The first fundamental I learned was that fresh corn tortillas are absolutely essential. They're the all-important foundation of Mexican cooking, the canvas on which Mexican flavors are painted. Simply made, with neither salt nor fat, hot-off-the-griddle corn tortillas provide the same intrinsic, mom-made deliciousness as crusty, warm bread fresh from the oven. Their earthiness is the perfect wrapper for flavors that traditionally emerge from the Mexican kitchen. Mingling with their aroma is that of frijoles de olla, or boiled beans. This scent has suffused every kitchen I've had, welcoming all with a comforting embrace.
Roasted fresh chiles are also a staple of the Mexican kitchen. Ever roasted a red bell pepper over an open flame or under a broiler? The sweet pepper's aroma permeates the kitchen and complements that of roasting dark-green poblano or jalapeno chiles, which have their own distinctive flavors, complexity, and intrigue. The dozens of chiles used in Mexico are relied on more for their taste than for heat. And woven into a luscious guacamole or lively salsa, roasted chiles provide a flavor stamp of authenticity.
Fire-roasting fresh chiles; griddle-toasting dried chiles, garlic and tortillas; blistering tomatoes or tomatillos under a broiler or in a skillet--these are basic cooking steps that add rustic sweetness and depth of flavor to traditional recipes for salsas, marinades, spicy condiments, and stew bases. But crunchy, zesty fresh ingredients like cilantro, raw onions, and radishes play a big role as well, especially as garnishes for snack foods and the street fare that's so popular throughout Mexico.
With 5,000 miles of coast, Mexico has a lot of seafood offerings―much to the surprise of Americans who've been weaned on Tex-Mex cheese enchiladas and the like. And at the top of practically everyone's list is a dish from the Gulf port town of Veracruz, pescado a la veracruzana. Pescado for "fish" (red snapper is most popular) and a la veracruzana for what some might call a Mediterranean-Mexican blend of tomatoes, capers, olives, herbs, and pickled jalapeno chiles. As a seaport, the food of Veracruz has long been influenced by Spain and Europe, but no dish or ingredients come to Mexico without getting a New World touch. Seafood cocktail stands dot the country, serving wonderfully refreshing concoctions of lime-marinated raw fish (not quite the same as sushi, since the lime juice gives the fish a cooked texture), cooked shrimp, or whatever else Mexican waters yield.
Bright and bold, Mexican street food is a true celebration of the moment. Virtually every street corner in the country has a snack stand of some kind, whether its fare is as simple as toasted peanuts or as involved as pan-seared enchiladas with local cheese, fresh vegetables, and herbs. An easy, popular favorite combines fruit and jicama (the crunchy, mildly sweet root vegetable) with a drizzle of lime juice and a dusting of spicy ground chile.
But say "street food" in Mexico, and most hungry folks think "tacos." Though Mexico offers a variety of taco fillings, from homey stews to fried fish and exotic wild mushrooms, steak tacos capture everyone's heart―steamy fresh corn tortillas wrapped around seared meat with sweet sautéed onions and stinging chiles. Splash steak tacos with a rustic roasted tomato salsa, and you've reached culinary nirvana in most estimations.