The cuisine of Mexico is one of the world's great culinary traditions, which in 2010 became the first cuisine to be recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It is mainly influenced by indigenous American foodways fused together with Spanish cuisines. While there are some constants, Mexican cuisine is not uniform throughout the country. Particularly well-known regional varieties include Oaxacan and traditional Mayan cuisines.
Some crops native to Mesoamerica, ubiquitous in Mexican cooking, are corn (maíz), tomatoes (tomate or jitomate), tomatillos - something like a green tomato with an inedible husk around it, avocado (aguacate), beans (frijoles) and cocoa (cacao). Beans and corn had nearly religious significance among some of the Precolumbian cultures and there is still hardly a food item without them. The other component of the "3 sisters" of traditional pre-Colombian cooking, squash, is less common in modern Mexican cuisine but found in many traditional native dishes. Other staples, such as rice (arroz), or wheat (trigo) have origins outside the Americas but have become integrated into Central American as well as Mexican cuisine. Most of the corn used in Mexican cooking is put through a process called nixtamalization where it's soaked in an alkaline solution and hulled. This gives it a firmer texture and also makes it a better source of niacin than untreated corn.
Meats used in Mexican cooking include beef (res, vaca), chicken (pollo), pork (cerdo), lamb (cordero, borrego), and goat (cabra, chivo). Rabbit (conejo), historically common in Mayan cooking, is often found in certain parts of Southern Mexico. Mexican supermarkets usually offer a vast selection of ham (jamon), but ham-based dishes are uncommon in restaurants. Mexican cooking also makes extensive use of both pork lard (asiento) and beef lard (manteca). Certain types of offal are common in Mexican cooking, in particular beef tongue (lengua), beef head meat (cabeza), tripe, beef liver, and calf brains (sesos). Any part of Mexico near the coast consumes a large variety of seafood, with red snapper (huachinango, pescado - note that pescado can refer to red snapper or also generically to white fish, depending on context) , various rockfish, mahi mahi, shrimp (camarones), scallops (vieiras), crab (cangrejo), and Pacific (i.e. "spiny") lobster (langosta) being particularly popular. Anything simply labeled "lobster" will be spiny lobster - the North Atlantic type of lobster popular in the US and Canada is very unusual in Mexico. As many fish have become more expensive in the 2010s, tilapia has grown in popularity as a low-cost alternative.
- Peppers — Mexican cuisine uses a great variety of peppers, from the innocuous to the extraordinarily spicy. Common types include red, green and yellow bell peppers, cascabel, cayenne, chilaca, chiltepin, guajillo, güero, habanero, jalapeño, poblano, and serrano, as well as preparations from these, such as chipotle (smoke-dried jalapeño) and ancho/mulato (ripened/unripened dried poblano).
- Masa — flour made from ground, nixtamalized corn, the basis of corn tortillas and many other Mexican foods.
- Tortillas — thin, soft flatbread made of a simple water-based dough of finely ground wheat flour or masa. (Note that this is entirely different from a Spanish tortilla, which is an egg dish) They can be fried, baked, rolled or wrapped around ingredients, or simply served warm with butter or salsa. They are a staple of Mexican food, from simple peasant cuisine to high-end restaurants. Look for restaurants that make their own: fresh tortillas are almost always far superior to mass-produced. Generally, when a Mexican refers generically to tortillas, they are talking about the corn variety. Wheat flour tortillas are normally used only for a few specific dishes and are more common outside of Mexico.
- Nopal — an edible cactus used in some dishes, mildly flavored with a unique texture. Think of its taste as a cross between bell pepper and okra. Nopal fruits are also edible. There are a number of other cacti used as ingredients in various parts of Mexico.
- Cheese (queso) — while much Mexican cheese follows the general North American model of tending toward bland, mass-produced varieties, Mexican queso fresco, which lacks some of the stringent requirements for cheese sold as such in the US and Canada, is a delight. Quesillo is a stringy, white, mozzarella-like cheese that's a mainstay in Oaxacan cooking.
- Herbs and other flavorings — Mexican oregano, subtly different from the European variety, is used in a great number of dishes. Cilantro, the fresh leaves of the coriander plant, is also widely used. Some people have the ability to taste a very unpleasant, soapy flavor in cilantro (most people do not); unfortunately for them in some parts of Mexico it can be difficult to avoid. Epazote, also called "Mexican tea," tastes like European oregano but with a more intense flavor, and its aroma includes notes of pine and cedar. Cumin (comino) is more common in Tex-Mex cooking but still widely used in a number of Mexican cuisines. Ginger and star anise pop up occasionally.
Several distinct variations of traditional Mexican cuisine originated in what is now the southwestern U.S., as traditional Mexican dishes adapted to local ingredients and U.S. influences. In many places, it is easier to find these dishes than the traditional foods of the Mexican heartland. Mexican dishes have also been adapted to international tastes, and are eaten all around the world--though these dishes often bear little resemblance to their traditional Mexican forebears.
- Tex-Mex — the most common version found outside of Mexico, it emphasizes ingredients such as shredded cheese and cumin not usually found in Mexico, and includes unique tejano culinary creations such as chili con carne and fajitas. Although most Mexicans today wouldn't recognize most of these dishes as "Mexican" in any way, many Tex-Mex specialties originated in an era when Texas was controlled by either Spain or Mexico.
- Cal-Mex — California (the U.S. state, as opposed to the Mexican Baja California) is another former Mexican territory with a pre-existing tradition that can be seen in its cuisine. Generally less cheesy than its Texan counterparts, it includes the uniquely large, aluminum-foil-wrapped Mission-style burrito.
- New Mexican food is a distinct cuisine, originating near Santa Fe--once the most distant northern outpost of Spanish and Mexican colonization. Spicy red and especially green chile sauces are its most notable feature — you'll often be asked whether you'd prefer "red or green" atop a dish of tamales or enchiladas. (You can order both by asking for "Christmas" — a good way to test a restaurant's quality!) Many dishes are also influenced by the cooking of the native Pueblo peoples.
Other popular fusions include Korean-Mexican dishes such as Korean tacos and bulgogi burritos, and Japanese takoraisu (a transliteration of the English phrase "taco rice") from Okinawa.
- Menudo — slow-cooked, spicy stew made from tripe (the stomach lining of a cow) and chilis. Particularly widely served on weekends as it's rumored to be a sure-fire hangover cure.
- Pozole — hominy (coarse, nixtamalized maize) and meat stew. Pork is most traditional but chicken is fairly common. Two common variants are pozole rojo, with a dark red broth flavored with relatively mild, dried red chiles (usually Guajillo or Ancho), and pozole blanco, with a clear broth. Both usually have a relatively low spiciness level but are often served with raw, sliced chili peppers for those who want to add more heat. Chopped cabbage, chopped onions, radishes, fresh cilantro, and lime wedges are all also popular garnishes.
- Birria — spicy goat stew.
- Tortilla soup — a broth that includes strips of tortilla
- Fideo - Tomato soup with short noodles similar to crumbled, thin spaghetti.
- Caldo de pescado — Stew with chunks of fish in a somewhat spicy broth. More touristy places will often opt for a rather genteel presentation but the most classic version has a whole fish, including the head and the tail, roughly chopped into steaks, with the diner expected to negotiate their way around the bones and the fins.
- Caldo de pollo — Mexican-style chicken soup.
- Caldo de res — beef soup.
- Adobo — meat, usually pork or chicken, marinated in a hearty sauce made with chilis, garlic, and vinegar, and grilled. Differs from the Filipino dish of the same name.
- Barbacoa — meats or whole sheep slow-roasted over an open flame, usually served with corn tortillas, plus guacamole and salsa.
- Cabrito — Roasted goat meat.
- Al Pastor — layers of thin sliced pork and spices slow-cooked on a vertical spit. Often used as an ingredient for tacos, etc. Originally adapted from the shwarma cooking method used by Lebanese immigrants to Mexico.
- Carne asada — thin-cut marinated beef steak, often seared while cooking to impart a charred flavor. It can be served as a main dish or as a component of another, and is most common in the northern and western parts of Mexico. Often used as a filling for tacos.
- Carnitas — slow cooked pork stewed in its own fat, somewhat similar to a slightly spicier version of American pulled pork, that's then oven-roasted to give a crisper texture and a smokier flavor. Often served alongside chicharrones, and also commonly used as a filling in tacos.
- Tasajo — thin-cut beef steak or pork, marinated and partially cured in oil and salt and then grilled, originating in Oaxaca but common in several other parts of Mexico. As with Carne Asada, it's both served as a main dish and as an ingredient (a classic dish is Nopal Zapoteco, with nopal, tasajo, and quesillo). Not to be confused with a somewhat different Cuban dish that shares the name.
- Chicharrones — Deep fried, crunchy, and very high-calorie (but carbohydrate-free!) pieces of pig skin.
- Chorizo — Mexican sausage, usually made from minced fatty pork with seasonings. It is somewhat different from its Spanish counterpart, being generally fattier and spicier. It's so fatty that it tends to fall apart when cooked, and is normally used as a flavoring/ingredient rather than eaten whole. It is commonly used as a filling for tacos. Chorizo scrambled with eggs is a common hearty breakfast.
- Mole poblano — a dish that originated in Puebla, hence the name. "Mole" describes a variety of different sauces; this type of mole, which includes chocolate among its many other ingredients, is an ancient dish, sometimes considered Mexico's "national dish", and it's also the most familiar type of mole to people from the U.S.A.
- Hamburguesas — US-style hamburgers are quite popular in Mexico. Mexican beef production is less industrialized than in the United States, leading to more grass-fed beef, and Mexican hamburgers are often very tasty.
- Tinga — shredded, stewed meat, usually chicken but sometimes pork or beef, cooked in a smoky, chipotle flavored sauce.
- Cochinita pibil — Maya pulled pork barbecue found across the Yucatan Peninsula. It is prepared by marinating the pork in citrus, adding annatto (aka achiote) for flavor and color, and slow-cooking for hours. Also known as puerco pibil or cochinita con achiote, both of which combine Maya- and Spanish-language names.
- Lengua — made from the tongue of a cow, often used as a filling in tacos.
In addition to the dishes below, simple grilled fish is widespread in Mexico, either whole fish or fillets. Peel and eat grilled whole shrimp are also common, typically basted with butter, garlic, and parsley.
- Ceviche — bits of raw white fish marinated in lime juice, which "cooks" the fish via a chemical reaction, usually served with chopped onions, avocado, and other vegetables and spices
- Coctel de camarones — "shrimp cocktail" - boiled medium-sized shrimp served cold with pico de gallo and Mexican style cocktail sauce
- Camarones a la Diabla — shrimp in a spicy chili sauce
- Camarones al ajillo — shrimp in a garlic/tomato sauce
- Camarones borrachos — literally "drunken shrimp," shrimp sauteed in a sauce made with beer and spices
- Pescado a la Veracuzana — white fish in a sauce made from garlic, tomatoes, green olives, and capers
- Pescado al mojo de ajo — white fish in a simple garlic sauce
- Burritos — literally meaning "little donkey" (from burro: donkey), they were allegedly named for the form that somewhat resemble donkey ears. Burritos are usually made of a flour tortilla and filled with meat and beans among other ingredients. Unlike their US counterparts, burritos in Mexico are unlikely to contain rice.
- Enchiladas — rolled tortillas (usually corn but sometimes flour) filled with meat, cheese, or sometimes other fillings such as crab, covered with salsa and typically cheese, and baked in a pan.
- Chilaquiles — fried strips of corn tortillas covered in salsa. One version involves eggs and sometimes cheese and is often served as a breakfast dish, but there are many variations. It's a classic peasant dish, often seen as a use for tortillas that are in danger of going stale, but it's widely loved.
- Chalupas — similar to a flat taco.
- Flauta — usually a flour tortilla, rolled around a filling and deep-fried. A taquito is the same idea, but usually with a corn tortilla.
- Quesadillas — a flour tortilla topped with cheese and sometimes meat, folded over and grilled. Not too widely found on restaurant menus in Mexico, though they'll usually whip one up if you ask them to, it's seen more as a simple light meal one can make quickly at home.
- Tacos — hard-shelled, fried tacos are available in Mexico but the most typical Mexican taco is served on a fairly small, flat, soft corn tortilla with a choice of meat, salsa, and a few other toppings such as onions and cilantro, and most commonly eaten by folding it between the thumb and forefingers. If they are very cheap, that's usually a sign that they are quite small and most people will order at least a half-dozen of them to make a meal. "Baja-style" tacos originated in Baja California and are made with grilled or fried fish and cabbage. Tacos with flour tortillas are very unusual in most parts of Mexico.
- Tostadas — like a chalupa, except usually with a fried flour tortilla as the base.
- Tlayudas — a specialty of Oaxaca but found in other parts of Mexico: a very large, thin tortilla crisped on a griddle, covered with a layer of refried beans and then topped with meat, cabbage, avocado, cheese, salsa, and other toppings (there are no hard-and-fast rules).
- Chiles rellenos — literally filled peppers. A mildly spicy, green pepper (usually poblano), typically filled with cheese but sometimes meat, dipped in batter, fried, and typically covered in some sort of sauce.
- Huevos rancheros — eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce. Often served for breakfast.
- Tamales — a filling of meat, cheese, or sometimes something sweet, encased in masa (see above) dough, wrapped in a corn husk, and steamed. Foreigners are infamous for trying to eat the corn husk — don't do this — the husk is mainly just there to hold it together while it's being cooked, and as a convenient package to serve it in, and is discarded.
- Tortas — a sandwich, typically served on a somewhat sweet, soft white roll, with choices of meat and toppings similar to what's typically served with tacos, burritos, etc.
- Elotes — commonly referred to in English as "Mexican Street Corn." Rarely found in restaurants but very common at street stalls and festivals, it's sweet corn roasted on the cob and covered with a mixture of mayonnaise, crema (similar to sour cream or crème fraîche), chili powder, and cheese.
- Churros — another Mexican street food staple but increasingly well known world-wide, fried narrow cylinders of dough flavored with cinnamon and sugar.
- Flan — perhaps the most internationally well-known Mexican dessert: creamy custard with a caramel sauce.
- Pan dulce — literally "sweet bread," it's a variety of small, sweet bread rolls. The term is also used more generally for anything sweet you might find at a bakery. They typically have patterns and often festive colors baked into them. Eaten as a dessert, a snack, or sometimes as a breakfast food.
Sides and sauces
Salsa is the Spanish word for sauce, and the word is used for any sort of sauce or gravy. However, it frequently refers to one of several flavorful sauces made from onions, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, and herbs.
- Guacamole — the most commonly known Mexican sauce. Mashed avocado usually containing as well onion, oregano, lime juice, and often cilantro. Other flavors such as garlic and chili are sometimes used.
- Pico de gallo — a mix of lime juice, tomato, onion and cilantro leaves. Can be added to almost anything. Comes in a spicy and a mild variant
- Red rice (arroz rojo) — near-ubiquitous side dish in many parts of Mexico. Rice is usually cooked in broth with onion, garlic, tomato paste, and other seasonings, and is usually more orangish-yellow than actually red. If a menu states in English that a dish will be accompanied by "rice & beans" that usually means red rice and refried beans, unless stated otherwise. Rice is restaurant food; a traditional family meal is more likely to include corn than rice.
- Refried beans (frijoles refritos) — boiled pinto beans that are then sauteed and mashed. Usually lard is used but you may find a vegetarian version using olive oil. Black beans are sometimes prepared this way in a few parts of Mexico but pinto beans are much more common.
- Salsa verde — smoothly blended green salsa with tomatillos as the base. Generally fairly mild to medium level spiciness.
- Tortilla chips — fried triangular sections of corn tortillas.
- Chili con carne — a sort of thick stew made of meat, usually beef, tomatoes, onions, chilis, and herbs. Authentic Texas chili does not include beans, but pinto beans or sometimes red beans are fairly common additions outside Texas and its immediate environs.
- Chimichanga — a deep-fried burrito.
- Fajitas — thinly sliced meat, onion, and bell peppers, often served still sizzling on a type of low-walled iron skillet called a comal (which is otherwise used to make tortillas). Usually served with warm soft tortillas which are used to wrap the filling before eating.
- Jalapeño poppers — something like miniature chiles rellenos, with no salsa, made with jalapeño peppers. Though they still usually have a noticeable kick, the specific variety of jalapeños usually used is milder than jalapeños used for flavoring other dishes.
- Nachos — while they were invented in Mexico, by a Mexican, they're much more common in American Mexican cooking. Tortilla chips topped with cheese and usually other toppings such as meat, refried beans, and jalapeños, and baked.
- Sopapilla, called sopaipillas in New Mexico — deep-fried pockets of pastry dough. Often served as dessert (in which case, honey or powdered sugar are common accompaniments), but it could also be stuffed with a savory filling.
- Queso — while this is just the Spanish word for "cheese," it also refers to a cheesy dip that is near-ubiquitous at Tex-Mex restaurants.
While the situation has greatly improved in the last few decades, in most of Mexico foreigners are still advised not to drink local tap water, as the presence of unfamiliar bacteria can occasionally wreak havoc on a person's digestion. Resorts and other establishments that cater to tourists will often filter all their drinking water (and water used for ice), and bottled water is almost always available.
Carbonated soft drinks include all the common US varieties as well as many Mexican brands. Jarritos is a popular brand that produces a wide variety of fruit flavored soda. Special mention should be made of Mexican Coca-Cola, which is made with real sugar, not corn syrup, as well as a slightly different syrup mix than what's used north of the border. It's actually widely imported into the US, as many US consumers consider it far superior to their domestic product.
Aguas frescas consist of a variety of non-carbonated, fresh made soft drinks. Horchata, made with rice starch, is a very common style. Several different fruit flavors are commonly available, including tamarindo, made from the pulpy seedpods of the tamarind tree (tamarind pulp pops up as a flavoring in a number of Mexican dishes as well). Hibiscus flowers are another popular flavor.
Mexican coffee culture is a little unusual in that, while Mexicans appreciate good coffee, it is strictly a morning drink. While this is changing somewhat, in many parts of Mexico it can still be surprisingly difficult to find a decent cup of coffee after 12:00. Mexican coffee is often brewed with cinnamon and sugar, and sometimes other flavorings like chocolate and orange zest. Tea isn't really part of Mexican cuisine but basic black tea is generally available.
- Beer (Cerveza) — mass market Mexican beer ranges from cheap mainstays like Tecate, Corona, and Sol to higher end varieties like Dos Equis and Bohemia. Nearly all mass market beer in Mexico is a golden lager, although several varieties of dark lager are also popular. Since the 2000s, craft brewing has become widespread and most major cities have craft brewers. Mexicans will often add a squeeze of lime juice and/or a pinch of salt to their beer before drinking it.
- Mezcal — distilled from any of about 30 types of agave plants, which are cooked in underground ovens before being mashed and distilled, giving a smoky flavor to the finished product. In 1940, an enterprising distiller added a gusano, a type of caterpillar, to the bottle, allegedly to improve the flavor — this is the famous "worm" - but nowadays this is seen as gimmicky and usually only present in some cheaper varieties. There is no specific regional requirement for Mezcal but it's most commonly produced in Oaxaca.
- Tequila — it is a type of mezcal that can only be produced in Jalisco and some parts of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas, and only is made of Blue Agave. The agave is steamed instead of roasted, thus the flavor is more neutral than regular mezcal. A lot of tequila and some mezcal is aged in oak barrels, giving it a golden color and a more complex flavor. The most common types are "blanco" or "silver", which is clear and not aged in oak at all, "reposado," which has been aged between two and twelve months, and "añejo," which has been aged from one to three years.
- Raicilla — sometimes called "Mexican moonshine," it's a sort of bootleg tequila commonly produced in Jalisco. It's typically made from the Agave lechuguilla species. It's been somewhat legitimized in the 2010s, with a few licensed distillers now operating, but the homebrew variety is still widely available if you meet the right people. It's often very strong, up to 150 proof. Drink the unlicensed stuff at your own risk.
- Sotol — like raicilla, sotol is a tequila relative once dismissed as moonshine, but it is now gaining favorable attention for its smoothness and flavor. Sotol comes from the plant of the same name, also called the "desert spoon," which lives in the Chihuahua Desert in the north, and its availability is limited by the plant's slow growth and its fragile ecosystem. Some commercial producers, most of them indigenous cooperatives, exist in Chihuahua, Coahuila, and the U.S. state of Texas.
- Kahlua — internationally popular coffee-flavored liqueur produced in Mexico.
- Margarita — perhaps the most classic Mexican cocktail: Tequila, Triple Sec, and lime juice. Other sweet, citrus liqueurs such as Grand Marnier are sometimes substituted for triple sec. Served with salt on the rim of the glass or without, and either blended with crushed ice or "on the rocks" (i.e. over ice cubes). Accounts vary as to where and when the drink was invented, with the two most plausible stories placing its origin in either Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez, both along the US border. The margaritas served in beach bars, especially those catering to US college students on spring break, are often just cheap tequila mixed with "margarita mix," but higher end places will use more discernment in their ingredients and typically give you a choice of tequilas.
- Michelada — beer mixed with tomato juice and "clam juice," (throughout North America, tomato and clam juice are sold mixed together under the name "Clamato") usually with some other flavorings. Considered to be very refreshing, especially in hot weather, and so popular that a few beer brands sell premixed, canned micheladas.
- Cantarito — tequila mixed with lime, grapefruit, and lemon juices, as well as salt and grapefruit soda. Traditionally served in a small terra-cotta cup from which it gets its name.
- Mexican Coffee — hot coffee with tequila, kahlua, and topped with vanilla ice cream, which rapidly melts and turns the whole affair into a sort of warm, boozy milkshake. Sometimes includes other flavors such as chocolate and cinnamon.