What food and food related items to bring back from Mexico
Vanilla extract (the POSA brand is natural vanilla, but do not buy PASA artificial vanilla. Plus, as you said, vanilla beans, dried chiles, also mole powder or pastes. You might be able to buy Salsa Chapala in Vallarta; it's really excellent bottled table salsa, exactly the same as Salsa Cholula but less than a quarter of the price.
These are the items I've routinely brought back
Dried chiles I easily can't source where I live (this site - http://www.baileyfarmsinc.com/allreci... has tons of recipes for many different varieties of chiles, including some of the less common ones
mole paste or powder
Chocolate that isn't Abuelita or Ibarra
Corn husks for making tamales
Sal de grano (salt)
Dried Mexican oregano
Dried avocado leaves
A lime squeezer
A tortilla press
A comal (bring 2 back, 1 will break)
Tequila or mezcal
Declare any food products you bring back the policy is pretty liberal and you don't really need to smuggle. Customs will ask what you're carrying when they see the food listed, and you may get diverted for a secondary ag inspection depending upon where you clear US cusoms. I think it's better these days to get inspected than to go into the government computers as a smuggler ;-). Generally, dried, canned, bottled or otherwise preserved items are usually not a problem. Fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and cheese are not advisable.
Where do live,where you'll be bringing things back to? I ask because there are a huge number of things once only available in Mexico which are easily found in many USA cities/states. I can't think of anything I'd look for to bring home that I can't purchase in Chicago.
I usually buy dried chiles in local markets - when I'm cooking it makes me happy to remember where and when I got them. Also, chipotles en adobo in small glass jars from the super mercado - I've never found them in jars in the US, and they're much more practical for me than the little cans where I always have odd amounts left over.
From Puerto Vallarta I would get Raicilla, or some tequilas not available in the US. Although there are so many brands available in the states, there are even more only available in Mexico. I find these bottles all the time. Some great high-end tequilas that are very expensive in the US are smart buys at the Duty Free, especially in the DF airport, if passing through. For me it's almost always booze.
Great question - wish I'd read this before leaving Mexico. I'm driving home to Vancouver Canada with a metate made in Comonfort (south of San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato), and two molcajetes. If you get a molcajete, consider a couple of the handle-less brushes to clean it. The rustic glassware might appeal to you, and the shallow wooden bowls hollowed from a slab of wood. If you like wooden utensils, there are spoons and paddles in every size, and for beating your hot chocolate, a molinillo.
Just a word of caution.. I've brought wooden utensils of all kinds back and had no problem. However, I did have several (about 5) big spoons that had bugs in them. Opened up the drawer where I had put them one day and discovered sawdust and dead bugs. The spoons were riddled with holes where they had come out. I don't think they were termites, or at least I hope they weren't termites. Anyway, the bulk of the wooden utensils I've brought back are fine, but bugs are a risk.
I was diverted for a secondary ag inspection at IAH (Houston) when I cleared customs because of the spoons and the customs agents warned me that wooden utensils often contained bugs. I don't know if the buggy batch I brought back came through Houston or not, but I thought it was interesting that they were looking for untreated wood. I do know that the Oaxacan alebrijas and much of the artesenal wood carvings are soaked in gasoline to kill any bugs. Pretty sure the utensils are not.
Last time I flew back fo the US from Mexico (Mazatlan) on USAirways, molcajetes were listed among the items that could not be carried on board, along with guns, knives, box cutters etc. So...maybe best to check with the airline or pack in checked luggage if you buy a molcaete and are flying .
To bring from Mexico to Colombia: masa harina, dried corn husks, Oaxaca cheese, fresh blue maize tortillas (purchased in hte morning on the way to the airport and brought back in a cheap styrofoam tortilla container used to keep tortillas warm at the table), dried chiles, and the extra weight gained while in Mexico.
re: Sam Fujisaka
"Given the relatively miniscule Mexican population in Toronto and Canada generally - I understand now why you'd want to bring back what you can."
You haven't been to Toronto or Vancouver lately have you?
There's very little Mexican that can't be bought here.
"A comal (bring 2 back, 1 will break)"
How in the name of the Virgen de Guadalupe can a person break a Comal?
I've had mine for well over 20 years and it's indestructable.
BTW-I bought it 3 blocks from where I'm now sitting in downtown Vancouver.
Honestly Sea Salt and maybe a specialty liquor are all I'd bother with.