Explore Mexico's authentic, regional cuisine with these 10 dishes
The cuisine of Mexico is wildly diverse, although you wouldn't always know that if you haven't visited there. Fast food and “Americanized” Mexican restaurants are unfortunately what we often see in the states.
“The land mass itself, as it has been arbitrarily contained and divided by modern governments, is only one-third the size of our United States,” writes Rick Bayless, a Chicago chef who specializes in Mexican cuisine. “Yet it rises and falls with more variety of plant life and human life, more formations of colors and textures and smells and tastes, than any country on Earth.”
Distinct regional flavors abound. Mexico City is the great melting pot. Oaxaca continues the traditions and flavors established by indigenous Indians. The Yucatan, given its Mayan and Caribbean influences with seafood of all kinds, is touched with an unexpected delicacy of seasonings. The west coast still echoes its Inca roots.
We have many to thank who opened our understanding of the regional cuisines of Mexico. Among them are Bayless and British cookbook author Diana Kennedy along with Southwest chefs Mark Miller, Dean Fearing, Robert Del Grande and Stephan Pyles.
Among those of Latin American backgrounds, culinary luminaries include Mexico City natives Jesús Gonzáles and Roberto Santibañez, New York City-based Zarela Martinez and Austin-based Iliana de la Vega, to name just a few.
In Mexico today there is an army of young Mexican chefs who are honoring traditional ingredients while pushing the envelope. Javier Placensia from Tijuana and the Valle de Guadalupe wine region of Baja is often mentioned. The ambassador of Mexican cuisine has revitalized that city's food scene, and the city itself, with his “Baja Mediterranean” flavors.
Here are a few of my favorite recipes, reflecting the many flavors of the many regions of Mexico. It's my favorite cuisine.
This is a typical drink found all over Mexico. It's pronounced “hah-MY-cah” and is one of the most popular hot weather drinks. It is sold by street vendors but is simple to make. Aguas frescas means literally, “fresh waters.” The Jamaica flowers have a tart flavor and a beautiful deep red color. They are readily available both in packages and in bulk in Mexican markets. Lots of flavor variations are possible, including adding a cinnamon stick or some fresh ginger when you boil the flowers.
Jamaica Agua Fresca
Makes 1 quart
1 cup dried Jamaica flowers
5 cups water
3 large allspice berries
3/4 cup sugar, or to taste
1 small lime, thinly sliced (optional garnish)
Bring the Jamaica flowers, water and allspice berries to a boil in a deep saucepan. Reduce heat and simmer partially covered for 5 minutes or so to extract as much flavor and color as possible. Stir in the sugar to dissolve and set aside for at least an hour.
Strain the liquid through a fine strainer into a pitcher, discard solids and chill very well. Serve with slices of lime, if desired.
Literally a Mexican “fondue, ” this can be made in a single, large oven-proof dish or cast-iron skillet and served family style or in individual dishes, as the directions indicate. At its simplest, it's usually cheese melted and topped with some kind of salsa. I've done a little more than that here but feel free to experiment, like adding a topping of cooked chorizo
Fundido con Queso (Mexican Melted Cheese with Tomatillo Salsa)
Makes 4 servings
1 large poblano pepper
1 small red onion, peeled and quartered
1-2 serrano chiles, stemmed and seeded
2 medium size ripe roma tomatoes, halved and seeded
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
12 ounces Asadero, Oaxaca, Jack or other melting cheese, coarsely grated
¼ cup roughly chopped cilantro leaves
- Tomatillo and avocado salsa (recipe follows)
- Cilantro sprigs for garnish
- Corn tortilla chips
Char the pepper over a gas flame or under a hot broiler and then scrape off the blackened skin (do not wash). Remove and discard the seeds and stems and cut into large dice and set aside. Grill, broil or dry pan roast the onion, chile and tomatoes until lightly colored. Chop all, add to the pepper and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Arrange half the cheese in the bottom of four, flat 8- to 10-ounce individual earthenware dishes and scatter all the vegetables over the top. Sprinkle half the cilantro over this. Distribute remaining cheese over all and top with remaining cilantro. This can all be done in an hour or two ahead until ready to serve.
To serve: Place the filled dishes in a hot (425 degree) oven for 6 to 8 minutes or until cheese is nicely melted and just beginning to color. Note: You can also melt the cheese easily in a microwave oven. Heat at full power for 2 or 3 minutes depending wattage of oven. Top with a tablespoon or two of the salsa and cilantro. Serve immediately with crisp tortilla chips.