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Jul 1, 2008 04:17 AM

I don't really understand Mexican food...

I tried to look it up, but it seems tro me that everything envolves tortillas of some kind. Is this right?

I mean I made some chili (with chopped steak, say no to mince) and got some store-bought taco shells. So I was eating tacos?

It just seems like there's not an awful lot to it - like if you wrap the same stuff in a different way it's the difference between a quesadilla and a fajita or an enchillada?

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  1. Mexico is a very populous country with many food regions. But one feature of its cuisine is the extent to which it has retained many indigenous foods. Corn is one of the basic foods in many parts of America - as far north as here (Montréal) it was one of the "three sisters" that were the dietary staples.

    In Mayan creation stories, hiuman beings were made from corn. So think bread and other grains....

    Unfortunately store-bought tortillas are not very good, unless you mean made fresh in the shop.

    There are people on the board who are much more familiar with Mexican cuisines, who can provide a fuller answer.

    1. I'm guessing Eat Nopal will be here momentarily to explain...

      While we're waiting, it's useful to think of the tortilla as a substitute for bread, which can be used to make a sandwich or soak up the gravy on your plate. Thus, the types of dishes you're referencing are essentially sandwiches and wraps and only part of the picture. Unfortunately, this informal, street-food part of the cuisine is what's too often featured at Mexican chains and independent restaurants to the exclusion of the good stuff.

      Mexican cuisine is certainly not limited to things stuffed into tortillas, although certainly a well-prepared enchilada is food of the gods. The various regional cuisines, especially once you start moving south of Mexico's northern states, are as complex and varied as any of the world's great cuisines. From long-simmering moles comprising 20+ ingredients to relatively straightforward seafood dishes (e.g. camarones al ajo, huachinango al Veracruzana), the cuisine is as varied as Chinese and as texturally rich as any in the Mediterranean.

      Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless both have accessible cookbooks that highlight the differences between the regions along with plenty of recipes for meals that don't include stuffing things into tortillas. Either author would be a good place to start your journey to understanding ;-)

      24 Replies
      1. re: Panini Guy

        Absolutely - just reading through one of Kennedy's books will, I think, completely change the OP's perspective (I don't have any Bayless ones). Mole was one dish that came to mind that is complex, etc.

        1. re: MMRuth

          Ah, thanks - I did actually go to a bookstore to find a recipe book, but alas there were none. Thanks for the recommendations.

          and MissNeedles, I'm not American, but I think you'll find the average Briton would probably have the same ideas - even the great Keith Floyd on a visit to mexico made fajitas!

          1. re: Soop

            You might try your library as well, if it's something you are interested in pursuing. Or the UK Amazon:


            1. re: MMRuth

              A UK publisher, Hermes House, has a good picture-book on Mexican cooking. The author is Jame Milton. Only a few of the recipes use tortillas.

              I think the most distinctive thing about Mexican cooking is the sophisticated use of chile peppers. They aren't just used for heat; a number of them are relatively mild, and are used to provide complex base flavor. The closest to this in European cooking is the use of paprika in Hungarian cooking, and the use pipenton and nora peppers in Spanish cooking.

              1. re: paulj

                Good idea some pics of Mexican dishes could tell a 1,000 words:

                1. re: Eat_Nopal

                  More (FYI most pics stolen from Josh, Masa Assassin & Kare_Raisu)

                  1. re: Eat_Nopal

                    oh man, no fair posting pics without directions! :-) Can you tell me where the al pastor pic was taken?

                    1. re: susancinsf

                      DF ;)

                      However... the seafood pics are from Mariscos German in San Diego.

                2. re: MMRuth

                  From Fonda San Miguel, in Austin. A famous restaurant making authentic (and sometimes slighty exotic), Mexican food.

                3. re: Soop

                  I'm curious, how's the availability of chili peppers in the UK? Are you cooking Mexican food with peppers usually found in Asian dishes?

                  1. re: ajs228

                    You can get South American chillies from specialist suppliers, like the Cool Chile Company, but they're not that widely available. I must get myself some chipotles en adobe because I keep seeing recipes which include them! I did find two types of Peruvian chillies in a local store though (there are quite a lot of Colombians living in my area).

                    1. re: greedygirl

                      Please do yourself the favor of buying some dried chipotles, too. There's a lot of great pure flavor in the non-adobo dried ones that makes it a whole different ingredient when added to a large pot of *something*. They keep really well, too, like forever.

              2. re: Panini Guy

                Too funny.... looks like plenty of great info has already been provided! Alright, I will add a little bit to it.

                Corn - As others have alluded... Masa (Dried Corn, boiled with powdered limestone, hulled & ground) is extremely important in Mexico... it is the crux of Mexican civilization. To understand the importance... you need to understand the setting. Its about 6500 B.C.... the big game hunting has historically been good in Mesoamerica and the nomadic tribes have successfully increased their numbers... but in the last couple of centuries big game has become increasingly hard to find... have they been overhunted.. or is the obvious climate change pushing them north? Probably a little of both. Some people start experimenting with agriculture... a type of grass creates a tiny cob that provides tasty flesh when you boil the hell out of it. Sometime in the next 2,000 years the ancient people of the Tehuacan Valley... genetically modified Corn so that it would produce larger cobs with thinner skins, learned that growing it with Beans & Squash balanced the soil mineral composition, provided self-reinforcing structures and learned to use Ground Limestone to unlock its nutritional potential... and with it unlock the secrets of Civilization. If you read the Popol Vul and understand the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar you can clearly see how Civilization developed from this watershed moment.

                Now back to the food... I will make some very quick points:

                1) Mexican Restaurants in the U.S. are NOT typically representative of Menus, Ingredients & Techniques found in Mexico's Restaurants

                2) Mexican Restaurants in the U.S. are not at all representative of the Mexican dietary customs

                3) Mexican Restaurans in Mexico are a part of the Mexican dietary custom but generally not reflective of everyday Mexican diet.

                Some notes on what Mexican dietary customs ARE:

                > Legumes (Beans, Favas, Lentils & Chickpeas) are typically eaten 2 times per day... they are eaten in many guises & styles.

                > Corn Masa based foods are present in almost every meal... most commonly as rolled up tortillas when eating at home. Or Tamales / Itacates eaten out in the fields by peasant communities.

                > Sauces... whether Thin Salsas, Relish like Salsas, or Brothy braising sauces... are present in just about every meal.

                A typical breakfast might consiste of Eggs poached or sunnyside in a Brothy salsa with a bowl of whole beans... and a stack of tortillas to sop up the eggs & sauce.

                A typical afternoon comida (main meal of the day) typically has 2 configurations:

                1) Start with a "Wet Soup" akin to a Soup based on whatever is seasonal... followed by a slow cooked melange of meats & vegetables condimented with some kind of chile paste... on the side is some kind of relish (like Guacamole) or salad (often just meaning a leaf of romaine-like Orejona lettuce, slices of tomato, onions & green chiles) to cleans the palette. A stack of tortillas. Following the main dish... little bowls of beans (usually refried) are brought... so if the main course was skimpy on meat & fat... the beans are the "adjustment" Following the beans... might be a cup of coffee and some preserved, sugared pumpkin or various fruits.... or if you want to splurge some Flan, Tres Leches Cake, Ice Cream etc.,

                2) Start with a "Dry Soup" this is the name given to any rice, pasta, noodle or stale tortilla based dish that is usually stir fried in some kind of seasoning paste before simmering to fluffy Al Dente texture.... for example... Vermicelli sauteed with a spicy tomato sauce... or Rice sauteed with an Achiote & Chorizo based sauce, studded with peas & carrots then simmered etc., Following the Dry Soup is some kind of hearty braised, very saucy Meat & Vegetable dish. Again followed with beans. Usually followed by some sliced fresh fruit.

                Most people seem to alternate the Wet Soup / Dry Soup days... and then Fridays seem to be Antojitos day... that is the day when people prepare foods that are either light on meats or meatless... with creative uses of Masa... Enchiladas, Gorditas, Sopes, Fried Tacos, Tostadas etc., this is the day people break out of the mold. Unlike U.S. Mex restaurants... Antojitos are not served in Combinations with Rice & Beans etc.,... instead they are usually accompanied by a big simple salads, fresh fruits... or vegetably Soup when its hot.

                In the countryside people often don't prepare the Friday Antojitos themselves... instead they go out to buy them at night from vendors that typically only do one thing... and they do it very well. In my mom's town, Liduvina was absolutely famous for here Enchiladas Placeras... so much so that she would jokingly curse at the clients telling them to find another place to eat because she was tired of the crowds.... but you can't tell a Mexican not to do something... this would only make the lines longer!

                Weekend meals are more celebratory... this is when people prepare or dine out for the regional specialties. Where the weekday meals use meats very sparingly (and usually feature cheaper meats like Chicken, Pork, Shrimp etc.,) or omit meats entireley... the weekay meals are usually animal flesh centric and feature highly valued, more expensive meats.... Lamb, Beef, Goat, Duck, Rabbit, Quail, Pheasant, Fresh Fish, Crab, Lobster, Oysters etc. every town/region has its own Meats it venerates.... in the Yucatan its Pheasant, Local Venison, Wild Turkey, Sea Conch & Various Fish... in Oaxaca it might be Wild Turkey, Goat, Armadillo and Octopus etc.,

                The techniques & sauces used on weekend dishes are also more complex... Mole, Pipian, Barbacoa, Birria, Mixiotes etc, although it is also the time when simple techniques like Grilling & Spit Roasting are also used on simple, but expensive, meat centric dishes.

                1. re: Eat_Nopal

                  Wow! Thanks so much for the reply. That's pretty much exactly what I was after, and thanks also for the great recipes thread, and to everyone for replying. My Chili turned out pretty good the other day, but I'm guessing I'll need a little more work before I can create passable mexican dishes.

                  1. re: Eat_Nopal

                    "Masa (Dried Corn, boiled with powdered limestone, hulled & ground)"

                    Originally wood ash was used as the alkaline agent but now slaked lime is made by burning and then rehydrating limestone or chalk to make a caustic powder.

                    1. re: Eat_Nopal

                      Very good. To which I can only add: Lord knows how ancient peoples came to find good diets by trial and error. But while beans and corn separately provide incomplete protein, together they provide complete protein (as in meat and dairy.

                      1. re: mpalmer6c

                        Yeah no kidding... I am not even going to into the ancient nutritional role played by Peanuts, Amaranth grains, dried Pond Scum & sun dried whole baby fish!

                      2. re: Eat_Nopal

                        Found a little snack bar and paleta place that has things like churros locos (chamoy, pepino, chile, cueritos) and tostielotes. I didn't try those items, but I'm wondering if they're part of the naco cuisine trend you'd once described.

                          1. re: Melanie Wong

                            Hi Melanie, hi E.N.,

                            Eat Nopal, you may have seen this already, but you guys might enjoy reading RST's lengthy thread on paleta places etc over on the Chicago board:

                            I've learned a lot from it about escamochas, "gaspacho" and other treats.

                            1. re: Amata

                              Thank you! Yes, this is exactly that kind of spot. Here's the photo of the facade,
                              From the looks of it, one would think it's just a suburban smoothies shop. But then you go inside and see the lists of snacks available, including gaSpacho, and realize it's a whole different creature. As I scanned through the cutesy names for the snacks and lists of ingredients, the similarity to Bombay-style chaat drizzled with tamarind chutney was so striking to me.

                              Tropical Ice Cream
                              106 S El, Camino Real Greenfield, CA

                          2. re: Eat_Nopal

                            I am wondering if this thread might be a good place to ask about Rose Meat (Suaredo). They sell this cut in my local bodega, but I have no idea how to prepare it. I found one thread on CW, but it wasn't very detailed and my Google-fu is failing me. Can anyone point me to any other information? Thanks.

                            1. re: ldkelley

                              Suadero... you are now the 2nd person that has referenced the translation of Rose Meat (I have no idea how that came about) is a cut of beef... or couple related cuts of beef (depends on the butcher you talk to)... that involves the areas adjacent to brisket & belly... its a tough cut of meat that is usually brined or pickled before a long, slow cooking then finished up on the griddle. When I've had it in Mexico City it was cut into thin "fillets".... at a Oaxacan Mixtec restaurant in Napa it had a pulled consistency, at Michoacanian-owned Taquerias in Sonoma County they are served in a small dice without much browning.

                              The Saudero is a trip because it is pink like Pork (probably the reason its translated as Rose Meat)... and in some respects reminds me of Corned Beef... albeit exceptional moist Corned Beef.

                          3. re: Panini Guy

                            And there's almost nothing like freshly made corn tortillas. They can be so amazingly moist, tender and delicious. They can be so tender that it takes two tortillas to keep everything from falling apart when you try and eat a soft taco.

                          4. Here's a link to some of Eat Nopal's wonderful Mexican recipes:

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: Gio

                              Ah! THAT'S what I'm after!
                              Ok, that's bookmarked ;) thankyou very much!

                              1. re: Gio

                                Wow. What a treasure trove! I am also one of these people who don't "understand" Mexican food (or more accurately, I have not found a restaurant that I liked. La Estrellia in Mt. View came close, and I have a good source for good tamales, but other than that, I find the food very heavy. I also don't eat meat, which I suspect is part of the problem), so I'm thrilled to find this. Eat Nopal, thank you! (Now I'm going to post a question on that thread about one of the ingredients you listed.)

                              2. I think that's probably the sentiment a lot of Americans have. Mexican food is incredibly diverse, but most Americans seem to be aware of just tacos, burritos and enchiladas. It's kind of like a lot of people thought I just ate Korean BBQ everyday. And I agree with Panini Guy about thinking tortillas as a sub for bread. Many restaurants serve a side of tortillas like how you would get a bread basket in an "American" restaurant

                                Here's an example of a menu from one of my favorite Mexican restaurants that specializes in food from the Oaxacan region.


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