Mexican cuisine is diverse and flavorful, incorporating indigenous ingredients as well as those introduced by the Spanish colonists. While meat and dairy play a prominent role in many traditional dishes, Mexican food can also be rich in plant-based ingredients. However, the answer to whether Mexican food is plant-based overall is complex.
What does “plant-based” mean?
In recent years, “plant-based” has become a popular phrase to describe diets focused on foods derived from plants, including vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and herbs and spices. A whole food, plant-based diet excludes or minimizes meat, dairy, eggs, and highly processed foods.
So is Mexican food as a whole plant-based? Not necessarily. Authentic Mexican cooking relies heavily on animal products like meat, cheese, cream, and lard. However, that doesn’t mean Mexican food can’t be plant-based. Many dishes highlight beans, corn, squash, tomatillos, avocados, and other veggie staples. With a few modifications, Mexican recipes can be adapted to plant-based eating.
Traditional Ingredients in Mexican Cuisine
Here are some of the most common ingredients used in traditional Mexican cooking:
Beef, pork, chicken, turkey, lamb, chorizo, and other meats are heavily used for tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas, soups, stews, and more. Popular Mexican meat dishes include carne asada, carnitas, barbacoa, pozole, and menudo.
Cheese features prominently in Mexican cuisine. Common types include queso fresco, queso Oaxaca, cotija, and crema (Mexican sour cream). Milk is used for drinks like horchata.
Beans and Legumes
Beans are a Mexican diet staple. Varieties like pinto, black, kidney, and fava turn up in tacos, enfrijoladas, soups and side dishes. Lentils, chickpeas and peanuts also make appearances.
Corn has been central to Mexican cuisine for millennia. It’s eaten off the cob, ground into masa for tortillas and tamales, processed into hominy for pozole, and made into tortilla chips.
Squash and Pumpkins
Butternut squash, zucchini, and other varieties star in calabacitas, soups and stews. Pumpkin and spices are made into pipian sauce. Squashes blossoms are breaded and fried into quesadillas.
No Mexican meal is complete without salsas and chiles. Jalapeno, poblano, serrano and ancho varieties add heat and smoky depth. Tomato-chile blends are cooked into flavorful salsas.
Mexico is where tomatoes originated. They’re integral for salsas, moles, soups and stews. Tomatoes are also sliced raw into salads, tacos and sandwiches.
Creamy avocados bring richness to tacos, quesadillas, sandwiches, salads, salsas and even ice cream. Guacamole is a famous avocado-based Mexican dip.
Onions and Garlic
Onions and garlic provide aromatic backbone. Red onion and cilantro are commonly paired together as a fresh garnish.
Fruits and Vegetables
Limes, pineapple, mango, papaya and other produce add tartness, sweetness and texture. Ingredients like nopales (cactus paddles) bring unique flavors.
Herbs and Spices
Cilantro, oregano, cinnamon, cumin and epazote are all common seasonings. Complex moles feature spices like cloves, sesame seeds and chocolate.
Are Any Traditional Mexican Dishes Plant-Based?
Yes, some quintessentially Mexican dishes just happen to be meat and dairy-free. Here are some examples:
Frijoles charros, creamy pinto beans simmered with tomatoes, onions, chiles and spices, contain no animal products. Neither do basic black beans, kidney beans or lentils.
Spanish rice is flavored with tomatoes, onions and garlic. For festive events, try vegetarian arroz rojo made with beets or arroz verde with tomatillos and cilantro.
Soups and Stews
Vegetable-based Mexican soups like sopa de tortilla, pasta soup with tomatoes, chiles and fried tortilla strips, contain no meat or dairy. Hearty pozole can be made with hominy and mushrooms instead of pork.
Tacos and Antojitos
Street foods like corn on the cob, elotes, contain no animal products when served simply with mayo, cheese, chili powder and lime. Meatless tacos are piled high with beans, potatoes, mushrooms or cactus. Chalupas and sopes can be topped with black beans and salsa instead of meat.
Naturally vegan Mexican sweets include arroz con leche, cinnamon rice pudding made with rice and milk substitutes like coconut or almond milk. Spicy chocolate atole is thick, warm and satisfying without dairy.
Ensalada de nopales, or cactus salad, combines the earthy veggie with tomato, onion, cilantro and chile peppers. Chayote squash stew calabacitas and roasted veggie tacos or tostadas can be completely plant-based too.
Adapting Traditional Mexican Dishes
With a few easy substitutions, it’s possible to enjoy enchiladas, tacos, nachos and other Mexican favorites without the meat, cheese or cream:
Use Plant-Based Proteins
Beans, lentils, soy crumbles, quinoa and tempeh can replace ground beef in Mexican rice, tacos and chilis. Jackfruit takes on a shredded pork or chicken texture for carnitas or tinga.
Swap in Vegan Cheeses
For quesadillas, nachos and enchiladas, use vegan cheese shreds, slices or sauces made from nut milks, potatoes or tapioca.
Substitute Creams and Milks
For a dairy-free creamy sauce or soup base, use unsweetened vegan milk alternatives like almond, soy, oat, coconut or cashew. Silken tofu or blended cashews can replace sour cream.
Use Lard Substitutes
Vegetable or coconut oil can substitute for lard in the pan when frying tortillas or refrying beans. Non-hydrogenated shortening works for baked goods like tamales.
Skip Eggs and Dairy in Desserts
Flan, tres leches cake and churros can all be made without eggs and milk using egg replacer powders, soy or nut milks and dairy-free margarine.
Amp Up Herbs, Spices and Veggies
Without rich meat and cheese, use extra spices like ancho chile, cumin and oregano to add depth. Load up on mushrooms, squash, spinach and peppers for texture.
Make Your Own Creations
Take plant-based proteins like tempeh, jackfruit and chickpeas and give them a Mexican twist with authentic spices, salsas and veggies for chillies, tacos or burrito bowls.
Popular Plant-Based Mexican Dishes
Here are some beloved Mexican specialties that traditionally contain no animal products:
Poblano peppers stuffed with cheese are a popular dish, but meatless rellenos can be stuffed with rice, potatoes or vegan cheese instead.
This breakfast dish features day-old corn tortillas simmered in a red or green chile salsa. Add beans and vegan cheese for protein.
Avocados, onions, tomatoes, lime, cilantro and chile peppers come together in this addictive dip and salad topping.
An oval-shaped fried masa base is piled high with beans, nopales, lettuce, salsa and other fresh veggies for these meatless sandwiches.
Burritos and Enchiladas
Fill a big flour tortilla or douse corn tortillas in enchilada sauce, then stuff with beans, rice, grilled veggies and avocado for satisfying plant-based meals.
|Key Plant-Based Ingredients
|Poblano peppers, potato, rice, vegan cheese
|Corn tortillas, salsa
|Avocados, onions, tomatoes, lime juice, cilantro
|Masa, beans, nopales, lettuce, salsa
|Burritos and Enchiladas
|Beans, rice, veggies, salsa, avocado
Plant-Based Mexican Cookbooks and Recipes
Many cookbooks and websites now offer recipes tailored specifically to plant-based Mexican cooking:
– Plant Powered Mexican by Gena Hamshaw
– Mexican Everyday by Roberto Santibañez
– Vegan Mexican by Nereida Corona
– Decolonize Your Diet by Luz Calvo
– The Full Helping by Gena Hamshaw
– Cookie and Kate
– Rick Bayless Recipes
– Simple Vegan Blog
– Uno Más Por Favor
These resources offer tips on selecting the right plant-based ingredients to mimic traditional textures and flavors. They provide countless recipes to recreate Mexican meat and dairy classics with vegetables, grains and legumes.
Is Mexican Street Food Plant-Based?
Mexican street eats and snacks encompass a wide range of options. While many antojitos feature meat and cheese, a number of popular street foods happen to be naturally plant-based:
Grilled corn on the cob slathered in creamy chile mayo and cotija cheese can easily be made vegan with a dairy-free mayo and coconut aminos instead of cheese.
This cup of corn off the cob tossed in chile sauce and topped with lime juice and cilantro contains no animal products.
Grilled or raw cactus paddle salads add a unique texture and flavor to any meatless street food meal.
Jamaica Agua Fresca
Hibiscus flowers lend a tart, cranberry-like flavor to this refreshing plant-based Mexican drink.
Mango, pineapple, watermelon and jicama are popular fresh street food snacks that need no alterations.
So while meat-filled tacos al pastor and oozing quesadillas are certainly tempting options, there’s still plenty for plant-based eaters to enjoy on the go in Mexico.
Plant-Based Mexican Restaurants
Traditionally, Mexican restaurants haven’t catered much to vegan and vegetarian diners. But as plant-based eating grows in popularity, more establishments are expanding their menus:
Gracias Madre – San Francisco, CA
This vegan Mexican restaurant uses ingredients like jackfruit, banana blossom and hearts of palm to recreate classic dishes from tacos to flan.
Victoria – Berlin, Germany
Chef Paulina Abascal’s menu features mole with oyster mushrooms, squash blossom quesadillas, and Mexican-inspired cocktails.
Lorena Garcia Cocina – Miami, FL
The chef offers a wide selection of plant-based tacos filled with veggies, avocado and soy chorizo.
Mesita – NYC
Diners can build their own plates choosing from options like cactus paddle, mushroom al pastor and cauliflower ceviche.
COCO Vegan – London, UK
CHOCO Vegan reinvents Mexican street food and desserts using seitan, jackfruit and natural sweets.
As demand increases, more authentic Mexican restaurants are realizing they can apply their culinary skills to plant-based ingredients too.
Is a Vegan Diet Common in Mexico?
While Mexico has a strong cultural and historical tradition of meat-eating, interest in plant-based diets has grown. However, vegetarian and vegan diets are still not very widespread or well-understood in Mexico today.
In Mexico, refusing to eat meat is often seen as disrespectful or rude. Social gatherings and holidays center around meat-heavy dishes. Saying no to treasured family recipes can be misinterpreted.
Outside of big cities, it can be difficult to find plant-based specialty products and restaurants. Grocery stores carry limited varieties of foods like vegan meat substitutes or non-dairy milk.
Without balanced planning, there’s concern a vegan diet may lack key nutrients. Mexicans associate meat and dairy with strength and energy. There’s skepticism that plant foods can be adequate substitutes.
Younger, urban Mexicans are fueling interest in veganism. Animal welfare, sustainability and health are common motivations. Celebrities like actress Aislinn Derbez have promoted the lifestyle.
So while vegetarian and vegan eating still have a long way to go towards mainstream acceptance in Mexican culture, perceptions are gradually changing as the benefits become better known.
Is Mexican Cuisine Becoming More Vegan-Friendly?
In recent years, Mexican food culture has very slowly started to shift to embrace more plant-based options:
New vegan Mexican restaurants are popping up in cities like Mexico City, Guadalajara and Los Angeles to prove that authentic flavors can be delivered without animal products.
Top chefs like Enrique Olvera have earned acclaim for innovative plant-based Mexican tasting menus at Pujol in Mexico City.
Many mainstream restaurants have added vegan entrees, sides, and desserts to accommodate diverse diners. Large chains like Chipotle feature sofritas and vegan bowls.
Google searches for “vegan Mexican food” have steadily increased since 2004. Social media brings together communities of vegan Mexicans sharing ideas and recipes.
Creativity With Plants
As plant-based ingredients become more widely available, Mexican cooks are getting creative stretching the boundaries of traditional dishes with jackfruit carnitas and plant-based queso options.
The path to making plant-based eating fully mainstream will be slow, but Mexican cuisine does seem to be opening up more possibilities for vegan diners.
The cuisine of Mexico is deeply rooted in animal products like cheese, meat, cream and eggs. However, with its base of beans, corn, chiles and abundant produce, Mexican food also has a natural affinity for vegan adaptations. While interest in plant-based eating is rising in Mexico, overcoming cultural attitudes takes time. Still, creative chefs and restauranteurs are now proving that traditional Mexican flavors can be successfully reimagined with plants. With some simple substitutions, Mexican favorites can be just as satisfying for vegans and vegetarians. From street snacks to celebratory feasts, Mexican food has the potential to be flexible to different dietary needs while staying tasty and authentic.