9 Dishes You Must Try in Mexico
Featured destinations: Mexico
Published 31 January 2017
Mexico’s cuisine is as tangled and complicated as its history, a blend of different cultures – native, Hispanic, and immigrant, merged altogether into one. Mexican cuisine has gained popularity in Europe over the last decade, but nothing beats returning to Mexico for the authentic taste. With over a hundred recognized national dishes and unique meals found in each of the country’s 31 states, you’ll need a lifetime to taste everything Mexico has to offer; however, this list of some of my favourite dishes is a good place to get started.
The first item on your list has to be mole Poblano, a flavourful dish so important to Mexican culture that UNESCO has designated it as an item of intangible cultural heritage. The dark, heavy sauce usually served over chicken, originated in the state of Puebla and gets its unique sweet-salty-spicy flavour from its over 30 ingredients, which include nuts, chillies, seeds and a healthy portion of chocolate. As you travel around the country, you’ll come across different varieties of mole sauces: in Central Mexico you’ll find pipián, a green mole made primarily from squash seeds and chillies; the state of Oaxaca is home to seven distinct mole sauces, all of which come in a variety of colours acquired naturally from their ingredients (red, green, yellow, brown and black); and the city of Taxco is famous for a unique mole rosa, with a distinctive pink hue derived from its main ingredient, beetroot.
Chilaquiles image: Claus Gurumeta
Antojitos, which literally translates to “cravings,” is a word used to describe typical street food items that are often low in cost and high in flavour. The list of antojitos is endless, but you can start by trying the most common ones: Quesadillas, cheese-filled corn-flour tortillas; molletes, bread rolls topped with refried beans and melted cheese, and often chicken, chorizo or ham; sopes, a deep-fried tortilla covered with beans or salsa and chicken or seafood; chilaquiles, deep-fried tortillas stewed in red or green salsa and topped with onion, cream, and cheese; and tamales, corn dough filled with meat and salsa and steamed inside a corn-husk or banana leaf. Antojitos can readily be found in markets and street stands all over the country and are likely to be the most memorable meals you’ll have during your visit.
Tacos image: Claus Gurumeta
Tacos are the staple food of Mexico and one of its most famous exports. The base of a taco is a corn-flour tortilla that is topped with a variety of cooked meats, vegetables, and sauces. From the state of Michoacan, carnitas, a taco filled with slow roasted pork meat and scratchings, are popular for Sunday brunch. Tacos al pastor, a shwarma spit-grilled pork marinated in guajillo chilli sauce and topped with coriander and grilled pineapple, created in Mexico by Lebanese immigrants, is now a national favourite. Other typical fillings include potato and chorizo, beef flank, chillies in cream, fish, and even grasshoppers!
Huevos a la Mexicana or ‘Mexican-style eggs,’ are so-called for containing the three colours of the Mexican flag in its ingredients: jalapenos for green, onions for white, and tomatoes for red, all diced and scrambled with the eggs. The northern-style huevos rancheros are two fried eggs placed over deep-fried corn tortillas, covered with your choice of green or red salsa. If you can’t make up your mind, you can also order huevos divorciados, directly translated as ‘divorced eggs,’ which are the same as the above but with each egg topped with a different coloured salsa. Usually served along with rice and refried beans, egg-based Mexican breakfasts are sure to get you going on your day.
Green pozole image: Claus Gurumeta
A traditional pre-Hispanic dish, which has adopted post-Hispanic ingredients, pozole is an important dish in Mexican culture, often cooked as part of the menu for important celebrations. Pozole is a hearty soup made with pork and large-kernel white corn, seasoned with spicy salsa and topped with shredded lettuce or cabbage, sliced radishes, chopped onions, dry oregano, and lime juice. Although the corn kernels always remain the main ingredient, different regions have variations on the original recipe; in the state of Guerrero, a green pozole that gets its colour from the addition of green mole is served on Thursdays, while in Mexico City, a red-broth pozole is the norm.
Sopa Azteca image: Claus Gurumeta
If corn-based soups are not your thing you can try another one of Mexico’s famous soup dishes. Sopa Azteca, my personal favourite, is a thick broth made with ground deep-fried tortillas and tomatoes, topped with crisp tortilla pieces, avocado, dried huajillo chilli, sour cream, and crumbly cheese. If you wish to try something more exciting, medulla soup is surprisingly decadent, with soft bone-marrow pieces in a rich and spicy tomato broth. For a lighter starter, sopa de lima is a refreshing chicken and lime broth only found in the Yucatan Peninsula.
Stuffed chillies image: Claus Gurumeta
While most often used as an ingredient in salsas and other dishes, certain types of chillies sometimes constitute the main course. The large chille Poblano, which has a slightly bitter taste and low spice, is used to make chilles rellenos when stuffed with cheese, covered in a light egg batter and fried, then served topped with a mild tomato sauce and garnished with cream, crumbly cheese and avocado. Another popular recipe, often associated with independence day celebrations for its use of green, white and red, is chilles en nogada, a chilli stuffed with ground beef, raisins and spices, covered with a hazelnut cream and topped with pomegranate seeds – a dish that is as delicious on your eyes as it is on your tongue!Seafood aguachiles image: Claus Gurumeta
With over 9330 kilometres of coastline in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, including the Sea of Cortez, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, it’s no surprise that seafood plays a big role in Mexican cuisine. Seafood is readily available everywhere in the country, but is especially prevalent in the coast towns and cities, and different regions have local specialties worth trying. The state of Guerrero on the Pacific Coast is famous for tiritas, a ceviche-style dish made from local raw fish and thinly-sliced purple onion cured with lemon, habanero chilies and salt. The Northwest is famous for its spicy aguachiles, a cocktail made with fresh shrimp, lime and chilies. In the Gulf of Mexico, Veracruz-style seafood dishes have a distinct Mediterranean influence, with the use of olives and capers. Octopus, shellfish and squid are also popular food items in Mexican menus.
Pan dulce image: Claus Gurumeta
Mexicans have a sweet tooth, and nothing takes care of cravings like pan dulce, our name for a variety of sweet breads, which are popular at breakfast or as a late night snack – although often eaten any time of day! Despite having names that translate funnily into things like ‘mirrors,’ ‘ears’ and ‘shells,’ each pan dulce has its own distinct flavour and is worth trying. If you visit Mexico during special celebration periods, you will also get to try some specialty sweet breads made for the occasion; the Spanish-style rosca de reyes is eaten to celebrate Epiphany in early January, and a sugar-coated pan de muerto, literally ‘bread of the dead,’ is eaten to celebrate the Day of the Dead in early November. Don’t forget to dip your sweet bread in a cup of Mexican spiced hot chocolate for an extra sugar rush!
Follow in Claus's footsteps and taste your way around Mexico. For further information check out our Mexico Holidays page.