A Gringo’s Guide to Mexican Cuisine

Words: Robyn Samuels

Don’t know your flautas from your fajitas? Or your empanadas from your enchiladas? Well, you’ve come to the right lugar, that’s Spanish for ‘place’. Mexican cuisine is filled with a host of vibrant, flavourful and endless food possibilities, but this can be a little confusing if you’re a gringo. This comprehensive guide includes different types of Mexican dishes ranging from tortilla-based dishes, sauces, sides, soups, stews, desserts and drinks. We dive into all the different types of spectacular regional dishes the world of Mexican food has to offer, so grab a cerveza because we’re about to have a food fiesta.

Tortilla dishes

Burritos

Burritos are popular in Tex-Mex cuisine, especially in the state of California, and the word ‘breakfast’ usually precedes it. Authentic Mexican burritos aren’t loaded with fillings like its American counterpart — the authentic version is a lot smaller in size and quantity and often consists of mashed beans and queso (cheese) wrapped in a soft tortilla. The simple preparation means that only the highest quality of ingredients are used to make this delicious dish — fresh cucumber and a squeeze of lime juice are all that’s needed to garnish and balance the flavours.

Machaca guisada

This dish is pretty similar to burritos, the only difference being that with machaca guisada, the stuffed tortillas are toasted, they also have the addition of braised dried beef with tomato and onions. Simple, but oh so delicious.

Chimichangas

Now, if a chimichanga looks like a burrito, that’s because it is one — but the fried version, read American. This Tex-Mex version of this dish is made using bacon grease, but in Mexican cuisine, asiento/pork lard is used. If that doesn’t make sense, bacon grease is simply the residual fat from cooking bacon, whereas pork lard is the rendered fat from pork. Chimichangas are usually filled with shredded beef/pork/chicken, beans and cheese, with sides of frijoles refritos (refried beans), guacamole or salsa.

Chilaquiles

If you’ve ever had one too many tequila shots the night before, a plate of chilaquiles is just the hangover cure. This traditional breakfast is a popular Mexican dish and normally consists of repurposed tortillas from the night before that might have gone stale, but when cut into pieces and fried, they’re good as new. The tortilla chips are tossed in salsa verde or red enchilada sauce, topped with a sprinkle of queso (cheese) and a sunny side-up egg.

Empanadas

Empanadas are pockets of dough filled with pork/chicken/beef/fish, potatoes and carrots. If we were to compare, the shape and golden exterior resemble calzones, but the filling is reminiscent of a meat pie. This Iberian dish has origins in both Galicia, Spain and Portugal.

Enchiladas

If you’ve never had an enchilada, it’s similar to cannelloni in preparation, but the ingredients differ of course. Enchiladas actually date back to ancient Maya, but instead of dipping them in sour cream, they would use a mole made of pumpkin seeds. This Mexican dish has a tomato sauce base and is layered with rolled and stuffed tortillas (protein/vegetables of your choice) and topped with, you guessed it, cheese! Try this El Burro Butternut Enchilada.

Fajitas

Another popular Tex-Mex dish, contains strips of broiled or grilled meat, usually flank or skirt steak,  but chicken fajitas are common as well, they also contain sauteéd bell peppers and onions, served on soft flour or corn tortilla.

Flautas

Flautas actually mean ‘flute’ which is pretty apt since you’ll be singing its praises once you try this. Flautas are similar to taquitos and both are street food staples. Usually stuffed with pulled pork, this dish uses flour tortillas, the same size used in burritos.

Tlayuda

This iconic Mexican street food dish originates from the state of Oaxaca, southwest Mexico. Tlayuda is similar to pizza in how it is eaten — cut into rectangles, but instead of dough, tortillas are used. Tlayuda can be thought of as an ‘open-faced’ taco and uses a large, baked or fried tortilla as the base, which is then topped with refried beans, asiento, cabbage or lettuce, avocado, meat, salsa and Oaxaca cheese.

Huevos Rancheros

Another traditional breakfast favourite is huevos rancheros or ‘ranchers eggs’, although the two sound nothing alike, it’s actually pretty similar to chilaquiles. They require the same ingredients, but the difference is chilaquiles use toasted tortilla chips which are tossed in salsa, meaning they soften — whereas in huevos rancheros, the tortillas are fried. Huevos rancheros is usually served with refried beans and topped with refreshing pico de gallo (salsa fresca).

Tortilla

Tortillas are the base of many Mexican dishes. It’s a thin, circular and unleavened flatbread made of nixtamalised or hominy corn. ‘Nixtamilised’ refers to the process the corn goes through before becoming maize-based products.

Hominy corn is made by soaking whole kernels and treating them with an alkaline solution (lime or lye), which softens the hull of the corn. The outer skin of the corn is eventually removed when rinsing the excess alkaline solution. The end result is corn with a meatier and softened texture, ideal for preparing tortillas and also used in soups.

Tostadas

Tostadas are exactly what they sound like, ‘toasted tortillas’. This is not a dish per se, but rather a category of dishes in Mexican cuisine. It refers to dishes which use toasted tortillas as the base of the dish. Tostadas are similar to tortilla chips used in nachos, the difference is that tostadas use whole tortillas, which have been baked or fried. Suddenly craving nachos? Try our Pulled Pork Nachos with Spicy Guacamole.

Taquito

As mentioned, flautas and taquitos are pretty similar, but the main difference is size — flautas are smaller than taquitos, which use corn tortillas. The size of a flauta is comparable to fajitas or small quesadillas. Check out our recipe for Beef & Vegetable Taquitos or these Vegan Mushroom Taquitos.

Quesadilla

Quesadillas is a Mexican dish that has firmly made its way into the stomachs of Westerners. This dish consists of melted cheese, sometimes meat and other fillings,  wrapped between tortilla sheets and usually pan-fried to melt the cheese filling. The traditional version is made using corn tortillas, but flour tortillas are also used to make this dish. Try these delicious Cheesy Quesadillas with Roasted Tomato Salsa and Guacamole.


Sauces & Sides

Check out our saucy guide for more.

Chile Relleno

Chilli poppers are basically the milder Tex-Mex version of chile relleno, with the cream cheese filling tempering the heat. These delicious fried and stuffed chillies are traditionally made using minced meat and poblano peppers, which originate from Puebla, but other chillies such as jalapeño and pasilla are acceptable too. The chillies are charred before being stuffed, then coated with an egg mixture, dipped in flour, deep-fried and served with tomato salsa.

Elotes

Street food is a pretty big part of Mexican cuisine and elotes is one of the most popular street food dishes you can buy. It’s a whole corn cob that is drizzled in a creamy mayo sauce and doused with chilli powder, lime juice of course and sprinkled with Cotija cheese. Yum!

Esquites

Esquites are basically elotes, without the cob and in salad form. Esquites have a lovely smoky, sweet, spicy and tangy flavour — given by the mayo, zesty lime, creamy cojita cheese, garlic and chilli powder mix.

Guacamole

This classic Mexican spread and dip has taken the world by storm and as a result, there are many variations. Some prefer it chunky and others, smooth, but traditionally guacamole is prepared simply. The authentic Mexican style is made by mashing avocado, adding chopped white onion, diced tomato, coriander, and lime juice and salt for seasoning. Inspired? Try the guac recipes.

Mole

This sauce packs a lot of punchy bold flavours, given by ancho chillies, nuts, black pepper, cumin and cinnamon and rich, dark chocolate. Mole means ‘sauce’ — there are a plethora of moles (roja, verde, poblano, etc), but the one made with chocolate (traditionally served with chicken) is the most popular.

Pico de Gallo

Pico de gallo means ‘beak of rooster’ and although it doesn’t actually contain chicken, it was given this name due to the manner in which it is consumed— pinching your forefingers and thumb together, i.e. ‘make sousies’ — the same way you would eat curry. Pico de gallo is also referred to as salsa fresca and can be likened to sambal. It consists of a mixture of chopped fresh tomato, onion, chillies (serrano pepper), salt, lime juice and coriander, and is used as a refreshing topping for most Mexican dishes.

Pipián

Pipián is a specific type of mole that incorporates blended tomatillos, serrano chillies and white onion. Although pipián is simpler to prepare, what makes it unique is the incorporation of toasted pumpkin or squash seeds — compared to the peanuts, pine nuts or sesame seeds used to make a standard mole. Pipián has a rather distinct ‘nutty’ flavour, with some versions including dark chocolate. It’s traditionally served over roasted pollos (chicken) or enchiladas. Pipián verde (green) is more popular than pipián roja (red), but they’re both equally delicious.

Salsa Roja

Salsa roja is the red and hotter version of salsa verde. In Mexican cuisine, red plum tomatoes, white onion, serrano chillies, cilantro, and garlic are used.

Salsa Taquera

Salsa taquera is typically used as a sauce for tacos. This spicy and garlicky sauce is either made using a mortar and pestle, but modern versions use a blender to pulse the ingredients. Salsa taquera is made using Chiles de Árbol, garlic, salt, water and plum tomatoes — some variations contain tomatillos, which are similar to tomatoes but they actually come from an entirely different nightshade plant.

Interestingly, tomatillos are more closely related to Cape gooseberries, which makes sense since they also have a dry outer husk. Some people think that tomatillos refer to unripened tomatoes because they’re green, but they remain green even when ripe, with some turning yellow. Tomatillos are more tart and vegetal in taste compared to ‘standard’ tomatoes. Whether you use tomatoes or tomatillos in your salsa taquera, this sauce delivers loads of flavour.

Salsa Verde

Salsa verde is made from cooked down tomatillos (ripe green tomatoes), onion and jalapeños, which are pulsed in a blender along with lime juice, garlic and fresh coriander, with oil as a base ingredient. Salsa verde is a refreshing element used as a dressing for steak and seafood dishes.

Tamales

Tamales are a traditional Mexican dish and when we say ‘traditional’, we mean this very dish was enjoyed by ancient Mesoamericans — the earliest evidence of this dish is 8000BC. Tamales are made using masa, which is a nixtamalized corn dough, which is then steamed in corn husk or banana leaf  — a common preparation of food in Asian cuisine too. Tamales can be enjoyed as is, or filled with meats, cheese, veggies, herbs and even fruit.


Soups & Stews

Albondigas

Albondigas are Spanish meatballs from northern Mexico. They’re made using rice as a binding agent and are seasoned with garlic, coriander and cumin. They’re usually found in albondigas soup. The albondigas (meatballs) are cooked in tomato and chicken stock, along with vegetables like carrots, green beans, peas and zucchini.

Birria

You might have seen a lot of droolworthy Insta videos of birria tacos. Birria originates from the state of Jalisco, Mexico which is also famous for its mariachi music and tequila. Birria is a delicious stew or soup traditionally made from goat’s meat (birria de chivo) but also made using beef, veal, lamb or pork. It’s steeped in flavour thanks to the combination of these essential Mexican ingredients: adobo, garlic, cumin, bay leaves and thyme. Because goat is a gamier meat, this dish requires a lot of time and is slow-cooked to get that fall-off-the-bone texture.

Sopa Azteca

Although the name of this soup implies Aztec origins, the makings of this dish aren’t certain and some say it has Tarascan influences. Sopa Azteca basically means ‘tortilla soup’ and is a Mexican staple dish that’s packed with flavour. Many variations of sopa Azteca exist, but more popular versions include chicken broth, roasted tomatoes, onion and garlic and the main ingredient — crispy fried tortilla strips that are dipped into the soup.

Pozole

Most countries have a national dish and dessert, but because Mexico’s culture is largely centred around food, they have a plethora of dishes, including a national soup — pozole. Many variations exist, but the staples are meat, hominy corn and toppings (cabbage, radish, avocado and more).

Pozole de Pollo o Guajolote

Pozole de pollo o guajolote is definitely one of the most popular dishes in Mexican cuisine. It’s the epitome of comfort food, families normally make it in big batches and savour it for days to come. Traditionally made with chicken and wild turkey — the chicken and hominy corn shine in this dish. Starting with braising rib meat, garlic, yellow onion, and guajillo peppers, which gently simmer in chicken stock, along with chicken, turkey and hominy corn. It’s garnished with an array of fresh toppings like cabbage, radish, coriander, lime and of course, avocado.


Meat Dishes

Aguachile

Aguachile literally means ‘water chilli’ and is a Mexican ceviche that hails from the state of Sinaloa, northern Mexico. It’s made using raw shrimp and or scallops, which are cured in lime juice. The shrimp is usually left to marinate in the lime juice for 20 to 30 minutes, when done, the shrimp actually changes colour from translucent white meat to a pinkish colour. It’s also called ‘agua’ for a reason, the lime juice used should be enough for your shrimp/scallops to swim in. Aguachile is garnished with cucumber and chillies, which complement the seafood flavours in this dish.

Camarones a la Diabla

Seafood and chilli lovers will go loco for this dish – camarones a la diabla, otherwise known as ‘shrimp of the devil’ and for good reason! The large shrimp are cooked in a fiery sauce of dried chillies (guajillo chile, chipotle chile, chile de árbole, ancho chile), making it one massive flavour bomb. It also uses butter, olive oil and cooked-down tomatoes. When simmered in the spicy sauce, the shrimp become plump and deliciously seasoned.

Carnitas

Carnitas translates to ‘little meats’ and is probably one of the most well-known Mexican dishes all around the world — except most restaurant menus call it ’pulled pork’. The only difference is that in Mexican cuisine, it’s seasoned with more spices. It’s traditionally made with pork shoulder or Boston butts, due to the high-fat content, which helps make it deliciously succulent. The meat is braised and slow-cooked in pig lard (asiento) for three to four hours. Carnitas is usually served with coriander, onion and tortillas.

Ceviche

Ceviche is a popular dish in many parts of South America but t actually originated in Peru. It’s made using raw fish or shrimp, which is cured in citrus juice, lemon or lime. When it comes to ceviche, the type of fish used is muy importante. Typically firm, lean white fish is best — making sea bass, sole, red snapper and line fish good choices. In South Africa, ceviche can be made with salmon or yellowtail. We make ours with tuna and a side of guacamole, salsa and nachos — but we have a bunch of ceviche recipes for you to enjoy.

Frijoles Puercos

Frijoles puercos is a flavourful Mexican dish. Frijoles, meaning ‘beans’ and puerco meaning ‘pig’, but those aren’t the only two ingredients required — chorizo, olives, smoky chile pepper and queso Oaxaca are also used. It’s usually served as a dip and eaten with tortilla chips.

Machaca

To put it in relatable terms, machaca is similar in texture to beef biltong. This meat dish was originally created as a means to preserve meat for longer periods of time when fresh beef was not easily available. The raw meat is seasoned and marinated with minced garlic, ground pepper and sea salt before being dried in sunlight and broken down into little chunks. The dehydrated meat is then stored and when ready to use, it’s rehydrated by sautéing or adding it to tomato sauce/salsa and used as a burrito filling.

Pescado Zarandeado

This fish dish hails from Nayarit, being a coastal state, it’s famous for its seafood. Pescado zarandeado is basically the Mexican version of a ‘fish braai’. The fish is particularly piquant, thanks to the blended chilli, garlic, onion and oregano mixture, which is pulsed and reduced to make a delicious sauce. Once cleaned, deveined and butterflied, the fish is basted with the sauce and smoke-grilled using mesquite. The fish is continually basted to ensure that it’s well seasoned, making the exterior slightly charred.

Torta Ahogoda

Another Mexican dish that belongs to the state of Jalisco, torta ahogoda, is a pork-filled sandwich, but it’s also so much more than that. The pork is marinated in garlic and citrus juices, which helps balance the flavour of the salsa it’s drenched in. Yes, this sandwich is laden with fiery salsa, using one of the strongest peppers, chile de Árbol. The salsa is then mixed with a tomato sauce and vinegar, cumin, pepper and more spices because you can never have enough. Interestingly, torta ahogodas are considered to remedy colds, hangovers and ‘sweating out infections’.


Desserts

CHS Dinner party winners

Arroz con Leche

Arroz con leche, meaning ‘rice with milk’ is Mexican rice pudding. Long-grain rice is cooked in a mixture of water and milk and cinnamon sticks for a hint of spice. To make it deliciously creamy, it’s sweetened with condensed and evaporated milk, raisins are added to the mix and it’s dusted with ground cinnamon before serving. Rice pud’ never tasted so good!

Churros

If vetkoek had a skinnier sister who spent a semester abroad in Spain, her name would be Churros. This sweet treat is simply irresistible! Churros are deep-fried till golden brown, coated with cinnamon-sugar mix and dipped or filled with dark chocolate. This traditional Latin American dessert is also enjoyed in other parts of the world like Portugal, France and the USA. Make this delectable treat with our El Burro Churros with Dark Chocolate Sauce recipe.

Conchas

Conchas, meaning ‘shell’ is a sweet bread with a shell-shaped surface eaten Mexican cuisine. Conchas come in different flavours such as vanilla, chocolate, cinnamon and anise, while others are more traditional without flavouring. They’re enjoyed at any time of the day and not exclusively for dessert.

Goritas de Nata

Goritas de nata are clotted cream biscuits and are a mix between English muffins and Japanese pancakes. It’s made with flour, sugar, eggs, cinnamon, wheat, milk, baking powder and soda.

Flan

This delicious dessert is also called crème caramel and is one of the most delicious desserts you’ll ever have. Flan is an egg-based custard using condensed milk, sugar, cream or whole milk. The beauty of flan lies in the velvety texture and the syrupy sauce that drips off the sides. You could make it with orange syrup, coffee or caramel sauce.

Fresca con Crema

Strawberries and cream in a cup? Yes please! Fresca con crema is similar to Eton Mess, but this Mexican version is made using fresh strawberries, as well as heavy cream sweetened with condensed and evaporated milk.

Paletas

With the heat of the Mexican sun, it would make sense to have a refreshing treat for all people of ages to enjoy. Paletas is an ice lolly and flavours typically include strawberry, mango and chocolate. It refreshes the palate.

Sopaipillas

Another favourite, sopaipillas are light deep-fried tasty pockets of puffed pastry. Simple, but it’s the ultimate winter treat and is usually served with honey or dusted with icing sugar.

Tres Leches

Tres leches meaning ‘three milk’ tells us about how this dessert is prepared. Holes are poked into the baked sponge cake and a sauce is poured over it. The sauce is made using three types of milk-based ingredients — heavy cream, evaporated milk and condensed milk. Whipped cream and a dusting of ground cinnamon are added to this light, fluffy and moist milk cake.


Drinks

Agua Fresca

This fruit drink is a Mexican fave — made by blending water, lime juice and fresh fruit, (usually watermelon). It’s a great, tasty way to hydrate during summer. Our recipe for agua fresca is more ‘adult’ and contains some rum, and coconut water, but because watermelon is the key ingredient, we get a pass.

Horchata

Horchata isn’t one specific drink but refers to a type of rice drink. The rice is blended with a cinnamon stick and soaked in water overnight. The rice grains and cinnamon sticks are then removed and the remaining liquid is mixed with vanilla, sugar and ground cinnamon. Some versions contain animal milk, but it’s mostly plant-based, as is our recipe for Horchata.

Margaritas

This classic cocktail is made using tequila, lime juice, triple sec, shaken and served with a salted glass rim to enhance the flavour of the tequila. Try our classic margarita recipe, it’s simply delicious!

Paloma

A Paloma is one of the most popular cocktails and is made using reposado tequila or any quality tequila. It’s usually enjoyed as a refreshing drink during warm summer months and contains freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, lime juice and soda water. Our version of Paloma is made using grapefruit cordial.

Curious to learn more about Mexican cuisine? If you’re feeling inspired enough to recreate some of these dishes and have a Mexican fiesta, you might want to stock your pantry or try these Mexican-inspired recipes.

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