Mexican Food Culture: 9 Dishes That You Must Try in Mexico

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Mexico has long since been a popular choice for travelers, thanks to its sprawling landscapes featuring distinct canyons, diverse cities, and luxury beach resorts. And yet, despite all its scenic draws, many will confess that it is in fact the food (and the many cultural traditions surrounding it) that feeds the soul and truly makes it a must-visit destination. Are you saying, ‘tell me more, por favor?’

Mexican cuisine has been famously recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. That’s right, much of the food introduced by indigenous tribes centuries ago still make up the most authentic, flavorsome dishes served today. And it’s the native crop of corn that is the magic ingredient in most Mexican food culture. From your tacos to your tostadas and tamales, you’ll find these filled with tender, juicy meats or freshly-caught seafood from coastal regions, as well as fiery chilies, frijoles, creamy cheese and more. Admittedly ‘vegetarian’ hasn’t been in the Mexican lexicon for long, but we’re certain you’ll find something to leave you satisfied.

So, whether it’s seeking “antojitos” (little cravings) from the many street food stalls, grabbing late night tacos from the taquerias, or frequenting some of the most culturally respected restaurants in the capital – get ready to feast on a food culture like no other. Let’s get you started with these nine Mexican must-have dishes.

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1. Tacos, of every type

Simply put, we couldn’t start our foray into the foods of Mexico without putting tacos up top. You know you’ll be spoiled for choice when around 22% of restaurants in the country are taco or tortas restaurants, but if you’re looking for where to begin — set your sights on some tacos al pastor. Created in the east-central city of Mexico, Puebla, and inspired by Lebanese immigrants who introduced the region to shawarma, this dish is directly translated to “in the style of the shepherd”. Since then, the meat has moved from mutton to thin strips of sliced pork, slow-roasted over a spit, and then stuffed with the tangy kick of pineapple as well as coriander leaves, onions, chilies and salsa. When we say flavor sensation, we mean it…

If this combination isn’t your thing however, there are hundreds of other taco types to tuck into. Another popular choice is tacos de barbacoa (typically lamb, beef or goat) wrapped in leaves and slow cooked over an open flame. Of course, if you’re venturing along Mexico’s Pacific Coast, be sure to try the tacos de pastados. The Baja area is particularly famed for its fried fish/shrimp tacos by the sea. And if you’re feeling extra daring? Tacos de chapulin (yes, my friend, that is grasshoppers) is just one reason why you should consider visiting Oaxaca.

2. Mole

mole
Photo by Garrett Ziegler on Flickr

Mole is one of Mexico’s most famous recipes and is oftentimes considered the country’s national dish. Many states have their own take on mole, but what unites them is this thick, time-intensive sauce that typically has a chili base, with up to 40 ingredients which are painstakingly slow cooked and stirred over a long period of time. The outcome is complex, layered flavors which may include the likes of dried chilies, tomatoes, dried fruits, spices and seeds. Sometimes it’ll contain dark chocolate, too. Mole (pronounced, mol-eh) is then served over a variety of meats, such as chicken or turkey, or rice.

The most popular version of mole is mole poblano from Puebla, which is a symbol of Mexico’s culinary heritage and can take up to a whole day to prepare. However, if you’re in the next state over and staying in Oaxaca, this is commonly known as the ‘The Land of the 7 Moles’. Here, you’ll be able to try a variety of versions, the most common being mole negro. For something sweet, try the mole coloradito, or for the spiciest of the seven moles, go with mole rojo.

3. Pozole

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Pozole is what many would describe as a cross between a soup and a stew. A warm, filling brothy bowl of comfort made with hominy corn (maize kernels that bring out the tortilla flavor). As is the case with lots of Mexican food, pozole is slowly cooked (and often stewed overnight), then packed to the brim with chicken, pork or seafood depending on your region, as well as fragrant garlic, onions and spices. Finally, traditional garnishes to go with pozole include freshly-diced onions, sliced radishes, limes, avocados and lettuce.

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Dating back to the pre-Columbian era, this is particularly popular for celebrations. In true patriotic style, all pozoles signify the Mexican flag colors with either rojo, blanco or verde (red, white or green) sauce, with slight changes to the standard recipe. If you want to know where to start on your mission to taste this soothing bowl of goodness, you can find some small restaurants in Mexico that specialize solely in it. Though it’s a typical dish in states such as Nayarit, Sinaloa, Michoacán, Guerrero and Jalisco, you’ll also find it served in many Mexican restaurants wherever you go.

4. Chilaquiles

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The naive among us may say these look like nachos, but the main difference is that nachos are hard and eaten with hands, whereas chilaquiles tend to be softened tortillas and eaten with a fork. And in our humble opinion, they’re better! Typically a breakfast food to fuel you up for the day, chilaquiles are traditionally made to use up leftover, hardening tortillas. The dish utilizes strips of tortillas, fried and sauteed with all your favorite toppings. For most this will be the base of green or red salsa, piled up with a cream sauce, a sprinkling of cheese and onion and topped with softly pulled chicken, pork or beef, or a big helping of frijoles. Where are the breakfast ingredients, you may ask? Well, scrambled or fried eggs are usually the finishing touch to this masterpiece.

The name itself comes from the Aztec Nahuatl language, and translates to chilies and greens. Depending on where you are in the country, each dish will differ slightly. For example in Mexico City, you’ll find the tortillas are simmered in the green, or spicy tomato sauce. Go to other places however, and it’s usually poured on top. No matter where you are though, you’ll find your chilaquiles fix — from street stalls, to the fanciest of brunch restaurants. The best bit? This dish is well known throughout Mexico as a morning cure for those torturous tequila hangovers, whether you’ve been enjoying the nightlife in Tulum, Playa del Carmen, or Cabo San Lucas!

5. Churros

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Many would associate the churro with Spanish and Portuguese culture, and rightly so. Yet you’ll notice churros are a big feature of street food snacks in Mexico, and soon you’ll see exactly why they’re such a sensational hit. This guilty pleasure is a gift in Mexico: freshly fried, doused in cinnamon sugar, and served with delicious toppings such as dulce de leche (a thickened, caramel-like syrup), chocolate sauce, vanilla cream and more. As Mexico is the birthplace of chocolate however, you’ll find this is the most common.

If you’ve got a sweet tooth, we’d advise pairing your golden and crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside churro with one of Mexico’s famous hot chocolate beverages, which is often used for dipping. Don’t worry, it won’t look out of place – this is a huge part of Mexican culture, and you’ll not find many places that serve churros without some sort of luxurious chocolate side. If you’re in the capital, try to stop by a specialist churrera, or else discover churro carts all over the country, from shopping centers to municipal markets and festivals.

6. Tamales

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Tamales are a total Mexican street food staple, and the ideal small snack for something stodgy when out and about on your travels. Made from corn dough called masa, this dish involves little pockets stuffed with anything you could desire, from savory fillings such as tomatillo-based verde tamales, to the hot and fiery tamales de raja stuffed with melting cheese. You’ll also discover sweet tamales, with common fillings including chocolate, dulce de leche, raisins and fruit preserves. The tamale is then wrapped in banana or cornhusk leaves and steamed to soft perfection, finished off by tying it together with a string for serving.

You can find tamales at almost any street food market in Mexico, as well as most restaurants. And if you’re ever in the southern-Mexican state of Oaxaca and fancy trying a slightly perplexing protein that you probably haven’t had yet, iguana tamales are a popular feature of the Holy Week celebrations.

One final thing, veggies and vegans beware: masa tends to be mixed with lard, so saying “no como carne” (I don’t eat meat) may not be enough in this instance!

7. Elotes

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Talking of veggies, rejoice! The elote is the Mexican name for good ol’ corn on the cob. It’s usually boiled or grilled then served on a stick, ready to eat on the go for true street food style. If you don’t want to make a mess however, go for esquites, which includes eating the kernels out of the cup instead. You might be wondering what’s so special about this dish, but as the first cultivators of corn on the cob, Mexicans have really found the winning combo with these unforgettably infused flavors. You can expect to see elotes smothered in melted butter, with the likes of salt, lime, chili powder, cotija cheese and topped with sour cream or mayonnaise. Trust us, first-time triers are frequently blown away by this creation.

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You’ll get elotes from any street vender in Mexico, and you’ll particularly find them around Mexico’s zocalos (town squares). They’re especially common if you’re staying in Mexico City, and many choose them as the perfect antojitos while wandering round and seeing the sights. Like much of Mexico’s food, this snack serves as proof that it doesn’t have to be fancy to be a flavor phenomenon, and its rumored that it is now served in many trendy New York and LA Restaurants.

8. Birria

Birria
Photo by T.Tseng at Wikicommons

Birria is another go-to meat stew in Mexico. It’s something everyone should try at least once, and is usually made with marinated goat meat or mutton and served with cilantro, onions, lime juice and plenty of corn tortillas. One of the best things about birria is its versatility — either use your tortillas and birria to make a juicy taco served with a side of broth, or simply eat it as a stew and use your tortilla to sop up all those sweet, sour and slightly spicy flavors. Because Birria tends to be cooked in big pots with long prep time, it is a common feature of birthdays, holidays and the like.

Birria is traditionally from Cocula, Jalisco, and the state has some spectacular places to try it. If you’re in the Guadalajara (the capital), you’ll find lots of little street carts and small restaurants called birrierias to get your serving. Or, if you’re staying in the seaside resort town of Puerto Vallarta perhaps, try the state’s popular tacos de birria. You can grab these from street food stands in Puerto Vallarta such as Tacos de Birria, Birria Robles, or Tacos el Moreno.

9. Pambazo

Image by Fernanda Bolaños

King of the carbs, pambazo is a Mexican pleasure that is sure to make you feel full and satisfied. The best thing is thankfully, not many other countries have tried to copy this creation, so you’ll likely be trying this for the very first time. Pambazo itself is a Mexican white “peasant” bread, but in this instance, we’re talking about the whole sandwich. This sandwich soaks the bread in a bright red, spicy guajillo sauce, before it is fried in oil becoming crispy on both sides. Inside, you’ll find it stuffed and loaded with spicy chopped chorizo and potatoes, as well as shredded lettuce, cheese and creme fraiche.

Whether you simply want to try pambazos bread from the bakery, or feast on the full works from Mexican markets, you certainly won’t be disappointed. They’re a staple of Mexican street food culture, and you’ll get different types wherever you go. Mexico City channels the favored chorizo and potato filling. However, in Puebla for example, pambazos are made with flour in the bread and filled with sausage, whereas in Veracruz, it’s often made with ham and refried beans.

People also ask

Why is Mexican food important in Mexican culture? 

Ultimately, Mexican food represents the cultural heritage, and colorful history of the country. The stories of indigenous tribes such as Maya and Aztec, as well as the Spanish conquest, are still told through the same foods, flavors and tastes that you will find in Mexico today. Their food is a strong part of their traditions for this reason too, and it is particularly prominent on special occasions, holidays and ceremonies celebrated throughout the country. It is for this and many other reasons that Mexico was put on the list for Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

What is unique about Mexican food? 

Many try to recreate Mexican food all over the world but none can truly compare, particularly because it is steeped in centuries old culture unique to the country. As well as this, many of the main ingredients (such as corn) are native to Mexico itself. Mexico’s blend of flavors so frequently used offer a distinctive combination, with most dishes using homegrown chilies and a wide range of other herbs and spices including the likes of cilantro, thyme, and cinnamon.

What is the national dish of Mexico?

Though it is oftentimes up for debate, most will say that mole is the national dish of Mexico. Mole is a thick, rich sauce served with meats or rice and made up of up to 40 ingredients, which commonly includes garlic, onions and ground nuts, as well as chilies and chocolate. One of the most popular versions of mole is mole poblano, which many choose to eat in celebration on Mexico’s Independence Day (September 16th). However, every family usually has its own slightly different take on the classic dish.