A Beginner’s Guide to Mexican Cuisine

Mexican cuisine is one of the most flavorful out there and it is also rich with history. Surprisingly, Mexican food can be very easy to make and you can create many of your favorite Mexican flavors right at home. All you need is a little background understanding of the cuisine, an intro to the spices and flavors and a little knowledge about the cooking techniques and you will be a Mexican cuisine pro!

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Brief History

Mexican cuisine has a very long history, beginning about 9,000 years ago when corn (then known as maize) was first cultivated and domesticated. Communities began to form and foodways were established during this time, laying the groundwork for all Mexican foods to come. However, it was the Aztecs and the subsequent conquest of the Aztecs that really solidified Mexican cuisine as we know it today. So, when you think of Mexican cuisine, if chilies and cocoa, mole sauce and guacamole come to mind, those are classic dishes that have been around for thousands of years- talk about foods that stand the test of time!

Spices and Flavors

Fragrant, flavorful and full of complex tastes is a perfect way to describe Mexican cuisine. The wide variety of spices that grow in the country are the reason that the food is so well seasoned. There are quite a few spices that are synonymous with Mexican cuisine, to start, chili powder. You can’t have Mexican foods without chili powder!

Chili powder is typically a blend of chilies, cumin, and oregano, all spices that flourish in the Mexican climate and have therefore become a major part of the countries food. Chili powder is sprinkled on almost all Mexican foods and for good reason, it’s delicious! In addition to Chili powder and the oregano and cumin that go along with it, other spices like cinnamon, garlic, and cilantro are dominant in Mexican cuisine.

When looking at common flavors in Mexican food, you will find cocoa powder used in many dishes other than sweets. Lime juice also has strong influences on the food as well and a squirt of lime juice is the perfect garnish to so many Mexican dishes.

Common Ingredients

As Mexican cuisine essentially began based on corn, it makes sense that corn still plays a major part in the food. Beans are another staple which has also been part of Mexican culture and if you have beans, you have to have rice! So, if you are looking to start cooking Mexican style foods, buying rice, beans and corn is a great place to start!

Chile peppers are extremely common and they are used as a vegetable in some dishes and a spice in others. From jalapenos to ancho chilies to guajillo peppers, the chilies range in spice levels but all grown fantastically in the hot Mexican Climate.

Both red and green tomatoes play a big part in the cuisine of the country as well. While many culture cook tomatoes to make thick sauces, Mexican cuisine tends to focus on the raw tomatoes, making fresh salsas and tomato toppings instead.

While you may think cheese is a common ingredient in Mexico, it has only gained popularity in the last few years. Queso fresco is the most popular cheese and is a white, crumbly cheese that does not melt and give Mexican dishes a great new texture and flavor.

Meats and seafood‘s are very prevalent in coastal regions of Mexico and while vegetables are a big part of the countries diet, good proteins tend to be at the center of every dish.

Regional Specialties

Mexico is a pretty big country which means that there will be a wide range of variations in cuisine depending on where you go. These three sections of Mexico have really established their own versions of Mexican cuisine and are worth looking at to really understand the countries food.


Thanks to the states mountain ranges, there are numerous climates here where different foods can grow. The staple of the region is still corn and chili peppers are strong players in the food but this region is where the mole was born. Mole is a spicy, savory, chocolatey sauce that is used on tons of Mexican dishes, most popularly Mole con Pollo. Oaxaca is also the home to chewy tortillas, tamales, and mezcal, a Mexican liquor made from agave plants.


Due to its history of Spanish conquest and the Afro-Cuban slavery that followed, the Veracruz region has many distinct dishes. Whole baked snapper with a tomato-based sauce is a regional specialty scrambled eggs and beans are quite popular as well. It is also interesting to note that Veracruz is the second largest coffee producer in Mexico. So grab a cup of café con leche and a Mole Xiqueno and enjoy those Veracruz flavors.

Yucatan Peninsula

Citrus, habaneros, and smoke are what you will get with foods from the Yucatan Peninsula. While habaneros are the star of the region, fruits tend to sneak their way into all the dishes here as well. If you order a mole sauce here, it likely has some orange in it! Venado, a local species of deer, is another ingredient that you won’t find in Mexican cuisine in any other part of the country. Sounds like the Yucatan cuisine is a gem among all Mexican foods!

Cooking Methods

If you want to cook in traditional Mexican style, you will need to light a fire. Primitive grilling is how this country cooked for centuries until turning to flat, cast iron pans are the main way to cook. Corn was also ground since the beginning in order to make tortillas and this hands-on method of making flour has carried on. Many spices and sauces are also hand ground by using a motor and pestle. If you want to make authentic Mexican Cuisine, a mortar and pestle are necessary!

Drying herbs and chilies is an integral part of Mexican cuisine. To extend the life of the ingredients, they are hung and let to air dry before being ground with that necessary tool- the mortar and pestle. This means that when you are ready to cook Mexican foods, you’ll need to grab a grinder, a flat-bottomed saute pan and start drying your own herb and then you’ll be ready to go!

More Resources on Mexican Cuisine

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While Mexican cuisine could be studied for years, this intro has hopefully given you a broad base about the food and the history of the food. You should now be able to identify a few common Mexican spices, point out the major ingredients used in the cuisine and also quickly recite a little history about the food too! Now, it’s time to eat! Go and enjoy.

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