Tasting the real Mexican food: a spicy sampler

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For a lot of us, Mexican food means chile con carne, tacos in crunchy corn shells, and a margarita or two. But that’s the American version of Mexican cooking, and it bears little resemblance to real Mexican food. On my recent trip to Mexico City and San Miguel de Allende, I dug a little deeper into Mexico’s rich and varied cuisine. And I came away impressed — and full.

The first thing that strikes you when you look at the real Mexican food is that it’s amazingly varied. Mexico is a big country, with a number of regions, and each has its distinctive styles and flavours. For example, northern Mexico is known for burritos and beef, while Baja California is known for its Spanish paella. Yucatan cooking uses Mayan ingredients like achiote and honey, and southern Mexico incorporates Caribbean flavours such as black beans and plantains.

There are some foods that you’ll find everywhere, though: in fact, Mexico gave the world two foods that have become a basic part of world cuisine: corn and chiles.

You’ll find corn everywhere in Mexico: in tortillas, elote mexican snacktamales, soups, stews and most other dishes you can name. And it’s a popular street snack. All over Mexico City, I saw stands with the word “elote” on them. They were serving corn on the cob, usually grilled to give it a little char and a smoky flavour. You could also just have the kernels in a cup; that’s called esquites.

There was usually some chile powder or other toppings to sprinkle on top: Mexicans like their snacks with a little spice. Which brings up chile: the variety of chiles seems endless. There are poblano chiles, serrano chiles, ancho chiles, pasilla chiles, Habanero chiles, guajillo chiles, and the ubiquitous jalapeño. Each has its own heat and its own flavour.

At almost every meal you find tortillas, best made by hand and cooked on a hot griddle called a comal. And of course, frijoles, or beans, served with, on and under most of the dishes you’re served. Put the two together, add some chiles, and you have real Mexican food.

The variety of dishes you’ll find in Mexico’s restaurants ranges from one end of the spectrum to the other. It starts with breakfast: Mexican cooks do some audacious things with eggs, and the dishes are worth trying. The most popular dish is huevos rancheros, fried eggs covered with a red chile sauce. But there’s also huevos estrelladas (fried with potatoes), huevos divorciados (with two different sauces), huevos motuleños (on tortillas with black beans and cheese).

huevos veracruz

I tried a variation called heuvos Veracruz – eggs Veracruz-style (above). The scrambled eggs were wrapped in a big tortilla, then sprinkled with white cheese and some chorizo sausage, and covered with a smooth-textured bean sauce. A different start to the day, to say the least. The taste of the beans gave the dish a slightly stodgy quality, but with the spicy sausage adding a kick, it all worked.

So much for breakfast – what’s for lunch? To be truthful, many Mexicans get their breakfast and lunch from street carts selling a dozen different variations on tacos and tortas. A popular dish is carnitas, pork shoulder slow-cooked and then fried in lard – the Mexican version of pulled pork.

I went a little more upscale for my tacos: these ones were filled with arrachera, or skirt steak, and camarones, or shrimp. And they were as tasty as they looked. The steak was tender and the shrimp flavourful, with a little bit of char to add depth.

tacos arrachero

On to dinner, and surprisingly in light of the hot climate, it very often starts with soup. There’s lentil soup, sopa de lima (lime soup), and tortilla soup, chicken broth cooked with strips of tortilla to give it body.

But the signature soup of Mexico is pozole, made with hominy, broth and usually some meat. There are several variations, but the two main choices are red or green pozole. In a restaurant in San Miguel de Allende, I ordered red pozole with chicken. It came with a little lazy Susan of condiments, including lettuce, onions, lime and croutons, as well as red and green chile powders. It was hearty, delicious, and not too spicy – until I added some of that red powder …

Pozole Mexican soup

Speaking of chiles, they aren’t always just a supporting act in Mexican cooking. One night in Mexico City, I chose the chile relleno – a whole, baked poblano chile stuffed with meat and topped with cheese (in some cases, cheese is used as the filling). It was a savoury combination, though the meat could have used a bit of sauce. The chile itself had a mild flavour – and surprisingly, it wasn’t terribly hot.

chile relleno

Mexico gave the world another major food item: chocolate. And while they don’t go as crazy with it as the Swiss, the Mexicans do something most cuisines don’t – they put it in a meat sauce, called mole. On my last night in San Miguel de Allende, I tried mole poblano (the photo at the top of this post): that’s chicken covered in a sauce made from chocolate and the same chiles as in the chile relleno. Not really my taste, but it was at least interesting.

Accompanying the chicken was a plate of appetizers, a standard feature in Mexican restaurants. But as well as the usual home-made nachos, this one included chicharrones, or pork rinds. At home I’d never think of eating them — but when in Rome … To my surprise, they were good, with a smoky flavour and without the slick of grease I was expecting. Still, I don’t think I’ll make a habit of it.

chicharrons

What about dessert? Mexican love sweets: aside from a thousand kinds of candies and nutty treats, Mexican bakeries are filled with cakes and pastries of every kind, from danishes to cupcakes to fancy cakes with technicolour icing.

But for those in a hurry, there’s ice cream. Especially in San Miguel de Allende, the ice cream sellers seemed to be on every major street corner, selling their fresh-made ice cream and fruit ices. They’re not Baskin-Robbins, but even B&R would have trouble matching their list of flavours — everything from vanilla to tequila, with countless stops in between.

Mexican ice cream seller

I chose frutos rojos, a fruit ice to cool of the heat of the day. It was intense, refreshing — and a sweet end to my search for the real Mexican food.

Mexican ice cream

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Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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