Authentic Mexican food is one of the great cuisines of the world, treating you to explosive flavors, adventurous ingredients, and a journey through Mexico’s complex history. But all it takes is one glance at a real Mexican menu to realize the truth – most of us haven’t a clue what is authentic Mexican food.
Forget nachos, burritos, fajitas, chili con carne or hard-shell tacos – these are all ‘Tex Mex’ inventions, the fusion food created by Tejanos (Texans of Spanish and Mexican descent). Instead, authentic Mexican food is about soft tacos, slow-roasted meats and complicated salsas that combine 30 ingredients as diverse as chocolate and chili.
Food is inextricably tied to the local Mexican festive culture, and is the only cuisine in the world to receive UNESCO’s stamp of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. In many Mexican recipes, you’ll taste traces of Mayan and Aztec history, when corn tortillas and bean paste were common. With the rise of the Aztec empire in the mid-1300s came chili peppers, honey, salt and chocolate, and domesticated turkey and duck were also added to the menu. With the Spanish arrival in the 1500s came new cooking techniques and livestock–like pigs, sheep and cows–and ingredients such as garlic, dairy products, herbs, wheat and spices. Added to the mix were influences from the Caribbean, South America, France, West African countries and Portugal, meaning today’s authentic Mexican food is a fusion of flavors.
But one thing remains true about Mexico’s food reputation – tacos are ubiquitous, eaten everywhere, everyday, and in every form. Far from becoming repetitive, ‘tacos’ have evolved into versions that are fried, crunchy, thin, thick, large, small, you name it.
“Tacos are a way of life,” as Enrique Olvera once said, head chef of one of the country’s best restaurants Pujol. Today you’ll find tacos being sold in both scrubbed down ‘taquerias’ (taco restaurants), street carts and gourmet restaurants alike. Add a few botanas or antojitos, simply ‘snacks’ or ‘little cravings’, and you’ll find yourself in Mexican heaven. And that’s before you even get to dessert.
While it would be impossible to list every version and variety of authentic Mexican foods–which change between regions, and even from town to town–here are 30 of the most common Mexican food to get you started on your Mexican journey.
1. Cocohnita Pibil
This is Yucatecan food at its best, hailing from the Caribbean state where Cancun is located. Its popularity means that today you can find this dish in restaurants all around Mexico. The key to this pre-Hispanic recipe is slow-roasting pork underground for several hours, using a marinate of grounded annatto–a red seed called achiote–and contrasting sweet orange and sour lemon. The end result is a rich-flavored, stripped pork that melts in your mouth. It goes great with tacos or panuchos, a kind of fried taco with frijol beans inside, topped with a squeeze of lime, hot habanero salsa, and pickled red onion. This dish is named after the traditional Mayan oven, ‘pib’, which involves cooking with hot coals in a hole under a layer of dirt.
Considered the ‘caviar of Mexico’, escamoles are ant eggs, typically sautéed in butter and sometimes with local herbs, such as the Mexican herb epazote. This Mexican delicacy has a softer flavor than real caviar, reminiscent of a soft cheese, and is typically served with a side of corn tortillas and guacamole or mixed into an omelette. It is a seasonal dish, usually in abundance around the start of the rainy season in April and May.
3. Ensalada de Nopal
Nopal, a type of cactus, is commonly grilled as a garnish for meats, or served fresh as a salad. Nopal salad is a refreshing mix of sliced boiled nopal leaves, onion and tomato, drenched in lemon. The leaves are soaked first to soften and remove the sticky residue; if a lot of residue is left, it’s an indication of poor preparation or cleaning, although harmless to eat. This is another authentic Mexican food that has deep historical roots.
4. Seafood Aguachile, Ceviche, & Cocktails
You will find many types of locally-inspired ceviche recipes around Mexico, a dish of raw seafood cured by lemon and varied with herbs and other flavors. But the true evolution of this Peruvian dish into a Mexican specialty is aguachile. The base ingredients are similar, except the raw fish or prawns are macerated in chili and cucumber alongside lemon, creating a hot and cool sensation in your mouth. The simplicity of this dish lets you taste the flavor of the seafood more than in ceviche, the latter often being dominated by coconut. Seafood cócteles (cocktails) are another Mexican spin-off that involve a similar preparation of raw seafood, except served in a fancy tall glass and drowned in a softly spiced tomato sauce.
The origin of mole (said moe-lay) is a mix of myth and history. The most common stories recite attempts to impress a visiting religious leader, where the strange mix resulted from a poor convenant combining all the meagre ingredients they could find, or from when a nun accidently knocked numerous ingredients into a pot. Other sources claim pre-hispanic references to mole–for example, the Aztecs served totolmolli, turkey stewed in sauce – although chocolate was probably not a common ingredient because it was sacred then. To add to the confusion, three states claim to be the original home of mole – Puebla, Oaxaca and Tlaxcala. Whatever the origin, ‘mole’ draws from the Nahuatl word for sauce, mōlli, and today is considered one of the most authentic Mexican dishes you can try.
It’s a struggle to identify the explosion of flavors in your mouth when most moles combine 20 or 30 ingredients. Traveling around Mexico quickly reveals numerous regional varieties. A common version is Mole Poblano (literally, mole from Puebla), a chocolate based, mildly chili sauce that is served with meat, rice and tacos. Some moles are named after their ingredients and flavors, like huaxmole or guaxmole (from the guaje chili) and almendrado (almond mole).
Other examples from Puebla include:
- Pipian rojo, verde or blanco – a mole made of either almonds, pumpkin seeds or walnuts.
- Mancha manteles – literally ‘table cloth stainer’, this soft red mole has fruity flavors such as apple and pineapple.
- Adobe, a stronger and usually spicier red mole.
Oaxaca, on the other hand, is commonly referenced as the home of the ‘seven moles’: colorado, mole negro, mancha manteles, verde, amarillo, chichilo and coloradito.
Other variations include Taxco’s mole rosa, a milder sauce colored pink from beetroot, and Tlaxcala’s mole prieto. From the city of Zacatecas, you find ‘mole verde zacatecano’ with green tomatillos, cilantro, and jalapenos, which is lighter and simpler than the nut-based moles of Puebla and Oaxaca. The truth is that everyone has their own version of ‘mole’, meaning this dish is more of an authentic Mexican concept, rather than a set recipe. In general, though, you can expect that any moles you order will contain some combination of nut, fruit, and chili, and served over meat or enchiladas (converting them into enmoladas), or as a filling in tamales.
Mole was traditionally reserved for special occasions and festivals, introducing the phrase ‘ir a un mole’, which means to attend a wedding, where mole was customarily served. Making mole from scratch is a time-consuming labor, where all ingredients are roasted and ground before being formed into a paste, so luckily there are pre-made moles that you can take home with you.
6. Relleno Negro
This is a rare dish that transports you back to Mayan primitive cooking techniques, although you might hear similar versions called chirmole. It has a strong flavors and a gritty texture, thanks to the chilis that are toasted until charred and black, and then crushed down to make a sauce. This is Yucateca food at its most authentic, traditionally simmered with turkey (guajolote), and served with slices of egg. It is associated with the local festival Hanal Pixán in November.
7. Carne Adobada
Adobo (meaning marinate in Spanish) is a thick red sauce made with Mexican chili powders, usually guajillo and chipotle, topped off with stewed tomatoes and other spices. Pork or chicken is covered with this spicy adobo, and typically grilled or slow-roasted in clay pots until the meat is tender and flavorsome. While there are several countries that have adobo recipes–like Spain and Portugal–Mexico’s version has a spicy kick that makes it unique.
Maya claim the barbecue as their pre-hispanic speciality, based on their long practice of cooking meats in underground pits lined with hot embers and stones. When you try barbacoa meats, it’s hard not to become a convert to the smoky flavors derived from the slow, long cooking process, as well as the marinates typically used, such as achiote. Add the perfect side of salsa de molcajete (sauce made with a Mexican mortar and pestel with grilled tomato, chilis and garlic). The meat is often wrapped in banana or cactus leaves, so it is succelent and falls off the bone. There are the two main ideas about the origin of the word barbecue: the Maya Baalbak’Kaab (meat covered with earth) or from the Carribean Taíno barabicu (sacred firepit, or meat cooked on wooden scaffolding).
9. Huevos rancheros, unless you prefer ‘divorced’ eggs
Mexican breakfast is a sacred weekend ritual, when families head out in droves to get a fix of their favorite Mexican breakfast dishes:
- Huevos rancheros, literally ‘ranch eggs’, which is a spicy herbed tomato sauce poured over fried eggs, and served on a tortilla.
- Divorciados, eggs half bathed in green tomato salsa and half bathed in red tomato salsa.
- Huevos motuleños, a mix of scrambled eggs with ham, fried macho banana, black beans, cheese and other garnishes, hailing from the northern Yucatan town of Motul.
Breakfast is also the perfect time to try Mexico’s beloved ‘sweet bread’ (pan de dulce), such as ‘conchas’ (shells), a rounded sweet dough bun, or pan de elote, a sweet corn cake.
You won’t find nachos in any authentic Mexican restaurant, but you will find the original Mexican version, chilaquiles, from the Nahuatl word chīlāquilitl. Corn tortillas are cut into quarters and dried until crispy–usually in the sun–and then lightly fried. These ‘corn chips’ (totopos) are then topped with green chili or red chili salsa, a drizzle of cream, and a sprinkling of strong goats cheese, known as ‘cotija’. You are usually given the choice to add shredded chicken, scrambled eggs, Cecina or other regional combinations.
Molletes are Mexico’s answer to grilled cheese sandwiches. A slice of crusty bread is spread with refried bean and cheese, then grilled until toasty. You then top it with pico de gallo, a kind of ‘salsa’ made of fresh diced tomato, onion, cilantro, serranos, and lime juice. The best molletes come with a sprinkling of grilled chorizo meat, giving it a sweet and smoky paprika flavor.
Order alambre and you’ll get a sort of DIY taco plate. The meat was traditionally cooked over an open flame (usually on a wire, or ‘alambre’). The grilled beef is then cut up with grilled bell peppers, onions, bacon (or other variations, like pork, chicken and chorizo) – and then all covered in cheese. Next to this delicious mix comes a stack of flour or corn tacos to make your own tacos.
13. Mexican Soups
Lime soup, black bean soup (frijol), tortilla soup, seafood (mariscos) soup – this is just the start to the delicious broths and soups (sopas) you can find around the country. You can also find ancho chili soup, a rich-flavored chile with little spice. Sopa Azteca brings all of these flavors together – chicken and tomato-based broth with pasilla chili, ladled onto tortilla chips and topped with avocado, sour cream and tangy cheese. For something a bit heartier, try frijoles de la olla, a bean stew cooked in clay pots.
This hearty corn soup traces its roots to Aztec ritual sacrifices. The soup base is make from stewing hominy corn (dried maize kernels), usually overnight so the chicken, pork or vegetables can flavor the broth and the corn softens. Spices are added and the soup is garnished with combinations of onion, lime, chilli, cabbage, lettuce, or radish. You can find chicken, pork and vegetarian versions, and a big bowl of it is enough for a full meal. Today some locals still eat pozole on special occasions, like birthdays, Independence day, or Christmas, although many eat it all during the year.
15. Chili Rellenos & Chilis ‘En Nogada’
The large, but not overly spicy, green poblano chili is the most common you will find on the menu. These ‘filled chilis’ are stuffed with anything from cheese to more complex mixes liked spiced ground beef or seafood.
The most patriotic version of this dish is the chiles en nogada, which brings together the three colors of the Mexican flag. A (green) chili is stuffed with fruit-spiced minced or shredded meat (picadillo), then drowned in a (white) creamy walnut-based sauce, and finished with a sprinkling of (red) pommegranate granules. This national dish has become a strong candidate to celebrate Mexican Independence Day on September 16, around which time you will see them pop up as restaurants’ speciality.
16. Huitlacoche & Squash Blossom Quesadillas
The evolution of the ‘quesadilla’ is a contradictory one, with reportedly false claims that they came from the Nahuatl word quezaditzin, meaning ‘folded or doubled tortilla’. Experts quickly debased this theory because the letter ‘d’ never existed in the Nahuatl language. But, as false-news fires go, the argument flared up on social media, mostly to defend the fact that in Mexico City, you have to specify if you want your quesadilla with or without cheese.
The most delicious–and colorful–filling for a quesadilla is pumpkin or squash blossom. The adventurous should go for huiltlacoche, and the squeamish should try it before finding out what it is. The coloring of this blackened corn–huitlacoche–comes from a fung – but the flavour is unique and rich. It’s a great accompaniment on quesadilla or mixed with eggs for breakfast.
17. Tacos, Tlacoyos, Subujtos, oh my!
The dizzying array of corn specialties in Mexico is hard to comprehend at first – tacos are but a slither of what’s on offer, and even they come in a choice of corn or flour, yellow, red, green or black, depending on the type of corn used. Then come different sizes, shapes, and consistencies: subujitos are small oval thick tortillas filled with frijoles; tlacoyos are elongated fried corn casings stuffed with whatever you choose; salbutes are thick, small round tacos, that are fried and topped with the usual meat fillings; quesadillas are thin oval corn tortillas with cheese (typically with black corn),… and the list goes on (see below). Then there are sopes, rounded tacos with a raised edge (or huarache if they are oval), so they can be filled with your choice of meat or, in the style of Puebla and Oaxaca, just topped with refried beans, salsa and a sprinkling of fresh cheese (and then they would be called memelas).
Their name also changes depending on the filling or cooking style, for example, tacos guisados are filled with homemade stewed meats, while canasta tacos are ‘basket tacos’ that cook in their own steam in a covered basket (also known as ‘Tacos Sudados’, “sweaty tacos’). Then there’s Tacos de Fritanga, which are tacos slow-fried in lard, and usually filled with offal or tripe but can also be chorizo or brisket. And just when you think you’re becoming a taco pro, you open a menu in some small town or tacqueria and realize you still don’t understand what half of them are: there’s the ‘Gringo’ (with cheese), or ‘carpa’ (fried, crunchy cheese on the outside).
What is more familiar are the fillings, like chicarron (fried pork belly or rind), barbacoa, chorizo, grilled steak (asada), seafood, octopus, fish (pescado), cocohnita pibil, campechano (a mix of chopped meats) or birria, a meaty spiced stew like barbacoa but with goat instead. In short, tacos are plentiful – and no matter the form, you should eat as many as you can.
This taco filling is so delicious that today you’ll find it all over Mexico, although it hails from the state of Michoacan. Carnitas (‘little meats’) is the result of slow-cooked pork in vats of broth and natural fats, which is then cut up finely, chucked on a tortilla, and garnished with coriander, onion, salsa, and guacamole. Do as the locals – wipe up the oils on your plate with your taco for extra flavor.
19. Tacos al Pastor
Those who have been in the Middle East will recognize the rotisserie kebabs dotting the Mexican streets. It’s not an old recipe in Mexico, arriving only in the 1920–30s with the arrival of Lebanese and Syrian immigratns, but it has become one of the most common tacos you can find all around the country. Tacos al pastor (‘in the shepherd style’) are made from carving thin strips of pork off a spit onto a corn tortilla, topped with red onion, coriander and roasted pineapple, which you can spot sitting on top of the rotiserrie. You might also see them called tacos arabes.
20. Panuchos, Salbutes & Flautas
Although these are yet more corn-tortilla-types, they sit in their own category because they are deep friend and crispy, rather than the usual soft-shell taco style. Panuchos are crunchy pockets of corn filled with refried bean – just choose your topping, and pick them up with your fingers. These are more modern inventions appearing in the Yucatan region around the 19th or 20th century. Salbutes are prepared in a similar way, minus the bean suffing. Thrown into hot oil, they also puff up.
If you can fit one more in, try a flauta (flute), which are tightly rolled tacos filled with potato, cheese or meat, and then deep fried. They are usually made with wheat tortillas, and if corn is used, you might see them labelled as taquitos instead.
21. Tostadas & Tlayudas
Now we switch to thin, cracker-like tortillas. Tostadas are appetizers that combine crunchy and soft textures in your mouth when you bite into it. A small thin tortilla is fried until it has a golden crunch–or as the name suggests, until ‘toasted’–and then piled up with your choice of topping. The best topping is with smoked tuna or salmon, avocado slices, chipotle mayonnaise and fried thin onion strips, although you can find all types of seafood or ceviche topping, and combinations of meat as well. Add a drizzle of your choice of chili salsa, a squeeze of lime, and eat it with your fingers like a cracker.
Tlayudas are large, thin crispy tortillas topped with a spread of refried beans, lard, shredded cabbage or lettuce, and your choice of meat and salsa. You’ll mostly see these on the streets of Oaxaca, where they were created.
Gorditas–translated to ‘chubby’–are thick and either fried or baked, and sometimes slit and stuffed with shredded meat and salad. You will also see sweet gorditas cooked on the site of streets – grab a bag and eat them plain, they’re delicious.
This marinated, thin steak is perfect to eat with tacos or as a main plate. Add tequila or mezcal to the mix, and you’ve got yourself arrachera borracha (drunk meat).
In Yuctan, you’ll find their own version of ‘poc chuc’, a thin, grilled pork with a citrus-marinate flavor.
As a starter into the foray of flavor, enchiladas are a firm favorite – it’s the closest you will come to a fajita or burrito, although far simpler. This dish dates to Maya times when locals in the Valley of Mexico wrapped corn tortillas around small fish. Today you’ll find every possible combination of stuffings: frijoles (beans), cheese, meat, eggs or seafood. If you’re used to strong Mexican food, you might find the flavors a bit bland.
You can spice this dish up by ordering them as ‘enmoladas’. As the name suggests, ‘in chili’, the rolled tortillas are ‘bathed’ or covered in your choice of salsa or mole, then sprinkled with cheese, shredded lettuce or cabbage, and cream. This is a pretty cheap meal if you’re on a budget, usually coming in a set of three tortillas.
One of the most traditional versions of this dish is considered the ‘papadzule’, one of the most ancient Maya foods. It uses a stuffing of boiled egg, and coated in pumpkin seed sauce and a drizzle of tomato sauce.
25. Elote & Esquites
This is more than your basic ‘corn on the cob’, and you will find street vendors selling ‘elote’ on nearly every corner. It is typically speared on a stick to create a corn popsicle, and then smothered in sour cream, butter, cheesy mayonnaise, childi powder, lime, and butter.
You can also ask them to shave the corn off the cob and serve it in a cup, which converts it into ‘esquites’. The corn’s savoury base is spiced up with the creamy, spicy topping.
26. Tortas, Cemita & Pembazos
These three foods don’t deserve being lumped together, but here you have Mexico’s version of sandwiches – with many twists. When you tire of corn, you can switch to ‘torta’. Like a taco, a soft bread roll is filled with beans, avacode, onions and salsa, with your choice of topping, whether al pastor, meat, or any other option. Some common filling combinations are ‘torta cubana’ or ‘campechanos’, which are the kind of ‘everything’ sandwich. The regional specialty from Jaslico – torta ahogada, literally a ‘drowned sandwich’ – is filled with shredded meat and ‘drowned’ in chile arbol sauce, which gives it a good kick. Elsewhere, you’ll find ‘pambazos’, sandwiches dipped in salsa and then grilled. The bread is soft but malleable enough to wishstand being dipped in salsa, usually guajillo chile sauce which gives it a red color but not too much spice. The version from Puebla, ‘cemita poblano’, is wrapped between two slices of the town’s local speciality – sesame-seed bread. You can find cemita bread in many bakeries, if you want to create your own picnic lunch.
This is the fast-food of Mexico – and has been for hundred of years. Even the Aztec, Maya and Inca tribes used tamales as their take-away nourishing food for battle. Locals go crazy for this steamed corn masa parcel, wrapped in a banana leaf or cornhusks. They are eaten savoury or sweet, plain or stuffed, with many options like salsas or moles (normally red, green or mole poblano) or meats (chicharron is particularly good, and chicken is common). The flavor is quite plain, so stuffing is a welcome addition.
Each neighorbood has its own street-cart seller that passes by with a recording shouting ‘tamales… ricos… oaxaqueños’ – it is so common it’s considered one the ‘sounds of Mexico’. Tamale street vendors may also serve a hot drink of ‘atole’ on the side, a thick chocolate-corn drink made from the cornstarched water of the tamales.
Remove the wrapping, and use this ‘organic plate’ for digging into this pre-hispanic dish – even right there, with other locals, while you chat with the tamale vendedor.
28. Guacamole – With Chapulinas
Marinated, crispy grasshoppers may not be first on your list of must-try Mexican foods – but don’t be hasty to cross it off your list. This protein-packed nibbly adds a great crunch and flavoursome smoky aftertaste to guacamole–sometimes put on menus as ‘rustic’ or ’rustico’ guacamole– or even a whole taco of spicy grasshoppers. Plus you can take great photos to prove your foodie adventure.
Aztec sustained themselves for centuries on these protein-rich treats, with a side of mezcal worms and fly eggs. Mexico has among the most edible insects in the world, and not all that weird when laid next to caviar, escargot or frog legs. Buen provecho –make the most of it–, as they you before a meal or when someone is eating.
29 Gusanos, Chiliquales & Black-Ant Salsa
Bugs and worms make most people run but Mexico’s collection of insects adds unique flavors to traditional Mexican dishes. Eating fried, protein-plump gusanos (agave worms) adds a good crunchy spice to a taco of guacamole. If that’s too much, try the smoky gusano salt (sal de gusano) that is served with the national drink Mezcal. Chiliquales are another insect that pack a flavoursome and rich punch, adding a bright red colour to any dish they are mixed with. Try eggs with chiliquales salsa in a clay pot, or mixed with guacamole or on top of tacos. A great accompaniment to meat is black-ant sauce, velvety and rich from ground ant-bottoms. In Oaxaca you’ll find it as a spicy mole, called salsa de chicatanas.
30. Fideos secos
‘Dry noodles’ is the name given to this pasta dish, which is pretty apt seeing it is thin and tiny pasta cooked in a tomato sauce until reduced. The result is an intense tomato flavor, and an easy tasty dish for those who want to take it slow.