In this post, Bianca is going to share very interesting Mexican food culture facts, the relationship that Mexican people have with food, eating habits, and traditions, and many interesting fun facts about food in Mexico. So, grab a juice, sit back, and relax because you are going to enter into the authentic Mexican food world.
Anthony Bourdain once said:
“Americans love Mexican food. We consume nachos, tacos, burritos, tortas, enchiladas, tamales, and anything resembling Mexican in enormous quantities. We love Mexican beverages, happily knocking back huge amounts of tequila, mezcal and Mexican beer every year.”
“…as much as we think we know and love it, we have barely scratched the surface of what Mexican food really is. It is NOT melted cheese over a tortilla chip. It is not simple, or easy. It is not simply ‘bro food’ halftime. It is in fact, old– older even than the great cuisines of Europe and often deeply complex, refined, subtle, and sophisticated.”
As a Mexican, I don’t think I have read a better article (from a foreigner) than the one written by Anthony Bourdain. Honestly, every time I read it I tear up because I can definitely sense a person connecting to our country and culture and giving it the value that it deserves. I really recommend you to give it a read.
Did you know that one of the most important facts about Mexican food is that our gastronomy is now (and has been since 2010) on the UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity?
I must say that this makes me really proud and I ALWAYS mention it to every foreigner I meet.
Every time I have the opportunity to show off our gastronomy I do, and so, this article is one of those times.
What does writing Mexican food really mean?
To speak about the most popular Mexican food and our gastronomy in general is to talk about many different aspects related to Mexican food culture. Here below I am trying to share some facts:
- Mexican food history -many dishes and elements used to cook and serve the food come from pre-Hispanic times, and, much of the most popular Mexican food speaks also of the encounter of the Spanish culture with the original cultures of the territory. One of the main dishes that shows the combination of elements of different cultures is the “Pollo con mole” (Chicken with mole). The 2 main elements, cacao and chile are from Mexico, but, many of the spices and the chicken, come or were brought by spain.
- Mexican food personality – Mexican food is flavor, color, shape and occasion all in one dish at a time. I would mention the pozole, for example.
- The creativity of Mexican food – many popular Mexican dishes speak about anecdotes of people stumbling upon new ways of serving a special dish or by replacing an ingredient for another, or even from contests created during a special date. Many popular Mexican dishes represent the creativity of a person or a community. Of course, we can think of “Los Chiles en Nogada”, the popular dish originated in Puebla, that was the winner of a contest that was made to commemorate the first 100 years of the Mexican independence.
- Mexican food diversity – 32 states in Mexico and every single one of them has a staple dish to brag about. Examples: “Tikin Xic fish” in Quintana Roo. “Poc Chuc” in Yucatan. “Pan de Cazón” in Campeche, “Sopa de pan” in Chiapas, “7 moles” in Oaxaca, “Pejelagarto” grilled in Tabasco, and, twenty something more.
- Ancestral agricultural practices in Mexico: for many families in Mexico, sustenance still comes from what we call “milpa” and “chinampas”, and those 2 are forms of very sustainable agriculture that are traced to pre-Hispanic times. The “Milpa” is basically the piece of land in which corn has been grown since ancestral times by the indigenous people. It is a polycolture system in which we find not only corn but also squash, beans, and many other fruits, vegetables and cactus. This system is very efficient as it allows the coexistence of several species while they share resources like water, light and soil. The “chinampa” is another agricultural system that comes from ancestral times, but, the interesting thing about it, is that it is a technology to grow food in lakes. Basically, they were floating gardens that produced in the Aztec times things like: flowers, green vegetables, edible herbs, broccoli, squash and more.
- Mexican cuisine involves exotic flavors: some of the most popular Mexican food will involve all kinds of ingredients and all kinds of flavors. Combination of chilies and chocolate, or, fruits and meat, or even including insects in a main meal. Mexican food is interesting to say the least. One of the most exotic dishes is a simple “quesadilla de huitlacoche”, for example. The “Huitlacoche” is the fungi that lives in the corn. Or, of course, all kinds of insects in tacos or in salsas like: chapulines, Jumiles, chicatanas, and more.
So, as you can see, talking about Mexican food is not only to talk about what is most known or is more popular.
The Mexican meal times
One of the things that modernity has caused in Mexico is the loss of the tradition of eating together as a family, mostly at lunch or dinner time.
When I speak about modernity I speak about it all: technology, phones, fast-paced life, work demands, and more. It hasn’t been long since I sat with my sisters and my mom to eat during a normal workweek. I think I can look back at maybe 2014.
I mean in special occasions we still do it, but generally speaking, it is definitely something that is being lost and it would be great if my “paisanos” (Mexicans addressing fellow Mexicans in a foreign country) would make an effort to get it back.
Talking about our mealtimes is as intense as everything else in our culture, so, I will just focus on two specific moments: family & “godines” weekday lunchtime and weekends with the family.
“La hora de la comida” (Main lunch weekday meal time)
In Mexico traditionally lunchtime is between 2 and 3 pm during the workweek, but, again, modernity and jobs have made us more flexible so, I will speak about how it was for me.
Families: When I was a kid and enjoyed lunch with my family. My dad would arrive at around 2.45 pm. The table would already be set with table cloth, table mats, and every condiment and extra needed for lunch: cream, cheese, tostadas (flat, crisp, fried or baked corn tortilla) or bread, salt, pepper, ice, and the “agua fresca” (fruit-flavored water) of the day. As soon as my dad arrived, we would all sit at the table. Yes, you guessed it, my mother would serve the food for everyone and then sit to eat with us.
I am sure that today things happen very similarly, but, there will be some families in which the father gets more involved than mine did, or, even families that have a person that cooks and serves the food for them.
Godines or 9 to 5 working people: these are the people that don’t get to go home for lunch, and for them, in Mexico, we have something that is called “cocina económica” (cheap kitchen”) and “comida corrida” (“food to go”). Basically, this is a place where a family (or a woman or a man) cook homemade food at cheaper prices than a restaurant, but, they only make a limited number of main dishes.
Usually a dish with beef, one with pork, one with chicken and one with no meat.
This main dish will include a soup or an appetizer a small dessert like jello or flan and a glass of “agua fresca” (fruit-flavored freshwater). Depending on which part of Mexico you are in, you can find meals like this from 40 to 95 pesos per person. A bargain! And, if you are lucky, you will run into a FANTASTIC cocina with a grandmother than cooks like the angels.
Where I live, in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, cocinas económicas are not very common anymore or they are not as cheap, but, we can still find them. Nowadays a lot of people have replaced it with fast food at the malls.
Weekends with the family
Weekends are a completely different story, and, the habits will depend on your age and your family situation but generally, Saturdays and Sundays are to eat out. A family would be picked up by the father to go out for lunch after work on Saturday, and then, they will go to the movies or just to walk at a mall.
Usually, they will have lots of desserts and snacks, so, most probably there won’t be dinner anymore, since they are stuffed. And then, Sunday will be the day in which they wake up late and have breakfast at home together around 10 am, watch movies, and do nothing. Then, start moving around 2 pm and go out for lunch again around 3 or almost 4 pm.
This is different for a single person or a couple without kids. It will all depend on the habits. Sundays usually are to have some of the most popular Mexican food there is, or, what I call “hangover food”: birria, pozole, cochinita, menudo, tortas ahogadas. When I was eating meat still, I used to wake up after a party night and go for tacos ahogados. I used to live in Morelia, Michoacán where the tacos and tortas ahogadas were the hangover food.
Now, where I am, the hangover food is cochinita pibil and, Mexico City, for example, barbacoa or birria, for sure.
The staple food of Mexico
One of the questions that the passengers of the tours that I used to run in Mexico as a former tour leader asked was: what is the staple food of Mexico?
The easy answer is corn.
In Mexico, corn is part of our ancestral history. It has been grown since then in a form of agriculture that we call MILPA (ancestral agricultural practice). A MILPA, as a practice, involves also the growing of other crops along with corn such as beans and squash, which in turn are also part of our staple food.
Still, there is more. Think of LA MILPA as an ecosystem in which all the crops “help each other” to grow. So, we will find tomatoes, peppers, leaf vegetables, cactus and fruit trees. So, maybe you can notice then that our MILPA is actually a system that sustains Mexican people in terms of food intake and nourishment.
LA MILPA is the heart of Mexico’s food.
The reason why we are talking about tortillas is that they are made of corn and corn is the marrow of Mexican food. Also, because tortillas are found in many of our most popular dishes, if not in form of a taco, usually found in the center of a table for everyone to help themselves to one or 10.
But, I also wanted to give space to honor the REAL handmade tortilla.
Nowadays we have a lot of tortillas everywhere, but, many of them come now from genetically modified corn turned into the industrialized dough, and mass made by a machine. Of course, we buy them and eat them, but, there is a moment in time when a Mexican comes face to face (and mouth to tortilla) with the REAL HAND MADE ones, from scratch. And every time I know I am getting the real deal for my meal makes me yearning for the past, and, very happy and proud at the same time. Too bad I can’t eat too many tortillas, as I get full very fast.
Handmade tortillas have a long process and of course, they involve all the planting of the corn and the harvesting too. Then, the removal of the leaves and the threshing of the corn. Then boiling the grains with limestone, washing it perfectly, and making the dough. Once the dough is made, the women know how to shape the tortillas by their hand and they place it on a comal and flip them, one, two, three times, and finally, they place the tortilla on the coal for it to blow up for 2 seconds for a better taste. The tortillas are carefully placed one on top of each other and wrapped inside a cotton cloth and set like that on a table for people to help themselves.
Unfortunately, this is something that is no longer alive on a normal day in the bigger cities and even towns, but, Mexican smaller rural communities still have this tradition as part of their routine and it’s lovely.
Mexican food culture and shared traits
Mexican food, as said before, is a very vast and dense subject. I mean, there are books such as “Como agua para chocolate”, available also in English and documentaries such as “Taco chronicles”, that are specific to this part of our culture, and so, I would need to write my own to go over it all, but, I don’t want to talk about the most popular Mexican dishes without drawing a somewhat general overview.
All over Mexico, you will find these common elements that are part of the Mexican food culture:
- Breakfast – with exceptions stablished by modernity, we will most of the times find fresh fruits or fresh juice, eggs of many styles and coffee. With no doubt either at the end or the beginning of breakfast, we will have to have a pastry. We Mexicans like our bread too.
- Brunch – during a week day brunch will happen mostly on the street. It will involve what we call “Vitamin T”. had you heard of that? Vitamin T is every food which name starts with a T: tacos, tlayudas, tostadas, tamales, tortas.
- Lunch – it will consist of at least 2 courses. A soup mainly and then the main dish. A main dish will most probably involve rice and beans as part of the sides of the protein. Rice of course is not endemic to Mexico, but, since its import, we have actually made it a very important part of our meals.
- Dinner – unless we go out for dinner or have guests in our home for a special occasion, dinner is usually lighter than breakfast or lunch. Habits are a very important part of the decisions that a Mexican person or family makes and has for dinner, but, I would say that most of us follow this premise passed on by our grandparents. To the question: “How or how much to eat, a mother would answer to her children: have a breakfast for a king, have a lunch for a prince, and, dine like a mendicant”.
- Street food & botanas (snacks) – there will be in the near future a dedicated article about this, but, you do have to know that there are 32 states in México and there are many gastronomy regions within the whole territory. Besides main popular dishes, street food and botanas are an inherent part of the Mexican food, and so, when you come to México, everywhere you go, looking for the popular street food or botana is a must.
- Aguas frescas (fresh waters) or non-alcoholic beverages – in Mexico, drinking sweet fruit /cereals water is a norm. Either during a meal or during a special occasion. Lemonade, Horchata, Tamarindo, cebada, Jamaica and more are just a few examples of the fresh sweet waters that we drink. Unfortunately, modernity has a lot of people drinking sodas, but, all our waters are still out there and very much part of the culture. There will be regions where you will discover modifications of a specific drink or maybe you will find a new one made of another fruit or even seeds. There are names to be mentioned such as: tejate or pozol or coconut cream. These drinks are either made of cacao or coconut or even corn. So, all over Mexico, you will find many different versions of this.
- Alcoholic beverages and spirits – Mexican gastronomy definitely includes alcohol. I mean, we are the land of the tequila and the mescal. But, this is not all that we have. Again, every state or gastronomical region has a spirit of its own. A fermented drink or an “agua ardiente” (hard liquor) of some sort. Or, definitely a combination of sweet and alcohol like for example in Jalisco, with the tejuino (fermented corn). Other drinks we can mention are the tepache (fermented pineapple and orange) in Mexico City, the rompope (type of egg nog) as well in Puebla and thoughout the center of Mexico, the balché from the Mayans (the bark and flower of a tree of the same name), the pox (corn hard liquor) from Chiapas or the charanda (sugar cane) from Michoacán, and many many more.
- Lastly (not really but, for now), TACOS: It is said that the word “taco” comes from several words of several indigenous languages, and, one of the most accepted is Tlahco from the Nahuatl language of the center of Mexico. The meaning of Tlahco according to interpretation is “half or middle”. So, in Mexico, yes, meat tacos are very popular, but, really, in Mexico everything is a taco. Once you grab a tortilla, put salt on it and roll it, you have made a taco. Then, like that, you can use the taco or tortilla as a utensil to push your food into a spoon. But also, you can make tacos of any dish. For example, the way I eat “pollo con mole”. I always shred my chicken, mix it all, place the mix in the tortilla, put sour cream and cheese, and, I eat a pollo con mole taco. And like that, with everything and everywhere in Mexico. And yes, if you wonder, we do mix our carbs with our corn tortilla. (Sorry-not-sorry!)
The most popular Mexican dishes by region
I will share a general overview of Mexican food by region from my own personal experience but more detailed posts on main dishes will follow.
Mexican food dishes in the south-east of Mexico
The states that are included in this region are Quintana Roo, Yucatan, Campeche, Tabasco and Chiapas.
The food from the fishing villages on the coast.
The most traditional dishes include fried fish and seafood ceviche. Every tour to the beach or an island will include this type of meal. The fishing villages that are original from this region have seafood and tortillas as staple food. So, if you are ever in Quintana Roo, make sure you try the mixed ceviche (with all the seafood available except lobster) and a family-size fried fish with sides or rice and beans to make your own tacos. Another very special fish dish is “Pescado a la Tikin-xic”. This dish is prepared in an underground oven and is charcoaled wrapped in banana tree leaves. In Campeche you can find the “cazón empanadas” (dog fish), or, in Tabasco the grilled “pejelagarto” (Tropical gar)
Elements in the Mayan food are: corn, pumpkin seed, Chaya leaf (like spinach), recado rojo (red spices paste), egg, cabbage, beans, pork, wild turkey, pickled purple onion, bitter orange among many others. In my experience, the dishes that I have seen more present in the traditional Mayan gastronomy and daily life are: tamales with chicken, cochinita (pork) and chicken pibil (marinated in a red paste of achiote seed), eggs with Chaya leaf and beans, cheese empanadas, salbutes, panuchos, papadzules, “relleno negro” (black stuffing / ash roasted chili chicken or pork stew)
While I write the names of the dishes I realize how I do have a moment, a story or a face attached to every single one of them.
Mexican food dishes in the center of Mexico
If you want to go on a food journey and you only have ONE destination to choose from, please, choose Mexico City. Mexico City is not only part of the central Mexico gastronomy region, but, it is the place where everyone from everywhere is, and so, everything is found there, and somehow, also blends of it all that makes the experience an unforgettable one.
Also, when I think about central Mexico food, I think of holidays, street food, special occasions, and fun experiences.
Without any order in particular, the elements of the central Mexican food are corn, cactus, onions, tomatoes, beef, lamb, and a lot of chili peppers of every type for spicing the food or as the main dish.
The main dishes of central Mexico are: tacos dorados, enchiladas, chilaquiles, tlacoyos, chile en nogada, pastor tacos, chicken soup, barbacoa, birria, pozole tostadas, nopalitos, frijolitos and many more.
Mexican food in the Pacific (coast and central)
It is very hard to speak about “the best” Mexican food, because, that depends on your taste, but, if I was to choose, I would definitely choose the Pacific food. Yes, it surprises me too, but, I am realizing my favorite dish is the mole and the best one for me is the one from Oaxaca. And, there is where we find a lot of dishes with flowers and since I am a semi-vegetarian, I am able to combine my veggies with the mole plus I get to add that famous Oaxaca cheese for an out of this world culinary experience.
Plus, the pacific owns the tequila and the mezcal, so, it is hard to not be biased.
The states that we are including in this region are Oaxaca, Jalisco, and Michoacán. The pacific food region is also divided into coastal food and mainland food, but, the split is even more diverse because there are many more indigenous cultures within the region (Mixtec, Zapotec, Purepecha, Huichol and more).
The main elements are corn, seafood (shrimp and fish), tequila, the very exotic 7 moles, seeds like nutmeg and sesame, dry fruits, chocolate, and much more.
The main dishes that I have come across in this region are, of course: the 7 moles of Oaxaca will all kinds of proteins and served mostly with rice, the tlayudas (Mexican pizza), the corundas, the tasajo, the cecina, more tamales, the “carne con chile” (beef with chile”), the enmoladas (enchiladas with mole), Birria, menudo, tortas and tacos ahogados, memelas, tarasca soup, enchiladas, and again, so, so, so much more.
Mexican food of the Baja Peninsula
This is the smallest region as it consists only of the food found in the Mexican Baja California peninsula which includes the Mexican states of Baja California and Baja California Sur.
Here the elements of gastronomy are wine, wheat flour tortillas and seafood. And yes, there is a lot of influence from our neighbor, the USA.
My experience in the Baja peninsula is smaller than the three previously mentioned regions, so, I will say that I know that people there eat a lot of grilled steak in tacos. Seafood tacos with cheese, marlin fish tacos (my favorite), and… here TWO FUN FACTS for you: there is a lot of Chinese food in Mexicali, a city of this region where there is a very big colony of Chinese immigrants (from a long time ago), and, the Cesar Salad! Yes! The world-famous Ceasar salad was created in Tijuana and then exported to the world.
Mexican food in the Mexican Northern Region (El Nortii)
I regret to say that this is where my experience goes down to almost 0. Why? It is definitely the “meat lovers” territory. Meat everywhere. The region is known for big farms of all kinds of cattle: cows, pigs, sheep. This is the region with less diversity in Mexico because it is very dry.
Besides the meats, some of the elements are chili and beans. And, in this area, specifically in the state of Chihuahua, we can find the also famous “Chihuahua cheese”, brought in by the Mennonites at the beginning of last century.
The wheat flower tortilla is popular here and also preferred.
Some of the dishes that I know and have tried (when I was eating meat) are huevos con machaca – scrambled eggs with shredded beef, chilorio (pork in chili), drunk beans (my favorite and I still do eat these sometimes). They are refried beans with bacon and beer. They are delicious. Lastly, hot dogs here are a very popular meal and burritos too. The burritos nevertheless are nothing resembling the ones found in the USA.
Almost done, for now…
I don’t know you but at this point, I am starving, and, coincidentally it is 2 pm here, so, it is time for lunch. So, I am going to go now but not before sharing with you that the experience of writing about our food was again one that I will cherish forever.
To be able to tell you all about it, besides research for reminding me things, I was able to access my own memory files and traveling once again.
So, after all the above, I started the article very proud, but, I end it once again in love of my culture and our gastronomy.
I hope I was able to take you through not only an interesting journey but one that invites you to try it all and to connect with us through the stories of our food too.
About the Author: Bia
Bianca is a woman, Mexican, a traveler, an ally, a dreamer, a creative, 100% human and so much more. Bianca has +20 years of experience in personal travel throughout 3 continents, and many countries, cities, towns, and communities. She also comes with +20 years of experience with customer service in the hospitality and tourism industries. A passionate advocate of her country (despite it all), an amateur writer & blogger, art lover, certified yoga teacher, entrepreneur, neophyte researcher, philosophy fan, and knowledge obsessed, she has one dream and mission in life:
“To achieve, through her venture, for travel to be considered and used as a tool for a better education and human development in Mexico”
And, even if in baby steps, she is making the dream, come true through her brand: