Mexican spices and staples
Corn is a Mexican staple. Corn tortillas accompany almost every meal, although flour tortillas are used in some dishes, too, especially in the north. Making them at home is quite simple. You basically make a dough out of flour and warm water, divide it up into little balls which you press into tortillas. Then fry them for few minutes on a dry frying pan until they have little brown spots. Flour tortillas are very easy to make, corn tortillas are a bit trickier. A tortilla press helps, but if you are making them by hand, put the ball of dough between two sheets of plastic (cut out from a freezer bag), use your fingers to press the ball into a round tortilla. Tortillas are best eaten fresh, and if you are making them ahead of time – even for just a little while – make sure to store them in a plastic bag covered with a kitchen cloth so the cooked tortillas remain soft.
Then there are the chillies. Mexican cooking uses perhaps the largest variety of chilies of any cuisine, including jalapeño, guajillo, ancho, morita, poblano and chipotle. Despite this, the food is not necessarily very hot and spicy, but rather strong and intensely flavoured. The chili flavours are infused in the dishes, but especially in the different types of salsas that are served with most dishes. Even fruit is sprinkled with chilli.
Coriander, oregano, lime, black beans, tomatoes, tomatillos, avocadoes, nopales (cactus plant), cocoa and vanilla are some of the other ingredients that are distinctive to Mexican cuisine. Pork, chicken, beef, lamb and goat meat are all used, cooked to tender perfection and shredded. If you are used to Tex-Mex, you might be surprised how little meat and just few extras, like onion, coriander, a bit of salsa and a squeeze of lime, is needed to fill a taco. And how something that simple can taste so fabulous!
My favourite Mexican dishes
A lot of the Mexican lifestyle revolves around eating. Families gather for comida, the afternoon meal, and celebrations of any kind always include food. My own favourite has got to be breakfast. It can be quite hearty, often including leftovers from the night before, but at least a few tortillas, eggs, beans, salsa… you won’t go hungry, believe me!
And then there is the street food. On any stretch of road you will find numerous vendors selling mostly what they call antojitos (little cravings). These are small portions to grab on the go in the morning or evening. It might be someone carrying and selling homemade food from a basket or a mobile taco stand with comal, a gas-heated grid used to warm up the tortillas. The more elaborate ones may even include a few plastic tables and chairs for customers to sit. The vendors are very specialised: one will sell tacos al pastor (marinated pork on a skewer with pineapple), another seafood, while somebody else offers elotes (corn on the cob served with Mexican spices and cheese). You will always find the right snack for your craving. Maybe tacos de cabeza, which is the animal head, where you can choose your favourite part: eyes, brains or tongue. Or tamales, stuffed corn meal wrapped in corn husks.
Mexican cuisine at home
Creating a Mexican-inspired meal at home is easy and fun. There is no better party food as it is easy to set out a colourful array of food for your guests to choose from. Start with a pile of tortillas for tacos and maybe some totopos, fried corn chips. Choose one or two meats, such as shredded chicken and/or pork, and frijoles refritos, refried beans, and a few salsas to top it all off. There are endless varieties of salsa, but, of course, it is good to have a mild and hot version. Fish tacos are also a big trend at the moment. Diced tomatoes and onion are simple but great toppings, and don’t forget to squeeze some lime on top. Add fresh coriander and guacamole and you have it. The cheese used in Mexico is not really available in Europe, but I substitute it, depending on the dish, with either a neutral gouda-type cheese that melts well or white cheese that is sprinkled on top. Use your imagination and go as authentic or Tex-Mex as you like, it will taste great no matter what.
You should definitely try something else besides tacos. Check out my mouth-watering enchilada recipe or Matkoma’s quesadillas with a Scandinavian twist. Mexican food is not difficult to prepare, although it can be a bit time consuming. But if you like tacos, burritos, quesadillas and enchiladas, try something new for a change. Gorditas are thick corn tortillas that are split open and filled with your favourite toppings, kind of like a pita. Chalupas are deep fried tortilla cups,Aquachile is a spicy Mexican version of ceviche. Chilaquilles is usually eaten for breakfast and consists of tortillas cut into quarters, totopos, green or red salsa, maybe some chicken, cheese, tomatoes and onions. There are so many dishes just waiting to be discovered!
So get inspired and try a new recipe. And remember, I told you so!