, based on dolmades).
5. Drink like a Mexican
I fell in love with drinking mezcal, tequila’s more sophisticated cousin, sipped slowly and chased with an orange segment and perhaps a beer. Mezcal has only appeared on a more global, commercial radar over the last few years, perhaps because it is an appellation of origin and is expensive to export, perhaps because it is made in small quantities by artisanal producers so is difficult to find a reliable supplier and source. Tequila, conversely, has a terrible reputation as being a cheap, vomit inducing spirit, which is simply not true of all types, just the cheap, exported stuff. Drinking both of these agave spirits is a different experience in Mexico and is much more enjoyable than hurriedly slurping on a lime to rid yourself of the taste of alcohol as it burns the back of your throat. For non spirit-based drinks, micheladas are essentially the Mexican version of a Bloody Mary, made with cervezas preparadas (Mexican light beer), lime, tomato juice, chilli pepper and an assortment of sauces.
6. No more alcohol
There are various non alcoholic ways to quench your thirst in Mexico. My favourite is horchata (which can be found all over Latin America) - a rice-milk with cinnamon cold drink. Jamaica, a cold, sugary hibiscus tea can also be widely drunk and restaurants will very offer have a fruit brew of the day on offer. All have fewer consequences than their alcoholic counterparts.
Cacti are magical things. They can kill you, send you on a trip or satisfy your hunger. Peyotes were and still are used by indigenous groups as part of ceremonies and it is also used as a recreational and medical hallucinogenic drug. If you want to enjoy cacti without the intensity or illegality of going on a drug trip, you can also eat nopales (the prickly pear), boiled or pickled and widely used in soups, salads or burritos.
Like ice popsicles on a stick, but better. Traditionally made using flavours based on Italian gelato, like pistachio or chocolate, but more recently it is more common to find paletas made with chunks of fresh fruit and real fruit juice
9. Table & cooking sauces
Mexicans are big on condiments. Food is both cooked in a variety of different sauces (usually spicy) and served with various table sauces. At the table you might find pico de gallo, which is a raw, spicy tomato salsa or salsa verde, which is made with spices and tomatillos (green, bitter tomatoes). Pickles like jalapenos or sweet onions, guacamoles and commercial hot sauces also should find a seat at any Mexican table. When cooking, the most common are tomato and tomatillo sauces, moles which are dark, thick sauces made with herbs, seeds and spices and adobo which are chile based sauces. Pipianes are thick squash sauces and sometimes you also find creamy Mexican sauces, but this is a more recent, European influence.