Mexican Cuisine is world-renowned for its delicious and colorful cuisine. No city in the world doesn’t have some version of a Mexican restaurant. But do we really know what real Mexican food is? Can we learn from the rich heritage and the diversity of cookery that Mexico has to offer? Maybe we should look further than tacos and burritos if we want a truly authentic experience. There are several different opinions on the regions of food in Mexico, but this is my preferred interpretation based on climate, ingredients, history, and cultural influence. The numbers do not indicate any level of preference or importance.
Mexico is an enormous country, but it is often overlooked just what a diverse country it is. The vast dry deserts of the North, the tropical rainforests of southern Mexico, the white sandy beaches, and the breezy pine forests of the mountains. The country has a spectrum of different landscapes, cultures, and – of course – food.
1. The North (El Norte)
The expansive North of Mexico makes up a huge portion of the country with enormous mountain ranges and sprawling arid deserts with little rainfall and poor-quality soil. Historically, there has been limited agriculture in the North. Before modern fertilizing and irrigation systems, the culinary traditions stemmed from cattle ranches, the labor kitchens of mineral mines, and the traveling expeditions of explorers.
This ‘cowboy style cooking’ conjures images of slabs of charred meat around open wood fires (carne asada) and soul-satisfying and stomach-filling food like queso ranchero. This style, using cattle-farm products such as meat and cheese, is the root of the cuisine of modern-day Northern Mexico. Much of the US’s Tex-Mex cuisine takes strong influence from this style, with the border town of Juárez being the home of one of America’s favorite Mexican dishes, the burrito.
In contrast, The North also includes the coastal regions of Sonora and Sinaloa. Fishing industry port cities like Guaymas in Sonora and Mazatlán in Sinaloa have access to the bountiful seafood in the Sea of Cortes, and the restaurants in Sonora prepare dishes like Cachoreada (marlin, scallops, octopus, fish, and shrimp) and Sonora’s version of ceviche. As a shrimp mecca, in Maztalán, you also see ceviche, quesadillas and aguachiles, calamari, octopus, scallop dishes, lobster, baked oysters, tostadas with crab, barbecued whole fish, Hamachi sashimi, and smoked marlin. You can even begin your day with chilaquiles (tortilla strips drenched in salsa) stuffed with fresh shrimp or marlin for breakfast while hanging out with the locals along the Malecón, a palm tree-lined boardwalk extending for 4 miles along the beachfront.
2. The Baja (Baja California)
Who doesn’t at least know about the Baja peninsula – most people know it is famous for fish tacos. It is 760 miles or 1,200 km long and naturally offers a wide variety of seafood, with the Pacific on one side and the Sea of Cortes on the other.
Coctel de Camarones estilo Baja (Baja-style shrimp cocktail) is unique and different from other coastal styles, such as ceviche with tostadas,
Chocolate clams are unique to this area, and the Baja also claims machaca. Machaca is traditional sun-dried beef rehydrated and pounded to tender and rolled in burritos. The Baja also provides almost 70% of all lobsters caught and sold in Mexico. Baja lobster (technically the Caribbean Spiny Lobster) has no claws but is famously delicious.
The least known or appreciated Baja contribution to the culinary world are the wines of Baja California (Baja North). These regions are maturing, producing some good red wines and stunningly beautiful vineyards.
The Central Lowlands (El Bajio)
Located in one of the most privileged areas of the Mexican Republic, the Bajío region is formed by the states of Querétaro, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Aguascalientes, and San Luis Potosí. The most unique (but popular all over Mexico) and recognizable contributions to Mexican cuisine from “El Bajio” are carnitas and cajeta.
Cajeta is goat’s milk famous from Celaya, Guanajuato, and it is reduced in copper pots until it is reduced by about 15:1. It is a thick, rich caramel, and the very best manufacturer of cajeta is la Vencedora in Celaya who, to this use no preservatives or glucose.
Cajeta is a truly Mexican classic.
3. The Pacific Coast (La Costa Pacifico)
The Pacific Coast is a stunning stretch of coastline with a beautifully sunny climate and plenty of rainfall in the summer months. The region has a plentiful bounty of fresh produce that grows year-round. You will find delicious fruit and vegetables, grains, chilies, and spices, which this region’s kitchens showcase excellently.
The state of Jalisco, with its iconic cities of Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta, has arguably contributed the most to Mexican culture and cuisine. Mariachis, birria, tortas ahugados (sandwiches soaked in salsa), and tequila (to name just a few).
Also in this culinary region is Michoacan, where carnitas were perfected, if not invented. The pig is cut into pieces and slowly simmered in their rendered lard. This confit method of cooking breaks down the meat until it’s tender. It is then flash-fried to crisp and eaten with rice, tortillas, or on tostadas. The dish is packed full of flavor and melts in the mouth.
Despite its rich varieties of fruits and vegetables, the coast is best known for its seafood. With the fish coming from the ocean to the market the same day, ceviche is a popular dish in the region. Ceviche is a traditional dish of raw fish or shrimp cured in fresh citrus juices and often spices. Many street stands in the Pacific coastal towns sell freshly made ceviche alongside tostadas – a crispy toasted tortilla.
Oaxaca is famous for (among many other contributions) the 7 moles, Tlayudas (a sort of Mexican pizza on a tortilla), and Mezcal, but much more.
Molé is an incredibly complex sauce made up of around 30 ingredients and cooked for several hours to create a thick nuanced sauce. It is made by toasting a vast palette of spices, including dried chiles, nuts, cinnamon, anise, and famously in Negra Molé – cacao.
There are 7 recognized moles, but recipes differ from family to family, handed down through the generations. Every molé is unique, making it one of Mexico’s great expressive dishes.
5. Gulf Coast & Veracruz
(Golfo de México y Veracruz)
Journeying to the opposite coast of Mexico, the culinary center of the Gulf region is Veracruz. This region is a melting pot of indigenous, Afro-Caribbean, and Spanish influences. The cuisine has similarities with Caribbean cooking, taking advantage of Gulf’s stunning seafood and using the same spices and herbs brought over by the European settlers.
The Spanish brought over parsley, thyme, marjoram, bay laurel, and cilantro which are now commonplace in Mexican cooking – In exchange, they took vanilla, which is indigenous to Veracruz, and became one of the most prized spices in Europe. Many African ingredients such as yucca and sweet potato, have also made their way into the kitchens of The Gulf.
The European influence can be seen clearly in their local dish ‘Huachinango a la Veracruzana’ – A dish comprised of whole red snapper with a rich tomato and red pepper sauce, capers, onions, and olives – which sounds like it could be straight from the kitchens of Barcelona! Or the traditional Chilpachole stew, a rich tomato and chili broth with mixed seafood, drawing many parallels with a Bouillabaisse from France.
6. Central Mexico (México Central)
Central Mexico is best known for being home to the most populous city in North America, and the 8th richest city in the world, Mexico City (affectionately referred to as CDMX or Ciudad De México). It is a cosmopolitan giant, with an outstanding culinary scene with influences from all over the world. It is also home to Mexico’s rising fine dining scene and was voted the #1 regional cuisine in the world by Food Atlas.
One of the most popular styles of Mexican cuisine in Mexico City is street food. It’s common to find trucks and vendors on almost every street selling street tacos, tamales, birria, and barbacoa as well as sweet treats like churros and hot chocolate. The diversity within Mexico City’s vibrant gastronomy scene is incredible, as one of the top culinary destinations in the world, it is well worth a visit.
Pozole is also native to the central region being first attributed to the Aztecs at Tenochtitlan. It is often enjoyed as a dish of celebration on events such as Día de Los Muertos (Nov 2nd) and Mexican Independence Day (September 16th), but it is mostly associated with any large family gathering. It is a cross between a soup and a stew and is now popular all-around Mexico. Pretty much all pozoles contain the base ingredients of pork, spices, garlic, and large hominy kernels but there are many variations across the country. It is slow-cooked and packed full of flavor.
Check out our downloadable recipe for traditional pozole here! (Insert hyperlink)
7. Chiapas & Tabasco
As one of the hubs of heavily indigenous-influenced foods, the cuisine in this legacy region of ancient Olmecs and Mayans is a marriage of indigenous and Spanish foods. Some of the most notable contributions to Mexican cuisine from Chiapas include tamales, queso bola, and suckling pig (Cochinita Horneada), roasted with chiles and spices, and mole Chiapaneco. This mole is made with dried and de-seeded ancho chiles with peanuts, tomatoes, onions, thyme, raisins, and chocolate.
Chocolate was discovered and cultivated more than 4,000 years ago in the Soconusco region of Chiapas, near the Guatemalan border. Today it is accepted that Olmecs and Mayans shared cultures and traded frequently, and chocolate is also prevalent in Tabasco.
Famous for growing the notoriously hot habanero chile, Tabasco has offered seafood dishes like Pigua al Mojo de Ajo (a shrimp indigenous to the area in an aromatic garlic sauce). The Tabasqeños have their own versions of tamales (or corundas in banana leaf), and one of the most popular is filled with ground pork, tomato, and chile (the chanchamito tamale).
Róbalo a la Tabasqueña is a fish like a sea bass marinated in garlic, cumin, oregano, and lime, then grilled and served with a spicy sauce infused with local herbs.
8. Yucatán Peninsula (Península Yucatán)
While Yucatán is separate, Quintana Roo and Campeche also form the Yucatán peninsula. The area is most well-known for its impressive Mayan ruins and white sandy beaches, but some foods are unique to the region and have become part of Mexican cuisine.
The most famous of Yucatán dishes is the Mayan classic Cochinita Pibil. Cochinita means little pig or suckling pig, and it is cooked underground in a “pib,” which is Mayan for oven, hence Pibil. It is succulent and tender, and the marinade of sour orange and achiote and served with a very hot habanero sauce and pickled onions. Achiote can be an acquired taste for some but worth it. Another Mayan dish is X’catic Relleno, a local chile pepper stuffed with a ground meat and vegetable mix called picadillo. It is a bit spicy but very tasty. Lomitos de Valladolid comes from Yucatán and is slow-roasted pork in a garlic tomato sauce.
Like any region bordering the sea, fish and shellfish make up much of the Yucatán cuisine, and variations on ceviche, whole fish, and lobsters are on almost every menu in every restaurant.
Mexico is a land rich in culture, and at the heart of that culture is the family dinner table. It is a place where love is expressed through food. Some of the best Mexican food comes straight from Grandma’s own cookbook, old recipes passed down the generations. Each dish represents the heritage, produce, and people of the region. This culinary expression has created a beautifully diverse range of Mexican dishes that are not only delicious but tell a story. A world of Mexican dishes, just waiting to be explored.