What dishes come to mind when you think of Mexican food? Tacos, tamales, enchiladas, chilaquiles, pan dulces, moles, salsas and guacamole, mountains of queso fresco all washed down with an agua fresca or maybe something stronger, like mezcal or tequila. Mexican food offers unique and powerful flavors, spices extracted from fresh peppers topping the Scoville charts cut with fresh herbs like cilantro, mint, or epazote. With a history dating back to 1,500 BC, the most ancient civilization, of what is now Mexico, the Olmecs as well as the Maya, Aztecs and more recent Spaniards and Afro-Mexicans (black slaves from Spain) influenced the flavors we still associate with Mexican food today.
Mexico’s roots have defined its regional cuisines, based on local conditions and cultural transitions. Travel across the border and this becomes immediately apparent in the states of Oaxaca, Veracruz and the Yucatán as well as Jalisco and Pubela and Northern Mexico each known for their culinary specialities.
El Norteño, also known as the North, defines the upper half of the country and is home to states such as Durango, Nuevo León, Sinaloa, and Sonora. It’s vast immigrant population has shaped the gastronomy of the region yielding dairy and meats as its staples. Drive through the dry fields of the north and you’ll understand why cattle and wheat farms prompted norteños to cure meats and milk cows to create a legacy of carne asada, machaca (dried shredded meats), and the infamous burrito (flour tortillas only).
Working your way directly south through the middle of the country, Oaxaca is a foodie’s dream. Corn dominates the region and is the cornerstone of Oaxacan cooking producing the trifecta of tortillas, tamales and tlayudas. A few other notable ingredients that make up Oaxacan cooking are: Oaxacan cheese (quesillo), black beans, chile peppers and chocolate — the latter two alluding to the region’s nickname “land of the seven moles.” The regions rich flavors are best paired with its local favorite mezcal or “cooked agave”. Made from the agave plant, pre-hispanic Oaxacans originally used the agave cacti to make an undistilled alcoholic pulque but later advanced the production when Spanish brought their knowledge of distillation processes to the region. If you want the full tasting experience, pair mezcal with sal de gusano (chili ground worm salt) mixed with citrus for an extra bite.
Puebla, Veracruz and Jalisco take us back north and the latter to the western seaboard. Local variations in its chiles define the food in each region. Many know Puebla by its food as well as it’s historical significance. Cinco de mayo, one of the most notable Mexican holidays represents Mexico’s unexpected defeat over the French army in the Battle of Puebla in 1862. Additionally, Puebla is home to Mexico’s national dish — mole, in which mole poblano is named. A 20+ ingredient masterpiece can be found added to many dishes from the region. Veracruz takes a sweeter and fruity spin on mole, using nopales and nuts as a way to balance the spice and chocolate with a sweet tanginess. Prepare your palate for a flavorful combustion as you lather Xico Mole (from Xico, Veracruz) on anything you can get your hands on. Last, Jalisco sits on the west coast of the country and is best known for its high quality tequila production from the blue agave plant. It’s diverse climate across the 200 miles of coastline comprised of arid plains, snowy peaks and ubiquitous fresh water from Lake Chapala have created a region suitable for a variety of food production. Pair your tequila reposado with a few local favorites such as tortas (sandwiches) or birria (chile-stewed goat or lamb).
The last region on today’s Mexican tour transports us to the east, in the Yucatán, where sopa de lima is a regional favorite followed closely by meats such as pollo or cochinita pibil (marinated chicken or pork with a spice rub wrapped in banana leaves and barbequed). The Yucatán offers a unique culinary experience due to the persistence of Mayan culture and Spanish influence in the region. Pibil, described above, was invented by the Mayans to preserve wild game and prevent it from spoiling on their journey home from a hunt. The four pillars of Mayan are achiote, citrus, habaneros and smoke —with a heavy emphasis on Seville oranges providing a puckering acidity to dishes such as pibil, tamales or tamulado all still famous in the region. As Diana Kennedy, queen of Mexican food said, “Yucatán tamales put those from the rest of Mexico to shame.”
South of the border, our neighbors share a longstanding history war-torn and rebuilt over centuries. Open your mind and taste buds to the rich flavors and culture Mexico has to offer through its regional delicacies and warm inviting people.
Need a taste of Mexico before heading across the border? Here’s a list of the top 5 Mexican restaurants in New York City to offer a taste of the real deal.
Top Mexican Restaurants in New York City
- Cosme — Flatiron
- Claro — Gowanus
- Casa Enrique — Long Island City
- Guadalupe Inn — Bushwick
- La Contenta — Lower East Side & Greenwich Village