An Introduction to Mexican Food

One of the world’s great cuisines, Mexican food is diverse, delicious, and profoundly omnivorous, both simple and sophisticated. Typical Mexican dishes are as basic as the ubiquitous quesadilla (a warm tortilla filled with melted cheese) or as elaborate as chicken served in mole negro (a Oaxacan sauce prepared with dozens of hand-ground ingredients). Food is essential to Mexican culture, and eating well is something enjoyed throughout Mexico, at every price point and in every type of establishment—from food stalls, bakeries, and markets to cafés, cantinas, and restaurants.

Breakfast in San Miguel de Allende.
Breakfast in San Miguel de Allende. Photo © nvsolomon, licensed Creative Commons usage.

Since the pre-Columbian era, corn, squash, chile peppers, and beans have formed the base of the Mexican diet. In addition to these key staples, Mexican food makes ample use of other native American foods, including tomatoes, green tomatoes, avocados, potatoes, prickly pear cactus, chocolate, and turkey. In the 15th century, Spanish settlers introduced new culinary techniques to Mexico, along with new ingredients like wheat, onions, rice, cheese, chicken, pork, and beef. Throughout the country, European traditions began to fuse with indigenous recipes. The result was a new and wholly original cuisine.

A staple at most Mexican meals and a key ingredient in many traditional dishes, tortillas are round flatbreads made of corn or wheat flour. A warmed tortilla wrapped around seasoned meat or vegetables is a taco, while a tortilla filled with melted cheese is a quesadilla. In addition to tortillas, corn flour is used to make a variety of flatbreads. Sopes are thick corn discs served with beans, sour cream, and salsa, whereas huaraches are torpedo-shaped flatbreads, usually topped with beans, guisados, and salsa. Gorditas, a specialty of the Bajío region, are thick, round corn flatbreads, which are cooked on a griddle and then stuffed with cheese, meat, or other fillings.

Beyond tortillas and other flatbreads, corn is an essential ingredient in many traditional foods, many of which may have roots in the pre-Columbian era. One of the oldest and most popular foods in the Americas, tamales are made of corn masa (dough) steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf and stuffed with chile peppers, meat, cheese, or fruits. Tamales are often accompanied by atole, a warm corn-based drink flavored with chocolate or fruit and sugar. Pozole, a hearty hominy soup, is another corn-based dish with pre-Hispanic origins.

As anyone who’s spent time in Mexico knows, chile peppers are fundamental to the Mexican palate. Salsa picante, a sauce made of ground chile peppers and condiments, is served as an accompaniment to almost every meal in Mexico, formal or informal. There nearly infinite types of salsa, from the ubiquitous salsa verde (made with green tomatoes and chiles) to pico de gallo (a fresh salsa of chopped tomatoes, onion, and serrano chile peppers) to the dark charred-habenero salsa from the Yucatán peninsula.

Aside from salsa, chile peppers are used to season meat, beans, and sauces or are served whole and stuffed with cheese in a chile relleno. There are hundreds of varieties of chile pepper cultivated in Mexico as well as a range of dried chile peppers produced from these crops. Some chile peppers are incredibly hot (the habanero being Mexico’s spiciest traditional variety), while others are mild but flavorful, like the poblano or the chilaca.

Colorful peppers for sale at a farmer's market in Chiapas, Mexico. Photo © John Cumbow/123rf.
Colorful peppers for sale at a farmer’s market in Chiapas, Mexico. Photo © John Cumbow/123rf.

Like chile peppers, many varieties of beans are cultivated and prepared in Mexican cooking. Beans are generally served as a side dish to a meal or as part of a soup. In addition to beans, rice is a common accompaniment to a meal in traditional Mexican restaurants.

Mexico has a large ranching industry, with a variety of meats and cheeses produced throughout the country. Pork and chicken are popular, and Northern Mexico is known for its large ranches raising grass-fed beef. Traditional Mexican cuts of beef include the lean arrachera and norteña. Thanks to long and abundant coastlines, fish and shellfish are popular at Mexico’s beach resorts as well as across the country. Shrimp cocktail is particularly beloved by the local crowd, as are breaded and fried fish steaks.

Mexico also produces several varieties of cheeses, including panela (a smooth, low-fat fresh cheese) and cotija (a dry and salty cheese used for crumbling on top of dishes). Mennonite communities in the north of Mexico make queso chihuahua (Chihuahua cheese), which resembles a mild cheddar. In the Bajío region, look out for locally produced queso ranchero (farm-style cheese), a fresh and salty cheese that can be crumbled on top of beans or folded into quesadillas.


Mexicans typically eat three meals each day, though there are few hard-and-fast rules when it comes to eating. Breakfast (desayuno) is usually a light morning meal, often accompanied by hot chocolate or coffee. A larger breakfast or brunch is called almuerzo, typically eaten a bit later than a regular breakfast. Almuerzo is often more substantial than a typical breakfast, though the term refers more to the hour its eaten (around 11am) than the content.

The comida, or midday meal, is traditionally the largest and most important meal of the day, eaten around 2pm. A traditional comida begins with soup, followed by a pasta or rice course and finally a main course, served with tortillas or a basket of bolillos (white rolls). While you might not always find that exact lineup on the table, the Bajío region remains fairly traditional with regards to lunch. Families usually eat comida together, and many small businesses close 2pm-4pm to accommodate an afternoon break. On Sunday afternoons, it is typical to plan a large comida with friends and family.

Dinner is eaten late in the evening, typically around 8pm or 9pm, and is usually a lighter meal than lunch. Traditional dinners include tamales with atole, sweet breads with milk or coffee, or tacos. That said, in cities like Querétaro, San Miguel de Allende, and Guanajuato, going out for a big dinner is a popular activity.

Julie Meade

About the Author

Julie Doherty Meade grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and spent her childhood hiking, camping, and traveling throughout the Golden State. After graduating from college, she took her first trip to Mexico, where she was immediately drawn to the country's warm people and fascinating culture. The following year, Julie returned to Mexico and decided to extend her stay indefinitely.

For almost ten years, Julie lived, worked, and traveled throughout Mexico. She saw Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos speak to a crowd in San Cristóbal de las Casas, helped run a fine art gallery in San Miguel de Allende, and taught English to five-year-olds in Mexico City. During her years in the capital, she was schooled in advanced Mexican slang, developed a strong affinity for early-morning café con leche in old Chinese coffee shops, and spent hours seeking out the best bookstores, most interesting architecture, and tastiest bites in the city's diverse neighborhoods.

Julie lives with her husband, Arturo, her son, Mariano, and her chihuahua, Tequila. She writes and copyedits for several publications and visits Mexico every chance she gets. Julie is also the author of Moon Mexico City.

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