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A Beginner’s Guide to Mexican Food

It’s too bad people generalize about things they’ve never tried before. This can be especially true of Mexican cuisine; so many times, I hear the same things from people. Mexican food is too spicy. It’s nothing but tacos and burritos and food wrapped up in tortillas. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Mexican food as it is today is a marriage between the foods of the Aztecs and those of the Spanish and Europeans. Beef, pork, rice, onions, and cheese are among those foods brought over by the Spanish. Today, those foods are integral to the cuisine. Just as integral as the tomato, chocolate, chile pepper, and corn the Aztecs were already using.

What are the basics of Mexican cuisine?

The first flavor of Mexican food for me is the chile pepper. Chiles do show up in a lot of dishes. From the earthy flavors of the Anaheim or poblano to the fiery jalapeno or serrano, chiles aren’t always a source of heat. They’re diced up and added to salsas, soups and stews. They’re dried, roasted, and rehydrated to make delicious sauces. Larger ones are held over a flame, roasted, and peeled before being used.

chile pepper: the most basic staples in Mexican food

Tomatoes are often roasted as well to help remove the skins, deepen the tomato’s flavor, and add a hint of smokiness. Many recipes call for whole cloves of garlic to be put in a skillet or comal without grease and cooked over medium heat until the husk starts to blacken. This deepens and intensifies garlic’s flavor before being added to a dish. Flavors of tomato, onions, and garlic are often intensified further by running them through a blender and sauteeing the blended fruits and vegetables. The result is a thick, intense sauce that can be the base for many dishes.

I find it fascinating that corn is an essential part of the diet without being cooked and eaten the way we do in North America. There aren’t many dishes calling for corn on the cob or niblets in the Mexican repertoire. Corn is mostly ground into flour. From there, it goes into tortillas or tamales. Leftover corn tortillas sometimes show up in soups and casseroles.

Lime juice also shows up quite often. Sometimes, it marinates fish to create the popular dish ceviche. It can freshen guacamole’s flavor and help keep the avocado from going brown too quickly. Oregano, bay leaves, cilantro, and epazote are among the more common herbs used in Mexican cooking. Sometimes, cinnamon will show up in a dish to flavor a picadillo, stew, flan, or even a morning coffee.

There are a couple final ingredients and dishes common to Mexican cuisine. First, raisins, pine nuts, and plantains. I have seen many stews calling for some or all of these fruits. They add remarkable flavor to the dish without making it seem overly fruity because they get balanced by the earthiness of the dried chiles or the intensity of the pan-roasted garlic.

And don’t forget soup and rice. Many times, it isn’t considered a meal unless accompanied by a bowl of soup. Something with a thin broth, some meat, some vegetables, and some fresh herbs to make it taste good. Also, rice shows up as a meal’s side dish quite often. Anything from red Spanish rice to rice cooked with green chiles to plain old steamed rice.

Pro-Tips for Your Mexican Food Adventure

  • Tortillas: The foundation of many dishes, these corn or flour flatbreads come in various sizes and thicknesses. Enjoy them plain, toasted, or fried, and use them to scoop, wrap, or build your culinary creations.
  • Beans: A protein powerhouse, beans like pinto, black, and refried are ubiquitous. Enjoy them as a side, mashed into refried goodness, or blended into creamy salsas.
  • Rice: Mexican rice is typically cooked with broth and spices, offering a fluffy and flavorful accompaniment to heartier dishes.
  • Salsa: The soul of Mexican cuisine, salsa adds vibrancy and heat. Explore fresh pico de gallo, smoky chipotle salsa, or fiery habanero salsa, adjusting spice levels to your preferences.
  • Tacos: The ultimate Mexican handheld, tacos come in endless variations. Try al pastor (marinated pork), carne asada (grilled steak), or cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork) piled onto warm tortillas with your favorite toppings.
  • Enchiladas: Corn tortillas dipped in sauce, filled with meat, cheese, or vegetables, and baked to perfection. Choose from savory mole poblano, tangy salsa verde, or creamy cheese sauce.
  • Burritos: Flour tortillas generously stuffed with rice, beans, meat, salsa, and other fillings, rolled into a portable feast. Explore breakfast burritos with eggs and chorizo or classic carne asada variations.
  • Tostadas: Crispy corn tortillas layered with beans, meat, salsa, and toppings, offering a textural contrast to their softer counterparts.
  • Pozole: A hearty stew simmered with pork, hominy, and chiles, perfect for a comforting and flavorful meal.
  • Mole: This complex sauce, originating in Oaxaca, can be sweet, savory, smoky, or spicy, depending on the recipe. Enjoy it with chicken, enchiladas, or even alone on a spoon.
  • Ceviche: Fresh seafood “cooked” in citrus juice, resulting in a light and refreshing dish. Sample shrimp, whitefish, or even octopus ceviche.
  • Tlayudas: Large, oval-shaped tortillas topped with a variety of savory ingredients, popular in Oaxaca.
  • Chiles en nogada: Chiles poblanos stuffed with a creamy walnut sauce, offering a unique sweet and savory combination.
  • Tamales: Steamed pockets of masa (corn dough) filled with savory or sweet fillings like meat, vegetables, or fruits.

Well, I could go on all day. It should go without saying that Mexican cuisine is broad and complex. The only advice I can give is to just jump in and try it. If you live in a large city or have access to the Internet, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding ingredients. If you want a cookbook that can bring you Mexico’s authentic flavors, anything by Diana Kennedy will give you what you need.

So, when you think about it, there’s really no excuse not to start experiencing the joys of Mexican cuisine.


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Hi! I'm the Editor in Chief at the CANZ. I oversee all articles published by our writers and even write some of me own! In my free time, I love to try new restaurants, hang with friends and go on walks. I am always down to catch an amazing view of the sun or the stars!