10 Authentic Mexican Foods You Must Try
If there’s one word you think of when you hear the word Mexico — it’s tacos! While tacos are the undisputed king of Mexican food, Mexico has so much more to offer in terms of cuisine.
In fact, in 2010 UNESCO declared Mexican food an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Mankind, stating that it represents “a crucial element of national identity.” In plain English, this basically means the United Nations thinks Mexican food is one of the essential parts of the country’s unique culture.
Mexican food is also, well, delicious! Being such a large country, the cuisine varies from region to region and state to state. Let’s examine some of the most famous dishes from coast to coast, starting with, of course, tacos al pastor.
1. Tacos al Pastor
The funniest thing about Mexico’s most beloved taco is that it actually originated in the Middle East! If you’ve ever seen a trompo, the Arabian-style spit pastor (pork) meat is cooked on, you might have guessed this.
Little known fact about Mexico: The country actually had a large influx of Lebanese and Middle Eastern immigrants from about 1880-1935. Among other things, these people brought their customs and of course, their cooking techniques.
After they arrived with their meat-on-a-spit cooking style, Mexican cooks took what was essentially a gyro or shawarma cooking technique, and made a few adaptations. The most notable of these is the use of pork meat instead of the beef, lamb and turkey common in the Middle East.
Mexicans cooks next changed the marinade and started to season the meat with local spices like chile de árobl (tree chili) and chile guajillo. The last adaptation was the addition of pineapple, which you’ll see at the top of the trompo.
As a joke, many Mexicans will often ask one another if they’ve had their Vitamin T for the day. The “T,” of course, stands for tacos — but it also stands for other “T” foods like tortas. Tortas are basically sandwiches, and what they contain will vary from state to state.
Though eaten throughout Mexico, the torta (sandwich) is commonly associated with Mexico City. While most of the world knows tacos as the quintessential street food, busy chilangos (locals) in the metropolis of Mexico City take the grab and go concept one step further.
While a torta can be any sandwich made on bolillo bread, some of the common tortas in Mexico City are guajolotas (torta with a tamale) and torta de chilaquiles. Chilaquiles is a beloved Mexican breakfast dish made with day-old tortilla chips soaked in salsa.
In Mexico City’s neighboring state of Puebla, it’s all about the cemita. These sandwiches are giant; honestly, they aren’t easy to eat, but they are really easy to enjoy. A typical cemita comes with puerco empanizado (breaded pork cutlet), quesillo (string cheese), avocado, chiles and other veggies on a sesame seed bun. The bun is what separates a cemita from a torta.
Another Mexican Vitamin T food is the tamale. A tamale is basically masa (corn meal) steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf. The former is the more common, with the banana leaf variety found mostly in Oaxaca.
Known as a tamales oaxaqueños (Oaxacan tamales), or tamales ojas (leaf tamales), this staple of Oaxacan food is served throughout the state in restaurants and mercados (local markets). You can get yours a number of ways, including topped with chipil (a local Oaxaca herb), frijoles (beans), rajas (roasted poblano peppers) and tamales dulces (sweet tamales).
To really get a taste of Oaxaca, tamal de mole. Mole is one of the most beloved foods all over Oaxaca, a state known as the foodie capital of Mexico.
Speaking of Oaxaca, this state is home to Mexico’s co-national dish, mole.
Mole is both a marinade and a sauce, and in fact, there are seven official types of mole, all made with their own unique combination of fruits, nuts and spices. The most popular of the seven types is called mole negro (black mole), which gets its black color from chocolate.
Mexicans eat mole a number of ways, including as a sauce on top of chicken and rice, as a stand alone stew-style dish, on a tamale and with enmoladas. These are basically enchiladas, but smothered in a mole sauce instead of salsa, which goes on top of traditional Mexican enchiladas.
5. Chile en Nogada
Wondering what Mexico’s other co-national dish is?! It’s the chile en nogada. Though much relatively unknown for a national dish, once you see this green, white and red creation — representing the colors of the Mexican flag — it all starts to make sense.
Chile en nogada is only eaten for about two weeks per year in early- to mid-September to commemorate Mexican Independence Day on Sept. 16. In fact, some say the chile en nogada was first made in the city of Puebla after the signing of the Treaty of Cordoba, signaling Mexico’s independence from Spain.
So what’s in this patriotic dish? The “green” position of this dish is a chile poblano which is stuffed with a picadillo of meat, nuts and fruits; the white sauce is called en nogada and made with walnuts and cream; and the red component comes from pomegranate seeds.
Barbacoa, which translates to barbecue, is a decidedly weekend food. Now, this doesn’t just mean barbacoa is something eaten on the weekends, but also that it’s only available on weekends.
The reason for this is because barbacoa takes nearly all week to properly prepare and cook. To prepare it, cooks wrap meat in banana leafs and slow cook it for days in an underground oven.
As mentioned, Mexican food is incredibly regional, and varies from state to state. The state most associated with barbacoa is Hidalgo in Central Mexico. The type of meat used differs from region to region, but Hidalgo style barbacoa is made from borrego (sheep).
This beloved dish comes from the state of Jalisco. Birria is kind of two dishes in one — tacos and a consomé (soup).
In Jalisco, many of the foods are served ahogada style, which means “drowned.” Besides birria, a taco you “drown” in your consome, Jalisco is also famous for their tortas ahogadas (drowned sandwiches).
When eating birria, you’ll receive meat tacos of likely goat or sheep meat, and a side of bright red consomé broth. This soup gets its red color from chile guajillo, one of the most common chiles used throughout Mexico.
Though the words seafood and Mexico aren’t commonly seen together, no country with 5,800 miles (9,335km) of coastline — like Mexico has — doesn’t also have some amazing seafood dishes.
The most well known and well loved is ceviche. Enjoy this refreshing seafood dish in any beachfront Mexican seafood restaurant along the coast, and wash it down with a cold beer or agua fresca (fruit water).
Throughout Mexico’s coastal towns, you’ll usually find shrimp, fish and octopus ceviche options. Beyond the protein, ceviche is a simple dish that consists of some diced tomatoes and onions, a little cilantro and a lot of lime juice.
This is where the ceviche magic happens as the lime juice “denatures” (meaning, “to take away or alter the natural qualities of”) the protein. In the case of ceviche, the citrus juice takes away the raw qualities of the fish, and makes it more firm, just like the cooking process would.
While some mistakenly say the citrus juice “cooks” the seafood for ceviche, it actually just denatures it. To cook, you’d need to apply heat, and there’s no heat used in ceviche.
9. Cochinita Pibil
In most parts of Mexico, pork is the protein of choice. Even in Northern Mexico, the beef capital of the country, you’ll still find pork dishes in every restaurant.
However, if there’s one part of Mexico where pork is a staple food on all tables, it’s the Yucatan Peninsula.
The area’s native Mayan people have perfected a dish known as cochinita pibil, which is suckling pig slow-cooked in an underground oven called a pib. This traditional, Yucatecan delicacy gets its unique taste from naranja agria (sour orange) and achiote, two plants native to this part of Mexico.
Enjoy your cochinita on a salbute (puffy, fried, corn tortilla), panucho (corn tortilla filled with black beans), or in a corn tortilla. Don’t forget to top your cochinita the traditional way — with some pickled red onions and a little habanero salsa.
10. Fish tacos
If tacos al pastor rule in Central Mexico, over on the West Coast, it’s all about the fish taco. These famed Mexican tacos are most associated with the states of Baja California Sur and Baja California Norte.
The two Baja states are a peninsula, so they have a lot of access to waters to fish in. For this reason, people in this part of Mexico eat a lot of seafood dishes, though none as beloved as the fish taco.
The fish taco is humble: consisting only of medium-sized pieces of fried fish, a cabbage slaw, maybe some avocado slices, and salsa, all wrapped up in a corn tortilla. Though simple, it’s the freshness of the fish that makes these tacos shine.
While yes, this list started and ended with tacos, Mexican food is clearly so much more than just one food. What from this list do you now most want to try?
This is the second post on food from a country, the first one was about Dutch Traditional Foods you must try. What I know after reading all this, is that I actually want to hop on a plane and try all these great Mexican dishes, they are that well described by Shelley. For now I will settle for Popocatepetl in Haarlem. After exploring Mexican Food we will be trying out Bulgarian cuisine.
Shelley is a former Miami travel magazine editor who ditched the office for the world! After traveling solo to 14 states in Mexico, she now calls Mérida home. She created the Travel Mexico Solo blog and Dream To Destination podcast to help women cross Solo travel and Mexico travel off their bucket list.
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I love Mexican food but I live in a country where it is hard to come by. While I’m more familiar with Tex-Mex, I do love the authentic favourites and have even learned to make my own (chicken mole enchiladas and carnitas).
Too bad you can’t get Mexican food that easily in New Zealand. Tex Mex is also great, loved getting it in Texas and Arizona.
In the mountains of Mexico the recipes are little different like in zacatecas i remember my abuela making dried fish recipes and her tamales and enchiladas my family had its own mole recipes i.e. peanut butter mole and a enchilada salsa ive never tasted in a restaurant flour and corn tortillas by hand and the smaller fried torts for sandwiches
That sounds great. I imagine there are a lot of differences in the cuisine from region to region in Mexico.
Why is Mexican food now all southern? The best is sonorense, carne asada, carne seca, salsa with chilitepin, large paper thin flour tortillas, burritos, chimichangas, casuela con carne seca. Beef and wheat. Viva el Norte!
It sounds like there could be another post with delicious Mexican food!
Rob + Ann @TravelLatte
Yum!!! While everything on this list is delish, we are particularly fond of Tacos al Pastor, and tamales. In fact, where Rob grew up along the Mexican border, and still loves the holiday tradition of making tamales or, in his case, buy them from the ladies sitting with styrofoam coolers in the grocery store parking lots. There were always special tamales, like green corn, or pork with green olives and golden raisins. Even today, he’ll turn the car around if he sees someone on the corner selling tamales…and usually buys them all. 🙂
Good memories. I don’t think I had Tacos al Pastor or tamales. I did have some of the other food on the list like tacos. It all sounds so delicious.
These foods look amazing! I may have to start cooking some of them up!
Yes, they’re amazing aren’t they. I’m going to cook them at home also.
Interesting article. It’s probably worth noting that ceviche is not a Mexican dish. It’s from Peru. But it is also eaten here in Mexico.
Good to know.
I absolutely LOVE Mexican food. Also the people in Mexico. I feel they’re humble and very innovative. It’s a shame their economy isn’t better. The place is simply beautiful, yet so many have to leave to work and provide for their family. I Wish I could live there, find a nice wife and enjoy the culture! I’m glad Mexico is a neighboring country!
Yes, Mexican food is delicious and it’s a beautiful country.
It is not “Tamale”. Singular is “Tamal” and plural is “Tamales”.
In English its Tamale, in Spanish its Tamal. So that’s where the difference comes from.
Ive tried some of these dishes in the Yucatan but some were unfamiliar. You did an excellent job of telling the story behind the food. I like to understand it’s origins and you really did this. Excellent post.
Glad you got to try some of these dishes while you were in the Yucatan.
This post has me drooling and I havent yet had my breakfast – so this is pure torture. I wish I could get my hands on a few of these goodies right now – sigh!!
A very well written post about Mexican food and I commend the writer for that.
Yes, reading food posts before breakfast can be tricky.
Yum!!! I love Mexican food and this post is making me hungry! Thanks for sharing
Yes, Mexican Food is really delicious.
mohana and aninda
Reminded me of the hours I’ve spent drooling over Netflix’s Taco Chronicles! Gotta go to Mexico to eat 🙂 The moles and the salsas and all those chiles…every dish, every market looks so vibrant.
Yes, the food alone makes you want to go to Mexico.
I could not agree with you more about the awesomeness of Mexican food!! What a great post and I didn’t know that the al pastor came from the Middle East. And Mexican food is fairly easy to make at home too, another great bonus!
Yes, it’s so great to make a foreign cuisine at home. Glad you learned something new about the origin from a dish.
I love Mexican food. You sure have opened my eyes to a number of dishes. I have had ceviche when I visited but hope to try some of your recommended dishes next time I visit.
There’s always more food to discover, one of the fun things of traveling.
Ok, this just made me super hungry. I love eating Mexican food and this post is spot on. Don’t be scared to try the street food while in Mexico. If it has a long line, it is worth visiting! LOL!
That’s a good point I’ve heard before, that you can try it if it has a long line (with locals).
OMG!!!! I truly feel so hungry now…haha…It is amazing how I didn’t even hear about some of them. The Birria looks incredibly delicious and I need to try. Thanks for this yummy post!
Yes, food posts do that, they make you hungry.
OMG! I miss Mexican food. Actually quite glad I went to Mexican before I went vegan… The fish tacos are so amazing. Did you try drowned tortas? They were weird…
Fish tacos sound amazing, but indeed not something a person that’s vegan will eat. I haven’t tried drowned tortas, but now I’m curious.
Having spent a great deal of 2020 watching travel shows and documentaries on Netflix, I want to visit Mexico so bad. This article about the country’s delicious cuisine just makes me want to go there sooner.
Yes, travel shows and documentaries make you want to want to go to a country. So can certain movies and books. Sadly, that’s all we can do right now.
Oh my gosh, drool! These dishes seriously got me hungry and planning my next trip to Mexico. Thanks for sharing!
Yes, food can make you want to go to a certain country.
I’ve tried a couple of these out before, but I still need to try some on your list! This is making me very hungry.
Mexican food is great indeed and definitely something you want to try.
I’m craving Mexican food before 8am, haha, they all look delicious.
Yes, that’s what a food post can do with you. And they certainly all look delicious.
This has made my mouth water! I love Mexican food but there are a few items on here I haven’t tried yet so will definitely have to go back. It’s on my list for a return visit to thank you for whetting my appetite to make it sooner rather than later.
Yes, food is one of the reasons for traveling to different countries. Hope you get to go sooner than later.
Ahhhh…now I’m craving for my dose of Vitamin T. I’ve never been to Mexico, or anywhere near for that matter, but since Mexican food is available almost everywhere in the world, I’ve tried some of the more well known ones like tacos, enchiladas, fajitas. I’d love to try the authentic ones it their country of origin one day.
Yes, I’ve tried a lot of them in other countries. But it’s never the same as in the country of origin.