One of my favorite things about living in Mexico is the overflowing bins of fresh produce for sale on every corner. My last stint in Latin America was in Argentina, a vegetable wasteland where I was lucky to find an anemic red bell pepper for $4. As a result, I am constantly fascinated by the huge variety of Mexican fruits and vegetables on sale at our little downstairs market. Some of them I know well, some are new to me, but I’m gradually working my way through, veggie by veggie.
Here are the most notable Mexican fruits and vegetables I’ve come across:
Of course. Mexico is pretty much THE avocado country. Most of the avocados you eat elsewhere in the world are grown here (or California). In Sayulita, we mostly have the standard Hass avocados, but occasionally you will see the large green Fuerte avocados.
The best thing to do with avocados is obviously to make guacamole- the heavenly mix of smashed avocados, tomato, onion, lime, garlic and salt (maybe a touch of jalapeno). Guacamole is an ancient dish that traces it’s roots back to the Aztecs. Avocados are also commonly used as a garnish, on sandwiches, tacos or as a garnish. I’ve even seen them used in creamy chocolate pudding.
Traveling through Spain and Italy, it is easy to forget that tomatoes are a New World food. Mexicans have been cooking with tomatoes far far back before Columbus ever showed up. Together with onion, cilantro, and lime they are ubiquitous in almost every dish.
Tomatoes are used in all sorts of things, from mole to ropa vieja to various soups and stews. Their most important use though is probably as the base for many salsas and hot sauces.
Despite their name and appearance, tomatillos are not actually related to tomatoes. They are hard green bulbs with shriveled skin and an acidic, sour taste. Their most important use is as the base of most green salsas.
Jicamas kind of resembles a giant turnip, but when cut and sliced are more like a crisper, albino cucumber. The best and most popular way to eat jicama is sliced and sprinkled with lime juice and chili powder. You’ll often see them, along with cucumbers served this way as a street or beach snack.
The first time I saw a chayote I was confused, the second time I was terrified. The chayote looks like a pale green potato or a wrinkly pear. Except that some varieties have spikes (sharp ones!).
Chayotes have a very mild flavor, similar to zucchini and can be used raw in salads, mashed like potatoes or cooked in stir-fries or soups. Prickly chayotes are apparently sweeter and firmer. I still haven’t made anything with these, but I’m determined to conquer my fear soon.
Nopales are pretty awesome. They are de-spined cactus paddles, otherwise known as prickly pear. Nopales are eaten in salads, used as a taco topping and served with scrambled eggs. They taste tender and green, kind of like a green bean but are usually topped with a lot of salt.
Chiles are of course, essential to Mexican cooking. There are many, many types and you can buy them all fresh, canned or dried. I will be writing another post explaining all the different varieties, but the most ubiquitous fresh peppers seem to be poblanos, jalapenos, habaneros, and serranos. I can’t prove it, but I think the jalapenos sold here are spicier than the ones in the US.
Most are primarily used for seasoning and salsa purposes, with the exception of poblanos, which pop up everywhere: stuffed as chile rellenos, sliced as a taco topping and roasted with cream (a dish called rajas con crema).
I already explained how corn is the building block of Mexican food. When it’s not being ground up to make masa it’s served on the cob smothered in butter, or in a cup with hot sauce and mayonnaise. Mexico is also home to those supersize boiled corn kernels called mote, which is an ingredient in my favorite soup, pozole.
What would we do without limes?! They are everywhere and in everything, a serious staple of Mexican cooking, rivaled only by big white onions. As far as I can tell lemons do not appear anywhere in Mexican cooking, it’s all about the limes.
The limes here are the tiny, golfball-sized kind that packs a flavorful punch. They are used to flavor literally everything from sauces to margaritas to chicken and shrimp. Nearly every dish is served with a side of lime wedges to spritz over top. One of my favorite drinks here is a big glass of agua de limon, basically lime-ade.
Our first few weeks here Mike and I were utterly puzzled by the jamaica juice served nearly everywhere. It tasted like cranberry juice but had big chunks of… something floating in it. And it’s pronounced ha-may-ca, not Jamaica. Eventually, we learned that jamaica is actually hibiscus flowers (yes those pretty red ones). Mexicans make sweetened iced tea out of them, but I’ve also seen them on quesadillas and even tacos. We will definitely be smuggling back a big bag of jamaica leaves when we leave.
More fruit than vegetable but still unique. Guanabana or soursop looks similar to jackfruit and tastes like a weird combo of strawberry, citrus, and banana. It’s mostly served in juice form. I bought some guanabana butter (similar to apple butter) but it’s too sour for my taste. It is certainly one of the more interesting Mexican fruits and vegetables.
Rough and tan on the outside, bright orange on the inside, we first thought these were sweet potatoes. They are sold in giant wheelbarrows on the street during the winter-time, cut open like flowers. Their flavor is hard to describe, similar to pumpkin but sweeter.
The Usual Suspects of Mexican Fruits and Vegetables
Also available and widely used in Mexico are onions (white, yellow and red), carrots, bell peppers of all colors, mushrooms, zucchini (including this freaky long curved variety), cucumber, cabbage, and lettuce. Sweet potatoes and regular potatoes are everywhere, as well as plantains, radishes and the odd variety of squash. On the fruit front, we’ve got apples, oranges, bananas, strawberries watermelons and more pineapples than you could ever hope to consume. Pomegranate season has passed now but they were everywhere a few months ago as well.
Some things are hard to come by though: lemons are vexingly rare (who needs them when you have lime?). We can get basil at the farmer’s market and spinach is common but I haven’t yet seen kale, asparagus or brussel sprouts.
Safe to say, we are eating well here with all the Mexican fruits and vegetables. We cook mostly vegetarian at home, partly for economic reasons and partly because the raw materials here are so freaking good. As I write this I’m actually sipping a homemade spinach and blueberry smoothie, a sweet treat considering it’s January.
While we have been eating at home a lot we have explored the food scene of Sayulita. Here are some of our favorite places to eat:
What makes shopping for vegetables even better here, is that we have no local supermarket. Instead of shopping under fluorescent lights, we pick out our veggies at one of three or four local shops, wandering between them in search of the juiciest peppers and ripest avocados. Every morning I watch them arrive on the truck from local farms, giant heaps of tomatoes, or pineapples or limes. Basically, I live in heaven.