Tacos To Tamales: Complete Guide To Mexican Food Culture

Mexican food culture
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis
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So, you’re interested in Mexican food culture? We can see why. This has to be one of the tastiest places to visit in the whole of the Americas. The local kitchen is famous all around the globe, offering iconic dishes like tacos, tamales, quesadillas, and spicy salsas to name just a few.

The Mexican foods that we know and love today are the product of hundreds of years of culinary history. Many have their roots in the age-old cooking traditions of the Aztecs and the Maya people that once inhabited this corner of the globe, drawing on rustic veg like corn, squash, yucca, and chili peppers to create that concoction of spice and earthiness that remain the hallmarks in modern times.

This complete guide to Mexican food culture is a good intro to the flavors and tastes you can look forward to after jetting into Mexico City or Cancun or Puerto Vallarta. It runs through seven must-try dishes that the home of mariachi does best – staples you simply have to sample when you’re hopping the colonial cities and the surf-washed beaches. It will also answer some key questions about Mexican food more generally.


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Mole is the closest thing Mexico has to a national dish. The thing is, mole changes considerably when you hop state borders, so it’s pretty hard to define what it really is. The basic idea is a thick, flavorsome sauce that’s served dolloped on top of meat cuts, usually chicken or pork, or – more commonly in the north of Mexico – over enchiladas.

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Most mole recipes call for at least one of three types of smoked or dried chilis. They provide the smokiness and the depth, and dovetail perfectly with a combo of crushed nuts and stock to create something that could very well be the definition of comfort food.

Some of the most popular types of mole sauces are:

  • Mole poblano – A very thick and rich sauce that originates from Central Mexico, cooked with ancho chili, pasilla chili, black peppercorns, peanuts, and sesame seeds.
  • Mole verde – Green mole is made using a base of crushed pumpkin seeds and then oodles of herbs, including cilantro, chard, and parsley. It’s most commonly served with a chicken leg and a side of rice.
  • Mole negro – This famous type of mole from Oaxaca is imbued with chocolate and chili, making it one of the richest of all.
  • Mole Prieto – This comes from Tlaxcala and is said to be one of the oldest moles of all. Taste the richly smoked chipotle in there!

These days, mole sauces are mainly served on special occasions. That’s not just because they are one of the most iconic dishes in Mexican food culture, but also because they can take hours to create, requiring lots of grinding and sautéing and constant care.


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You probably know em’ as chips with cheese, but in Mexico they take that comfort dish to all new and dizzying heights. Cue chilaquiles – a conglomeration of corn chips and rich salsa sauce, topped with crumbled cheese and chilis, along with a garnish of pickled radishes and avocado and onion. Mouth watering yet?

Chilaquiles are usually eaten at breakfast, sometimes with a fried egg popped on top. They come in two main types: Red or green. The red version tends to be a bit spicier, with infusions of jalapeno peppers and garlic. The green version is fresher and zingier, with touches of cilantro and citrus and tomatillos.

The best chilaquiles are made totally from scratch. That involves drying out corn tortillas and then frying them in corn oil until browned around the edges and crisp, before dropping the whole lot into the salsa. There’s also another iteration known as migas that’s more common up in Texas and the Mexican border states, involving scrambled egg and extra cheese.


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The consumption of tacos is nothing short of a ritual in Mexico. They’re served in all sorts of situations, from street stalls to full-blown restaurants, making them very much the jack of all trades in Mexican food culture.

Our favorite place to chow down on these filling pouches of protein and spice has to be at a local family taqueria. You should never be too far from one, no matter if you’re in the heart of Mexico City or in some long-lost village in the Oaxacan mountains.

There’s not really one single thing that’s a taco in Mexico. Like almost all of the dishes on this list, they chop and change in style as you move from state to state. Sinaloa is famed for its salty fish tacos, for example, as are the Yucatan coastal cities of Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Inland regions like Queretaro and Pueblo prefer carnitas tacos, made with marinaded pork with marjoram, while northern Mexico has tacos packed with shredded goat meat and fresh onion sprigs.

Whichever one you go for, it should be super cheap – tacos in most places cost 10-15 MXN, or $0.50-0.70 each. What’s more, buying a single one often gets you access to a whole salad bar, complete with salsas (beware the habanero one!) and bean stews that you’re free to dollop on top.


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Enchiladas are now famed all around the globe as one of the mainstay dishes of Mexican cuisine and have even become an integral part of Tex-Mex cooking to boot. Their popularity is down to how easy they are to prep, and how darn tasty they can be!

They’re essentially the Mexican answer to a pasty. An outer wrapping of flour or corn tortilla is packed with a cacophony of things, from hearty black beans to potatoes to sweet potatoes to rice, fried veggies, and marinated chicken. To be honest, anything goes in the filling. The finished thing is then usually served with a flavorsome sauce dopped right on the top with a healthy – or not so healthy – grating of cheese for good measure.

The Aztec people that flourished in Mexico after the 1300s are thought to have been the first to eat this iconic staple. They were pioneers of corn tortillas and using them to wrap other prepared meats and veggies – see, it wasn’t all human sacrifices to the sun god! Since then, loads of different versions of Enchiladas have grown up around the country, including enchiladas con mole (topped with mole sauce) and enchiladas suizas (literally, Swiss enchiladas, that come with a bechamel garnish).


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Tamales are one of the more venerable dishes in Mexican food culture. They have a history that ranges back all the way to the Maya era, which means they were first cooked in these parts between 1,000 BC and 200 AD! In fact, archaeologists have even identified an ancient hieroglyph that they think represents the tamale on Mayan pots that are more than 2,000 years old.

The tamale eaten in Mexico today might be a little different than its age-old ancestor. It’s basically a mix of corn that’s been broken down in alkaline solution and then ground up (a process known as nixtamalization), rolled in fat, and then boiled in salty veg broth. That’s all whisked up until you get a soft, pulpy consistency that’s infused with dried chili and spices.

Tamales are served just after steaming, still wrapped up in plantain leaves or corn husks. You can either throw the outer leaf away and eat on the go, or simply unfold it to use as an ad hoc plate as most of the locals do.


Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Salsa isn’t typically served as a standalone dish in itself. However, we reckon it’s worthy of a mention on this list of the stars of Mexican food culture because it’s still ubiquitous all over the country. It’s in almost everything we can think of, either as an optional garnish or as an integral ingredient, from fish tacos to breakfast chilaquiles.

A good Mexican salsa is all about one thing: Freshness. Broadly speaking there are two main types, rojo and verde (red and green). The first is a tomato-based hit of capsicum that comes infused with jalapeno peppers. The latter is made from tomatillo fruits and cilantro (hence the deep emerald color), along with zest of lime juice and chopped onion.

Salsa can match with pretty much anything, so don’t be shy to slather it on your tortillas or breakfast eggs. Recipes can change from region to region, and even from restaurant to restaurant; some spicy, some fruity. Most eateries have a dedicated salsa bar somewhere, which you can usually use for gratis if you’ve bought something off the main menu.

Huevos rancheros

Huevos rancheros
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We remember our first morning in Mexico City very well. We made a quick stroll through the handsome 1950s facades of Roma district and then plonked down in a local cantina under the shade of a jacaranda tree. The menu only had a couple of things, but huevos rancheros was right there at the top. We weren’t disappointed. ..

This is the ultimate Mexican breakfast dish. It’s pretty simple stuff. Fried eggs come swimming in a pool of – you guessed it! – salsa. There are red and green options (red is more rounded and full-bodied, while green is zestier and zingy thanks to infusions of citrus).

You might also get a dollop of refried beans on the side, though veggies should check that the kitchen is serving the meat-free type, along with a corn or flour tortilla to help you mop up the end of the salsa once you’re done. Ah, take us back!

What is Mexican food known for?         

Mexican food is most famous for its spicy side. The chefs here certainly aren’t shy of using chili peppers, so pretty much every dish has a place on the Scoville scale. The local cuisine is also known for its simplicity and earthiness, making heavy use of pulses, corn, and beans.

Why is food important to Mexican culture?

Food in Mexico offers a direct cultural link back to the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica. There are some influences that have come across from Europe thanks to the arrival of the Spanish, but, mostly, you’ll taste dishes that are still cooked in the same way as they were during the reign of the Maya and the Aztecs and others, using similar ingredients too.

What is Mexico’s national dish?

Mexico is pretty big and it’s really common to find that every individual region has its own most-popular dish. However, it’s generally accepted that mole is the national dish of Mexico. That’s a thick, flavor-packed sauce that comes in all sorts of varieties, from zesty verde mole to heavy brown mole filled with chocolate.

How would you describe Mexican food?

Mexican food is all about tradition and simplicity. Dishes here are rarely overcomplicated but ooze flavor, all while drawing on ingredients and cooking methods that have been in use for hundreds of years. What’s more, there’s a real freshness throughout, whether that’s in the avocado-topped tacos at a roadside stand in CDMX or an icy margarita on the beaches of the Riviera Nayarit.

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.