Mexico is a vast and varied place. The cuisine, too, has enormous variety with many regional forms, as does the countryside, from north to south and east to west. The cuisine is one of the worlds oldest and greatest with native traditions that date back to the pre-Hispanic era, as far back as 1800 B.C.
The food reflects both Mexico's ancient past and the foreign influences that have contributed to the creation of its distinctive and exciting dishes. Mexico already had a developed cuisine long before the arrival of the Spanish in 1519. The foods of the ancient Mexican civilization—of corn, beans, chiles, squash, chocolate, tomatoes, avocados, peanuts, pecans, pineapple, vanilla, sunflowers, wild greens, herbs, and more—were prepared in many ways and cooked with turkey, quail, duck, venison, rabbit, other wild game, and fish. After the Spanish conquest of Mexico new food products such as pigs, chickens, cattle, sheep, wheat, rice, olives, almonds, certain fruits and vegetables were introduced and greatly influenced the evolution of Mexican cuisine. Many of the changes occurred during the Colonial Era from 1521 after the fall of the Aztec Empire and continued through Mexico's tumultuous history and their War of Independence ending in 1821. French influences came to Mexico during the reign of Emperor Maximilian from 1864 to 1867.
The fusion of Spanish and other European cuisines with native Mexican foods enriched not only the foods of Mexico, but also made a culinary impact on Europe and the rest of the world when tomatoes, chocolate, beans, corn, and much more found their way into European and other world markets. As Old World and New World ingredients mixed a culinary evolution slowly took place in Mexico, but the spicy full-flavored native traditions prevailed, and today Mexico's cuisine remains distinct and recognized as one of the world's greatest.
With time, studies show that spicy foods have moved into the mainstream, and people are enjoying a wider range of flavors and ethnic foods than ever before.
There has also been a noticeable trend in Mexico toward innovative cooking called nueva cocina (the new cuisine). Now, traditional foods are being prepared in surprising and satisfying ways. Many dishes are lightened and cooked with less fat, and more olive oil or vegetable oil is being used in place of lard.
Salads as a separate course seem to be more prevalent and more cooked fresh vegetables add color and texture to contemporary entrée plates.
Common Ingredients for the Mexican Pantry
Authentic Mexican cooking starts with traditionally used ingredients. Of course, substitutions can be made or ingredients left out and the dishes will still be flavorful, but to enjoy food as it was intended to be eaten, try to use authentic ingredients. This is not a comprehensive list of Mexican ingredients but describes items commonly used in Mexican cooking and in this book. A few of the ingredients may be unfamiliar or difficult to find, but are worth seeking in order to capture the flavors of authentic dishes.
Achiote: Reddish-orange seed of the annato tree used to season and color foods. A seasoning paste is also made from the seeds. Achiote is used extensively in the Yucatán region. The seeds and prepared seasoning paste are available in Latin American markets and some supermarkets.
Allspice: Aromatic spice that's used whole or ground to flavor many foods. Allspice trees grow mainly in the states of Tabasco, Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Chiapas.
Avocado: Avocados are native to Mexico and there are many varieties. The almost-black, pebbly-skinned Hass is preferred due to its creamy texture and rich flavor.
To ripen avocados, store at room temperature for 2 to 3 days, or until barely soft when cupped in your hand and pressed lightly.
Banana leaves: Large flat leaves of the banana tree are widely used in Mexico to wrap tamales, or other foods that are baked or steamed. Asian or Mexican markets usually carry banana leaves, often frozen in large plastic packages. The leaves defrost quickly.
To use, cut the size desired and remove the tough rib.
To make the leaves pliable, pass quickly over a direct flame to impart a subtle aroma and smoky flavor, or rinse under hot running water and wrap in a damp towel for a few minutes.
Canela (cinnamon): Mexican name for the preferred cinnamon variety that comes from the light brown, soft bark of the true cinnamon tree. It is native to Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) and now grown in Mexico. Canela may be found ground or in sticks in Mexican stores and some supermarkets. (It is also known as Ceylon cinnamon.) Cinnamon commonly found in the United States is a darker, more bittersweet flavoring from the cassia tree and will lend a different taste to foods.
Chaya: This is a Mayan green leafy plant similar to spinach that's often used in the Yucatan but rarely available in the United States. The tender greens are used like spinach or Swiss chard, which are the recommended substitutes.
Chayote: Pear-shaped pale green vegetables related to squash. They are indigenous to Mexico and are also known as vegetable pears or mirlitons. Chayotes are used as a cooked vegetable just like summer squash. They are also stuffed and baked for desserts with raisins, nuts, and spices.
Cherimoya: Tropical dark green fruit with patterned skin that resembles thumbprints. Creamy white flesh with shiny black seeds. Used in sorbets and other desserts.
Chiles: Fresh and Dried—Listed in detail at the end of ingredients list.
Cilantro: Green herb, also called Chinese parsley, has a distinctive flavor that's essential in many fresh salsas and as a garnish. Very popular and widely used throughout the United States; easy to find.
Crema: Mexican cream that is thick and slightly sour, somewhat like French crème fraiche. It's used to garnish enchiladas, tacos, and other snacks. Make crema at home or substitute plain sour cream diluted with a little milk.
Epazote: Important green herb used in bean dishes, tamales, some sauces and stews, and other dishes as well. In some regions of Mexico it's an essential flavor and worth seeking. Check Mexican markets, health food stores, gourmet stores, and spice and herb catalogs. It is also available dried.
Hierba Santa: Large leaf used in sauces and as a wrap for steaming fish and sometimes tamales. Also called hoja santa, momo, and acuyo in some regions. It has an anise-like flavor.
Huitlacoche (also cuitlacoche): Black fungus that grows on corn during the rainy season. This Mexican delicacy with an earthy mushroom taste has been discovered by many in the United States and can currently be found in some Mexican markets. It is used in crepes, soups, and with eggs.
Jicama: Large root vegetable with light brown skin and white flesh, shaped like a turnip, with a crisp sweet taste. Jicama is eaten raw, peeled and sliced, and is occasionally cooked.
Masa: Fresh dough made of specially processed dried corn that is used to make corn tortillas, tamales, and other masa dishes. Dried masa, called masa harina, is dehydrated into a flour, packaged, and sold in the flour section of most supermarkets.
Nopales: Paddles from the prickly pear cactus that are eaten as a vegetable throughout Mexico. The edible fruit of the plant is called a prickly pear, or tuna. Nopalitos refer to the sliced or diced cactus paddles.
Oregano: Many herbs in the oregano family are used in Mexico, but in general, what is referred to as Mexican oregano is an herb with more pronounced flavor than what is common in the United States. Found often as fresh leaves or in dried form in Mexican stores. Should be crumbled or crushed to release flavor.
Papalo: Green herb with a strong flavor used in central Mexico to season guacamole, tacos, and other foods.
Papaya: Fruit native to Central America and very common in Mexico. The Mexican variety is shaped like a hand-sized, slightly flat football, and has mixed dark green-yellow skin. The smooth pinkish-red flesh has a rich, lightly sweet taste. The gray-black seed pack in the center is often discarded but the peppery seeds are edible. (Smaller papayas from Hawaii can be substituted in recipes by weight.)
Piloncillo: Unrefined sugar, most often found in hard cones in Mexican markets and some supermarkets. Can be grated or ground in a food processor or softened in liquid. Dark brown sugar can be substituted.
Plantain: Known as plátano macho, this is a cooking or "vegetable" banana. Plantains are fried, baked, or mashed. The peel is thicker than that of a sweet banana and turns nearly black when ripe. Bananas, as we know them, are most often used in sweet desserts and fruit dishes.
Seville orange: Small bitter orange. The juice is important in the foods of Yucatán, Campeche, and Veracruz. Seldom found in Unites States markets. The usual substitution is grapefruit or orange juice mixed with lime juice.
Tamarind: Brown pods from the tamarind tree. The inside of the pods makes a tart juice that's used to flavor beverages, candies, and sauces.
Tomatillo: Small green fruit with a papery husk that looks like a green tomato and has a tart flavor. Used in cooked and raw sauces and salsas throughout Mexico.
Yuca: Edible root from a tropical plant that's used like potatoes, mainly in Yucatán, Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Chiapas. Often made into fritters or chips.
The generic word chile is used for a large number of capsicum peppers—both fresh and dried— ranging from mild to extremely hot, that are used in cooking. (As a rule, the smaller the chile, the more concentrated the heat.) Most of the chiles used in this book can be found in Latin American markets and some supermarkets.
Although the heat of fresh chiles ranges greatly, as a general rule, the following is a quick reference for the fresh chiles used in this book, from mild to very hot: Poblano, Anaheim or California, and New Mexico all range on the mildly spicy end, followed by Guëro, Jalapeño, then Serrano, with Habanero the most fiery.
Anaheim or California: Long, slender, and light green in color. Ranges from mild to quite hot. Roast and peel before using in chiles rellenos, sauces, and vegetable dishes. Also canned as whole green chiles and diced green chiles.
Guëro: Pale yellow, waxy, small hot chile. Also milder banana and Hungarian wax chiles, about 4 inches long—used in sauces, salads, and sometimes pickled.
Habanero: Small, very hot—maybe the hottest of all chiles—in shades of green, yellow, orange, and red. A lantern shape with indentations and irregularities. Closely related to the Scotch Bonnet chile.
Jalapeño: Dark green plump hot chile about 2 to 3 inches long with a rounded bottom. Used raw in salsas and cooked in sauces. Also pickled and canned.
New Mexico: Long green chile resembling Anaheim, but hotter, and used in the same ways as Anaheims.
Poblano: The most used fresh green chile. It's dark green and shiny with broad shoulders, tapering to a rounded or pointed bottom. Used extensively roasted, peeled, and stuffed for rellenos, and as a garnish when cut into thin strips or squares. Poblanos are also cooked in many dishes and pureed in many sauces.
Serrano: Small, slender, light green hot to very hot chile that is used mainly in fresh salsas or cooked sauces. Often used interchangeably with jalapeños.
Dried chiles are mainly used for cooked sauces. They range from shades of orange and red to dark red, brownish red, and black. They are generally toasted on a comal, griddle, or in a dry skillet for a brief time until they are fragrant and slightly blistered. When purchasing dried chiles in packages, always buy more than needed. Invariably, some will be moldy or in very poor condition and the whole chile or some part will have to be thrown away. If possible, buy dried chiles in bulk and look for those that are blemish free, and flexible with good color. The heat scale for the dried chiles used in this book: California, Ancho, and New Mexico are on the mild side, followed by Mulato, then Guajillo, then Cascabel, with Chile de arbol and Chipotle offering the most heat. The following dried chiles are used in this book.
Ancho: A dark red to almost-black dried poblano chile, with wrinkled skin. In some places it is called pasilla. It is wide at the top and tapered toward the tip, and 3 to 4 inches long. Anchos are mild to hot. They are toasted, then reconstituted in hot water to soften the skin, before being pureed in sauces. Sometimes after reconstituting, anchos are left whole and stuffed to make rellenos, or served in vinaigrette as part of a salad.
California: Shiny dried chile with smooth red skin, 4 to 5 inches long, mild to slightly hot. Used in cooked sauces and ground into chili powders.
Cascabel: Dried reddish brown chile that's mildly hot with a nutty flavor. Round in shape and cherry-sized or larger. Rattles when shaken.
Chile de arbol: Small, thin dried red chile that's very hot. Used in table sauces and cooked sauces.
Chipotle: Dried smoked jalapeño with a brown leathery skin; it's very hot. Often used canned in a seasoning mixture called adobo, and also pureed and made into a fiery chipotle sauce with a smoky taste. Chipotles are popular and a little goes a long way.
Guajillo: Medium to long dark red dried chile that's quite hot and very popular. Used extensively in cooked sauces.
Mulato: Very dark, almost black dried chile very similar to and often mistaken for an ancho. Used in moles.
Pasilla: Long, narrow, black chile that's also called pasilla negra. Be aware that in some places the name pasilla is used instead for fresh poblano chiles and dried anchos. (It can be confusing!)
Pure Ground Chili Powder and Chili Powder Blends: Unseasoned chili powders are labeled with the name of the chile, pure ground ancho, pasilla, California, New Mexico. Commercial chili powders are blends of ground chili, cumin, oregano, garlic, and other spices. Generally used in chili, beans, and stews.
Mexican cooking doesn't require a lot of special equipment, but a few things increase the efficiency and enjoyment of time spent in the kitchen. Below are some frequently used items that make Mexican cooking authentic and easier.
Comal, Griddle, Cast Iron Skillet: Flat pans of clay or metal (comals) that sit on the heating unit of a stove are used to bake tortillas and other things that do not use oil. When a comal is not available, a griddle or skillet is used.
Electric Blender, Food Processor, Electric Mixer: These three will be in constant use when preparing salsas, sauces, beating egg whites for chile relleno batter or cakes, and lots of other things every time you cook. A blender may be the Mexican cook's best friend, not only for margaritas, but also for blending Mexican sauces better than food processors.
Fine-Mesh Strainers or Food Mill: Essential. Whatever type you prefer, because Mexican cooking frequently involves straining and mashing ingredients to make smoother sauces.
Juice Presser: Used by cooks, bartenders, and food vendors all over Mexico. Mexican cooks have individual presses for limes, oranges, and even a larger one to get fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice. These useful utensils are made of cast iron with a cup to hold a cut half lime, orange, or grapefruit, and a lever to press against the fruit to extract the juice, leaving seeds and inverted skin behind. An electric juicer or reamer utensil can also be used.
Mortar and Pestle (molcajete and tejolote): Grinding bowls and grinder from ancient times are still in use all over Mexico. They can be purchased in Mexico or in many Mexican markets in the United States. After rinsing well, (water only, no soap) they need to be cured: in the mortar with the pestle grind small amounts of rice several times until the resulting gray sandy grit is ground away. Rinse again, then use to grind nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, and to make salsa the ancient Mexican way.
Other kinds of heavy mortars and pestles are useful for some of the grinding jobs called for in Mexican cooking, especially when grinding small amounts of herbs, seeds, or spices.
Nonstick Skillets: Three sizes—8-, 10-, and 12-inch—are in constant use in your kitchen. They are relatively inexpensive and when they wear out, you toss them and get some new ones.
Spice Grinder: An electric coffee or spice grinder is necessary to pulverize seeds, nuts, whole spices, and herbs. Use a small electric coffee grinder reserved for food ingredients only.
Stovetop Grill Pan: If you don't have one, get one. It allows cooks to come pretty close to making foods with the grilled look and smoky taste of an outdoor grill, yet takes less effort to prepare, can be used year-round, and require very little fat. you prefer heavy-duty, high-quality nonstick grill pans with a handle.
Tamale Steamer: For a makeshift steamer, a metal colander lined with foil (to avoid contact with water) can be placed inside a large pot over several inches of water. Bring the water to a boil, place the tamales in the colander and cover with a clean kitchen towel. Then put the lid on the pot tightly to trap the steam. Work in batches so the tamales cook evenly, and quickly enough to seal in the filling.
Tortilla Press: Utensil with two hinged flat metal or wood plates with a handle that's pressed to flatten the dough for corn tortillas. you prefer the heavy metal type. Flour tortillas are commonly rolled with a rolling pin. Tortilla presses are often available in specialty cookware shops and many Mexican markets.
Mexican Cooking Techniques
Roasting, Peeling, and Seeding Fresh Chiles
It is important to roast, peel, and seed fresh large green chiles that are to be used for stuffing, cut into strips, diced, or puréed. Roasting chars and loosens the skin for easy removal. It also makes the chiles more flavorful and tender.
The two methods you find most successful for home cooking are to roast the chiles directly over a gas burner, or to roast them under a hot oven broiler. The most common large green chiles to roast and peel are the poblano, Anaheim, or New Mexico chiles. (
To avoid skin or eye irritation, wear protective gloves when handling chiles or wash your hands thoroughly after.)
To roast: Hold the chiles, 1 at a time, with long tongs, directly over a gas flame, turning frequently until blistered and charred all over. Or, put the chiles on a large baking sheet, and broil as close to the preheated broiler as possible. Turn the chiles frequently until they are blistered and charred all over.
Immediately enclose the charred chiles in a plastic or paper bag and let steam about 5 minutes. (Put only 2 to 3 chiles in a bag at a time. They continue to generate heat, and if there is too much moisture in the bag, or, they steam too long, the bright color is lost and they get too soft.)
Rub off the blackened skin and rinse the chiles under running water. Cut the chiles open and remove the seeds and veins in either of the following ways:
If the chiles will be stuffed, leave the stems on. Make a slit down the side of the chile and the seed pod and remove the seeds and veins with a knife, leaving the whole chile intact.
If the chiles will be cut into strips or diced, remove the stem and scrape out the seeds and veins with your fingers or a small spoon. Rinse gently under running water to wash away any remaining seeds. Pat gently with a paper towel to remove excess moisture.
Tomatoes are very often oven-roasted, broil-roasted, or roasted directly in a skillet or on a Mexican comal—a flat metal or clay griddle. Roasting tomatoes before adding them to a dish concentrates the flavor and adds extra body to the dish. Sometimes the skins are removed before you add the tomatoes to the dish, and sometimes not, for the charred skins will add flavor, too. Be sure to add to the dish any juices that accumulate in the roasting pan.
To oven roast, preheat the oven to 400°. Put the whole tomatoes on a foil-lined pan or baking sheet, and roast for about 40 minutes, or until the tomato skins are lightly charred and wrinkled, and the tomatoes are very soft.
To broil-roast, preheat the broiler. Put the tomatoes on a foil-lined baking sheet, and roast the tomatoes about 5 inches from the hot broiler, turning once or twice, for about 10 to 15 minutes, or until the tomatoes are charred and soft.
To pan-roast, heat a dry skillet or Mexican comal, over medium heat. Put the tomatoes directly on the hot pan surface, and roast, turning occasionally, until the skins blacken, and the tomatoes soften. Pan roasting is rather messy, so you do as restaurateur and cookbook author Rick Bayless does—I put a piece of foil on the pan before adding the tomatoes. It prevents having to clean burned tomato juices from the pan.
Toasting Dried Chiles
Dried chiles are used to add flavor, heat, and body to many sauces. Toasting is not always called for in a recipe, but when it is, it's an important step to give extra depth and flavor. After toasting, the dried chiles can either be ground into a powder, or soaked to soften the skin if they will be puréed for a sauce.
Wear protective gloves to avoid irritation from the chile oils in the veins and seeds of the chiles. Do not rub your eyes or nose.
To toast dried chiles: Wipe the dried chiles with damp paper towels to remove dust. If dried chiles are washed before roasting, they may be too wet to roast, so allow them to dry completely before roasting.
Cut the chiles open with kitchen scissors or a small sharp knife. Remove and discard the stems, seeds, and veins. Heat a dry skillet or comal over medium heat. Put the chiles in the heated pan and press to flatten with a wide spatula to make contact with the surface of the pan. Toast, turning 2 to 3 times, until aromatic and chiles take on some orange color. Do not let the chiles get any black spots, which indicates it is burned, or they will be bitter.
Toasting, Grinding, and Frying of Dried Herbs, Spices, Nuts, and Seeds
There are a few basic steps to follow when preparing certain ingredients for Mexican cooked sauces and seasoning pastes. The steps do take extra time, but are important to maximize the flavor of the ingredients and to reflect authentic Mexican tastes. Once you start cooking Mexican food frequently, the steps become almost automatic. When you see a recipe using certain chiles, nuts, herbs, seeds, or spices, you'll know that some toasting, grinding, and frying will be included in the preparation as described below.
Toasting Dried Herbs and Spices: Heat a comal (a traditional Mexican metal or clay pan), a griddle, or skillet until hot, then toast the herbs and/or spices, shaking the pan or stirring, until they release their aromas, generally about 10 to 15 seconds. Transfer to a plate; they're ready to use.
Toasting Nuts and Seeds: Heat a comal, griddle, or skillet until hot and toast the nuts or seeds until they turn to a pale brown, about 5 to 7 minutes. Watch carefully and keep them moving by shaking the pan or stirring to prevent burning. Transfer to a plate; they're ready to use.
Grinding, Blending, and Frying: Nowadays electric blenders and spice grinders do most of the grinding and blending of ingredients for seasoning pastes and sauces. Of course, some cooks still prefer to do some parts of the job by hand with a basalt mortar and pestle (molcajete and tejolote) or on a flat stone (metate).
To them, the differences in the final sauce is worth the hard work.
After these steps are completed for cooked sauces, the remaining recipe ingredients are combined, and liquid is added if called for, such as broth, stock, or water. The frying step is next: Here, fat is heated in a deep pot (to control splatters) and the combined ingredients are quickly fried to intensify flavors and to reduce the sauce to the desired thickness.
Using Banana Leaves
Banana leaves are most commonly found frozen in packages in Mexican, Latin-American, and Asian markets. Frozen leaves thaw in about 5 to 10 minutes at room temperature.
The leaves tear easily, so handle them gently.
To use, carefully unfold and separate the leaves. Using a damp towel, wipe off any white chalky residue from the surface of the leaves. Cut out the center vein, cutting from the pointed end toward the wide end to prevent tearing the leaf.
Using scissors, cut the leaf into the desired size for your recipe. If the leaf tears, it can be patched with smaller pieces when you wrap the food.
Then make the leaves more flexible, by running them briefly over a gas flame or an electric burner until flexible enough to fold, about 5 to 6 seconds on each side. Or, the leaves can be steamed in a large steamer over boiling water until they become pliable enough to fold, about 3 minutes. Put the leaves between two damp towels to keep them moist. Prepare just the number of leaves needed and store the remaining leaves in the freezer.
Using Fresh Cactus Paddles (Nopales)
The paddles that grow on the prickly pear cactus are called nopales and taste somewhat like green beans when cooked. Nopales are very common and used extensively in Mexican cooking in salads, soups, omelets, and as a filling for tacos and other snacks.
If you have the opportunity to gather nopales from a prickly pear cactus, or purchase cactus with spines still on, it is necessary to remove them.
Cutting and Removing Thorns from Cactus Paddles
Wear heavy protective gloves if cutting paddles from cactus plants. Cut young, small, thin paddles. They will be firm and have a better flavor.
To remove the thorns, lay paddles on newspapers, outdoors, if possible. Wear gloves to protect hands and tongs to hold the paddles. Using a sharp knife, trim off the outside edge all around the paddles, then scrape the flat sides of the paddles with the knife blade to shave off all the tiny thorns that grow from the small bumps on the surface of the cactus paddles. Don't peel off the dark green outer skins. Rinse well. Cut off and discard the base of the paddle. The nopales are ready to cut into strips or squares, called nopalitos, or used whole, as recipe instructs. Roll up and discard the newspapers with the thorns and scraps inside.
Mexican Cooking Glossary
The reddish-orange seed of the annato tree used to season and color foods. A seasoning paste is also made from the seeds. Used extensively in the Yucatán region. (Can dye clothes, skin.)
A chile-based paste to use as marinade or sauce.
Beverage made with blended fruit, flavorings, and water.
Spanish for avocado, which are native to Mexico. Pear-shaped or round fruit with dark green to almost-black skin and soft cream-colored interior when ripe. Avocados (aguacate) are native to Mexico, and there are many varieties. Used for guacamole and other salads, and sauces.
Anaheim or California
Long, slender chile, light green in color. Ranges from mild to quite hot. Roast and peel before using in chiles rellenos, sauces, and vegetable dishes. Also canned as whole green chiles and diced green chiles.
A dark red to almost-black dried poblano chile, with wrinkled skin. In some places it is called pasilla. Wide at the top and tapered toward the tip, and 3 to 4 inches long. Anchos are mild to hot. Used for sauces, or reconstituted then stuffed.
Appetizer or snack. From the Spanish word antojo, meaning whim. Includes traditional small portions of street foods such as tacos, sopes, tostados, and burritos. Sometimes called botana.
Asada or asado
Broiled or grilled meat.
Thick drink or porridge usually made with ground corn.
Alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage or drink.
Large flat leaves of the banana tree widely used in Mexico to wrap tamales, or other foods that are baked or steamed.
Oval-shaped Mexican sandwich roll (about 6 inches long), with crusty exterior and soft center. Often used for Mexican sandwiches called tortas.
Snack or appetizer. Also called antojito.
Pudding. Refers to sweet desserts and savory baked dishes.
Fritter made with wheat flour.
A filled and wrapped flour tortilla. Common in northern Mexico.
Thick caramel confection made with goat's or cow's milk and sugar. Long, slow-simmering produces caramel color and very sweet flavor.
Shiny dried chile with smooth red skin, 4 to 5 inches long, mild to slightly hot. Used in cooked sauces and ground into chili powders.
Also called Ceylon cinnamon; referred to as the pure or true cinnamon. Has a milder, sweeter flavor than Cassia variety common in the United States.
Pork steamed and fried in lard. Popular filling for tacos.
Dried reddish-brown chile that's mildly hot with a nutty flavor. Round in shape and rattles when shaken.
Clay cooking vessel that's wider at the top than at the bottom.
Raw fish marinated and "cooked" in lime juice. The chemical action of the acid in the lime juice firms the flesh and turns it opaque, so the texture is as though cooked.
Corn tortilla dough formed into small oval or round with pinched-up rims. Fried and topped with filling for appetizers.
Chocolate atole (corn-based chocolate drink).
Mayan green leafy plant found in the Yucatán. The tender greens are used like spinach or Swiss chard (the recommended substitutes).
Pear-shaped, pale green vegetables related to squash. They are indigenous to Mexico and are also known as vegetable pears or mirlitons.
Tropical dark green fruit with patterned skin that resembles thumbprints. Creamy white flesh with shiny black seeds. Used in sorbets and other desserts.
Fried pork rind used as snack or garnish.
Casserole made with day-old tortilla strips or wedges combined with eggs, sausage, or bits of chicken or meat, onion, and red or green sauce. Usually topped with crumbled cheese.
Term used for a large number of capsicum peppers—both fresh and dried—ranging from mild to extremely hot, that are used in cooking. Dried chiles are mainly used for cooked sauces. (See individual listings.) Chiles are also ground, and labeled "pure" with the name of the chile. Unless labeled pure, chili powder is a blend of ground chile and other spices.
Chile de arbol
Small, thin, dried red chile that's very hot. Used in table sauces and cooked sauces.
Stuffed fresh or dried chile.
Large flour tortilla, stuffed, folded, and fried.
Dried, smoked Jalapeño chile with a brown leathery skin; it's very hot. Used canned in a seasoning mixture called adobo, and also puréed and made into a fiery chipotle sauce with a smoky taste. Chipotles are popular, and a little goes a long way.
Spicy Mexican pork sausage.
Rope-shaped, deep-fried fritter, from 4 inches to about 10 inches long, that is rolled in sugar while hot.
Green herb, also called Chinese parsley, that has a distinctive flavor essential in many fresh salsas and as a garnish.
A griddle made of clay, aluminum, iron, or steel. Used for toasting ingredients such as tomatoes, chiles, seeds, herbs.
Aged cheese; also called queso añejo.
Mexican cream that is thick and slightly sour, somewhat like French crème fraiche. It's used to garnish enchiladas, tacos, and other snacks.
Sweet or savory pastry turnover.
Filled corn tortilla, folded, rolled, or stacked, and covered with sauce. Often baked.
An important green herb—essential in some regions of Mexico—used in bean dishes, tamales, some sauces and stews, and other dishes. Used fresh and dried.
Meats, fish, or vegetables "pickled" in vinegar, oil, herbs and spices.
Baked custard made with milk and eggs. Originally from Spain.
Corn tortilla rolled around filling and fried.
Yucatán appetizer made with small bowl-shaped corn tortilla dough that's fried and filled with beans and spicy meat or chicken mixtures.
Appetizer made of corn tortilla dough that's shaped into patties, then baked on a comal or skillet, or fried and topped with beans, shredded meats, chicken, and just about anything.
Medium-to-long, dark red dried chile that's quite hot and very popular. Used extensively in cooked sauces.
Pale yellow, waxy, small hot chile. Also milder banana and Hungarian wax chiles, about 4 inches long; used in sauces, salads, and sometimes pickled.
Gusano de maguey
Small worm that inhabits agave plants. It is fried and eaten as a delicacy and also put into bottles of mezcal liquor.
Small, very hot—maybe the hottest of all chiles—in shades of green, yellow, orange, and red. A lantern shape with indentations and irregularities. Closely related to the Scotch Bonnet chile.
Large leaf with an anise-like flavor used in sauces and as a wrap for steaming fish and sometimes tamales. Also called hoja santa, momo, and acuyo in some regions.
Beverage made by grinding uncooked rice or melon seeds with water or juice.
Breakfast specialty of eggs on tortillas topped with a tomato-based sauce (salsa ranchera).
(also cuitlacoche) A black fungus growing on corn during the rainy season. Used in crepes, soups, and with eggs.
Dark green, plump hot chile about 2 to 3 inches long, with a rounded bottom. Used raw in salsas and cooked in sauces. Also pickled and canned.
Large root vegetable with light brown skin and white flesh, shaped like a turnip, with a crisp sweet taste. Jicama is eaten raw, peeled and sliced, and is occasionally cooked.
Rendered pork fat.
Beverage of blended fruit with milk, yogurt, or water.
Popular Spanish cheese made of sheep's milk; also made in Mexico with cow's milk.
Fresh dough made of specially processed dried corn used to make corn tortillas, tamales, and other masa dishes. Dried masa is also dehydrated into a flour called masa harina.
Three-legged stone used for grinding.
Thin membrane, like parchment, from the maguey plant. Used to wrap foods that are then cooked in a pit.
Stone mortar used for mashing and grinding.
Nahuatl word meaning sauce. Refers to a number of traditional complex sauces from different regions of the country.
Dried, very dark, almost-black chile, very similar to and often mistaken for an ancho. Used in moles.
Long green chile resembling Anaheim, but hotter, and used in the same ways as Anaheims.
Paddles from the prickly pear cactus that are eaten as a vegetable all over Mexico. Often cut into strips called nopalitos for cooking. The edible fruit of the plant is called a prickly pear, or tuna.
Pan de muerto
Special round loaf of sweet bread topped with decorative dough-shaped crossbones that is used for celebrating the Day of the Dead, which honors deceased family and friends.
Mild slightly soft cheese; often sliced as an appetizer.
Long, narrow, black chile that's also called chile negro. In some places the name pasilla is used for fresh poblano chiles and dried anchos.
Refers to the pit-cooked foods of Yucatán.
Sautéed ground meat dish made with beef, pork, or chicken, and tomatoes, onions, garlic, and other regional flavorings. Often used as a stuffing.
Unrefined cane sugar; shaped into cones or slabs.
Stew, similar to mole, with ground pumpkin or squash seeds and nuts.
A cooking banana, or plantain, also known as plátano macho. Plantains are fried, baked, or mashed. The skin turns nearly black when ripe. Also used to refer to a sweet eating banana.
The most-used fresh green chile. Dark green and shiny with broad shoulders, tapering to a rounded or pointed bottom. Used extensively roasted, peeled, and stuffed for rellenos, and as a garnish when cut into thin strips or squares. Poblanos are also cooked in many dishes and puréed in many sauces.
Soup made with pork or other meat and treated dried corn, called hominy in the United States.
Folded, grilled, or fried corn or flour tortilla filled with cheese, and sometimes other ingredients are tucked inside with the cheese.
Strips of roasted and peeled poblano chiles.
Any food that is stuffed. Most often used for stuffed chiles.
Mexican cooked eggnog drink made with milk, sugar, egg yolks, vanilla, and rum.
Cooked or raw green sauce.
A popular drink to accompany tequila made from orange juice, grenadine, chiles, and sometimes tomato juice.
Small, slender, light green, hot-to-very- hot chile that used mainly in fresh salsas or cooked sauces. Often used interchangeably with Jalapeños.
"Dry soup"; refers to rice and pasta dishes. The liquid the rice or pasta begins cooking with is completely absorbed, making it dry.
Like gordita. Appetizer made of tortilla dough that's formed into small rounds with pinched-up rims, then fried and topped.
Often spelled tamale. Tortilla dough filled with any kind of meat, vegetable, or fruit, then wrapped in corn husks, banana leaves, or other wrappings, and steamed.
Corn tortilla folded around a filling. Sometimes briefly fried.
Brown pods from the tamarind tree. The inside of the pods makes a tart juice that's used to flavor beverages, candies, and sauces.
Filled, rolled, and fried corn tortilla, similar to a flauta.
Pestle used for grinding in a molcajete (stone bowl).
Special stew from the state of Puebla.
Small green tart fruit with a papery hush that looks like a green tomato. Used in cooked and raw sauces and salsas throughout the country. Also called tomato verde in Mexico.
Mexican sandwich; also means a pie or tart.
Thin flat bread made of masa (specially treated dried corn). Corn tortillas are the most important bread in Mexico. Tortillas are also made of wheat flour, used more in northern Mexico.
Fried corn tortilla chips, or whole fried tortillas used as an edible plate to layer with ingredients such as beans, lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, meats, and cheeses.
Edible root from a tropical plant that's used like potatoes, mainly in Yucatán, Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Chiapas. Often made into fritters or chips.