Food and Wine from North America: Cuisines from Mexico
Mexican cuisine is known for its intense and varied flavours, diverse range of herbs and spices, colourful decoration and its preparation in a host of interesting ways. Often referred to as mestizaje, or ‘mixing’, much of Mexican cuisine is a blending of the pre-Hispanic cooking traditions of the Aztecs and Maya people, with culinary trends introduced by Spanish colonists.
Add a sprinkling of Caribbean and French influence and a few of the more exotic dishes, cooked in the Aztec or Mayan style, with ingredients ranging from iguana to rattlesnake, deer and spider monkey, and you have a fascinating and unique cuisine.
Just south of the US border lies Baja, California, the most important wine-growing region in Mexico. Here you can sample a wide range of red and white wines in the comfortable cellars of several large and boutique wineries.
Mexican food varies by region: northern Mexico is best known for its meat dishes; south-eastern Mexico for its spicy vegetable and chicken-based dishes; and Veracruz for seafood dishes. Certain ingredients are key elements in the Mexican diet, such as:
Corn: Most commonly used for tortillas (unleavened flat bread), tacos (tortillas stuffed with chicken, beef, fish or cheese) and tamales (steamed and stuffed with meat or vegetables).
Chillies: Mexicans distinguish chillies between heat and flavour. Popular varieties include jalapeno, poblano, serrano, guajillo, chipotle, pasilla, habanero, ancho, mulato and cascabel.
Beans: Lentils, kidney and fava beans are used in many soups and stews. Small beans are often served refrito (refried in lard) or de la olla (boiled and served in a light broth).
Tomatoes: Used in sauces for both fish and beef dishes. Tart, small green tomatoes called tomatillos are often used for a tomatillo salsa, which is laced with spicy chillies.
Herbs and spices: Cinnamon, clove, anise and cumin are all frequently-used spices, while cilantro, thyme, marjoram and the pungent epazote are popular herbs. Pepitas (pumpkin seeds) are used in sauces, typically for chicken dishes; flor de calabaza (squash blossoms) are used in soups and sauces; and romeritos and epazote are two pungent herbs added to fish, beef and chicken dishes.
Fruit: Mango, papaya, coconut and pineapple are all eaten fresh as well as used in sauces and desserts. Nopales (prickly pear cactus paddles) are eaten as a vegetable but can also be sweetened for desserts.
Don't miss these popular Mexican dishes:
Corn and tortilla-based dishes - The traditional Mexican fast-food dish. Tortilla is a thin pancake made from cornmeal.
Burritos - A filling of shredded or dried meat, mixed with a chilli sauce, wrapped in a large, thin flour tortilla envelope.
Chilaquiles - Thin fried strips of tortilla coated with sauce and cooked in an oven.
Enchiladas - Tortillas coated in a tomato and chilli sauce, stuffed with vegetables, chicken or pork then folded and baked. Enchiladas suizas are topped with sour cream.
Fajitas - Similar to burritos or enchiladas but filled with meat, marinated in a spicy sauce, then barbecued and served with more hot sauce.
Quesadillas - Tortillas stuffed with cheese, folded and grilled, often served with beans or a little salad.
Tacos - Tortillas fried until they are crispy, and served with various fillings.
Tamales - Cornmeal paste wrapped in corn or banana husks and often stuffed with chicken, pork or turkey and/or vegetables, then steamed.
Tortas - Mexican sandwiches, often large rolls with generous fillings.
Tostadas - Thin and crisp tortillas served loaded with guacamole, sour cream, chillies, chicken etc.
Arroz Español (Spanish rice) - A tomato, chilli and rice dish with a distinctive red-orange colour and a smoky, garlic and onion-laden flavour.
Bolillo - A salty bread, similar to the French baguette.
Frijoles negros (black beans) - A nutritious dish made with fried beans.
Guacamole - An avocado-based relish or dip.
Pambazo - A special bread dipped in red guajillo pepper sauce and filled with either papas con chorizo (potatoes with chorizo), frijoles refritos (refried beans) or longaniza, then garnished with shredded lettuce, salsa (sauce), cream and queso fresco (fresh cheese).
Chiles en nogada - Poblano chillies filled with a mixture of chopped or ground meat, fruits and spices, topped with a walnut-based cream sauce and pomegranate seeds, giving it the three colours of the Mexican flag (red, green and white).
Chile relleno (stuffed pepper) - A roasted fresh green Anaheim or poblano chilli pepper stuffed with a melting cheese, such as queso Chihuahua or queso Oaxaca (traditionally), and/or picadillo meat made up of diced pork, raisins and nuts, seasoned with canella meat, covered in an egg batter and fried. Often served in a tomato sauce.
Chili con carne - A spicy stew-like dish of chilli peppers and meat with tomatoes, onions and beans.
Ceviche - Raw fish marinated in lime juice, often in a chopped salad.
Huachinango - Red snapper, cooked in a choice of methods.
Poc chuc - Pork fillet cooked with tomatoes, onions and spices.
Pollo pibil - Chicken marinated in orange and spices then barbecued in banana leaves.
Mole sauce - A rich sauce made with chocolate, chillies and spices. The sauce is often served over chicken, though turkey is more traditional.
Pipían sauce - A green sauce made from pumpkin seeds usually served over chicken.
Desserts and sweets
Crepas de huitlacoche - Crepes bathed in a dreamy cheese sauce.
Arroz con leche (rice with milk) - Served with a sprinkling of cinnamon on top, eaten hot and fresh or cold.
Cajeta - A thick syrup made of sweetened caramelised milk used to top ice cream or crepes.
Capirotada - Toasted french bread soaked in mulled herbal syrup, cheese, raisins and peanuts.
Coyotas - A large, flat, round, crisp, pastry, traditionally filled with brown sugar.
Crème caramel (flan) - A rich custard dessert with a layer of soft caramel on top.
Churro - A fried-dough pastry-based snack often dipped in chocolate.
Mexico has several wine-growing areas, but the best known and award-winning wines come from the Guadalupe, Calafia and Santo Tomás valleys in northern Baja, California, near the Mexican city of Ensenada, just 110km south of the US border. The three big wineries in the area (Viños Pedro Domecq and Viños L.A. Cetto in the Calafia Valley and Bodegas de Santo Tomás in the Santo Tomás Valley) offer good tasting facilities and are worth a visit.
These wineries and other smaller boutique wineries produce a fine range of blanco (white), rosado (rosé) and tinto (red) wines. Expect fruity, well-made and finished wines with some 'house' wines retailing for under AU$5. The varieties of red wine produced in the Baja California region are cabernet sauvignon, ruby cabernet, zinfandel Grenache and Mission. The white wines are chenin blanc, palomino, riesling, sauvignon blanc, semillon, Saint Emilion and Malaga. Try El Gran Vino Tinto, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot, or a white piedra de sol.
Service charges are rarely added to hotel, restaurant or bar bills. Many staff depend on tips for their livelihood - 15 per cent is expected; 20 per cent if the service has been very good.
Best time to go
Best in November, after the rainy season and before the peak tourist season in December. The highlands are best in summer and the coast in winter. Mexico's climate varies according to its topography: Mexico City ranges between 10°C in winter and 25°C in summer; Merida (near Chichén Itzá) averages 20°C in winter and from 27°C to 32°C in summer; Baja, California, Acapulco and Cancun average 26°C year round but can reach 32°C in summer. Summer, from June to October, is the rainy season; winter, from December to February, is the traditional tourist season.
Did you know?
A great way to get to know the wine (and local food) of Baja, California, is to attend the Fiesta de la Vendimia (Vintage Festival) in Ensenada, Baja California Norte, held every August. The festival has a wide variety of attractions include wine tastings and contests, winery tours, fishing tournaments, cook-offs, gourmet food and concerts.
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