Typical Mexican Food

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The Mexican Diet

The Mexican table is filled with an assortment of foodstuffs. Sauces, soups and stews are common and expected, while preparations range from a quick-fry to slow roasting. The following is a list of key elements in the Mexican diet.

Corn: most commonly used for tortillas, the warm, flat rounds which accompany or enhance many a dish. Also used for tacos (tortillas stuffed with chicken, beef, fish or cheese) and tamales (steamed and stuffed with meat or vegetables)

Chilies: used both fresh and dried, it's the white veins and seed pods that are the hottest part and pack a punch. Mexicans like to distinguish between heat and flavor, something that can be lost on the untrained palate. Popular varieties of chilies are jalapeno, poblano, serrano, guajillo, chipotle, pasilla, habanero, ancho, mulato and cascabel.

Beans: they run the gamut from lentils to kidney beans and fava beans and are found in many soups and stews. Small beans are often served refrito (refried in lard, tasty but heavy) or de la olla (boiled and served in a light broth).

Tomatoes: the essential ingredient for a tasty salsa Mexicana and also used in sauces for both fish and beef dishes. Tomatillos are small green tomatoes encased in a stiff husk -- they're more tart and often used for a kicky tomatillo salsa which is laced with spicy chilies.

Fruit: mango, papaya, coconut and pineapple are all eaten fresh as well as used in sauces and desserts. Nopales (prickly pear cactus paddles) are sauteed and eaten as a vegetable of sorts but can also be found sweetened in desserts.

Special ingredients: flor de calabaza (squash blossoms) are used in everything from soups to sauces. Huitlacoche is a small, dark fungus (!) which grows on a corn stalk and is surprisingly creamy and delicious. Crepas de huitlacoche (huitlacoche crepes bathed in a dreamy cheese sauce) are a singularly Mexican treat. Romeritos and epazote are two pungent herbs which add a special zest to fish, beef and chicken dishes. Pepitas (pumpkin seeds) are used in sauces, most commonly in pipian, which is used to top many chicken dishes.

Regional Cuisines

It stands to reason that a country as large as Mexico would have a variety of regional cuisines. Some of the best can be found in the states listed below.

Puebla: two hours south of Mexico City is where the first mole sauce was prepared. As the legend goes, an order of nuns was asked to prepare a special dish for a visiting dignitary. Unsure of what would constitute a worthy dish, the nuns literally emptied out their pantry and filled a pot with a combination of herbs, spices and chocolate, over thirty ingredients in all. Left to simmer for several days, the resulting thick, sweet mole sauce was served over turkey at the royal feast. Today, mole is most commonly served over chicken. "The nuns are the best cooks in Mexico," says Francisco Cisneros, chef at Guaymas restaurant in Tiburon, California. Anyone who has ever tasted a good mole sauce would have to agree. Coffee is grown in Puebla, a nice accompaniment to the area's many unique desserts, especially camotes, a sweet potato confection. Pastry shops are as common in Puebla as churches, no small feat since there are said to be over 300 churches in the city of Cholula alone. Your meal is likely to be more attractively presented in Puebla than anywhere else in Mexico, since this area is known for its azulejos, or glazed blue and white pottery and tiles.

Yucatan: the land of the Maya is a welcome relief for anyone tired of chilies. Many Yucateco sauces are fruit-based, chief among them a sauce made >from brick-red annatto seeds (achiote) and flavored with Seville oranges, pepper, garlic and cumin. This sauce is spread over chicken (pollo pibil) or pork (cochinita pibil), the meats are then baked in a banana leaf, and the result is delightfully good. Pack a picnic and trek to the ruins at Chichen Itza for a meal in an unbeatable setting.

Veracruz: fish is the dish of choice in seaside Veracruz, a busy port filled with salty folks who love life and a good meal. Any fish dish a la Veracruzana means it'll be topped with a sauce of tomatoes, olives, capers and chilies. Exotic fruits (guanabana, mamey, chirimoya) and coffee are also grown in this fertile region. Care for a taco? tamale? enchilada? It's bound to be filled with fish while you're in Veracruz.

Oaxaca: you might want to drink your dinner while you're in Oaxaca. Coffee is grown in this state and is usually prepared a la olla, which means it's laced with sugar and cinnamon and left to simmer in a large pot for hours. The resulting brew will definitely perk you up. Heartier sorts will gravitate to the region's mescal, a very sober cousin of tequila. Hungry folks should try anything topped with mole Oaxaqueno, a sweeter version of the Puebla original thanks to the addition of bananas. The Oaxacans are rightfully proud of the bounty of their vast state, which also includes beautiful artesania (hand-carved wooden animals and the black pottery of San Bartolomeo de Coatepec are especially nice) and lyrical Zapotec dances

See also: Food Dictionaries


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