Beans. A taco kit from the supermarket. Salsa in a jar and a bag of corn chips. I like to think I’m a pretty big food person, but for some reason this is what I thought of whenever someone said Mexican food.
I know my tacos from my burritos, but my brain always jumped to the idea of mush. Everything seemed too soft – soft tortillas, mushy beans, and other stuff that was hard to identify; I felt like Mexican food didn’t have any depth of flavour or interesting textures.
Man, was I wrong.
I’ve always wanted to visit Mexico. The culture, colours, rhythm, history, and beaches called to me. But whenever I travel, I always travel on a full stomach. Food is how I get close to a country. How could I travel to Mexico and not enjoy what I was eating? Then I found an Intrepid trip to Mexico that met all my needs – nine days; a mix of big cities, small towns, and beaches – and also happened to be food focused. This was the perfect chance to try something different, and maybe be proven wrong. I was keen for a local to show me a new side of a cuisine I thought I wasn’t keen on – to discover what Mexican food really is.
Here are five dishes that changed my mind on Mexican food.
I quickly learned to rethink what I thought was Mexican food. I’ve never thought ceviche equals Mexico, but two of our best meals were this deliciously fresh dish. In Mexico City, our leader took us to the seafood section of the San Juan Market. We squeezed past locals buying their groceries, then crowded around tables opposite a stall piled with fish. Soon we were presented with a mix of freshly cut seafood in a lime, onion and herb dressing, surrounded by salsa and slices of avocado. There was no chance of a second helping it was gone so quickly.
Ceviche also rounded off our trip in our final stop of Mazunte. After a hot day spent out on the water – turtle spotting from our boat and swimming near dolphins – we gathered around a table on the beach and were treated to a dish literally straight from the ocean. It was so fresh and refreshing; served alongside tortillas kept warm by the sun and a margarita (of course) to keep cool, it was a perfect closing meal.
I’m a sweets person. If there’s a slice of cake around, I’m there. I didn’t think I’d be able to indulge my sweet tooth here, but I was happily surprised on our first morning in Mexico City. I was expecting to eat eggs for breakfast, but instead, our leader took us to El Moro. Churrería El Moro was opened in 1935, and the show on offer is as much the attraction as the churros themselves. Behind windows open to the street, two churro-makers lay dough out in smoking oil, curling it out until it’s fried to perfection. The churros are quickly chopped, sprinkled with sugar or cinnamon, and served still warm and ready to dip into the accompanying chocolate sauce. Along with a mug of silky hot chocolate, this is the type of breakfast for me.
We also explored a ‘sweets street’ in Puebla, where I grabbed some biscuits with a pumpkin seed glaze called tortitas de santa clara; these go down very well with a sweet tasting liquor called rompope, which is like a Mexican eggnog (and what I’ll be drinking at Christmas from now on).
3. Squash blossoms
In our Oaxacan cooking class, I tasted the sophisticated flavours and complex balance of Mexican cuisine – and stuffed myself with stuffed squash blossoms (filled with a ricotta-type cheese typical of Oaxacan cuisine, mixed with smoked ham and onion). We followed our incredible local chef Nora around a market, where we chose the different ingredients we’d be cooking with. She picked her way through the busy market aisles, chatting with the producers she knew, offering up samples of ingredients and teaching us about Mexican cuisine.
Back in her colourful, plant-filled home, Nora taught us the secrets of mole, a typical Mexican dish from Puebla. Along with a thousand ways to use a chilli, I discovered the range of different ingredients used in Mexican cooking (mole has everything from chilli and onion, to bananas and cocoa in it) and how difficult it is to get the flavour just right.
While the tacos in Mexico were always off-the-charts good (especially the spit-fired, pineapple-topped tacos el pastor), what surprised me was the fact they’re not the only sandwiches on offer. (This isn’t the place for a debate on what makes a sandwich!) In Puebla, the home of cemitas, our leader took us to a market where workers typically take their lunch. There we picked a stall specializing in the schnitzel sandwich and were served huge rolls bursting with different flavours and ingredients. The breaded chicken overflowed onto the plate, and it was topped with avocado, pickled chillis, herbs, and a mozzarella-like stringy cheese called quesillo. They were so tasty and full of ingredients and not something I would have thought typical of Mexican cuisine.
Before heading to a lucha libre show in Puebla, we warmed up with the local drink of pastia, a liquor served with a toothpick of cheese and a raisin submerged in it. This was a drink to be sipped, and the flavour was a bit like a creme caramel. I soon learned that sipping was the way forward in Mexico. I think everyone’s had the experience of shooting back a tequila, and it’s usually not a pleasant one.
It was something I was expecting to do on this trip, but instead my eyes were opened to mezcal and sipping. Tequila is made from one agave plant, whereas mezcal can be made from many different types, leading to a variety of flavours. On our trip, we visited a mezcal producer and got to sample about 25 different types. “In Mexico we don’t shot. Unless maybe it’s quite late in the night and we want to go crazy,” said our leader Edgar. Sipping, rather than shooting, made it much more enjoyable – so much so that some of the group took on the Mexican way of having a mezcal with breakfast.
Want to get a real taste of Mexican food? Dig into our 9-day Mexico Real Food Adventure now.