At its roots, Mexican cooking is one of the world's most plant-forward cuisines. Culinary ambassador Margarita Carillo Arronte shares the key ingredients and time-honored techniques to make smoky salsas, satisfying veggie tacos, and saucy enchiladas sing with bold flavor.
"There are many misconceptions in the U.S. about Mexican food. This idea that it's greasy, unhealthy, cheap—that's absolutely wrong," says Margarita Carillo Arronte. For more than 30 years, Carrillo has extolled the virtues of true Mexican cuisine as a restaurateur, author, TV host, and indefatigable ambassador. "We have a real treasure in our food, and it's completely mingled with the culture."
In fact, many plant-based cornerstones of the global kitchen are native to Mexico: corn, beans, chiles, tomatoes, avocados, even chocolate and vanilla. "We didn't have any chicken, pork, sheep, cows—all of that was brought by the Spaniards," says Carrillo. "We had turkey and wild rabbits, but no dairy animals, which is why many inhabitants of this part of the world are intolerant to lactose."
Today, produce remains at the heart of Mexican cuisine. The complex sauces that often take center stage aren't enriched with butter and cheese, but with fresh and dried chiles, nuts, and seeds. Mexican cooks use chiles more for flavor than fire. Unlike cuisines that have adapted to accommodate vegetarian diets, the reverse is true in Mexico, says Carrillo. "Mexico had a very developed cuisine when the Spanish came, and lots of our cuisine was vegetarian. The more indigenous you go, the more vegetarian the dishes."
Besides ingredients there are certain techniques that are key to Mexican flavors. Nixtamalization, the process by which corn is soaked in an alkaline solution to make it more digestible and nutritious (and easily ground into masa for tortillas), originated in Mesoamerica millennia ago; this process is a daily part of the Mexican diet. Early cooks pounded sauces in lava-stone mortars called molcajetes, but blenders are a huge time-saver, even if some say the flavors aren't quite the same.
The process of dry roasting is so common, especially in preparing chiles, tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, and garlic, that it has its own word in Mexico: tatemado. It creates concentrated, lightly charred flavors that enhance almost every recipe here.
Mastering these techniques will broaden your perceptions of Mexican food and give you flexibility in the kitchen—most vegetables go with most sauces, and you can tuck almost anything into a tortilla, after all.
The Mexican Pantry
Cilantro: Strong, sweet-sour, and citrusy flavor. Lends bright, clean freshness.
Corn Tortillas: Ubiquitously used as a wrap for fillings. The most authentic house-made tortillas have undergone nixtamalization. For store-bought, we like La Tortilla Factory.
White Onion: A fundamental staple in Mexican cooking. Because they're milder than yellow onions, they're also ideal for raw garnishes.
Jicama: This root veggie, with a crunchy raw texture and lightly sweet, mild flavor, brings textural interest to many Mexican dishes.
Tomatillos: Small, green, husk-wrapped relatives of the tomato. Mostly used cooked, they deliver bright, zippy tang to salsas—especially salsa verde—and stews.
Dried Mexican Oregano: A relative of lemon verbena, it's very different from Mediterranean oregano—more pungent and grassy and less sweet.
Queso Fresco: Translated as "fresh cheese," it's crumbly, salty, and mildly tangy.
Canned Chipotle in Adobo: Dried smoked jalapeño peppers in a tangy tomato puree. Their deep flavor lends an umami note to veggie dishes.
A foundational element of Mexican cuisine, fresh and dried chiles bring far more than heat to dishes. Here are some to know.
Looks like an elongated green bell pepper with mild-medium heat. Often roasted and stuffed with rice.
Dried form of a poblano pepper. Also part of the "holy trinity" of mole chiles, with pasilla and mulato chiles.
Thinner and hotter than jalapeños, with bright flavor. Be advised that a little goes a long way.
Deeply flavored and fruity dried chile, with a raisin-like scent and medium heat. Often used in mole sauces.
Earthy, lightly smoky, and pleasantly musty dried chile that offers mild to medium heat.