Mexico is known for its delicious cuisine that is influenced by pre-Columbian traditions along with European and African influences. Mexican food varies across the country’s different regions but some dishes are considered national staples. Here are 5 of the most popular and beloved traditional foods in Mexico:
Tacos are considered one of Mexico’s most well-known foods both within the country and internationally. A taco is a folded tortilla that contains a filling inside. Some of the most common taco fillings are seasoned meat, beans, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onion, cilantro, salsa, guacamole, and more. There are countless variations of tacos across Mexico with different types of tortillas, fillings, and garnishes used. Some examples include:
- Tacos al pastor – Spit-grilled pork topped with chopped onions and cilantro.
- Tacos de carnitas – Braised or roasted pork.
- Tacos de pescado – Fish tacos with battered or grilled fish.
- Tacos de camarón – Shrimp tacos.
- Tacos de bistec – Grilled steak.
Tacos are a ubiquitous street food in Mexico and are eaten any time of day. They were originally considered peasant food but are now enjoyed by all social classes in Mexico. The taco stands and taquerias where they are sold are an integral part of Mexico’s food culture.
Mole (pronounced MO-lay) is a quintessentially Mexican sauce that contains chili peppers, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, and sometimes chocolate. There are many different regional variations of mole throughout Mexico but mole poblano from the state of Puebla is the most widely known. Other popular types include mole negro, mole verde, and mole amarillo. Mole often contains more than 20 ingredients that require hours of preparation. The resulting sauce is complex in flavor. It can have spicy, sweet, earthy, smoky, nutty, or tart flavors. Mole is traditionally served over meat – commonly turkey or chicken – and accompanied by rice.
History of Mole
The origins of mole date back to the Aztecs but it took its current form when ingredients from the Old and New World were blended together during Mexico’s colonial era. The name is derived from the Nahuatl word for “sauce” – mōlli. Many regions have their own folklore about the creation of mole. One of the most popular involves nuns adding chiles to an old recipe to stretch out their food reserves to feed important guests. Mole became known as a national dish after Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1810.
Ingredients in Mole
There are various ingredients that typically go into the different types of mole. These include:
- Chile peppers – Mulato, pasilla, ancho, chipotle, etc.
- Nuts – Peanuts, almonds, sesame seeds
- Spices – Cumin, cinnamon, cloves, pepper
- Fruit – Plantains, banana
- Vegetables – Onion, garlic, tomatillo
- Herbs – Oregano, marjoram, thyme
- Chocolate or cacao
- Bread or tortillas
- Seeds – Pumpkin, sesame
The specific combination of ingredients creates the unique flavor profiles of moles from Puebla, Oaxaca, and other regions.
In modern Mexico, mole remains a cherished national dish. It is often served at celebrations, holidays, and special events. The rich, complex sauce is a culinary centerpiece when served over poultry, meat, or fish. Mole can also be used to enhance flavor in tamales, rice, vegetables, beans, quesadillas, and more. Many Mexican cooks spend hours preparing homemade mole from scratch. Bottled mole pastes allow home cooks to quickly incorporate mole into a dish.
Tamales are a popular and traditional Mesoamerican dish made from masa (corn dough) wrapped and steamed inside a corn husk or banana leaf. There are sweet and savory versions found throughout Mexico that are commonly eaten on holidays and special occasions.
History of Tamales
Tamales have a long history going back to the time of the Aztecs and Mayans who steeped corn in limewater to make masa for tamales. The ancient Aztecs used tamales in offerings and rituals. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they incorporated pork and other ingredients into the masa. Today’s tamale recipes reflect generations of influence from indigenous civilizations and the Old World.
Fillings and Variations
While savory tamales are more common, sweet tamales also exist in Mexico. Typical fillings include:
- Shredded meats – Pork, chicken, beef
- Cheese – Oaxaca, queso fresco
- Vegetables – Potatoes, spinach, zucchini
- Chiles and salsa
- Fruits – Raisins, pineapple, strawberry
- Sweets – Cajeta, chocolate
Some popular tamale variations in Mexico are:
- Tamales oaxaqueños – Banana leaf tamales from Oaxaca filled with mole negro and chicken.
- Tamales de elote – Sweet corn tamales.
- Tamales verdes – Tamales with green tomatillo sauce.
- Tamales dulces – Sweet tamales with fruits, coconut, and more.
- Tamales de frijol con queso – Bean and cheese tamales.
Tamales are commonly eaten on holidays like Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Day of the Dead, and Candlemas. They can be enjoyed for any meal but are especially popular at breakfast. Street vendors sell them wrapped in paper as grab-and-go food. Unwrapped tamales are often served directly on the leaf as part of a plated meal. The masa is soft and moist when freshly made. Leftover tamales are sometimes fried to make tamales ranchero.
Pozole is a hearty soup or stew that originated in pre-Hispanic Mexico as a celebratory ritual dish. Today, it remains a staple of Mexican cuisine, popular at festivities and family gatherings.
History of Pozole
Pozole dates to Indigenous civilizations like the Aztecs, when it was made with turkey, chili peppers, and corn. The corn was dried and treated with lime, then ground into masa for the pozole. When the Spanish introduced pork, it became a popular ingredient. Over the centuries, pozole evolved across regions but retained its cultural significance as a dish for commemorating special occasions.
Ingredients in Pozole
The basic components of pozole are:
- Hominy – Dried corn kernels that have been cooked and swollen after soaking in an alkaline solution.
- Meat – Pork, chicken or beef. Pig’s feet are also commonly added.
- Chilies – Dried chilies like guajillo, pasilla or ancho.
- Herbs and spices – onion, garlic, cumin, oregano, bay leaf.
- Garnishes – Radish, cabbage, avocado, lime, oregano.
There are three main types of pozole distinguished by the color of the chilies used in the broth:
- Pozole rojo – Red chilies like guajillo, giving the broth a red hue.
- Pozole verde – Green chilies like jalapeño or poblano, lending a green color.
- Pozole blanco – The broth has no chili, remaining a clear white.
Pozole can be found at restaurants across Mexico but remains a family affair in many homes, served on New Year’s Eve or for celebrations. The cooking process can take hours as the broth simmers and the corn softens. Pozole is typically served in a bowl with various garnishes like sliced radish, cabbage, avocado, lime, and oregano so each person can customize their serving. Crispy tostadas are often served on the side to scoop up the soup.
Chiles en nogada
Chiles en nogada is a traditional dish from Puebla consisting of poblano peppers stuffed with meat and fruit, covered in a walnut cream sauce and pomegranate seeds. The colors – green, white, and red – represent the Mexican flag, which is why it is a popular dish for celebrating Mexican Independence Day on September 16.
History of Chiles en nogada
Chiles en nogada originated in the convents of Puebla where nuns prepared the dish with available local ingredients. It was first served in 1821 at a banquet hosted by Agustin de Iturbide after signing the Treaty of Cordoba, which secured Mexico’s independence from Spain. The dish’s green, white, and red represent the Mexican flag and has come to symbolize Mexican patriotism and pride.
The components of chiles en nogada are:
- Poblano peppers – Roasted, peeled, deseeded, and stuffed.
- Filling – Made of chopped or ground pork, beef, or poultry, shredded fruit, spices, seeds, and nuts.
- Walnut cream sauce – Made with walnuts, milk, fresh cheese, bread crumbs, and sherry or brandy.
- Garnish – Pomegranate seeds and parsley.
Typical fillings include diced or ground meats mixed with fruits like peaches, apples, pears, or plantains, along with spices like cinnamon and cumin. Raisins, almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, or pecans are added for texture.
Chiles en nogada is traditionally served during Mexican Independence Day celebrations in September when pomegranates are in season. It also appears at festivals honoring San Pedro Cholula where the dish originated. While labor intensive to prepare, it is regarded as one of Mexico’s most beautiful and symbolic dishes blending flavors and colors that represent the country’s unique history.
These five iconic foods – tacos, mole, tamales, pozole, and chiles en nogada – exemplify the rich culinary heritage of Mexico. From pre-Hispanic origins to the blending of Old and New World ingredients, traditional Mexican cuisine is a product of the country’s diverse cultural influences and regions. Each dish carries history, symbolism, and unique flavors while remaining beloved staples of the Mexican diet across the country today. Their popularity within Mexico represents the nation’s cultural identity, both gastronomic and social.