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When I was in grad school, I ate a lot of Mexican food. There was a Mexican restaurant nearby that became a favorite place to go after classes. I can still smell the delicious aromas, hear the sizzling fajitas and taste the fruity sangria. Today Mexican food has become very popular and if you took a poll, many Americans would say they eat Mexican food all the time. If they are eating fast food from chain restaurants, however, they are not eating authentic Mexican food. Fast food Mexican is filled with supersized fats and not healthy at all. In contrast, authentic Mexican food is filled with fresh vegetables, fruits, protein, spices, vitamins and minerals and is healthy and well-balanced.
Mexican food is rich in history, with influences from many different cultures including Europe, South America, the Caribbean, India, China, and Africa. Mexico has given us the gifts of chocolate, vanilla, peanuts, coconuts, beans, and tomatoes. Mexican food is fresh, healthy and delicious. Let’s take a look at Mexican cuisine and see how we can enjoy creating our own Mexican-style dishes at home.
1. Use Aromatics, Herbs, and Spices
We start with aromatics, herbs, and spices because they are what can make the same basic ingredient taste unique. Every culture has its own ethnic flavor profile and knowing which aromatics, herbs and spices to use can help us make flavorful Mexican dishes.
Mexico uses fresh onions and garlic in their dishes. While it is traditional to cook with lard, more and more people are making the healthier choice of vegetable oil or olive oil. Learn how to infuse your own olive oil with herbs and spices for even extra flavor. Mexico favors spices such as annatto, cumin, Mexican oregano, cilantro, bay, cinnamon, cloves, anise, and epazote. Epazote is a pungent spice that is often used to flavor beans and aid in digestion. Cocoa is used in savory dishes such as mole sauce as well as in desserts. Play with Mexican spices to make your own Delicious Fajita Seasoning that you can use on any dish such as this Mexican Lasagna. Check out “10 Mexican Spices to Spike Up Your Meals” for even more flavors and then for recipe ideas, try the Food Monster App, a food appavailable for both Android and iPhone that has over 8000 plant-based recipes (and 10+ new recipes added daily).
Is it “chile” or “chili”? Guess what? Both spellings are correct; it all depends the region you are in. Now that we don’t have to worry about that, let’s move on. Many types of chilis are used in Mexican cuisine such as jalapeño, ancho, chipotle, and serrano. They can be used fresh, whole, dried or powdered. In fact, chilis, rather than tomatoes, are the main ingredient in Mexican sauces such as my Ancho Chili Sauce (Enchilada Sauce). Use the chile pepper of your choice to make your own Raw Hot Sauce.
Chiles taste great anywhere. Try adding chiles to your baking and spice up foods that would otherwise be plain. These Chipotle Chili Pepper Rolls are delicious.
Mexican tortillas are flatbreads made from flour or corn. They can be pressed and served alongside dishes to scoop up food like a yummy, edible utensil. They can be fried like taco shells or tostadas and loaded with delicious food. Try these Cilantro Avocado Chickpea Salad Tacos or these Mini BBQ Soy Curl Taco Bowls with Pickled Onions. Tortillas can also be grilled and served with veggies and cheese sandwiched between them like these Easy Veggie Loaded Quesadillas or these Spinach Quesadillas with Strawberry-Spring Onion Salsa. Use fried tortillas to make a traditional Mexican soup like this Magical Roasted Corn and Lime Tortilla Soup. Learn how to make perfectly-layered vegan burritos and read “10 Ideas for Creating Delicious Veggie Fillings for Your Homemade Burritos” for inspiration. For a raw experience, make tortillas from raw corn and tomatoes and indulge in these Raw Vegan Enchiladas With Chunky Salsa, Cheesy Sauce, and Spicy Nut Meat.
4. Rice and Beans
Rice is served with most Mexican dishes. Mexican rice is usually made from white rice and has tomatoes, garlic, onions and Mexican spices. It gets its red color from chili peppers. I use brown rice when I make Mexican rice (or any rice dish). I add red onion, bell pepper, jalapenos, green olives and fresh cilantro along with cumin, coriander, paprika, bay, salt and pepper. Since the chile peppers I use are green, I add turmeric and chile powder for flavor as well as color. Mexican rice is my favorite kind of rice dish. I serve it with everything from beans to tofu.
Beans or frijoles are also a staple of Mexican dishes especially pinto beans, kidney beans and black beans. Refried beans are boiled and then fried and are commonly served as a side dish. To make refried beans, saute minced onion, garlic and jalapeno peppers. Add the 2 cups of cooked beans (pinto or black) to the skillet and toss with the aromatics. Season the beans with salt, cumin, coriander and black pepper and cook for a few more minutes. Garnish with fresh cilantro and enjoy the fiesta.
5. Fruits and Vegetables
Mexican food is filled with fresh fruits and vegetables that grow in warm climates. Corn is one of the staples of Mexican food and is used in a wide variety of ways. Masa harina is flour made from grinding dried corn kernels and is used to make tortillas, tamales and other foods including desserts. Enjoy corn in this Smoky Roasted Corn and Sweet Pepper Soup and this colorful Black Bean and Corn Salsa.
Fresh tomatoes are another Mexican staple used in rice, salads and soups. They are used raw with other fruits and vegetables in cold soups such as gazpacho. Tomatoes are often used as a topping and filling for burritos and tacos like these Spicy Zucchini and Tomato Tacos. Another common way to use tomatoes is in salsa which is usually made with fresh tomatoes, onions, chilis, cilantro and spices. This Mason Jar Salsa uses big, juicy beefsteak tomatoes as well as scallions, jalapenos and cilantro.
Tomatillos look like little green tomatoes but they are actually gooseberries. Tomatillos are used in many sauces and dishes and are best known for making Salsa Verde, a green Mexican sauce that can be served hot or cold. Salsa Verde is made with tomatillos, chile peppers, onion, cilantro and lime. You can make Salsa Verde by roasting the tomatillos as in my recipe or you can boil them to quickly make this recipe.
Fresh fruit is also a staple of Mexican food. Peaches, pawpaws, pineapples, coconuts and avocados are common in authentic dishes. Combine fresh fruit and chiles to create a sweet and spicy salsa such as this Blueberry Salsa and this Tremendous Papaya Salsa.
Avocados are well-known in Mexican dishes and especially for guacamole where it is mashed up with chiles, and cilantro. I like adding fresh tomato and lime juice to my guacamole. For a twist, make Knock-Off-Amole which is guacamole made with fresh green peas instead of avocado. I like to mix avocado with tomato, mango, cucumber, red onion, jalapeno and fresh cilantro to make an Avocado-Mango Salsa that I flavor with cumin and fresh lime.
6. Chorizo and Cheese
Traditional Mexican cuisine involves some meats and cheeses. Fortunately, we can make vegan versions of many Mexican specialties. Chorizo is a seasoned sausage that is common in Mexican food. Mexican chorizo is completely different from Spanish chorizo in both taste and texture. Mexican chorizo is not cured and therefore, cannot be sliced. The spices found in Mexican chorizo include cumin, coriander, chile powder, bay, oregano, thyme, cinnamon, and cloves.
Those same spices can be used with tempeh to make vegan chorizo as in this Butternut Squash Tacos With Tempeh Chorizo dish. If you want a soy-free version of chorizo, substitute lentils for the tempeh.
If you are making an authentic Mexican dish, do not, I repeat, do not use Cheddar cheese. That doesn’t happen in Mexico. In fact, Mexican dishes are not covered in or filled with cheese the way they are in America. Cheese is a garnish and an added flavor ranging from mild such as Queso Blanco to spicy Queso Asadero. I make a vegan Spicy Queso Cheese that is perfect to top your tacos, enchiladas or Spicy Vegan Nachos. Melting cheeses include Oaxaca which is similar to mozzarella and Chihuahua which is similar to cheddar. For vegan versions with similar flavors, try making your own Moxarella Cheese or Pepper Jack Cashew Cheese.
7. Mexican Desserts and Drinks
No meal is complete without dessert. Baking and desserts are a vital part of Mexican cuisine. Mexican desserts are unique in their taste, texture, and aroma as they combine hot, spicy flavors with sweet “dulce” ones. Common Mexican desserts include churros, sopaipillas, flan, tortas, and frozen ice cream.
Add Mexican spices to this creamy Coconut Plantain “Rice” Pudding to make your own version of arroz con leche. Chocolate and cinnamon combine in these Mexican Hot Chocolate Snickerdoodles. Make a frozen dessert, or helado, like this refreshing Margarita Ice Cream.
You have to have something delicious to drink along with all this amazing Mexican food. Opt for sangria, margaritas, and coffee. Combine the nutrition of a chia fresca, a Mexican drink of citrus juice and chia, with the Mexican favorite, tequila, to make this refreshing Chia Margarita.
After writing about all this amazing food, it’s no surprise that I’m craving Mexican cuisine. The next time you have a craving for Mexican food, make sure to go authentic. Create your own Mexican fiesta right in your own home.
We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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