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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, http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...
                              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.


                                1. Somebody should mention moles, which are chocolate/chili based sauces that come in a number of nuanced ways. Chicken is often cooked in mole, but there are other ways of serving it. I could be wrong about this, but I think Oaxacan cuisine has the most varied kinds of moles. Another dish that comes in various ways is ceviche, cold seafood, dressed with lime, chilis and I'm not sure all what else. I think others have really made the main point . . . Mexico is a large country, with lots of variety in terms of people and cooking, and you can't assume that Cal-Mex of Tex-Mex much less fast-food-Mex tell the whole story.

                                  7 Replies
                                  1. re: Judith

                                    Everything in Mexico comes in different ways! There are (by my count) about 25 to 30 genres of Mole... and many variations within each genre. A genre... for example... could be Sweet Red Mole... then the variations could include a variety of nuts, chiles & condiments... but all deviating from a common a mean etc.,

                                    And I think that is also the case with all of the sauces, relishes, soups etc., Really everything... even Corn Tortillas come in many colors... and no I am not refering to adding Chile powder or Spinach etc.,... I mean there is Red Corn, Purple Corn, Black Corn, Green Corn, White Corn, Green Corn, Blue Corn, Pink Corn etc., etc., and they vary in taste from each other... although centered around a mean Cornyness etc.,

                                    So yes you have captured exactly the idea... that a limited slice of Restaurant Concepts.... or even the cookbooks by the Top 5 authors... really only capture a fraction of what there is to discover.

                                    1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                      Plus, of course, operator skill. I have been blessed to work with many Mexican people, and some are just better cooks than others (naturally). So, with a village specialty, the group usually had a consensus of who made it best. When we were planning our fiestas, we would assign a dish to the person who made it best ("oh, Maria will bring the flan, of course" would be the tenor of the talk, because Maria made the best flan).

                                      This is one of things I enjoy about Diana Kennedy's books, because she tells a little story of Senora such and such, and how she makes the best version of such and such, and I feel like I am back with the Mexican ladies talking about food again.

                                      1. re: dkenworthy

                                        Very true... an important aspect of Mexican cooking is the communal nature of cooking & the loose interpretations of recipes. Cooking is taught via experience... neighbors, friends & family members get together in groups to put out multi-course, multi-dish meals... meanwhile teaching each other their tricks. People don't traditionally cook from recipes... they provide each other with baseline techniques & rough proportions... then its up to each person to perfect their own recipe... that is how we get 1,000s of versions of each particular dish... and that is why there is rarely ever consensus about what a dish should be (with the exception of those invented in restaurants). Great cooks like my maternal grandmother... rarely make the same dish the same exact way... they examine, smell & "feel" that day's ingredients & adjust accordingly.

                                        1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                          And in the Yucatan: The excitement of unwrapping a 2 foot redfish from its banana leaves, that has been smouldering in a pib of coals for a few hours, with that aroma of all the local onions, peppers, tomatoes, limes, and achiote, and the fish fragrance, and about 3 kilos of fresh pressed corn tortillas, and 12 hungry friends, rivals any Thanksgiving table stateside. A side of baked trigger fish livers rounds it out, with a few cervezas and a nip of anejo. Que sabroso!

                                          1. re: Veggo

                                            Beautiful... where do I sign up?

                                            BTW... my after dinner of cocktail choice this month is Xtabentun & Sparkling Water... absolutely amazing & simple. Put two ice cubes in a tumbler... fill with Xtabentun until they cover the ice cubes... add about a cup of Sparking Water or so to taste... ready to go... such a clean, pure licorice flavor unlike that of any other licorice / anise based liquor.

                                            1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                              EN, I saw where you posted that sabroso summer drink a couple days ago and I want to try it. There's miel in there, also, but the anis is the dominant flavor, and the liquor component is cane rum. My bottle of Vallisoletano Xtabentun is getting perilously low ; about one more drink. It only cost 8 bucks in Mexico and I am clueless where to replenish it in the mid-gulf side of Florida.
                                              Sidebar: on the cockroach post, I volunteered that I left a partial snifter of Xtabentun in my lanai, and 2 large roaches found their way into it overnight and drank themselves to death.

                                              1. re: Veggo

                                                That is too funny... yes it is one sight drink... I have the D'Aristi Xtabentun which I buy from a chain Bev Mo (Beverages & More) so it is definitely being distributed in to the States... I imagine a similar large chain could special order it (of course you wont be paying Yucatan prices):


                                  2. Well, that sems a little like zsaying every American dinnner seems to involve potatoes or some form of wheat. Check out the web and you'll find many Mexican recipes. As for me, if I was sentenced to eat nothing but good tacos and enchiladas the rest of my life, I would have little complaint.

                                    1. this has been a great thread! Thanks for the education Eat Nopal.

                                      I moved from Pennsylvania to Southern California as a teen and fell in love with Taco Bell. I know, I know, Taco Hell. I didn't know any better. Someone told me that the best Mexican food would be that prepared in someone's home.

                                      I had made a new friend ~~ Aida Gaudalupe Munoz Mendoza. She invited me home for dinner and I was Thrilled. Her mother served roast beef and potatoes in my honor. However, she did break out the frijoles and tortillas so all was not lost. I explained how I was looking forward to learing their food, so she invited me back. TDF.

                                      Mexican food is an essential part of Southern California culture.

                                      1. Living in the midwest many years ago, where the only "Mexican" restaurants were Taco Bell's, I sported the same indifference to southwestern cuisine until we moved to Tucson and I tasted Sonoran cooking for the first time. While green corn tortillas are great fresh from the maker, there are lots of other choices, grilles, mole's, and seafood to try. Take a trip to the southwest and taste for yourself.

                                        4 Replies
                                        1. re: DonShirer

                                          Better yet... maybe he should take a trip to Mexico, no :)

                                          1. re: DonShirer

                                            Aah, come to Chicago that has at least three thriving Mexican communities-- far south side (old from turn of 19th century), Little Village on the West Side and Pilsen. Imagine this little black thing from the south side of Chicago trying to heat up tortillas on the stove in front of her Mexicano (then) boyfriend's mom. Never heard so much laughter in my life. . Chicago also has a sizable Puerto Rican, and Central American community-- with a sprinkling of folks from the entire Latino Diaspora. Many times people confuse their food ways with those of Mexico.
                                            When I moved to California-- very different vibe on Food. More people from Jalisco and Yucatan in No. CA., more people from Michoacan in Chicago.

                                            1. re: drmimi

                                              Chicago certainly has a very, very strong Mexican food scene. In some respects, I think it surpasses Texas & California... because its a lot of the immigration is so recent.. and this wave of immigrants isn't afraid to express their regional traditions. Whereas in Texas & California... we have lots of authentic tasting, but bastardized menu type places... and just a small smattering of regional specialties & Alta Cocina... I believe Chicago... at least in Pilsen & Little Village / La Villita.. .the proportion of restaurants with regional / unique menus seem higher (i.e., not everyone competing to drive down the price of the same old boring faux Carne Asada & Al Pastor tacos).

                                              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                You're comparing a city to ... the largest state? You might try a bit more like compared to like. The city of Oakland most certainly has many places serving regional dishes. I have no idea how it compares to Chicago, but talking about "California" is going to reduce things to generalizations to the point of uselessness.

                                          2. This thread is Chowhound at its BEST. Thank you all for chiming in and weaving a lovely story of a cusine from your own personal standpoint. An education to be had here.

                                            Is there a chowhound "emmy"? You'd all be winners!