A river of melted cheese curdles on top of its soggy nacho bed. Somewhere, lost in the heaping dollops of sour cream, are bits of canned corn scrambled in with black beans and pre-made salsa. Nothing fancy, but a plate of guilty pleasure nachos is listed at the top of every Mexican franchise restaurant menu right above fajitas and chilli con carne. Except these crowd-pleasers are more American than they are Mexican.
The Americanized version of Mexican food, Tex-Mex, popularized tacos, burritos, and enchiladas as sports bar grubs and high-carb takeouts. Authentic Mexican cuisine couldn’t be further from these labels. Heavily rooted in tradition, Mexican food dishes are homemade delights made from fresh ingredients, richly seasoned with fragrant, zesty, and piquant spices.
Here’s our look at the top six popular Mexican food dishes and what sets them apart from their American cousins.
How Traditional Mexican Dishes are different from Tex-Mex
Unlike Tex-Mex, traditional Mexican food doesn’t contain flour wheat, cumin, canned vegetables, and yellow cheese. Beef is also not a common ingredient. Instead, chefs relish the use of fresh produce, white cheese, slow-roasted pork, and the usual garnish of fragrant herbs like cilantro, parsley, and epazote. Authentic Mexican dishes are rustic, hearty, deceptively simple, and as varied as the regions they hail from.
As hearty as a grand slam but with none of the grease, Chilaquiles is a traditional breakfast dish whipped together from leftover dinner tortilla and salsa. Take one stack of fried tortilla chips, simmered with either red or green salsa in a pan, and then served with layers of shredded chicken strips, avocado slices, radishes, chopped onions and sprinkles of queso fresco. Finish off with a drizzle of crema, and you have yourself the most important meal of the day.
For variety, it’s sometimes served with eggs or rice, making it the perfect companion to a lazy Sunday morning brunch.
You know you are celebrating when you see a bowl of this classic stew on the table. Made with pork and hominy, pozole is normally eaten on special occasions, fiestas, or holidays like the Mexican Independence Day. The broth comes mixed with a base made from chilli and earthy spices and garnished with oregano, shredded cabbage, sautéed garlic, lime, salsa, and radishes. A spoonful of this soup brims with warmth, spicy aroma, and a robust but satisfying flavour.
Almost every state in Mexico has its own version of this beloved stew, and it comes in either red, green or clear soup stock.
Long before it was the go-to comfort food of every Mexican household, tamale fed armies of ancient Aztec warriors. Tamales are made from masa, a corn-based dough, stuff with meat, vegetable, chillies, and cheese before wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves like packets and steamed until firm.
Sold on every street corner and roadside stand in the Riviera Maya, Tamales come in savoury or sweet fillings and can be eaten with salsa or mole sauce toppings.
4. Chiles en Nogada
Made with all the colours of the Mexican flag, chiles en nogada is as much a party on the eyes as it is on the palate. At first glance, everything jumps off the plate like fireworks: a large roasted poblano chilli pepper stuffed with picadillo and bathed in nogada, a milky, walnut cream sauce, and sprinkled with ruby-red pomegranate seeds.
A popular summer dish served around Mexican Independence Day, chiles en nogada is unabashedly patriotic, and each bite is as playful and savoury as the next.
5. Cochinita Pibil
This slow-roasted pull pork dish from the Yucatan Peninsula is usually made from braised shoulders or loins of suckling pigs. Traditionally barbecued in underground pit ovens, pibil spends hours marinating with orange juice, lime juice, and achiote seeds paste until the meat turns vividly red. The finished product imparts a tangy, smoky, and sweet flavour that seeps out from its banana leaf wrappings.
When fresh out of the oven, cochinita pibil oozes the scent of bold spices, honey-sweet citrus zest, and warm, piquant notes of roasted chilis. Simply perfect with a side of rice or corn tortillas.
6. Mole Poblano
Although Cinco de Mayo isn’t a widely celebrated holiday throughout Mexico, the city of Puebla is an exception. In commemoration of the Battle of Puebla against French troops on May 5, 1862, parades, musicians, and the aroma of mole poblano fill the streets.
Making mole the Puebla way requires attention to detail and a lot of patience. The rich, aromatic sauce features chocolate and a delicate mix of flavours. Serve it piping hot and smothered over chicken and rice.