Of all the cuisines native to the Americas, Mexican is probably the most famous on the world stage. And it’s easy to see why: Mexican food is distinctive and unique in the world, making use of tons of ingredients that are uncommon in other cuisines. It’s also usually quite recognizable: Mexican food just looks different, taking forms and shapes uncommon around the world. But its unique ingredients are surely its most important feature.
The cornerstone and most important ingredient of Mexican food is corn, or maize. As the major food grain in the area, corn and cornmeal have formed the backbone of Mexican cuisine since Pre Hispanic times. Ancient Mesoamericans developed the nixtamalization procedure to help process the raw corn. In this process, the corn is mixed and soaked with lye, which transforms its chemical structure, breaking it down and making it more readily digestible and nutritious. In fact, nixtamalization is actually very important for people who get most of their calories from corn. Without this process, the corn lacks essential vitamins, and in extreme cases, such as those of 19th century poor peasants in Italy, relying on un-nixtamalized corn for a majority of calories can lead to vitamin deficiencies and even starvation.
The second most important and distinctive ingredient found in Mexican food is definitely the chili pepper. This special plant was domesticated in the area, and in Mexico, dozens or even hundreds of varieties can be found, from tiny, spicy round peppers to the lantern-shaped, fiery hot habanero, to the green workhorse of the jalapeño to the perfectly mild bell pepper—these are all one species. Mexicans use all of these chiles, and also prepare chiles dried for chili powder, stuffed for chiles rellenos, and smoked for chipotle. Truly a powerful ingredient.
Easy chicken quesadillas recipe
Fun fact: though today quesadillas are almost universally enjoyed with cheese, the original dish did not feature cheese, because there was no cheese in Pre Hispanic Mexico. The similarity to the Spanish word for cheese, “queso,” is entirely coincidental. Whatever we’re calling them, quesadillas a fantastic snack, appetizer, or main course, and making them couldn’t be easier. Simply chop your ingredients and assemble, then fry them a bit until the cheese melts! Serve it with some salsa and maybe a little guacamole and you’re in cheesy, melty heaven!
Chicken flautas recipe
Flautas are tiny rolled tacos that are stuffed with chicken and deep fried until crisp. They’re served with sour cream, cheese, and shredded lettuce as a type of finger food. Crisp, chewy, and greasy, these are perfect for dipping into salsa, sour cream, and guacamole. They’re also fun: the word “flauta” is Spanish for flute; these little finger foods are named after their shape. These easy Mexican flautas come together in a flash and are perfect as an appetizer or snack for your guests.
Beef fajitas recipe
Fajitas have to be one of the flashiest Mexican dishes around. Beef, onions, and bell peppers are fried together and spiced with cumin and chili, then wrapped in soft flour tortillas. This brilliant beef fajitas with peppers and onions recipe comes together in a flash!
Chicken taquitos recipe
What do you eat when you’re not hungry enough to eat a whole taco? It’s time to reach for the taquitos. Slightly smaller than a taco, these rolled treats are crunchy and juicy in all the right ways. Pure white chicken breast is stewed in a special, spicy tomato sauce, then shredded. Each taquito is stuffed with a mixture of chicken and cheese and then deep fried until golden brown. Once you’re finished, stack them attractively on a platter and serve with sides like salsa, sour cream, and guacamole. These chicken taquitos will make the perfect appetizer platter for your next margarita night!
Mexican chili with sour cream and cheese recipe
Chili is a true Tex-mex classic, a celebration of all things beefy, tomatoey, and spicy. Beef is slow cooked in a thick tomato gravy, heavily spiced with chili and cumin. The key to this one is cooking it low and slow to give all of the flavors time to get to know each other in there. In fact, this is one of those special recipes that actually tastes better if you let it cool and sit in the fridge overnight and then reheat it the next day! Serve this delicious Mexican beef chili with cornbread for extra points.
Mexican beef empanadas recipe
Empanadas look a little bit like the apple pies that you can buy at McDonald’s. But in Latin America, empanadas are full of meat! These mexican meat pies are actually related to Cornish pasties, and their origin story is quite fascinating: a hundred years ago, the Mexican government invited a group of Cornish miners to exploit a prominent silver vein in the Mexican central highlands. The Cornish miners decided that they found the climate agreeable (they were coming from Cornwall, after all), and made the decision to stay in Mexico. Anyway, fast forward to today, and these Mexican beef empanadas are yours to enjoy.