Tracing its origins back to Mesoamerica, spanning Central Mexico to Costa Rica, maize has long been a staple in Mexican dishes. Historically, the Mesoamericans adopted the nixtamalization process, involving boiling maize in water with calcium hydroxide. This process not only softens the grain but also amplifies its nutritional profile. Today, maize remains an intrinsic component in many Mexican meals, whether ground to make masa or simply boiled as a cob.
Flavour and Use: Maize offers a light sweetness combined with musty, slightly rancid, grainy and chalky undertones, providing a crisp and chewy texture. Predominantly, maize features in dishes such as tortillas, elotes, totopos, and the like.
The Mayans and Aztecs heralded the birth of 'Xocolatl', or as we fondly call it, chocolate. This initial bitter drink, packed with energy and endurance, has metamorphosed into the sweet delight we relish today, especially after Europe's intervention with sugar. In the heart of Mexico, chocolate is a revered ingredient, often starring in moles.
Flavour and Use: The roast levels dictate its flavour, transitioning from acidic nutty to burnt bitter cacao. Various nuances can be detected, ranging from nutty to caramel-like. Mexican delicacies featuring chocolate include moles, chocoflan and more.
Vanilla, or 'vainilla', has an intertwined history with chocolate, serving as one of its core ingredients. Its distinctive aroma beautifully offset chocolate's bitterness.
Flavour and Use: The vanilla extract has floral, bitter and caramellic notes. Its presence can be savoured in Mexican chocolates, flans and helado, amongst others.
Ají Picante (Chili Peppers)
Ají picante has always held a revered place in Mexican cuisine. Ranging from mild to fiery, these peppers are versatile, available fresh, dried or pickled.
Flavour and Use: Depending on their form, they may taste sweet, floral, smoky, or earthy. They're a fundamental ingredient in salsas, moles, micheladas and more.
The tomato, or 'jitomate', is another essential in Mexican dining, often forming the foundation of various dishes.
Flavour and Use: Its taste spectrum includes acidic, sweet and fresh notes. It's commonly found in salsas, ensaladas and moles.
Related to the tomato, tomatillos are encapsulated in a husk and are known for their distinctive tartness.
Flavour and Use: Its flavour profile varies from bitter to sweet. Notably, it’s a core ingredient in salsa verde and chilaquiles verdes.
Beans, or 'frijoles', come in myriad colours across Mexico. They can be savoured whole, smashed or refried.
Flavour and Use: They possess a sweet, metallic, and musty flavour. They're an integral part of dishes like frijoles refritos and sopa de frijol.
Originating from southcentral Mexico, the avocado or 'ahuacatl' is a cherished fruit here.
Flavour and Use: With a fruity, herbal profile, it's celebrated for its creamy texture. It’s prominent in dishes like guacamole and as a complement to tacos.
Nopal, a quintessential cactus, is omnipresent in Mexico, both in markets and in the wild.
Flavour and Use: The nopal is fresh, tart, and slightly bitter. Dishes such as guaraches and tacos often feature nopal.
Though hailing from the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, cilantro has found its home in Mexico, adding a fresh zest to various dishes.
Flavour and Use: Its flavour is vibrant, encompassing pungent, grassy, and citric notes. It's a favourite addition to tacos, guacamole and salsas.
Introduced by the Spanish, cumin or 'comino', is a signature spice in Mexico.
Flavour and Use: Comino offers earthy, nutty flavours. It's prevalent in dishes such as tacos, tamales and salsas.
Distinct from its Mediterranean counterpart, the Mexican oregano is another flavour titan in Mexican cuisine.
Flavour and Use: It exudes bitter, sweet, and peppery notes, and can often be found in moles, salsas and guisos.
Mexican cuisine is an invitation into a world of rich flavours and traditional methods. While it's been embraced globally, its core remains authentic and unique. Exploring the regional specialities of Mexico is more than just culinary.