Mexico has a rich culinary tradition and is known for its delicious and flavorful cuisine. Mexican food varies by region and has been influenced by the country’s indigenous civilizations as well as Spanish colonization. However, there are certain iconic dishes that can be found throughout Mexico and have become popular globally as well. In this article, we will explore 3 of the most popular traditional Mexican food dishes that are beloved both within Mexico and abroad.
One of the most well-known Mexican dishes are tacos. Tacos consist of a tortilla that is folded or rolled around a filling. Traditional tacos are made with soft corn tortillas rather than hard taco shells, which were popularized in the US. There are countless varieties of tacos with different types of fillings, the most common being meat, seafood, beans, cheese, vegetables, and combinations of these ingredients. Some popular taco fillings include:
- Carnitas – Braised or roasted pork
- Carne asada – Grilled beef steak
- Al pastor – Spit-roasted marinated pork
- Chorizo – Spicy sausage
- Lengua – Beef tongue
- Camarones – Shrimp
- Pescado – Fish fillet
Tacos are such a ubiquitous part of Mexican cuisine that “taco Tuesday” is a weekly celebration in many parts of North America. They make for a quick, satisfying bite to eat any time of day. Tacos can be served simply with just the meat and tortilla, or they can be topped with salsa, guacamole, shredded lettuce, cheese, and other condiments. No matter how they are customized, tacos are the quintessential Mexican street food and a tasty introduction to authentic Mexican flavors.
Mole (pronounced MO-lay) is a quintessential Mexican sauce that contains chiles, spices, seeds, nuts, and chocolate. It originated in the state of Puebla and has countless regional variations. The classic mole poblano contains mulato, pasilla, and ancho chiles, Mexican chocolate, peanuts, almonds, sesame seeds, cinnamon, black pepper, garlic, and more. The ingredients are finely ground into a smooth, rich sauce with a unique sweet-spicy-earthy flavor.
Mole can be served over meat – chicken and turkey mole are very traditional – or fish, enchiladas, tamales, and more. It is considered one of Mexico’s national dishes and takes hours to create from scratch, requiring patience and skill to perfectly balance the flavors. Mole represents Mexico’s complex culinary history, blending indigenous ingredients like chili peppers and chocolate with spices brought from Europe and Africa. A complex mole sauce is the pride of any Mexican cook and an iconic representation of the cuisine.
Chiles en Nogada
A popular dish representing Mexican independence is chiles en nogada, meaning chiles in walnut sauce. It traditionally contains poblano peppers stuffed with picadillo, a mixture of pan-fried meat, spices, fruit, and nuts. This can include pork, beef, chicken, apples, peaches, raisins, garlic, onions, and almonds. The stuffed pepper is then blanketed in a creamy walnut sauce and topped with pomegranate seeds and parsley.
The dish’s colors – green pepper, white walnut sauce, red pomegranate – are meant to represent the Mexican flag and independence from Spain. It was supposedly first created in the state of Puebla to commemorate Mexico’s independence in 1821. Chile en nogada is a patriotic dish that is especially enjoyed around Mexican Independence Day in September. It brings together sweet, savory, and nutty flavors into an elegant and symbolic celebration of Mexican culinary history.
Tacos, mole, and chiles en nogada represent just a small sample of Mexico’s diverse, vibrant, and historically rich cuisine. Mexican food culture varies immensely by region, reflecting the country’s terrain, indigenous influence, and complex colonial history. There are countless other beloved Mexican dishes beyond these three, from pozole stew to tamales, quesadillas, ceviche, and more. However, tacos, mole, and chiles en nogada have become icons of Mexican flavor and culture, famous both within and beyond Mexico’s borders. They showcase the culinary creativity, ingredients, and techniques that Mexican cuisine is known for worldwide.
Here is some more in-depth information on tacos and their history in Mexico:
The taco predates the arrival of Europeans in Mexico. Indigenous peoples of Mexico, such as the Aztecs and Mayans, were known to fold or roll local ingredients like small fish and cooked meat inside of tortillas. The Nahuatl word “tlahco” referred to these wrapped tortillas. With the arrival of the Spanish and introduction of pork, beef, and wheat, the modern version of the taco began to take shape. By the 19th century, tacos were sold as street food in urban areas of Mexico. They became an everyday food for people of all social classes in Mexico.
There are endless regional variations of tacos found throughout Mexico:
- Tacos al pastor – Spit-roasted pork, often marinated in achilies and pineapple, with origins in the Puebla region.
- Tacos de canasta – Tacos that are steamed and kept warm in a basket covered with cloth, commonly sold by street vendors in Mexico City.
- Tacos de pescado – Baja California style tacos with battered and fried fish or shrimp.
- Tacos dorados – Deep fried tacos filled with potato, chicken, cheese, etc. and served with lettuce, crema, salsa.
- Tacos de guisado – Tacos filled with stewed meat and sauce.
- Tacos sudados – “Sweaty” tacos glistening with grease, often found in the Mexico City area.
There are also breakfast variations like tacos de chorizo con huevos (chorizo and egg tacos) and tacos filled with beans, cheese, cactus, and more. The diversity of tacos reflects the geographic, cultural, and agricultural diversity of Mexico.
How They’re Made
Authentic Mexican tacos are made with soft corn tortillas rather than the hard, U-shaped taco shells commonly found in the US. Corn tortillas are made from masa, a dough made by soaking and cooking dried corn in limewater. This ancient process, called nixtamalization, both softens the corn for grinding and adds nutrients. Once pressed into thin rounds and cooked, corn tortillas are flexible and sturdy enough to support taco fillings.
Tacos are simplest when meat or other fillings are just placed in the center of the tortilla. They can then be garnished with cilantro, onion, salsa, limes, and other condiments to taste. Tacos are generally eaten by hand, with diners holding the taco to take bites and preventing fillings from spilling out. Some additional elements like double-layered tortillas or fried shells help contain messy ingredients like juicy meat and greasy chicharrones.
Beyond their incredible flavor, tacos hold cultural significance in Mexican cuisine and society. They are an inexpensive food of the working class and street food vendors. Simple meat or bean tacos can feed families economically across Mexico. Tacos are also enjoyed across all levels of society, celebrated for their diversity and adaptability. Their ubiquity connects Mexicans from all backgrounds through a shared love of tacos.
Additionally, taquerias and taco stands represent cultural gathering places in neighborhoods across Mexico. People stop to chat and eat tacos with friends. Tacos bring Mexican communities and families together in a casual, fun atmosphere. They are the everyman food of Mexico, versatile and able to adapt to local cultures and ingredients across the country. For these reasons, tacos have become an icon of Mexican identity, history, and cuisine.
Here is some additional detail on the history and significance of mole in Mexican cuisine:
Mole’s origins are uncertain, but it likely has roots in both pre-Hispanic and Spanish cuisines. The name may come from the Nahuatl word “molli” for sauce. Indigenous Mexican civilizations used ingredients like chilies, tomatoes, pumpkin seeds, and more in cooked sauces. Spanish colonizers then brought spices, nuts, and chocolate to Mexico, influencing mole’s flavor.
Puebla is considered the homeland of mole and mole poblano specifically. According to legend, 16th century nuns in the Santa Rosa convent in Puebla created the first mole sauce to serve an important visiting archbishop. They used ingredients like chilies, chocolate, nuts, spices, stale bread, and more ground together with a metate grinding stone. Other stories credit cooks for inventing mole or claim it came from the mountain villages outside Puebla. Regardless of its uncertain beginnings, mole became strongly identified with Mexican cuisine.
While mole poblano is the most famous, there are many regional mole variations:
- Mole verde – Green mole made with tomatillos, cilantro, pumpkin seeds, herbs.
- Mole rojo – Red mole made with guajillo, ancho, and chipotle chiles.
- Mole negro – Black mole made with several types of chiles that give it a dark color.
- Mole amarillo – Yellow mole made with chorizo, tomatoes, chili de arbol, cumin, cloves.
- Mole chichilo – From the state of Guerrero, made with ancho chiles and chilhuacle negro chiles.
- Mole pipian – Contains pepitas (pumpkin seeds) as a key thickening agent.
These moles reflect the diversity of chiles, spices, and ingredients used in different Mexican regions. While poblano remains the most famous, other moles showcase more local culinary flavors and traditions.
Traditionally, mole is prepared from scratch in a time-consuming process:
- Dried chiles are cleaned, seeded, and reconstituted in water until soft.
- Nuts like peanuts or almonds are toasted to enhance their flavor.
- Spices, seeds, herbs, fruit, and other ingredients are prepared – onions and garlic sauteed, plantains simmered, cinnamon toasted, etc.
- All ingredients are ground together with a molcajete (mortar and pestle) or metate into a fine paste.
- The paste is simmered and stirred constantly until the mole comes together as a thick, rich, smooth sauce.
- It is seasoned to taste with salt and other ingredients.
The constant grinding and simmering allows the flavors to meld, making mole complex and mellow despite the many powerful ingredients. It takes skill and time to achieve the ideal mole consistency, color, and balanced taste.
Beyond its culinary role, mole holds social and cultural significance in Mexico:
- It is most strongly associated with Puebla but enjoyed nationwide as a classic Mexican dish.
- Mole is traditionally served only on special occasions – weddings, Christmas, Easter, birthdays, patriotic holidays.
- Its labor intensive preparation makes it symbolic of love, celebration, and Mexican identity.
- Women often learn the secret family mole recipe and pass it down through generations.
- Unique mole recipes and skills represent cultural heirlooms and town pride.
- Some families have reportedly made the same mole recipe for over 200 years.
While time-consuming to make, mole is an important part of celebrations and weekends in Mexican family life. The shared enjoyment of mole on special occasions helps reinforce culinary traditions and bring families together through food. Mole’s roots in local history and identity also give it a sense of cultural pride across Mexico’s regions.
Chiles en Nogada
Here are some more details on chiles en nogada and its meaning in Mexican cuisine:
The dish was created in Puebla, Mexico in the 1820s after Mexico gained independence from Spain. Legend has it that nuns at the Santa Monica convent invented the dish to commemorate a visit from General Agustin de Iturbide, who had just signed the Treaty of Cordoba affirming Mexico’s independence. The green, white, and red represented the colors of the Mexican flag, making it a patriotic dish. Other stories say a nun named Sor Andrea de la Asuncion invented it.
The dish became strongly tied to Mexican Independence Day on September 16. It is still traditionally eaten around that date to celebrate Mexico’s national holiday. Eating chiles en nogada is a way to participate in an edible commemoration of independence.
The components of chiles en nogada represent Mexican agriculture and cuisine:
- Poblano chili – Iconic Mexican chili pepper with mild heat.
- Walnut sauce – Called nogada, from the Spanish word for walnut “nuez.”
- Pork – Important Mexican meat, often served shredded or ground.
- Fruit – Peaches, pears, apples, plantains – fruits grown in Mexico.
- Almonds, raisins – Nutty and sweet elements.
- Pomegranate seeds – Provide a pop of red color evoking the Mexican flag.
These ingredients blend indigenous Mexican crops with fruits, nuts, and spices brought by the Spanish. Together they reflect Mexico’s fertile land, agriculture, and complex culinary identity.
Traditional recipes for chiles en nogada involve multiple steps:
- Pork is cooked until tender then shredded.
- Fruits like peach are sauteed with onion, garlic, and spices.
- Almonds and raisins are toasted.
- The pork and fruit are mixed with almonds, raisins, spices, and set aside.
- Poblanos are roasted, peeled, deseeded and stuffed with the mixture.
- A nogada sauce is prepared by simmering walnuts, milk, cheese, garlic and spices.
- The stuffed poblanos are topped with nogada sauce then sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and parsley.
As with mole, the many components and steps reflect the celebratory nature of the dish. It is elaborate and time-consuming, saved for independence celebrations.
Beyond its significance as an independence dish, chiles en nogada represent several aspects of Mexican cultural identity:
- It combines pre-Hispanic ingredients like poblanos with Spanish contributions like nuts.
- The recipe was created in a convent, reflecting Spanish colonial influence.
- It requires agricultural bounty only available in late summer, tied to seasons and land.
- As a festive and seasonal dish, it brings families together for celebrations.
- Regional pride and variations – Pueblan ones most traditional.
- Requires skill and time to prepare, passed down through generations.
For these reasons, chiles en nogada continues to be an iconic patriotic food that represents Mexican cuisine, culture, and history with each bite. It tells the story of Mexico’s complex identity through local ingredients prepared in a traditional way.