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A renowned and beloved cuisine across the world, for a taste of true authenticity these Mexican foods simply have to be tried during any visit to Mexico.
Built on the foundations of Mesoamerican cuisine, the foods of Mexico incorporate a staggering array of historic and modern influences, along with a wide range of unique and flavorsome ingredients.
If you’re not Mexican and you thought you knew ‘Mexican food,’ then think again! Courtesy of a local writer, let’s together dive into a cuisine of mesmeric color, spice, flavor, and fusion, and prepare to salivate over 18 of Mexico’s most popular and traditional dishes.
Mexican Foods To Try
1 – Tascalate (Prehispanic Drink)
Tascalate is the Nahuatl word for “tortilla water”. This prehispanic drink was well-known before the arrival of the Spaniards to Aztec lands. The dish is first mentioned in Spanish friar writings, dating back to 1566.
This refreshing drink is first prepared by toasting some tortillas until dark. The tortillas are then crushed in a blender with a mixture of sugar, cinnamon, and achiote, a spicy red seed used by the Aztecs to paint their codexes.
Finally, three or four spoonfuls of the tascalate mixture are added to a glass of iced water to serve. This drink is popular during the summer months in the south of Mexico.
2 – Horchata (Rice or Melon Seed Drink)
Horchata is a sweet, milky white drink, that can be prepared in one of two ways. The first variation is a wholesome drink of rice mixed with cinnamon powder, condensed milk, and sugar.
And while rice horchata is filling and flavorsome, many Mexicans substitute rice with ground melon seeds, that are blended, then added to water and condensed milk for a sweeter, heartier version of the drink.
Horchata is originally from Spain, where natives traditionally made the drink with barley and chufa, a plant known in English as tiger nut. Mexicans, however, had to substitute the ingredients to create a similar taste.
Lunch in Mexico is commonly served with agua de sabor (“flavored water”) instead of soft drinks, and horchata is very much at the top of this list.
3 – Café de Olla (Cinnamon Sweet Coffee)
“Pot coffee” is a traditional way of drinking coffee all over Mexico. It was created by the soldaderas, the women of the Revolutionary soldiers that went to war with their husbands, brothers, and fathers. Legend says that they prepared café de olla by the bonfires, waiting for the sun to rise before a new battle commenced.
Café de olla is a sweet and aromatic drink, which is believed to give you plenty of strength and energy. You prepare it by adding cinnamon, cloves, orange peel, and brown sugar to Mexican coffee.
Some will also add chocolate for a little extra flavor. Mexicans drink it in a small and cheap clay pot, which you can buy in any market, hence the name.
4 – Guacamole (Avocado Dip)
Avocados are Mexico’s “green gold”. The country exports almost half of the world’s avocado consumption. And it should come as no surprise as the fat in this creamy fruit is widely seen as the “good” kind of fat your body needs.
Guacamole is a healthy and delicious dip made from avocados. In Mexico, it is easily prepared by adding lime juice, chopped onion and tomato, salt, and pepper to scooped avocado flesh.
Mixed well, the dip is renowned for its pairing with tortilla chips. Many Mexican households, however, also serve it as a regular side dish or add it to tacos, quesadillas, and beef or pork.
5 – Uchepos (Sweet Corn Tamales)
Tamales are a signature dish in Mexican cuisine. Each region prepares the dish initially with cornflour dough, then adds different ingredients to make them sweet or salty, depending on preference.
Uchepos are special small tamales from Michoacan, a southwestern state in Mexico. They are made with baby sweet corn, butter, sugar, and milk skin. These sweet and flavorsome tamales are served with tomato salsa, cheese, or cream.
6 – Sopa de Lima (Chicken Lime Soup)
Sopa de lima is not your usual chicken soup. First, this Mexican staple incorporates three surprising ingredients, lard, beer, and vinegar, to create a broth with a truly rich, acidic, and filling flavor.
Then, as the name suggests, lime juice is added to the soup to add a generous infusion of tang and acidity. Originating from the Yucatan peninsula, it was the Spanish who first planted lime trees in Mexico. Today, this Mexican dish is enjoyed across the country, often with tortilla chips.
7 – Pozole (Popped Corn Broth)
Pozole (or pozotl in Nahuatl) was a favorite dish of Emperor Moctezuma, who ruled the Aztecs when Hernan Cortes and his armies arrived in 1519. Only the aristocrats were allowed to drink this corn soup, which had a ceremonial character.
Aztec human sacrifice is well documented, and according to accounts from one friar in Cortes’ expedition, human meat was used in the preparation of this dish!
Today, pozole is a hearty broth of pork or chicken, chili, and a type of popped corn. It is made a mestizo dish by adding onion, lettuce, radish, and oregano to the broth. Flavorful and filling, it is often served with tostadas (or toasted tortillas) to help soak up the broth.
8 – Menudo (Spicy Tripe Soup)
For many Mexicans, menudo is a soup that is commonly eating to cure a hangover. It was first created after the Mexican Revolution, when the country’s poorest could only afford to buy cow innards, instead of beef, as not only a source of protein but food in general.
Menudo is a spicy soup of tripe, chili, onion, and coriander. Somewhat a Mexican delicacy, the squishy texture of the pancita, or “little stomach”, means a strong stomach is needed to try this dish.
However, the warmth and spice of this soup make it a comforting dish when hungover, ill, or during colder weather.
9 – Tacos Ensenada (Fried Fish Tacos)
In Baja California (a state in Mexico), ensenada tacos are a staple dish. During the 1950s, you could only find this style of tacos in the Mercado Negro (Black Market) of Ensenada.
The market was famous for offering all kinds of seafood you could not try anywhere else. Some vendors even cooked the fish at their market stalls, ready to be served on the spot.
Mario “El Bachigualato” is seen as the pioneer of the dish, becoming famous for frying cheap fish and serving it in tacos with salsa. In time another food vendor, Don Zeferino, took his recipe and added batter so that the fish would not stick to the pan.
For the best and truly authentic ensenada tacos, look for fish fried in vegetable oil over a wood stove. For a taste of 1950ss Mexico, you cannot go wrong.
10 – Pescado a la Veracruzana (Fish with Olive and Tomato Salsa)
Veracruz is a coastal state, known across Mexico for its seafood cuisine. Pescado a la veracruzana is one of the region’s most famous dishes, consisting of red snapper cooked in a well-balanced mixture of European and Mexican ingredients.
The fish, once prepared, is mixed with a red salsa of olives, capers, oregano, onion, chili, and tomato. The ingredients are mixed together within the sauce, cut into chunks, and added to the salsa afterward.
As Mexico is largely a Catholic country, many people eat fish for the forty days of Lent, meaning many will turn to pescado a la veracruzana as their staple meal.
Even today, Mexican families prefer seafood dishes on Fridays, from February until Easter. Although commonly eaten during this period, most small family restaurants will still offer pescado a la veracruzana all year round.
11 – Tortas Ahogadas (Pork Sandwich with Salsa)
In Jalisco, home of the charros, tortas ahogadas are eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This dish is very inexpensive to make, hence it is enjoyed by so many in the region.
Tortas ahogadas definitely draws similarities to the pulled pork sandwich. However, in Mexico, birote, a regional baguette, is used as the bread for the sandwich.
The sandwich filling is an utterly divine combination of fried black beans and pork, bathed in salsa of tomato, onion, and chili.
Indulgent and messy, foreigners will often ask for cutlery to eat this sandwich. Mexicans, however, know how to eat it without getting salsa all over their fingers!
12 – Cochinita Pibil (Slow-Roasted Pork Suckling with Achiote)
Cochinita pibil is a Mesoamerican dish that gets its name from the word ‘pib’, the Mayan term for a cooking pit. Historically, the Day of the Dead rituals included this dish.
Traditionally, this Mexican dish used venison, pheasant, or boar meat. Today, it is prepared with pork marinated in orange juice. The pork is placed in a ground oven, covered in banana tree leaves, and achiote is added for flavor and color during the slow cooking process.
Add purple onion and habanero chile (one of the spiciest chiles in Mexico) to a cochinita taco to truly enhance its rich flavor.
13 – Chiles en Nogada (Poblano Peppers with Meat and a Walnut and Cream Sauce)
Chiles en nogada is seen as very ‘Mexican’ due to its flavors and colors. Families prepare it to celebrate Independence Day fiestas.
When the Independence war ended in 1821, Agustines nuns designed this dish to mark a new era for the country. The dish is inspired by the colors of the Mexican flag, with green represented by the poblano peppers, white by the cream and walnut sauce, and red by the pomegranate seeds.
Traditionally the peppers were stuffed with fruit, but in time Mexican chefs added grounded beef. Soon, this new, meat-based variation was widely adopted, and went on to became a favorite of Mexican cuisine.
14 – Mole Poblano (Chicken with a 25-Ingredient Sauce)
Mexican dishes are often accompanied by, or use, salsa. Yet among all salsas, it is generally agreed that mole is one of the stand-out versions, purely due to its complexity.
Several sources place the origin of mole in the hands of an Augustine nun known as Andrea de la Asunción. It is said that during a visit from a Viceroy of New Spain, she mixed 25 ingredients, including different chilis, to create a dark and creamy salsa to serve the royal leader. Resulting in a dish that fascinated many Mexicans, mole was ultimately born, and went on to become one of the country’s most celebrated salsas.
Mole poblano originally comes from Puebla but is eaten all over Mexico. Among its ingredients are chocolate, chile, onion, peanuts, raisins, almonds, and pumpkin seeds. You can try more than 50-mole varieties when you travel through Mexico!
15 – Flan (Sweet Baked Custard)
Nearly all Mexican households follow a hearty main dish with flan, a delicious custard influenced by Spanish recipes. Flan is a custard of eggs, milk, and sugar, and is served with eggnog or caramel topping. In Mexico, flan is softer than crème brûlée, a Catalan confection. It is enjoyed by both children and adults alike.
Mexican flan has even become one of the key ingredients in the aptly named “Impossible cake,” which is a dessert made from balancing a flan on top of a standard chocolate vanilla cake! As you can probably imagine, there’s so much sweetness in even a single bite.
16 – Buñuelos (Fried Dough Fritter with Sugar Syrup)
This originally Mediterranean dessert is written about by one of Mexico’s most famous poet, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Buñuelos have been enjoyed as far back as the 17th century in Mexico and remain incredibly popular today.
Traditionally, buñuelos were called puñuelos, because you used your fists, or puños, to shape them. Today, bakeries and restaurants that prepare buñuelos instead use a round stone to flatten and shape the dough, as it is much easier to shape with this technique.
Nowadays, buñuelos are a Mexican Christmas tradition. In some regions, you can prepare them with cheese, pineapple, milk, or raisins. But traditional buñuelos consist simply of deep-fried dough, covered in molasses.
This type of dish goes by the name of “air buñuelos”, because bubbles are formed on their surface while frying. Buñuelos are light, melt-in-mouth, and a much-loved Mexican food.
17 – Pastel de Tres Leches (Three-Milk Cake)
Literally translating to “three milk cake”, pastel de tres leches is a beloved Latin American dessert, mace famous by the Carnation Evaporated Milk company, who included the recipe on the labels that adorned their evaporated milk cans.
Essentially, pastel de tres leches is a sponge cake that is soaked in a mixture of evaporated milk, condensed milk, and whole milk, before serving. In Mexico, it is common to add vanilla also.
Also known as “drunk cake”, this Mexican favorite is wholesome, sweet, and moist, and Mexican families commonly serve it as a birthday cake at children’s parties.
18 – Cocada (Coconut Candy)
Mexico has a myriad of traditional sweets. One of them is cocada, a coconut confection with egg yolk, sugar, and shredded coconut. Sometimes it is toasted, making the coconut crispy and delicious.
Some bakers even mix cocadas with liquor and pink food coloring, resulting in a colorful cocada you can find in many Mexican markets.
As with many traditional Mexican dishes, nuns perfected the recipe over long periods of time. Through the centuries, inside the convents, these skilled women created many of the traditional confections and desserts millions of Mexicans now love and cherish.
To this day, nuns across the country continue to sell these sweets as a way of living. Cocada was traditionally only found near the coastline, but nowadays you can find it in any Mexican food market.
Mexican Food Summary
A country that has a truly unique relationship with food, Mexico allows all who try its traditional cuisine to embark on a culinary adventure of incredible proportions.
Native ingredients, rich history, countless influences, and undeniable passion for food all meld together in a metaphorical cauldron that bubbles with color, flair, spice, texture, and flavor.
Mexican cuisine has traveled far and wide, wowing people from all across the world with its depth, heartiness, and flavor. But for true authenticity, you simply have to grace the food markets and eateries of the land on which this wonderous cuisine first began, thousands of years ago.
During your next visit to Mexico, keep this list of traditional foods on-hand. That way, you can seek out these dishes at local restaurants, food markets, and eateries, and experience Mexican food at its purest.
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Save and Pin for Later
Eager to try some of these authentic Mexican dishes? Keep this list of foods for safekeeping, by pinning it to one of your foodie travel Pinterest boards.
Contributor: Ana Perusquia is a bilingual writer, editor, and designer from Mexico City, who has worked in the publishing industry for a number of years.
Images licensed via Shutterstock