Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

Mexican Foods



Fresh milk is available but is not widely used. Canned evaporated and sweetened condensed milks are popular, perhaps because they keep better. These are used in beverages and especially to make the dessert flan. Mild cheeses are usually used grated as a topping or garnish to other foods.


Despite the powerful influence of Spanish cuisine, the Mexican kitchen is still filled with the aromas of foods and dishes based on the Indian staples of beans, tomatoes, many varieties of chilies, and most especially corn in all its many forms. Corn cultivation dates back more than 7,000 years in Mexico. Many types of squash and pumpkin are used most widely, but other vegetables used in Mexican cuisine include peas, onions, tomatoes (both red and green types), jicama (bland, with an apple-like crispness), cactus leaves, beets, potatoes, squash blossoms, lettuce, radishes, nopales (prickly pear leaves), garlic, and peppers. Many vegetable dishes take much preparation time and involve the intricate assembly of stuffed vegetables with sauces also prepared from vegetables, often with a tomato base. Both red and green tomatoes are used frequently for dipping and garnishing sauces and many vegetables are used for soups. Fresh salads of either fruits or vegetables are used mostly by upper classes.

Fruits include a wide and colorful range of tropical and subtropical varieties such as pineapples, bananas, avocados, strawberries, pomegranates, oranges, mangoes, papayas, coconuts, quince, cherimoyas, and apples. Limes are almost everywhere and appear often as a plate garnish and to heighten the flavor of spice mixtures. Bananas are enjoyed baked for dessert, but most other fruits are eaten more often as a fresh snack purchased from vendors.


Meat is too expensive for many tables, but pork and pork products including sausages and offal head the list of favorites. Goat, beef, chicken, lamb, turkey, turtle, and veal are also used. Fish and seafood are plentiful in coastal regions, including the huachinango (red snapper) and camarones (shrimp).

Beans are used daily, mostly as frijoles or frijoles refritos (refried) and eaten as a side dish with tortillas or other foods, or combined as fillings to other dishes. Nuts are enjoyed as snacks or more often finely ground and used to thicken sauces. As a snack they are preferred well-salted, toasted, and often dusted with spicy hot chilies. Cacahuates (peanuts) are abundant, but walnuts, cashews, and pistachios are also used. The toasted and sometimes well-seasoned seeds from pumpkins and varieties of squash may be crushed and used in cooking or nibbled as a snack.


Tortillas made from masa harina (ground cornmeal) are the ubiquitous staple for every table at every meal, either made by hand or purchased fresh daily. Bolillas are also very popular, especially in the cities. These are oval-shaped white rolls with a chewy crust, said to be baked hourly around the clock and made from wheat flour. There is some limited use of dry breakfast cereals in middle- and upper-class homes.


Lard is the most widely used fat for cooking, baking, and deep-fat frying. There is a limited use of oils. Some margarine is used and some butter, mostly as a table spread (for bolillas) or in specialty baking.


The favorite sweet of all ages is candied or dried fruits, especially candied squash, candied sweet potato, and pumpkin. Tamarind is another favorite. Chocolates and candies are expensive, and many prefer tangy, salty, or spicy snacks rather than sweet. The Mexican dessert of Spanish influence is the flan, a slow-baked custard of eggs and condensed or evaporated milk, glazed with caramelized sugar and often flavored with vanilla or coconut. Very young children also enjoy nibbling on sugarcane when it is available. Fresh sliced fruits such as pineapple or jicama are often eaten as a snack first by dipping into little dishes of spicy hot sauces or bowls of blended dry seasonings.


There is a wide and general use of many seasonings, especially in particular areas. These include skillful blends of varieties of chilies, as well as cinnamon, cloves, cumin, anise, allspice, coriander seeds, vanilla, chocolate, nuts, coconut, limes, oranges, garlic and onions, capers, and many fresh Mexican herbs such as cilantro (like Chinese parsley), epazote, mint, marjoram, and sage. The use of unsweetened chocolate or cocoa powder in sauces (mole) originated in Mexico. Red tomatoes and small green ones are used so frequently that they must be considered a seasoning as well. Limes are used freely everywhere as juice, seasoning, and garnish.

The importance of chilies in Mexican cookery deserves a closer look. Because chilies frequently self-fertilize, identifying varieties is often difficult. Generally; green chilies are used fresh and red ones are used dried, but both may be available canned or pickled. Some are available in powdered form similar to cayenne. Removing seeds, stem, and veins usually reduces the fire and yields a milder sweeter taste. Common red and green chilies are listed below

Red Chilies:
Ancho: comparatively mild and flavorful, about 2 to 3 inches long.
Chipotle: smaller than the Ancho, more of a brick red and very hot.
Morita: similar in size, color, and taste to the Chipotle and commonly in pickled form.
Mulata: similar in size to the Ancho but a brownish color and stronger in flavor.

Green Chilies:
Guero: pale yellowish green and sweet milk taste.

Jalapeno: very hot when veins and seeds are used: flavorful, mild when not.

Largo: light yellowish green, usually canned, very fiery but retains a delicate taste.
Poblano: varied sizes from small to as large as a bell pepper and can be mild or hot.
Serrano: slender and less than 2 inches long and very hot whether canned or fresh.
Valenciano: the most commonly found sweet green pepper in supermarkets everywhere.

Two chili-based sauces are classic in Mexican cookery:
Mole means a sauce prepared with chilies, but only the mole poblana from Puebla has bitter chocolate as an ingredient. Moles are prepared like Indian curry or Hungarian lesco.

Tingas represent the Spanish influence on Mexican cookery and may even have similar ingredients to the mole (chilies, garlic, onions, tomatoes, seasonings) but these are chopped, never pureed.

In both moles and tingas, seasonings including chilies are cooked in hot oil or fat (Mexico uses lard). The pre-cooking of the sauce eliminates the raw taste. This sauce is then added to pre-cooked meat, vegetables, or fish, simmered to marry the flavors then served.


Soft drinks are popular and inexpensive. Tea, coffee, and hot chocolate are used according to taste. Excellent local beer, an increasingly high quality selection of wines and even brandy are made in different areas. Pulque, fermented cactus juice, is an old tradition. Tequila, the national potent drink made from cactus, is traditionally enjoyed straight, first with a lick of salt, followed with a squirt of fresh lime.

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