Mexico is a country steeped in ancient tradition and Spanish colonial culture. Intense and exotic flavors, colorful garnish and myriad herbs and spices add to the tantalizing tastes and textures common in Mexican dishes.
In fact, many folks will argue that Mexican cuisine is the second most diverse and expansive in the world, following Chinese.
Modern Mexican cuisine takes its cues from the ancient dishes of the Aztecs, Mayans and Spanish conquistadores.
Mexico's indigenous foods, including turkey, vanilla, chile pepper, beans, maize, chocolate, tomato, sweet potato, and peanut, meld with Spanish "imports," such as rice, beef, wine, onions, garlic, pork and chicken, to create a variety of interesting and intensely flavorful dishes. The most commonly used herbs and spices include cilantro, thyme, marjoram, epazote, cinnamon, clove, anise and cumin.
Mexican food varies slightly by region, climate and culture, but it should never be confused with Tex Mex or Cal-Mex. In the north of Mexico, you will find more beef-based dishes, due to the large cattle industry located there. Southern Mexican dishes feature vegetables and chicken, while seafood dishes are most common in Veracruz. Prehispanic foods (prepared in the Aztec or Mayan style) are more exotic and less common, featuring rare ingredients such as iguana and rattlesnake. Generally speaking, Mexican cuisine is rich in flavor as well as proteins, vitamins and minerals -- a healthy alternative to Tex Mex.
The Yucatan peninsula features fruit-based sauces (especially those flavored with Seville oranges) served over chicken and pork and baked in a banana leaf. Yucatan cuisine is decidedly less spicy than other regions in Mexico. Oaxaca is the heart and home of fine Mexican coffee. The coffee grown in Oaxaca is prepared a la olla, meaning it simmers for several hours with sugar and cinnamon. Travel two hours south of Mexico City, and you'll find the home of the first mole sauce (a semisweet, thick concoction of chocolate, herbs and spices). In Puebla, mole is frequently served over chicken or turkey on lovely azulejos, glazed blue and white pottery. In addition to mole sauce, Puebla has its own distinct variety of coffee and numerous unique confections, including camotes, tasty little sweet potato treats. As a bustling seaport, Veracruz offers the best fish and seafood in all of Mexico. Any dish served a la Veracruzana will be adorned with a tomato, olive, caper and chile sauce.
The key ingredients in the Mexican diet include corn (commonly used in tacos, to enhance dishes or to make tortillas); chilies (used both fresh and dried), beans (included in many soups and stews); tomatoes or tomatillos (staples for salsa and other sauces); and fruits such as mango, papaya, coconut and pineapple. Since most Mexicans shop at el mercado daily, fresh ingredients are essential to this cuisine. Some of the most common Mexican dishes include ceviche, raw fish and/or seafood marinated in lime juice; chiles rellenos, large poblano peppers stuffed with cheese or spicy meat; enchiladas, tortillas stuffed with vegetables or meat, coated in a spicy tomato sauce and baked; quesadillas, tortillas stuffed with cheese and other toppings, folded and then grilled; tacos, tortillas stuffed with numerous fillings, then fried until crispy; tamales, cornmeal paste wrapped in corn or banana leaves and stuffed with meats or vegetables, then steamed; and tostadas, thin, crispy tortillas served with choice of meat (usually chicken) and guacamole, chilies and sour cream.
No Mexican meal is complete without a sweet and tart margarita. Tequila is a unique Mexican liquor distilled from the juices of the agave plants native to the Tequila region. There are four types of tequila: blanco, oro, reposado and anejo. Blanco, or silver, tequila is clear and is bottled immediately following the distillation process. It is quite strong and is commonly served in a two-ounce glass. Oro, or gold, tequila has various colorants and flavors, notably caramel, and it is favored for use in frozen margaritas. Reposado, or rested, tequila is mellow, pale and pricey. The tequila rests in pipones (storage vats) for anywhere between two months and a year. Anejo, or aged, tequila rests for over a year, consequently adopting an amber color and oaky flavor from the pipones.
Mexican cuisine is unlike any other in the world, with a vast assortment of spicy and flavorful dishes and exceptional dessert and beverage options. Authentic Mexican dining will be sure to pique your gastronomical curiosity and will have you anxious to experiment with as many regional specialties as you can find. Be adventurous - pass up the taco for a mole dish or some ceviche. Your palate, and your body, will thank you for it.