Chiles, tortillas, and seafood form the foundation of this culture's cuisine
Credit: Becky Luigart-Stayner

Corn Tortillas
The first fundamental I learned was that fresh corn tortillasare absolutely essential. They're the all-important foundation ofMexican cooking, the canvas on which Mexican flavors are painted.Simply made, with neither salt nor fat, hot-off-the-griddle corntortillas provide the same intrinsic, mom-made deliciousness ascrusty, warm bread fresh from the oven. Their earthiness is theperfect wrapper for flavors that traditionally emerge from theMexican kitchen. Mingling with their aroma is that of frijoles deolla, or boiled beans. This scent has suffused every kitchen I'vehad, welcoming all with a comforting embrace.

Roasted fresh chiles are also a staple of the Mexicankitchen. Ever roasted a red bell pepper over an open flame or undera broiler? The sweet pepper's aroma permeates the kitchen andcomplements 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 theirtaste than for heat. And woven into a luscious guacamole or livelysalsa, roasted chiles provide a flavor stamp of authenticity.

Fire-roasting fresh chiles; griddle-toasting dried chiles,garlic and tortillas; blistering tomatoes or tomatillos under abroiler or in a skillet--these are basic cooking steps that addrustic sweetness and depth of flavor to traditional recipes forsalsas, marinades, spicy condiments, and stew bases. But crunchy,zesty fresh ingredients like cilantro, raw onions, and radishesplay a big role as well, especially as garnishes for snack foodsand the street fare that's so popular throughout Mexico.

With 5,000 miles of coast, Mexico has a lot of seafoodofferings―much to the surprise of Americans who've beenweaned on Tex-Mex cheese enchiladas and the like. And at the top ofpractically everyone's list is a dish from the Gulf port town ofVeracruz, pescado a la veracruzana. Pescado for "fish" (red snapperis most popular) and a la veracruzana for what some might call aMediterranean-Mexican blend of tomatoes, capers, olives, herbs, andpickled jalapeno chiles. As a seaport, the food of Veracruz haslong been influenced by Spain and Europe, but no dish oringredients come to Mexico without getting a New World touch.Seafood cocktail stands dot the country, serving wonderfullyrefreshing concoctions of lime-marinated raw fish (not quite thesame as sushi, since the lime juice gives the fish a cookedtexture), cooked shrimp, or whatever else Mexican waters yield.

Street Food
Bright and bold, Mexican street food is a true celebration ofthe moment. Virtually every street corner in the country has asnack stand of some kind, whether its fare is as simple as toastedpeanuts or as involved as pan-seared enchiladas with local cheese,fresh vegetables, and herbs. An easy, popular favorite combinesfruit and jicama (the crunchy, mildly sweet root vegetable) with adrizzle 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, fromhomey stews to fried fish and exotic wild mushrooms, steak tacoscapture everyone's heart―steamy fresh corn tortillas wrappedaround seared meat with sweet sautéed onions and stingingchiles. Splash steak tacos with a rustic roasted tomato salsa, andyou've reached culinary nirvana in most estimations.