Everyone knows October 31st is Halloween, but did you also know it’s also the first day of the Mexican holiday Dia De Los Muertos? That means Day of the Dead en Español. For three days Mexicans honor their passed loved ones through remembrance ceremonies in a variety of ways.
The most common traditions includes offerings of their ancestor’s favorite foods. These offerings end up being the common man’s food found throughout the streets of Mexico like tacos, sopes, tortas, tamales and quesadillas.
In the states, most will think that they’ve had Mexican food before. We’ve got Chipotles and Taco Bells, so of course we know what Mexican food is. Crunchy tacos, burritos, nachos and basically anything smothered in melted cheese count right?.
This is probably the farthest thing from what you’d find in Mexico. What most of us think as Mexican is actually Tex-Mex, the American take on this type of cuisine. So now that we have that straightened out, let’s get down to business and celebrate Dia De Los Muertos like bosses and answer this important question: What is authentic Mexican food?
Corn is Key to Mexican Cuisine
The key ingredient that makes Mexican cuisine unique is the use of corn. From traditional corn tortillas to steamed tamales wrapped in corn husks, corn is utilized in a ton of ways. This is what really separates authentic Mexican from Tex-Mex.
The introduction of flour tortillas is very much an American substitute, so forget everything you think a tortilla should be. The most common use of the corn is when it is ground and becomes masa aka corn dough. This dough is the base for tortillas, tamales and other Mexican specialties. Every culture utilizes what crops and ingredients indigenous to them, and for Mexico that was corn. So when you’re on the hunt for authentic Mexican be on the look out for corn.
Fillings A Million: From Meats to Beans to Veggies to Shrooms and even Insects
Do you think Mexicans actually use ground beef in their tacos? Well they don’t. Think outside of what you’ll find in your cheap tacos from Taco Bell. Authentic tacos, tortas and sopes are filled with ingredients that you’d never find at your fast food chain or Tex-Mex restaurant.
You’ll find unique ingredients being used, like zucchini blossoms in quesadillas or even “huitlacoche,” a fungus found on the outside of corn depending on region in Mexico. They even use insects like grasshoppers, which they call “chapulines.”
What I crave in amazing Mexican food is the meats. Look out for are the ones that have been marinating for hours or braised. It takes time to create perfection in meat form. Look past the ordinary “carne asada” and try the “al pastor” or “chorizo.”
My preference is the al pastor because when you find the real deal it’ll be roasting on a rotating spit dripping with delicious juices from top to bottom. For the braised options, be adventurous and try beef tongue or even head. You won’t regret trying something new. They are the tenderest cuts you’ll find.
Is Yellow Cheese the Way to Go?
The short answer is NO. That’s in capital letters because I’m not joking. You won’t find Cheddar or Monterrey Jack cheese in Mexico; only in Tex-Mex.
The two cheeses most commonly used in Mexican cuisine are queso fresco and queso Oaxaca. Both are white and have nothing to do with that yellow stuff you’ll find in “Mexican” food in the states. Queso fresco is commonly found crumbled as a garnish on your tacos or tamales. It’s similar in taste to feta and parmesan and adds a touch of salty and nuttiness to your plate.
Queso Oaxaca is the cheese that you’ll find be in authentic quesadillas. Like mozzarella, it melts easy and is stringy in form. In Tex-Mex cuisine, cheese blankets your dish, while the cheese in authentic Mexican is used sparingly so that it doesn’t mask the flavors of the other ingredients.
What I love about Mexican cuisine is that garnishes are super fresh. Diced onions and cilantro commonly top your tacos to balance the dish. Pickled veggies like radishes or red onions also add a touch of acid. Using fresh garnishes adds balance to the other ingredients in a dish that have been cooked and marinated for hours.
This provides a counterpoint that really wakes up your palate in every bite. Simply adding a lime can add that refreshing zing from one’s tacos to even Mexican stews like pozole or menudo.
When you think salsa you’re probably thinking chips and salsa. Of course, we all love snacking on this combination. But forget finding any of this stuff topping your Mexican food. The closest thing to the “salsa” we love is pico de gallo. It’s combination of tomatoes, onions, cilantro and lime juice and it’s a much fresher version of salsa.
Even for those of us with minimal Spanish-speaking skills, we know that salsa means sauce. Often in Mexican cuisine salsa is a fresh sauce made from steeping chilies, most commonly pasilla peppers and guajillo peppers, and blending it with a combination of other fresh ingredients. Depending on the sauces they will be cooked or just fresh, but expect them to give a definite kick to whatever they’re topping because they’ll be hot.
Authentic Mexican vs. The Pretenders
Apart from the use of corn and the use of fresh garnishes, what really makes authentic Mexican exactly what it is is the time put into making a dish. The meticulous amount of detail a cook puts into each dish really makes Mexican food unique.
The combination of chilies and spices combined with the artistry necessary to craft simple-looking dishes like tacos and tamales is what defines Mexican cuisine. One of the most complex sauces to create is the “mole,” which contains upwards of twenty ingredients including chilies, nuts, tortillas, chocolate and a multitude of others.
Mole epitomizes what Mexican cuisine is. Taking hours to make and the number of steps would make anyone quit halfway through. Tradition and passion drives cooks to create perfection in Mexican cuisine.
Crunchy tacos and those gargantuan food babies we call burritos are nothing compared to the real deal because bigger is not always better. Forget about what you thought you knew was Mexican food in Chipotle or Taco Bell and go hunt for that treasure at the end of the rainbow — it might be in a taco truck or a hole in the wall. What’s guaranteed is that the food will be amazing. So the only question you have to ask yourself is this: where has real Mexican food been all my life? Well, you just have to go out and find it.