Mention the words “Mexican food” and many people automatically think “tacos,” but that doesn’t begin to do justice to the depth and breadth of what authentic Mexican food encompasses. Mexican cuisine is incredibly rich and varied, and each region has its particular ingredients, techniques, and signature dishes. Let’s take a tour around Mexico to learn about the diversity of this UNESCO-listed cuisine.
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The Baja Peninsula
Seafood predominates along the Baja Peninsula, and simple but delicious fish tacos are an ever-popular dish. However, the state of Baja California is home to Mexico’s main wine-producing region, the Valle de Guadalupe, which, in addition to wineries, has many gourmet dining establishments.
Tijuana, a large city located on the border with the United States, is gaining a reputation as a foodie destination with a variety of innovative restaurants. “Baja Med” is a new name for this region’s culinary style, where Baja California meets the Mediterranean, with some Asian elements reflecting the area’s fairly large Chinese immigrant population.
There’s an emphasis on local ingredients such as wine, olives, and olive oil, as well as fresh seafood and produce. Farther south, the tourist haven of Los Cabos, located at the tip of Baja California Sur, has a growing farm-to-table movement.
The north of Mexico is generally arid and has many large cattle ranches. Meat figures prominently on the menu here: you’ll find steak, barbacoa (shredded beef, goat, or lamb), machaca (marinated shredded beef), and chilorio (pork fried in chile sauce). Beans are also a staple, and accompany most meals, sometimes prepared as frijoles borrachos (or “drunken beans”), cooked with bacon and beer.
A Mennonite community introduced a cheese-making tradition in the early 20th century, and a variety of cheeses are produced in this region, particularly in the state of Chihuahua. Flour tortillas tend to be preferred in northern states, whereas corn tortillas are far more common farther south.
Pacific Coast States
Cuisine is seafood-based all along Mexico’s shoreline. Aguachile, a ceviche made with shrimp, cucumber, red onion, lime juice, and chiles, is a signature dish of Mazatlán, a city in the state of Sinaloa.
In Acapulco, Guerrero, marinated grilled fish called pescado a la talla is the specialty. Fish and seafood soups, many prepared with a spicy tomato broth, are also popular in the coastal regions.
The town of Tequila, where the spirit made from the agave plant originated, is located in the state of Jalisco. Tequila can only be produced in this specific region and of the “blue agave” that grows here, so this is the best place to sample Mexico’s most famous drink. The nearby city of Guadalajara is known for its tortas ahogadas (pork sandwiches drowned in spicy tomato sauce) and birria, stewed goat.
Pozole, corn hominy soup prepared with pork or chicken and garnished with shredded lettuce and finely sliced radishes, is served throughout the country, but originated in this area.
The cuisines of the states of Michoacán, Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas are mainly indigenous, with less of the European influence found in the rest of the country. Corn, chiles, tomatoes, tomatillos, and avocados as well as a variety of local flavorful herbs are the main ingredients.
Edible insects are also included in this region’s cuisine, including jumiles (stink bugs) in Guerrero and chicatanas (ants) and chapulines (grasshoppers) in Oaxaca. The state of Oaxaca is also known for its variety of moles, the main one being the mole negro, a thick sauce that is both spicy and sweet, made with ground fruit, nuts, seeds, chiles, and chocolate.
Another local dish is tamales, which may be wrapped in corn husk or banana leaves and come stuffed with different fillings such as mole or sliced poblano chiles and tomato.
The cuisine of the Yucatan Peninsula is made up of a mix of indigenous Maya and European flavors and techniques. Some of the special ingredients used here are achiote, a seed that gives food flavor and an orange color, and chaya, a green Spinach-like leaf.
Try the sopa de lima, a tortilla soup with a chicken and citrus broth that has a tangy flavor, cochinita pibil, marinated pork traditionally cooked in an underground pit, and queso relleno, an Edam cheese stuffed with a mixture of ground meat, tomatoes, and spices.
Hot habanero chiles are always available, but not necessarily prepared in the dishes, so they’re usually not overly spicy.
The cuisines of Mexico’s various regions converge in central Mexico. In Mexico City, you can find dishes from all over the country, as well as more international options. Some street food options to try include tacos al pastor and tlacoyos. Several Mexico City restaurants are rated among the world’s best, so this is also the perfect place to sample gourmet options.
In the state of Hidalgo, you can try mixiotes, meat seasoned with chiles and spices and slow-cooked in an agave-leaf wrapper, but you’ll also find traditional British pasties (meat pies), which were introduced by British mining bosses in the 19th century. In Guanajuato, try enchiladas mineras, a hearty dish of chicken wrapped in fried tortillas and drenched in a chile sauce.
Spanish nuns dwelling in Puebla’s convents during the colonial period receive the credit for the creation of some of Puebla’s special dishes, including chiles en nogada, mole poblano, and traditional sweets such as tortitas de Santa Clara and dulces de camote.
Mexico’s Gulf Coast, and especially the port city of Veracruz, has a distinct Afro-Caribbean flavor, with spicy chile sauces but also sweet tropical fruit, and the vanilla which originated here.
In Veracruz, you can try huachinango a la veracruzana: red snapper prepared with tomato sauce, capers, and olives, as well as arroz a la tumbada, rice baked with seafood, but there are also peanut enchiladas and a special mole made in the town of Xico. Fried fish empanadas are a must in the state of Tabasco.
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