When holidaying in Mexico, it may come as a bit of a shock to learn that your tried and true Mexican cuisine favorites aren’t from Mexico at all! Nachos, fajitas, margaritas are few and far between in real Mexican restaurants. However, the constant staple you cannot escape while holidaying in this Central American country is the taco. They are everywhere — to the point where Mexican cuisine can feel a bit redundant after a few days.
Have no fear though, because as long as you are well informed, there is a plethora of exquisite dining options. Although we can’t guarantee a warm plate of tortilla won’t accompany your meal, there is at least an avenue to experience something grand outside the taco.
The culture of Mexican food
Food in Mexico is a serious subject. The tradition of Mexican food and its significance to the culture has become so strong, that UNESCO, in 2012, donned Mexican cuisine as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. What is interesting to learn is that most of the Mexican cuisine we commonly associate with Mexico is a byproduct of colonisation and other outside influences. Take, for example, flan, ceviche, or churros; all of which are in abundance in Mexico. None of these famous dishes have real origins there. Funnily enough, Churros are descendents of a salty dish from China called Youtiao in which dough is fried and eaten for breakfast.
So what is it about Mexican cuisine that is so important and so beloved? The story begins with the two most important staples in the country: corn and chili peppers. Despite the introduction of wheat and rice over the centuries, and their relative abundance and low cost, corn still remains today the basic building block for all meals in Mexico. This isn’t a surprise, as science points to the idea that corn, in fact, developed over 7000 years ago in central Mexico from a type of wild grass called teosinte. The tradition for corn runs deep in that respect, but a source of pride in Mexico that is even more intense comes from the indigenous chili peppers found here. It is said that Mexicans have access to the widest variety of chili peppers in the world. Evidence of the importance of chili peppers can also be traced back hundreds of years in a quote from Bartolomé de las Casas. A famous 16th-century Spanish historian, he observed that “without chili, Mexicans don’t believe they are eating.” In Mexico today, it is clear that chilis play a significant role in the cuisine, and it marks the beginning of one traveller’s journey ‘outside the taco.’
One’s culinary adventures in Mexico should be focused on the exploration of the salsa and, in this case, salsa referrers to any kind of sauce accompanying a meat or vegetable dish. In this part of the world, all traditional salsa contain chilies. Its origins can be traced back to Aztec times where we have proof of its presence in the marketplace (we can also thank the Aztec people for introducing cocoa beans to the world). The significance of the chili and salsa can be seen in the fact that dishes in Mexico are often times not categorized by the meat or vegetables the sauces are served with—but rather the sauce itself. The most common types of salsas you can find at almost any authentic Mexican restaurant are as follows:
Entomatada: While entomatada is, in fact, the name of a salsa, you can order a dish called entomatada which will far from disappoint you. Entomatadas are very similar to enchiladas but have a tomato-based flavour. The dish is often prepared with a pressured cooked meat of your choosing, alongside cheese and beans. The filling is wrapped in a lightly fried tortilla and covered in rich entomatada sauce.
Adobo: The adobo sauce is one of the simplest to make using only ground chilies, vinegar, and herbs. Many times this salsa is accompanied by the smokier tasting chili, like Chipotle chilies, which is why adobo sauces are often times associated with a stronger ‘woodsy’ flavouring. The word adobo is also used to describe a meat dish prepared as a stew
Pipians and Moles: A pipian salsa is a category that falls under the mole sauce umbrella. These types of salsa are distinguished by their use of cumin, anise and cloves and many more herbs. When one thinks of a mole, many times the colour is brown due to the use of baking chocolate at the end of the cooking process. However, not all mole dishes use chocolate. The most typical and delicious way to enjoy a mole is by ordering Mole Poblano which is tender chicken smothered in thick, creamy mole sauce made with a particular type of chili called Poblano.
The local tipple
Photo credit: Aaron Rodriguez
Keep in mind, no proper meal in Mexico would be complete without an accompanying drink. Of course, our minds immediately think of margaritas and tequila (which both have a strong place in Mexican culture). But it is Mezcal and not tequila that really get coinsures talking. Mezcal is made in a similar process as tequila and both come from the agave plant. However, while tequila is only distilled from the blue agave, Mezcal is ‘limitless’ coming from any variety of agave. Most Mezcals are marked by the smoky quality of their flavoring. However, due to the endless agave varieties available, each brand can be quite different, which is why this drink is so exciting. If you’re not one to sip hard liquor over ice, there are also endless cocktails available made with mescal to introduce you to its fantasia of flavours.
When in Mexico, Chic Collection recommends staying at Hotel La Semilla if you are keen to explore the party life in Playa del Carmen. Otherwise, along the Mexican Riviera, Hotel Matlali at Punta de Mita, will offer tropical beach views of the Pacific Ocean, mixed in with traditional local culture.