The Surprising World of Mexican Food

I’m not going to bother writing one of my “What is ___ Food” posts, because you guys know already, right? At least I hope you do: If you’re American there is a Mexican restaurant on every block, and if you’re not American you’ve at least had a taco before, right? If not I suggest you get on it immediately because you are missing out on one of the greatest cuisines in the world.

Which is to say that despite spending basically no time in Mexico before this trip, I still thought I knew Mexican food pretty damn well. I’ve mixed a margarita or 12 before in my life and even thrown a couple Mexican themed parties.

But of course there is a difference between American-Mexican food and legit Mexican-Mexican food (although American-Mexican is still far more authentic than the monstrosities posing as Mexican food I’ve sampled in England, Australia and even Vietnam). This is particularly true if you are mainly familiar with Tex-Mex which is kind of like Mexican food on steroids.

I still have a lot to learn, and a lot to share with you guys, but let me start out with these interesting surprises I’ve found from eating Mexican food every day for the past two months:

Corn is King

My favorite way to eat tortillas: chilaquiles

From tamales to corn on the cob to the giant kernels of hominy floating in pozole stew, so many Mexican dishes are corn-based. The other night Mike and I managed to sample half a dozen Mexican street foods and nearly every single one of them contained some form of corn.

The most ubiquitous corn-staple is probably the tortillas made from corn flour which are the building block for tacos, quesadillas, chips and more. Every morning trucks deliver coolers of warm fresh tortillas to the store underneath our apartment, and every day they are totally gone by noon.

It’s Not that Spicy

Choose your own adventure taco toppings

Despite the huge variety of rainbow colored peppers and sauces, we haven’t found Mexican food to be particularly spicy. Or rather, Mexican food is like a choose your own spice adventure: you can have your food boringly plain or face-meltingly spicy. All of the heat-filled condiments are served on the side and you can add them to your liking. There are a huge variety of different salsas and hot sauces, enough to merit their own article (coming soon).

Tacos are Everywhere

That in itself is not surprising- tacos are probably the most Mexican of all Mexican foods. They are available in restaurants, on the street, by the beach and filled with nearly anything you can think of from fish to grilled veggies to cow brains. Unlike in the US, Mexicans only use soft corn or flour tortillas- none of those hard Taco Bell shells we’ve gotten so used to.

UPDATE: Last night after I put this post to bed I learned that crunchy tacos do exist- they are called gringos, naturally.

Other foods that I associate with Mexico it turns out are not Mexican at all! Fajita for example are a Tex-Mex creation. Burritos are only popular in one region of Mexico, not ubiquitous like in the states. You can get (really good) burritos here in Sayulita but they are here mostly for the tourists that expect them.

It’s Not that Cheesy

Grilled fish with cilantro pesto and avocado

Another thing we can probably blame on Tex-Mex food is the idea that Mexican food is heavy, with oppressive sauces, mountains of cheese and huge scoops of sour cream. Thank goodness that is not true or I would have eaten into a heart attack weeks ago.

Instead of mega-heavy ingredients, the general focus seems to be on fresh ingredients in moderation. Sour cream, guacamole, rice and refried beans are still present but serving sizes are obviously much smaller than in the US. Deep fried taquitoes, chimichangas etc don’t really exist.

In general I’ve found that tacos and other meals are not usually topped with cheese- onions and cilantro are far more likely. Quesadillas involve cheese of course, as do enchiladas, but it’s more likely to be a mild queso fresco or monterey jack type cheese than a sharp cheddar.

Mayonnaise however is unfortunately popular as a topping for almost anything (I’ve found this true all over Latin America).

Mexicans Have a Serious Sweet Tooth

As do I… Mexican chocolate cake

Is it uncharitable to say I totally get why Mexico is overtaking even the United States in terms of obesity? People really love their sugary snacks…. which of course suits me just fine!

There are the traditional Mexican desserts like flan and tres leches cake, there are tons of ice cream places (Sayulita even has a traditional Italian gelateria), and there are the churro trucks. Then there are the mass produced sweets: ubiquitous Mexican Coke, aisles full of different cookies and plenty of candy too.

Our favorite churro truck parks directly underneath our apartment every evening, so that the smell of fried dough can waft in through the window. Self control is… difficult.

There’s a Lot of Regional Variation

Beach food

I’m hesitant to make too many proclamations about Mexican food, because I’ve really only been eating it in this one small corner of the country. Regional cuisine varies greatly based on history, geography etc. I personally can’t wait to explore the food of Oaxaca, Puebla or Mexico City sometime next year.

Until then I’ll be investigating (that’s my excused at least) the food in my own back yard.

Have you been to Mexico? What surprised you about the food?

42 thoughts on “The Surprising World of Mexican Food”

  1. The Mexican food is really a surprising food because it has a lot of mouthwatering dishes, especially cubana Mexicana, corn tortillas, roasted tomato salsa and gourmet sandwiches. My personal favourite from the Mexican food world is Mexican seafood.

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