Corn is King
From tamales to corn on the cob to the giant kernels of hominy floating in pozole stew, so many Mexican dishes are corn-based.
The most ubiquitous corn-staple is the tortillas made from corn flour which are the building block for tacos, quesadillas, chips and more. Every morning trucks deliver coolers of warm fresh tortillas to the store underneath our apartment, and every day they are totally gone by noon.
It’s not that spicy
Despite the huge variety of rainbow colored peppers and sauces, we haven’t found Mexican food to be particularly spicy. Or rather, Mexican food is like a choose your own spice adventure: you can have your food boringly plain or face-meltingly spicy. All of the heat-filled condiments are served on the side and you can add them to your liking. There are a huge variety of different salsas and hot sauces, enough to merit their own article (coming soon).
That in itself is not surprising- tacos are probably the most Mexican of all Mexican foods. They are available in the best restaurants in Mexico City, on the street, by the beach and filled with nearly anything you can think of from fish to grilled veggies to cow brains. Unlike in the US, Mexicans only use soft corn or flour tortillas.
It’s Not that Cheesy
Another thing we can probably blame on Tex-Mex food is the idea that Mexican food is heavy, with oppressive sauces, mountains of cheese and huge scoops of sour cream.
Instead of mega-heavy ingredients, the general focus seems to be on fresh ingredients in moderation. Sour cream, guacamole, rice and refried beans are still present but serving sizes are obviously much smaller than in the US. Deep fried taquitoes, chimichangas etc don’t really exist.
In general tacos and other meals are not usually topped with cheese- onions and cilantro are far more likely. Quesadillas involve cheese of course, as do enchiladas, but it’s more likely to be a mild queso fresco or monterey jack type cheese than a sharp cheddar.
Mayonnaise however is popular as a topping for almost anything.
There are the traditional Mexican desserts like flan and tres leches cake, there are tons of ice cream places, and there are the churro trucks. Then there are the mass produced sweets: ubiquitous Mexican Coke, aisles full of different cookies and plenty of candy too.
A Beginner’s Guide to Authentic Mexican Tacos
Tacos are almost always served in soft corn tortillas. Occasionally you can find wheat flour tortillas, but those rock hard crispy yellow shells? They do not exist here.
Tacos are ubiquitous in Mexico. You can sometimes find them at sit-down restaurants but the best tacos are usually served out on the street. Families can own the same street stand literally for decades and most stands specialize in just one or two types of tacos. We’re talking whole generations of a family dedicated solely to grilling shrimp or stewing beef.
So yeah, people take their tacos seriously.
Good tortillas are essential to authentic Mexican tacos. Most taco vendors either make their own tortillas by hand or buy them fresh each day from a local tortilleria. Either way, the tortillas have a shelf-life of only a couple of days and are best eaten fresh and warm.
7 Popular Types of Authentic Mexican Tacos
There are so many types of tacos it would be impossible to catalog all of them. Nearly anything can be, and somewhere probably is, folded inside a tortilla and called a taco.
Tacos al Pastor
Marinated pork is slow cooked rotisserie style, similar to shawarma or Turkish doner kebab meat. This dish was first brought to Central Mexico by Lebanese immigrants.
Bits of meat are sliced off with a knife and served with onions, cilantro, and slices of pineapple, which give the tacos a meaty, yet tangy flavor.
Fish tacos are particularly popular on the Pacific coast of Mexico. The fish, usually some sort of white fish, although marlin is very popular here, is breaded and fried, then served with a shredded lettuce salad on top. In some areas, they are served with a spicy chipotle mayonnaise sauce.
Shrimp tacos are often prepared the same way although you can also find grilled, non-battered shrimp tacos too.
Birria is a slow cooked meaty stew, made with goat, lamb or cow and roasted peppers. In many parts of the country it is eaten as a soup, but on the west coast, it is popular as a taco filling, particularly around breakfast time (it’s said to be a great hangover cure).
Giant sections of pig are first braised and then fried to create crispy, fall-apart shredded pork. When ordering you can specify if you would like a particular part of the pig (loin, cheek, even eyeballs) or just ask for carnitas mixtas. This is a popular option.
Other ways of preparing pork for tacos include cochinta pibil, slow roasting pork with achiote.
Unlike in the US, most tacos are never topped with cheese, and definitely never the shredded kind. Certain tacos are all about cheese though. Tacos made with grilled or fried panela cheese- a kind of rubbery, salty cheese that holds it’s shape instead of melting.For example a taco made with requeson, a mild, milky cheese that is nearly identical to ricotta. The taco was then topped with cotija, which is a salty crumbled cheese.
Carne Asada Tacos
Carne Asada is grilled meat, usually skirt or flank steak, although it’s not uncommon to see tacos de cabeza sold alongside them (head tacos: think cheeks, tongue, brain, even eyeball tacos). Usually, the meat is chopped up into small pieces before being served.
Although most tacos involve a meat base, there are plenty of vegetarian tacos to satisfy anyone who needs a little more fiber in their lives. Roasted veggies (think peppers, carrots, zucchini) is one popular incarnation. Also notable: Chile relleno tacos (stuffed poblanos or jalapenos), rajas (poblanos in cream), potato, squash and even hard boiled egg tacos.
Tostadas, Gringas and other Taco Variants
You will often see a few other varieties of tortilla and filling sold alongside these authentic Mexican tacos. Tostadas are fried tortillas topped with just about anything (ceviche tostadas are popular around here). Gringas are wheat tortilla tacos with cheese and filling, usually meat al pastor. Quesadillas are tortillas folded over, filled with melted cheese and sometimes a filling.
The Toppings and Sauces
The beauty of authentic Mexican tacos is that they are epically customizable. Even the smallest taco stand will have at least half a dozen options for you to round out your taco.
Lime is probably the most essential of all taco toppings and is always served and used. A quick squeeze adds a dash of acid that brings out the flavors of the taco beautifully.
The most basic taco toppings that often come standard are raw onions and cilantro. From there typical topping offerings may include sauteed onions, pico de gallo, cucumber slice, radish slices, avocado or chili peppers.
Then there are the salsas, enough to warrant their own follow-up blog post. Spiciness in Mexico is a choice, and most taco stands have two or more different homemade salsas to spice up your meal.
How to Eat a Taco
For something that should be self-explanatory, those little buggers can be quite tricky to get into your mouth! To successfully eat a taco without creating a big mess, follow these steps:
- Don’t overstuff your taco, tempting as it may be.
- Lift your taco from the top center, not the bottom or an end.
- Once you’ve picked up your taco, don’t put it down again, unless you want all the juicy innards to spill everywhere!
Good luck and happy taco eating!
Mexican fruits and vegetables
Of course. Mexico is pretty much THE avocado country. Most of the avocados you eat elsewhere in the world are grown here (or California).
The best thing to do with avocados is obviously to make guacamole- the mix of smashed avocados, tomato, onion, lime, garlic and salt (maybe a touch of jalapeno). Guacamole is an ancient dish that traces it’s roots back to the Aztecs. Avocados are also commonly used as a garnish, on sandwiches, tacos or as a garnish.
Traveling through Spain and Italy, it is easy to forget that tomatoes are a New World food. Mexicans have been cooking with tomatoes far far back before Columbus ever showed up. Together with onion, cilantro, and lime they are ubiquitous in almost every dish.
Tomatoes are used in all sorts of things, from mole to ropa vieja to various soups and stews. Their most important use though is probably as the base for many salsas and hot sauces.
Despite their name and appearance, tomatillos are not actually related to tomatoes. They are hard green bulbs with shriveled skin and an acidic, sour taste. Their most important use is as the base of most green salsas.
Jicamas kind of resembles a giant turnip, but when cut and sliced are more like a crisper, albino cucumber. The best and most popular way to eat jicama is sliced and sprinkled with lime juice and chili powder. You’ll often see them, along with cucumbers served this way as a street or beach snack.
The first time I saw a chayote I was confused, the second time I was terrified. The chayote looks like a pale green potato or a wrinkly pear. Except that some varieties have spikes (sharp ones!).
Chayotes have a very mild flavor, similar to zucchini and can be used raw in salads, mashed like potatoes or cooked in stir-fries or soups. Prickly chayotes are apparently sweeter and firmer. I still haven’t made anything with these, but I’m determined to conquer my fear soon.
Nopales are pretty awesome. They are de-spined cactus paddles, otherwise known as prickly pear. Nopales are eaten in salads, used as a taco topping and served with scrambled eggs. They taste tender and green, kind of like a green bean but are usually topped with a lot of salt.
Chiles are of course, essential to Mexican cooking. There are many, many types and you can buy them all fresh, canned or dried. I will be writing another post explaining all the different varieties, but the most ubiquitous fresh peppers seem to be poblanos, jalapenos, habaneros, and serranos. I can’t prove it, but I think the jalapenos sold here are spicier than the ones in the US.
Most are primarily used for seasoning and salsa purposes, with the exception of poblanos, which pop up everywhere: stuffed as chile rellenos, sliced as a taco topping and roasted with cream (a dish called rajas con crema).
I already explained how corn is the building block of Mexican food. When it’s not being ground up to make masa it’s served on the cob smothered in butter, or in a cup with hot sauce and mayonnaise. Mexico is also home to those supersize boiled corn kernels called mote, which is an ingredient in my favorite soup, pozole.
What would we do without limes?! They are everywhere and in everything, a serious staple of Mexican cooking, rivaled only by big white onions. As far as I can tell lemons do not appear anywhere in Mexican cooking, it’s all about the limes.
The limes here are the tiny, golfball-sized kind that packs a flavorful punch. They are used to flavor literally everything from sauces to margaritas to chicken and shrimp. Nearly every dish is served with a side of lime wedges to spritz over top. One of my favorite drinks here is a big glass of agua de limon, basically lime-ade.
Our first few weeks here Mike and I were utterly puzzled by the jamaica juice served nearly everywhere. It tasted like cranberry juice but had big chunks of… something floating in it. And it’s pronounced ha-may-ca, not Jamaica. Eventually, we learned that jamaica is actually hibiscus flowers (yes those pretty red ones). Mexicans make sweetened iced tea out of them, but I’ve also seen them on quesadillas and even tacos. We will definitely be smuggling back a big bag of jamaica leaves when we leave.
More fruit than vegetable but still unique. Guanabana or soursop looks similar to jackfruit and tastes like a weird combo of strawberry, citrus, and banana. It’s mostly served in juice form. I bought some guanabana butter (similar to apple butter) but it’s too sour for my taste. It is certainly one of the more interesting Mexican fruits and vegetables.
Rough and tan on the outside, bright orange on the inside, we first thought these were sweet potatoes. They are sold in giant wheelbarrows on the street during the winter-time, cut open like flowers. Their flavor is hard to describe, similar to pumpkin but sweeter.
The Usual Suspects of Mexican Fruits and Vegetables
Also available and widely used in Mexico are onions (white, yellow and red), carrots, bell peppers of all colors, mushrooms, zucchini (including this freaky long curved variety), cucumber, cabbage, and lettuce. Sweet potatoes and regular potatoes are everywhere, as well as plantains, radishes and the odd variety of squash. On the fruit front, we’ve got apples, oranges, bananas, strawberries watermelons and more pineapples than you could ever hope to consume. Pomegranate season has passed now but they were everywhere a few months ago as well.
Some things are hard to come by though: lemons are vexingly rare (who needs them when you have lime?). We can get basil at the farmer’s market and spinach is common but I haven’t yet seen kale, asparagus or brussel sprouts.
Safe to say, we are eating well here with all the Mexican fruits and vegetables. We cook mostly vegetarian at home, partly for economic reasons and partly because the raw materials here are so freaking good. As I write this I’m actually sipping a homemade spinach and blueberry smoothie, a sweet treat considering it’s January.
What makes shopping for vegetables even better here, is that we have no local supermarket. Instead of shopping under fluorescent lights, we pick out our veggies at one of three or four local shops, wandering between them in search of the juiciest peppers and ripest avocados. Every morning I watch them arrive on the truck from local farms, giant heaps of tomatoes, or pineapples or limes. Basically, I live in heaven.