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The Global Pantry: Mexico

We've created a handy list of the 25 most common ingredients you'll find in the Mexican pantry.

Twenty-Five Tastes

Creating your own take on international cuisines is easy once you've learned a few things about the core ingredients that build the dominant flavors in these diverse global cuisines.

The Mexican Pantry

Many of the foods we find in the Mexican pantry carry ancient pedigrees. Beans, tomatoes, corn, and chile peppers--staples of Aztecs and Mayans--rank among the world's first cultivated foods. Later, Spanish conquerors introduced wheat, herbs, spices and dairy foods to the pantry. Over the centuries, Mexican cuisine has emerged out of this mingling of ingredients and techniques.

Corn:  Maize or nixtamal (corn), "the Gift of the Gods," is the cornerstone of Mexican cuisine. It appears in almost everything: tortillas, enchiladas, tamales, tacos, soups, and stews, even dessert (sopapillas) and atole, a thick drink made with ground corn. When the hull is removed and corn is treated with an alkali, it becomes hominy, a key ingredient in posole. Masa harina, the "dough flour" in tamales and corn tortillas, is made from ground dried hominy kernels.

Rice (arroz): The Spanish brought the first rice to Mexico around 1522. Along with corn, rice is among the most important of Mexico's grains. Red rice (or "Mexican rice") is made with blanched rice cooked in hot oil with tomatoes and broth. Green rice incorporates parsley and chiles. Arroz con pollo is a rice-based chicken casserole. Rice flour mixed with sugar and cinnamon makes a popular drink called horchata.

Dried Beans: Another Mexican staple dating back to pre-Columbian times, beans are often prepared simply by simmering them in water, perhaps with fresh herbs like epazote, a native wild herb. The term "refried beans" is actually based on a mistranslation of the word refrito, which means well-fried, not fried again.

Tortillas:  For centuries, corn has been ground, turned into dough (masa) and then shaped into small, very thin cakes called tortillas. After the Spanish introduced wheat into Mexico in the 16th century, flour tortillas became known, mostly in the north. Whether corn- or flour-based, tortillas are stuffed with meats, stews, beans, and rice, and eaten like tacos; or filled, rolled, and baked as enchiladas or deep-fried as chimichangas.

Chile peppers: There are some 60 varieties of chile peppers, from mild Anaheims to fiery hot habañeros, and they all have their uses in Mexican cuisine. Jalapeños--from Jalapa, the capital of Veracruz--are the most recognizable. Dried and smoked jalapeños are known as chipotle chiles, which provide the primary flavor in adobo sauce. A favorite Mexican main course, Chiles Rellenos, features large poblano chiles stuffed with cheese or spicy meat.

Avocado:  Another native of Meso-America (along with corn, chiles, and tomatoes), the avocado has been cultivated in Mexico for at least 5,000 years. Mashed, avocadoes are the main ingredient in guacamole. Sliced avocados are often added to soups. The leaves of the avocado plant often flavor stews or are ground and added to moles and other sauces. Note: Unripened avocados will not ripen in the refrigerator; they're best left in a paper bag at room temperature until soft.

Tomatoes: Tomatoes were first domesticated by ancient Mayans and Aztecs. From there, they were carried to the rest of the world. Mexican cooks use tomatoes in fresh and cooked salsas, in rice dishes, and stews. Keep tomatoes at room temperature--the cold of refrigeration destroys both flavor and texture.

Salsa: Ancient Mayans and Aztecs were making salsas centuries before European contact. The word simply means "sauce," and can refer to both cooked sauces and those made from raw ingredients. The version most familiar to Americans--salsa fresca--is made with fresh tomatoes, chiles, onions and fresh cilantro. Simmered, it becomes salsa ranchero. But there are many other types of salsas, including those calling for exotic ingredients like huitlacoche, a corn fungus.

Tomatillo: These are sometimes called "Mexican green tomatoes" or "husk tomatoes," although they are not botanically related. Fresh tomatillos are covered in thin husks. Their taste is tart, and they are often roasted or boiled and used in cooked or fresh salsas or with pork--as in chile verde--or fish preparations.

Jicama: This root vegetable looks like a giant turnip and has the same crisp texture of a raw potato with a mild, slightly sweet flavor. Jicama is eaten raw (often in salads) or fried, steamed, baked, or boiled. 

Nopales: After they're peeled and safe to handle, prickly pear (nopal) cactus leaves are eaten fresh, canned, pickled and candied.

Pumpkin Seeds (Pepitas): Pumpkin seeds were used in pre-Columbian cooking. They are an important ingredient in moles, pipián (pumpkin seed sauce) and other Mexican dishes. They are often sold roasted and salted. With the white hull removed, pepitas are green and mild flavored.

Cilantro: Introduced by the Spanish, the herb cilantro is the green leaves of the coriander plant. Fresh cilantro is featured in many Mexican dishes and is a must in salsas. Cooked, it begins to lose its anise-like flavor, which is why it's typically added to dishes just before serving. Do not substitute dried cilantro for fresh.

Chayote Squash: Also called a "vegetable pear," chayote are mild-flavored, pale green squash with a thin skin that can be smooth or prickly, depending on the variety. Chayote can be eaten raw, stuffed, pickled, or fried. Smooth-skinned chayote don't require peeling.

Garlic: A member of the lily family (along with leeks, chives, onions and shallots) garlic is the strongest-flavored, most assertive member of the group. Spanish conquistadores brought garlic to Mexico; today, garlic adds bold flavor to rubs, marinades, soups, and sauces.

Citrus: The Spanish introduced citrus into Mexico. The bright flavors of lemons, limes, and bitter Seville orange are integral to many Mexican dishes, from salsas to tortilla soups to ceviches. If Seville oranges are unavailable, you can approximate their distinctive, tart flavor by combining a little grapefruit, lime, and orange juice in equal amounts. Small Mexican limes enliven meats, corn dishes, and add refreshment when squeezed into a bottle of cold Mexican lager.

Cotija cheese: Dairy foods entered the Mexican diet after the arrival of the Spanish, who brought cattle and goats. Cojito cheese is dry and crumbly with a salty taste somewhat like feta (an adequate though not equivalent substitute). Cojito, as well as queso fresco and queso blanco, can be used to top tacos, beans, enchiladas--the works. These cheeses don't melt well, so they're typically added at the end of cooking or as a garnish.

Pork: Introduced by the Spanish, pork is a primary meat in stews and as fillings for tortillas in tacos and enchiladas. Fresh ground pork is also used in Mexican chorizo sausage (Spanish chorizo is made from smoked pork).

Lard: Lard is a shelf-stable cooking fat that is used throughout Mexico for frying, as well as in tamales, beans, flour tortillas, and in baking. Lard is rendered from the layer of fat around pork kidneys.

Mexican Oregano: Milder than Mediterranean versions, Mexican oregano is found in chili powders, chili con carne, and other Mexican dishes. If you substitute Mediterranean oregano, cut back just a bit to account for Mexican oregano's more subtle flavor.

Cumin: Cumin is characterized by a strong musty, earthy flavor which also contains some green/grassy notes. Cumin is a critical ingredient of chili powder, achiote blends, and adobo sauce.

Annatto (Achiote): These are the bright red seeds that come from a tropical bush that grows in Mexico. Ground into seasoning pastes, annatto seeds add deep red color and pungent flavor to Mexican dishes. Achiote is used to give Cheddar cheese its orange color.

Chili Powder: In other cuisines, the term "chili powder" refers to a single ground red chile, such as cayenne. Mexican chili powder is a particular spice blend made from different dried chiles, Mexican oregano, cumin, coriander, and sometimes garlic, cloves, and salt.

Vanilla: Made from the bean of an edible orchid, vanilla has been enjoyed in Mexico since ancient times. Real Mexican vanilla extract is deeply fragrant and flavorful.

Chocolate: The world's love affair with chocolate began in Mexico, where for centuries pounded cocoa beans were frothed into a foamy drink that was usually bitter, not sweet. When Cortes arrived in the New World, he was welcomed with this beverage. A little bit of Mexican chocolate adds depth to mole sauces.

Aug. 3, 2009 4:08 pm
need help for fresh cactus,have lots and dont no what to do with that.please help!!!!!!
Sep. 9, 2009 9:38 am
Thanks for all the great info. I was looking how to ripen a guacamole, and I just learned that and so much more!
Oct. 21, 2009 4:17 pm
I can't wait to try some of these wonderful recipes! I'm sure I'll find some new favorites!
Apr. 20, 2010 12:52 pm
redd the cactus (nopales) after cleaned and boiled is great for many things. I make carne con nopales (steak, nopales w/red or green sauce), also a nopales salad for tacos is great too. You can look through my recipe box, you'll find a few personal recipes for them in there. Goodluck!
Apr. 21, 2010 2:32 am
Very nice list. I love Authentic Mexican food and just served it last night. Oh how I wish my Cilantro had made it through winter! I would love too to purchase a Mexican oregano plant. Mine is Mediterranean. Thanks again. Great list.
Apr. 25, 2010 5:31 am
When cooking authenic Mexican dishes, you MUST use the Mexican Oregeno. It has a totally different flavor than the Mediterrean variety an will give your dishes the REAL Mexican flavor that you are looking for.
Sep. 27, 2010 8:42 am
I have a family recipe for piadina which requires lard. What can I substitute for the lard. We have dietary concerns and we still love piadina... can you help?
Nov. 20, 2010 1:25 am
I love mexican food-especaly tamales can they be cooked in smaller amountg
Apr. 4, 2011 3:04 pm
Redd, I am not sure you are checking this anymore but you cut the cactus off carefully. Remove the thorns one by one. You then slice them long ways in long strips. You can find plenty of recipes for this. I wish i knew my moms! She cans them they are soooooo good.
Apr. 7, 2011 11:16 am
From one Mexican food lover to another; "thanks for sharing"
May 27, 2011 12:03 pm
How do I keep corn tortillad from getting dry and crumbly
Aug. 18, 2011 4:16 pm
Just a couple of observations. I have lived in México for 15 years and am an avid preparer and consumer of "authentic" Mexican food. The first misnomer is about the use of cumin or "comino" as it is called here. Cumin is NOT used in the majority of Mexican dishes... and when it is, it is used sparingly. Usually a pinch and a quarter teaspoon is considered a lot!! The second thing of note is chili powder. Chili powder is NOT an ingredient in typical Mexican cuisine. In fact, it isn't even sold in Mexico, once you leave the border area. Another thing that does not exist in Mexico is "taco seasoning" like you can buy in a pouch in the US. Here, tacos may contain marinated beef/pork/chicken and are usually served with onions, cilantro and red or green salsa. If served with cheese they are usually called "quesadillas". And last but not least are fajitas. I like fajitas a lot. However, they are not Mexican food. They are originally from Texas and are really Tex-Mex food. Now
Oct. 26, 2011 4:00 pm
I had seen someone boiling their tamales wrapped in foil i was wondering if this actually works it seems more efficient but was not sure if they would leak
Nov. 15, 2011 2:01 pm
Hi, I've been looking for a while for such an extensive list of Mexican foods to share on 'A Mexican Fiesta', my Mexican food recipe blog, where I share tons of great recipes from Mexico. You should stop by and get inspired! Have a great day, Maria
Apr. 22, 2012 7:39 pm
From a TX point of view on Mexican food necessities: I have to say no comino as a needed ingredient. Also no to chile powder. Fresh peppers add plenty of flavoring and the chile powder gives it a weird taste to me. I would add onions as necessary. I also would include cheese that melts well such as Monterrey Jack for enchiladas. I also would include potatoes for beef picadillo and huevos con papas among other things.
Aug. 29, 2012 7:05 pm
For redd-nopales can be sliced to about the size of green beans and cooked the same way.
Oct. 30, 2012 1:12 pm
Can i substitute taco seasoning mix in my recipe that calls for enchilada sauce mix?
Nov. 12, 2012 3:23 pm
Seamus....yep..tastes like an astringent (lemony) green bean...Now if I could find something on Cactus Pears!! We have ONE tiny market that carries the pears. but not the paddles. Unless canned and pickled??? yuck And no I don't want drinks...I make up my own fruit salad but geesh...I KNOW they eat them like crazy in season.
Sep. 18, 2013 7:57 pm
Feb. 17, 2015 5:55 pm
Nopales can be roasted on a griddle add just a little salt and as the main ingridient in a taco, or cut to look like green beans and stewed with onions, garlic and tomatoes. Nopales go great with beans right out of the pot. When the cook they change from sharp green to a mild green. I lov'em.
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