It’s the age-old question… and one that travellers seek to answer with almost every journey… What do the cuisines we love to eat so much at home, actually taste like in their country of origin? Pizza in Italy… Fried rice in China… Curry in India… and of course, tacos (and other Mexican food) in Mexico.
Because, sadly, some incredible cuisines have fallen victim to the questionable palates of several western countries and been tweaked and transformed so that they barely resemble what their ancestors created over hundreds or thousands of years (hmmm… no one is looking at you PIZZA HUT).
Mexican food, whilst undergoing a recent surge in popularity here in Australia and a rise in returning to its traditional form, has for years been delivered to us in the form of Taco Bell (or ‘Bill’ in Australia) and Old El Paso. So, were we really eating the ‘real’ thing?
On my recent trip to Mexico I was beside myself with excitement about the food. Well, I am kind of like that with almost any country I visit (except for England and America, sorry, but you don’t usually fall into this category) and ever since I returned, ‘what was the food like’ has probably been the most common question I have been asked.
So… what was the food like? In a word, amazing. We ate the local food day and night, and did NOT get sick of it.
So, to destroy some myths and get you craving a trip to the land of chillies, beans and tortillas, here is a taste (see what I did there) of what you can expect!
Totopos and Pico de Gallo
Whilst you are waiting for your meal in pretty much every restaurant, you will be served a bowl of totopos and accompanying Pico de Gallo, or salsa fresca. Totopos are basically deep fried tortilla triangles, and the ‘real’ corn chips. The Pico de Gallo is a fresh salsa made of tomatoes, onion, coriander, lemon or lime juice and jalapeno peppers – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot – picante (hot)!
We LOVED this little starter and would look forward to it each and every time. Our toddler daughter loved the ‘chips’ and we would have to stop ourselves from filling up on them each time, or we wouldn’t have room for our meals.
We would also sometimes get a dish of pickled vegetables to ‘start’ our meal with. Whilst they look a little dubious, they are FULL of flavour and really interesting to munch on.
First things first. They DO NOT come in hard shells. Not even the cute little Old El Paso girl can change this (why not have both? NO!). They are in soft, flour (or corn) tortillas. You usually get about three in a serving, as they are not big.
They can be filled with steak, chicken, fish, prawns… And mixed with peppers, onions, or topped with pico de gallo, or guacamole (or a combination of these). They are little taste bombs, full of flavour (not usually hot to taste, but you can add jalapenos or hot habanero sauce if you’re so inclined. We did).
Everyone has their own way of preparing and serving tacos. In one restaurant, my chicken tacos were served with queso fresco, a Mexican fresh cheese, and in others, I got Mexican rice and beans. I loved the fact that there are no hard and fast rules.
Particularly in coastal areas, this is a popular Central and South American dish and consists of fresh seafood that has been ‘cooked’ in citrus juice such as lemon or lime, and spiced with chilli and sometimes other seasonings.
We ate ceviche in a restaurant owned by the son of a local fisherman in Tulum. They get the daily catch in each day and by night, you are eating the tastiest ceviche in town. Fish, shrimp, tomatoes, coriander and plenty of lime and chilli. Brilliant.
Fajitas, Burritos, Quesadillas…
What’s the difference? I’ve got to say that even after spending two weeks eating them, I’m still not 100% clear and neither were several locals that I asked.
But what is clear is the burrito is largely an American thing (although I have heard they are also popular in some regional centres of Mexico, but made with far fewer fillings). They are generally rolled and presented as the complete package, with meat, rice, beans and sometimes cheese, and the ends of the tortilla are closed over.
Fajitas are similar to tacos – the major difference seemed to be that tacos come prepared and filled, and fajitas come with tortillas on the side and you do a bit of self-assembly. They have lots of meat and veggies (usually peppers and onions) with flour or corn tortillas and various accompaniments.
Quesadillas are made with wheat or corn tortillas, and are most often served with Oaxaca (a regional) cheese, then griddled on the traditional comal that is used to make tortillas until the cheese melts.
Sauces, dips, condiments
These add the ‘fun’ to the meal. Mexican’s love to accompany your dish with lots of little bowls holding different taste explosions. Guacamole is served with almost every dish and can be plain avocado, or spiced with tomatoes, onions or chillies. In the local supermarkets, avocados basically took up half of the fresh produce department along with chillies of all kinds. You could tell where their priorities were!
I mentioned habanero sauce earlier. This is the HOT stuff. Tread carefully but if you dare, it is amazing! And finally mole. There are all different kinds, especially between regions, but it is basically a sauce made with a base of chilli peppers and often chocolate (yes, chocolate), it adds a great flavour to anything you are eating.
So what Mexican food is around for brekky? Eggs feature heavily and a favourite is Huevos Rancheros – fried eggs with a cooked salsa served on tortillas.
One morning I had tortillas filled with mushrooms, zucchini and fresh cheese (queso fresco) – divine. And another fantastic dish is Chilaquiles – tortillas topped with mole and salsa, pulled chicken and eggs with some fresh cheese (queso fresco). Yum!
We all have to wash down our Mexican food with something and I have to admit that I could rarely go past a margarita. Frozen or on the rocks, classic or mango (or any number of other flavours), this truly is their national cocktail and at happy hour, you could get very happy for not very many pesos.
Served in all kinds of glasses, these ones from La Coquetta in Tulum were our favourite – large and fun!
Mexico also has a great range of local beers, from Coronas, ‘Coronita’s (110ml versions of Coronas, so essentially great if you like drinking your beer cold), Sol, Negra Modelo…
Coconut juice is served in its original packaging….
And juices abound. It was mango season when we were there and our little girl must have drunk her weight in mango juice. But the current fad of pressed and green juices have also hit Mexico and they are on every menu.
And the rest…
I also need to talk about nachos and chilli con carne. Chilli Con Carne is a Tex-Mex dish, so it’s not so much a Mexican food. Nachos are everywhere and I had some pretty good beef chilli nachos at one place, but you can find variations in most places that involve chicken, fish, shrimp…. And they are made with totopos – not Doritos!
If you get ‘sick’ of tortillas, salsa and chillies… You can order fresh fish fillets, vegetables, salads, you name it. I had an amazing piece of fish with garlic for lunch at Ziggy Beach that gave me a little break from things wrapped up in flour/corn and was light and fresh.
And finally, Italian seems to be the second most popular cuisine in the country, so you can always find some pasta and pizza if you get a little weary of Mexican food! You will also find lots of South American influence with churrasco bbq dishes.
So if you are a bit of a foodie and keen to try the real thing, I highly recommend Mexico for its flavours…. It won’t disappoint! Warning though, it will ruin you forever, you will need to constantly seek out the ‘real thing’ once you get home (no more Old El Paso).
What has your experience been with discovering foods in their own countries? Highlights and lowlights?