Pictured above: Broiled Fish Tostadas
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.
Flavors of Mexico
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 key ingredients in the Mexican diet include corn (often used 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.
The most commonly used herbs and spices in Mexican cooking include cilantro, thyme, marjoram, epazote, cinnamon, clove, anise and cumin.
Regional Mexican Cuisine
Mexican food varies slightly by region, climate and culture, but it should never be confused with Tex Mex or Cal-Mex.
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, authentic Mexican cuisine is rich in flavor as well as proteins, vitamins and minerals.
In the north of Mexico, you will find more beef-based dishes, due to the large cattle industry located there while Southern Mexican dishes feature vegetables and chicken.
The Yucatan peninsula features fruit-based sauces (especially those flavored with Seville oranges) served over chicken and pork and baked in a banana leaf.
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.
Puebla is 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.
Veracruz is a bustling seaport offering 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.
Popular Mexican Dishes
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 and enchiladas, tortillas stuffed with vegetables or meat, coated in a spicy tomato sauce and baked.
Other well-known specialties include quesadillas, tortillas stuffed with cheese and other toppings, folded and then grilled; tacos, tortillas stuffed with numerous fillings; 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.