Mexican cuisine is known for its vibrant flavors, diverse ingredients and variety of cooking techniques that have been passed down through generations. It has evolved over thousands of years into the delicious dishes we know and love today. There are many iconic Mexican dishes, but four of the most popular are tacos, enchiladas, tamales and chile rellenos.
Tacos are arguably the most well-known Mexican food in the world. A taco is a folded tortilla filled with a variety of ingredients like meat, vegetables, cheese and salsa. Some quick answers to common taco questions:
- Where did tacos originate? Tacos originated in Mexico, with early versions dating back to the 18th century.
- What are tacos typically filled with? Common taco fillings include al pastor (spit-roasted pork), carne asada (grilled steak), carnitas (braised pork), chicken, chorizo, beans, and fish or shrimp.
- How are tacos served? Tacos are typically served warm, wrapped in a soft corn or flour tortilla. They can be topped with ingredients like cilantro, onion, salsa, guacamole, cheese, etc.
- What types of tacos are there? Some taco varieties include street-style tacos, breakfast tacos, fish tacos, and Tex-Mex tacos like crunchy tacos with ground beef, lettuce and cheese.
There are countless regional variations of tacos found all over Mexico. Tacos are commonly sold by street vendors called taquerias in Mexico. They are meant to be picked up and eaten by hand for a satisfying on-the-go meal.
Popular Taco Fillings
Here are some of the most common taco fillings and proteins found in authentic Mexican tacos:
|Al Pastor||Marinated pork that is sliced from a spit, inspired by shawarma. Often topped with pineapple.|
|Carne Asada||Grilled, chopped beef steak, usually the skirt or flank cut.|
|Carnitas||Slow-cooked, braised or roasted pork, chopped or shredded.|
|Pollo||Shredded or chopped chicken, usually seasoned simply with salt.|
|Chorizo||Spicy Mexican sausage made with pork and seasoned with paprika and vinegar.|
|Lengua||Beef tongue, braised until tender.|
|Vegetales||Seasoned vegetables like onions, peppers, mushrooms, squash or potatoes.|
The taco fillings can be cooked in a variety of ways like grilling, roasting, braising or stewing to maximize flavors. Toppings and sauces are added to tacos to provide layers of textures and flavors in each bite.
Types of Tacos
There are many different regional styles of tacos found throughout Mexico. Here are some of the most common types:
- Tacos Al Pastor – Spit-roasted marinated pork sliced fresh from the trompo (vertical rotisserie). Often topped with pineapple, onion, cilantro.
- Tacos de Carne Asada – Grilled steak tacos, usually served with guacamole, salsa, onions, cilantro.
- Tacos de Carnitas – Braised pork tacos with steamed onions, cilantro and lime.
- Tacos de Pescado – Battered or grilled fish or shrimp tacos, with cabbage, avocado, chipotle mayo.
- Breakfast Tacos – Tacos made with eggs, potatoes, chorizo, bacon, bean, cheese. Served any time of day.
- Tacos Dorados – Deep-fried rolled tacos filled with chicken or cheese, served with lettuce, crema, salsa.
Within these broad categories there is endless variation between fillings, toppings, tortillas and salsas that make each taqueria unique. Tacos are a beloved staple of Mexican cuisine because they are highly customizable to suit anyone’s tastes.
Enchiladas are another iconic Mexican dish that has gained popularity worldwide. They consist of corn tortillas that are filled and rolled up with a variety of ingredients then covered in sauce and cheese.
Here are quick answers to some common enchilada questions:
- What are the origins of enchiladas? They originated in Mexico as early as the 16th century.
- What are the main components? Corn tortillas, protein filling, enchilada sauce, onions, cheese, and garnish.
- How are they prepared? By dipping tortillas in sauce, filling them, rolling up, and baking with more sauce and cheese.
- What types of enchilada sauces are there? Red enchilada sauce, green enchilada sauce, mole sauce, cheese sauce.
- What do they typically contain? Shredded chicken, ground beef, cheese, beans, vegetables.
While enchiladas are found all over Mexico, different regions have their own signature styles. Enchiladas can be baked with sauce and cheese or fried for a crispy exterior.
Just about anything can be used as a filling for enchiladas. Here are some traditional and popular fillings:
|Shredded Chicken||Poached, roasted or fried shredded chicken thigh meat.|
|Ground Beef||Seasoned ground beef, simmered with onions, garlic and spices.|
|Cheese||Melted cheese like Oaxaca, cotija or queso fresco.|
|Beans||Refried pinto or black beans,often with cheese and onions.|
|Vegetables||Sauteed vegetables like spinach, mushrooms, zucchini.|
|Picadillo||A mixture of ground meat, potatoes, onions, spices and fruits.|
The fillings are wrapped in the tortilla then smothered in sauce and cheese. This provides layers of contrasting textures between the soft tortilla, chunky filling and melted cheese.
Types of Enchilada Sauces
Enchiladas are all about the sauce. The sauce provides big, bold Mexican flavors as well as moisture to bring the dish together. Common enchilada sauce varieties include:
- Red Enchilada Sauce – Made from dried chilies, spices, garlic, onions, tomato sauce or vegetables. Often contains guajillo, ancho and/or chipotle chilies.
- Green Enchilada Sauce – Made from tomatillos, serrano chiles, cilantro, garlic, onions and spices. Tangy and bright in flavor.
- Mole Sauce – Rich, complex sauce made from roasted chilies, spices, cocoa, nuts, seeds and more. Many types like mole poblano, pipian and manchamanteles.
- Cheese Sauce – Made from melted cheese like queso fresco, cheddar or Monterey jack, with milk or cream.
The red and green salsas provide the essential enchilada flavor base. Mole sauces and cheese sauces add delightful complexity and creaminess. All are wonderfully delicious!
Tamales are a classic Mexican dish made from masa dough that is stuffed and steamed inside corn husks or banana leaves. They make a wonderful hearty meal any time of day.
Here are quick answers to common tamale questions:
- Where did tamales originate? Tamales have ancient origins in Mesoamerica dating back thousands of years.
- How are they made? Tamales consist of a masa dough filled with savory or sweet fillings, wrapped and then steamed.
- What are the main components? Corn masa dough, fillings, corn husks or banana leaves, and steamer.
- What do tamales taste like? Tamales are soft, moist and flavorful. The masa is sweet and complements the fillings.
- How do you eat them? Tamales are unwrapped from the corn husk and eaten out of hand or on a plate with salsa or toppings.
Tamales are labor intensive to make but well worth the effort. The process brings Mexican families together to fill, wrap, and steam these special treats.
Both sweet and savory fillings are used to make tamales. Here are some of the most common fillings:
|Pork||Shredded pork in adobo or mole sauce, often with fruit.|
|Chicken||Shredded chicken in tomato sauce, mole or herbs.|
|Beans||Refried beans with cheese and chilies.|
|Cheese||Melted cheese like Oaxaca, cotija or queso fresco.|
|Vegetables||Sauteed vegetables, potatoes, spinach or pumpkin.|
|Sweet Corn||Sweet corn with cream, sugar and spices.|
|Fruit||Sweet tamales with raisins, pineapple, coconut or pumpkin.|
Both the fillings and the masa can be flavored with herbs, spices, chilies and aromatics. This adds wonderful complexity to every bite of tamale.
Tamales vary greatly by region in terms of fillings, flavors, shapes and wrapping:
- Oaxaca-Style – Banana leaf-wrapped tamales with complex mole fillings.
- Yucatan-Style – Small, compact tamales with chicken, pork or sweet fillings.
- Jaliscan-Style – Large tamales with various seasoned fillings.
- Veracruz-Style – Smaller tamales with spicy tomato sofrito masa and olives.
- Sonoran-Style – Wheat flour masa with meat or cheese fillings.
No matter what type of tamale, they all have that distinct soft, moist and fluffy texture when perfectly steamed. Tamales are meant to be enjoyed with salsas, hot sauces and toppings that complement the fillings.
Chiles rellenos are a popular dish consisting of roasted and stuffed poblano peppers covered in egg batter and fried. They make an incredible vegetarian entree.
Here are quick answers to common chiles rellenos questions:
- Where did chiles rellenos originate? They originated in the Mexican state of Puebla.
- What are poblano peppers? A type of mild chili with thick walls perfect for stuffing.
- How are chiles rellenos made? Poblanos are roasted, stuffed, coated in egg batter and fried.
- What are common fillings? Cheese, ground meat, vegetables, beans, seafood, fruits, nuts.
- What do they taste like? The smooth, rich pepper contrasts wonderfully with the light, crunchy batter.
Chiles rellenos are labor intensive to prepare properly, but their complex flavors make it worthwhile. Roasting and frying the peppers transforms and balances their flavors beautifully.
There are many delicious fillings that work well in chiles rellenos. Some traditional stuffings include:
|Queso Fresco||Fresh mild white cheese that melts smoothly.|
|Monterey Jack||Melty, mild cheese with creamy texture.|
|Picadillo||Ground meat mixture with spices, fruit and veggies.|
|Chorizo||Spicy sausage provides great savory flavor.|
|Vegetables||Onions, corn, zucchini and spinach are nice choices.|
|Seafood||Crab, shrimp and fish pair well with poblano’s mild spice.|
The most important factor is that the filling texture complements the soft pepper interior. Melted cheese is a classic choice for its richness and ability to hold together when cooked.
There are a few different ways chiles rellenos can be prepared:
- Fried – The most common method. Coated in egg batter and pan-fried until golden and crispy.
- Baked – Oven-baked version without frying that is lighter.
- Broiled – Chili peppers broiled after stuffing until blistered with browned bits.
- Roasted – Peppers roasted before stuffing for deeper charred flavors.
The fried preparation is traditional and yields the signature crispy texture contrast. But the baked, broiled and roasted styles all have their merits as well. Adjust cooking methods to suit dietary needs and personal preferences.
Tacos, enchiladas, tamales and chiles rellenos encompass the delicious diversity of iconic Mexican cuisine. Their flavors have been perfected over generations while allowing for countless regional and familial variations. These dishes also demonstrate important Mexican cooking techniques from grilling and braising meats to preparing homemade salsas and tamale masa. Mastering just these four classics opens up a world of incredible Mexican recipes to enjoy for a lifetime.
Mexican food is all about big, bold flavors, a variety of complementary textures and honoring food traditions. Savoring these dishes reminds us why Mexican cuisine is one of the most beloved in the world.