CNN, EVA LONGORIA: SEARCHING FOR MEXICO
Serena Maria Daniels, CNN
Mexican food is among the most loved cuisines on the planet, known for its confluence of indigenous and European influences. Corn, vanilla, chocolate, tomatoes and chile peppers are all ingredients native to Mexico that have informed recipes all over the world for generations.
It’s consistently among the top five most popular styles of food in the United States, celebrated for tacos, burritos, chips and salsa and margaritas. But within these broad categories of the genre is a plethora of options, and there are hundreds of dishes that rarely appear on menus outside of Mexico.
Most food scholars would agree that at the heart of much of Mexican food tradition is nixtamalization, a labor-intensive, pre-Hispanic process. It involves soaking corn kernels with cal (calcium hydroxide) to draw out its nutrients and turning that into the masa needed to make tortillas, tamales and other corn-dough based dishes that are foundational to the cuisine.
From Lebanese-influenced dishes, the citrusy flavors of the coastal regions, the almighty torta and the myriad ways that corn can be transformed, here are 23 traditional Mexican dishes that tell the story of this beloved cuisine’s history.
A classic dish usually consumed for breakfast, chilaquiles are made with stale tortillas that are cut into strips, fried and tossed in a red or green sauce for a balance of crispy and soft at once. It’s the ultimate utility meal. You’ve got a stack of old tortillas leftover from dinner? Just make chilaquiles. The meal is given a little razzle dazzle with a bit of queso fresco, crema and maybe a runny egg.
Looking for a companion to go with your spiced café de olla? The traditional concha or pan dulce (sweet bread) is a beloved option in many Mexican coffee shops and bakeries. The sweet bread roll is airy but sturdy, while the seashell-like topping has a little crunch to it. The confection is often colored pink, yellow, off-white, or in more contemporary spots, in fantastical unicorn pastels.
Another breakfast option typical of Mexico City, the tecolota takes the traditional chilaquiles dish up another level. The tecolota involves a toasty bolillo roll, filled with refried beans, chilaquiles, along with cheese, crema, a sprinkle of cilantro and diced red onions.
Tacos al pastor
Al pastor loosely translates to “shepherd-style,” and it’s the basis for a staple offering of taqueros across Mexico. One can trace its roots more than a century ago when Lebanese immigrants brought with them the traditional shawarma spit to Mexico, inspiring a whole way to slow cook meat using an open flame.
Here, Mexicans use pork marinated in a blend of chiles, slow-cooked on a trompo or spit. It is often topped with a whole pineapple, whose juices add a tropical hint of flavor to balance the protein’s heat, and is frequently sliced little by little to add a fleck of pineapple garnish atop the taco.
Historically, barbacoa references the style of barbecue by the Taino people of the Caribbean. In Mexican cooking, barbacoa refers to the slow-cooking of meat over an open flame or in a hole dug in the ground. Which protein is used depends on the region. In the northern parts of Mexico or south Texas, beef head or cachete (beef cheeks) or cabrito (goat) are commonplace, while lamb is more typical of the southern parts of the country such as Oaxaca.
Mexicans love seafood and have plenty of sources for fresh fish, shrimp and shellfish — whether in the heart of the Mexican Riviera or the Pacific coastal regions of Baja or Nayarit. Baja is where one will find the birthplace of the fish taco, said to be influenced by the Japanese who immigrated to Mexico’s Pacific Coast in the early 20th century. Here, white fish filets or cooked shrimp are battered, flash-fried and topped with cabbage or lettuce, pico de gallo and crema.
Ceviche is also a common delicacy in coastal regions, in which raw fish or shrimp is cured in citrus juice, accented frequently by sliced rings of jalapeño, cubed cucumber and a chilled tomato-based broth, and served with a tostada or crackers for scooping.
In the north of Mexico, the border town of Ciudad Juárez is the birthplace of the burrito, often derided as an Americanized version of Mexican food but no less authentic. This region of the country is flour tortilla territory. As such, a burrito is made up of a large, flour tortilla filled with just a few ingredients at most, such as carne guisada (braised beef), beans or barbacoa.
These burros are rather slender compared with their much thicker relatives — the Mission-style burrito popularized by chains such as Chipotle. The hefty versions, first introduced to diners in the 1960s in San Francisco’s Mission District, also contain rice, beans, maybe cheese, shredded lettuce, diced tomato, sour cream and onions before the tortilla is stretched to capacity into a tight roll and ready for consumption.
Birria is the quintessential dish of Jalisco and in recent years, it’s become wildly popular in the United States and beyond. Birria is a spicy meat stew — traditionally goat but increasingly beef as well — marinated in guajillo chiles, frequently some sort of citrus such as orange and other ingredients that creates a finger-staining red broth. Morsels of protein can be scooped into tortillas and garnished with cilantro and onion.
It’s also the basis for quesabirria, in which some of that meat and white cheese are stuffed into a corn tortilla that’s usually drenched in that red broth first, then slapped on a hot griddle, where the juices and cheese marry to create a gooey, fiery vessel that can be dipped in the consommé.
The literal translation for this is “little meats,” but carnitas is the term that refers to pork that’s slow braised for several hours in its own fat until it reaches its peak state of tenderness and then fried to crispiness.
The Mexican state of Michoacán is carnitas territory, and the argument can be made that carnitas are among the earliest adoption of the nose-to-tail tradition in North America. Just about every portion of the pork is utilized in the preparation of carnitas, from the juicy costillas (ribs), crispy cueritos (skin) used to make chicharrones and gelatinous buche (stomach) — all great options for taco filling.
The torta is what most would consider the official Mexican sandwich with origins in the state of Puebla and influenced by the French occupation of yore. Made with a bolillo — a crusty white bread roll — that can be stuffed with any manner of marinated protein, often with a spread of refried beans, avocado, jalapeño, lettuce and tomato.
Variations of the torta abound, and this is the “drowned” version popular in Guadalajara, capital of the state of Jalisco. Featuring marinated fried pork, this sandwich is submerged in a tomato and vinegar-based bath seasoned with spices such as chiles de árbol and cumin.
A typical favorite dish prepared by families during Christmastime, tamales are just about as varied as the taco. Tamales are prepared using a dab of masa spread over a corn husk or banana leaf, then filled with proteins such as marinated pork or chicken, wrapped tight, and cooked until they’re nice and fluffy.
Pozole — a dish that can be traced back to the days of the Aztecs — is a deliciously fulfilling, hearty and restorative soup made with hominy kernels and pork (though chicken or vegan options are increasing in popularity). The soupy stew is prepared rojo or verde — red or green — with red guajillo or ancho chiles or green with tomatillos, cilantro, jalapeños or pipitas. It’s also available white, void of either base. Garnish with diced onions, shredded cabbage, sliced radish, a squeeze of lime juice or dried chile peppers.
Another hearty stew-type dish favored to cure the weekend hangover, menudo comes with beef tripe and more of that hominy simmered in a broth turned red by a melody of red chiles, oregano and garlic.
Another member of the broad torta category, the pambazo bread is the drier relative of the bolillo, as well as the name of the sandwich itself. Expect this to be stuffed with potatoes and chorizo drenched in a spicy red guajillo sauce, and fried. Folks also like to top the pambazo with sprinkles of queso fresco, lettuce and crema.
Mole is widely considered one of Mexico’s most iconic dishes, ranging in color from rich brown and fiery red to verdant green, yellow and black — just to name a few. The word mole comes from the Aztec language, and derives from the word molli, which means “sauce.”
The flavor profiles are vast, and many recipes call for the use of Mexican chocolate to impart sweetness or bitterness, depending on how it’s paired. Recipes vary across the country and can call for dozens of ingredients such as discs of Mexican chocolate, plantains, raisins, animal crackers, pumpkin or sesame seeds, peanuts, or tortillas, which add thickness. It is all combined into a thick paste using a pestle and mortar before it’s thinned out with liquid until it reaches a velvety sauce consistency.
It’s usually considered a celebratory dish, what with all of the work involved in its preparation. It is typically served on top of a protein such as chicken or turkey. Others enjoy it as a base for enchiladas and a growing number of world-renowned chefs have developed their own mole madre or “mother mole” — similar in concept to a sourdough starter — delicious enough to eat with just a tortilla to scoop it up.
The cemita is a specialty of Puebla and features a sesame seed-covered, brioche-like roll filled with battered and fried cutlets of protein such as pork, beef or chicken. Add queso, avocado, chipotle and the fragrant herb pápalo — and don’t worry about having to eat again for awhile as these guys are filling.
One of the many innovations in the south of Mexico, in particular the Yucatán Peninsula, cochinita pibil involves a suckling pig marinated with bitter orange juice seasoned with achiote seed and spices and then wrapped in a banana leaf to be slow-roasted for hours.
Traditionally, it is cooked underground in the Mayan style and served many hours later on corn tortillas with pickled red onions. The Yucatec Maya word “pib” means “earth oven.” The pork featured in the dish and widely consumed in the region was introduced by the Spanish conquistadors.
Headed to Oaxaca? The tlayuda makes a delicious snack. Composed of a flattened, crunchy tortilla, it’s usually topped with refried beans, chorizo (or some other protein), ropes of Oaxaca cheese and garnishments. Oaxaca cheese, also known as quesillo, is a stretched curd cheese that’s wound like a ball of yarn.
Chiles en nogada
This delicacy is a treasured dish that comes by way of Puebla and is most often associated with Mexican Independence Day as its main components — a dark green poblano chile, a white airy walnut-based cream sauce (nogada) and red pomegranate seeds — all make up the colors of the Mexican flag. The chiles are filled with a meaty, fruity and nutty picadillo mixture.
Increasingly, the topic of eating bugs is becoming part of the conversation around climate change. In Mexico, the tradition has been around for centuries. Chapulines (grasshoppers) are known to be one delicious option.
Deriving from the Nahuatl language, chapulines can be frequently found dried and toasted and flavored with just a hint of lime juice, garlic and chile. It’s a protein-rich, earthy and crunchy snack on its own but can also be sprinkled on top of tacos.
Snacking is a beloved pastime anywhere, but Mexicans have a special knack for it. One popular snack form is elote, grilled corn on the cob that is slathered in mayonnaise, cheese, chile powder and lime. Its less messy cousin, esquites, are the corn kernels in a cup with the aforementioned ingredients on top.
For the more daring, the “Doriloco” is an amalgamation of Mexican and American junk food. To make it, bags of Doritos are cut open lengthwise and dressed up with a blend of flavors and textures such as chile powder, jicama or carrot strips, cucumber cubes and, of course, corn. Find them sold on street corners in Mexico, ice cream shops and most other casual eateries.
A summertime treat with origins in the village of Tocumbo in the state of Michoacán, the paleta is a cream or water-based ice pop (some would say akin to popsicles) that is combined with berries, cookies, nuts or tropical fruits — sometimes dusted with chile powder. They can be found in paleterias, on the streets sold by paleteros pushing carts, and elsewhere where ice cream is found.
Sign up to CNN Travel’s four-part Unlocking Mexico newsletter for more on the country and its cuisine.
™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.
Serena Maria Daniels is an award-winning journalist writing and reporting at the intersection of halal burgers, Ramadan IHOP, grasshopper pizza, taco literacy and Detroit-style pizza. She is the Detroit City Editor for Eater, the founder and Chingona-in-Chief at Tostada Magazine and the president of the International Taco Council.