As in many other parts of the world, we Mexicans express our love through food. We use it to bring together our friends and family, to welcome guests to our homes, and even to receive our lost loved ones on the Day of the Dead. It’s a big part of our Mexican-ness! We even have a popular saying about food: “Barriga llena, corazón contento” (Full belly, happy heart). This means it’s practically a sacrilege to highlight only 10 dishes from a country with over 1,000 years of culinary traditions. Mexican cuisine was even claimed as an Intangible World Heritage by UNESCO. Consider this an introduction to the part of our culture that captivates visitors from all around the world.
(And I apologize in advance for any cravings this may inspire!)
1. Tacos al pastor
Location: Mexico City
I have to start with tacos al pastor (or “shephard style” tacos) because they’re the specialty of our capital, Mexico City! They’re made of pork that’s been marinated in a mixture of dried chili peppers and achiote, then served in corn tortillas. Part of the magic behind this iconic dish is when someone can slice and fill several plates of tacos in a matter of seconds. If you want to serve them traditionally, top with a mix of cilantro, onion and lemon, a slice of pineapple, and salsa to taste.
2. Cochinita pibil
Location: Yucatan Peninsula, especially Yucatan
This dish is also made out of pork that’s been marinated in achiote, but it’s prepared quite differently than tacos al pastor. The preparation method for cochinita pibil includes wrapping pork meat in banana leaves, placing these morsels in a hole in the ground where they’re surrounded by hot stones, and then finally covering them firewood. In the Mayan language, pib means “underground” or “buried,” and this cultural influence carries over to today.
Supposedly, the cooking method gives the dish its unique flavor. The final touch is to add strips of red onion, seasoned in habanero chili, before serving.
3. Mole negro
There are several types of mole sauce in Mexico: red, green, yellow, red, pink, black and so on. Only in the region of Oaxaca in Southern Mexico, the so-called “birthplace” of mole negro (black mole), can you find up to seven varieties of this recipe. Traditionally, it’s almost always served with some type of protein (typically chicken or turkey) or on enchiladas. The complexity of its composition — which includes more than 30 ingredients — makes the mole negro one of the jewels of Mexican cuisine.
4. Potosí enchiladas
Location: San Luis Potosí
This recipe is said to have been created by accident when Doña Cristina crushed her corn for tortillas in a mill that had previously been used to shred Cascabel chili. The taste and spiciness that the flour absorbed from the mill became popular in the surrounding community and soon became the patron dish of San Luis Potosí. In the municipality of Soledad, home of Doña Cristina, you can find the authentic enchiladas stuffed with cheese and chili sauce, served with a drizzle of cream.
5. Torta ahogada
The recipe of the torta ahogada (also known as the “drowned submarine sandwich”) is relatively simple: Take a birote (a sour-tasting, baguette-like bread) and stuff it with pork meat, then bathe in tomato and chili sauce. The difference in taste from one restaurant to another is in the secret recipe of their sauces — specifically in the proportion of tomato to chili, so you get a well-balanced flavor from both ingredients. Some people have modified the original recipe to substitute a different type of protein and/or add avocado and beans to the dish.
6. Chile en nogada
The chile en nogada is the primary dish of the Patriotic Holidays of Mexico because it features our country’s national colors: Green, white and red! It’s a poblano pepper stuffed with ground meat, nuts and fruits, bathed in a creamy and sweet sauce made of walnuts, then finally sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. One of its origin stories states that it was created by nuns in Puebla who first made the dish to celebrate the Spanish defeat, as well as to honor the first independent Mexican emperor, Agustín de Iturbide.
7. Caldo de oso
Don’t be misled by the name (which literally means “bear broth”) — caldo de oso is just soup made from fish broth. Its name originated from a story about a group of workers who built one of the dams in Chihuahua. The workers, having no other food to eat, perfected their ability to hunt fish — they became so good, they could catch them like bears. The soup is made of red chili, fish, onion, tomato, potato, carrot and cilantro. It’s also highly popular as a cure for hangovers, in case you’re curious.
The barbacoa, like the cochinita pibil, is cooked in a pre-Hispanic way: In a hole in the ground with hot stones and firewood. The difference between this dish and cochinita pibil is that this delicacy consists of pieces of lamb wrapped in agave leaves, which are then placed above a pot with broth made of pulque (an alcoholic drink made out of fermented agave sap) or beer, then spices, onions, different types of chili, rice and chickpeas. The cooking time for barbacoa is long — it’s usually left to cook overnight and served as breakfast the next day.
9. Machaca con huevo
Location: Nuevo León
The machaca is a type of shredded beef that’s been dried in the sun with salt (like jerky), and then is typically rehydrated and used for cooking. This dish of Mexican cuisine was invented out of necessity, before the days of refrigeration, because meat would need to be prepared to last for long stretches of time. Its exact place of origin is disputed throughout the northern part of Mexico, and it’s prepared in different ways depending on the location. It’s often cooked in a broth with a splash of lemon, or is shredded and served with eggs, tomato, chili and onion — known as machaca con huevo (machaca with eggs).
10. Caesar salad
Location: Baja California Norte
Yes, it’s Mexican! An Italian immigrant created the recipe in Tijuana — and fun fact: The original restaurant, Caesar’s, is still running today! Sure, it’s not exactly considered a traditional delicacy within our gastronomy, but it’s become so popular worldwide that it’s worth pointing out its place of origin. Next time you dig into one of those iconic anchovy-filled salads, you can thank Mexico.
I couldn’t end this article without mentioning one of our most popular dishes! In fact, all states claim to be the place of its origin. There’s even a dispute between Nuevo Leon and Mexico City about whether the word quesadilla is indicative of the requirement of cheese in the recipe (Mexico City has options both with and without cheese). What’s important is that the particular filling is what gives it each quesadilla recipe its regional touch!