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How to Read a Mexican Menu, Mexican and Spanish Food List
Mesoamericans and Cortez
Mexican Food History
If you have gained your knowledge of Mexican food in typical American restaurants you have a great deal to learn. Most of our restaurants are actually serving what should be called Tex Mex cuisine, it can be very tasty but that’s not how they eat in Mexico! At least that’s not all they eat in Mexico.
Spanish Conquistadors arrived in Mexico in 1519 and the Spanish stayed for 300 years, so, much of the culture and cuisine of Mexico derives from Spanish influence. Aside from the Spanish influence, Mexican cuisine comes from the various people of Mesoamerica.
The ancient societies of the Mayans, Aztecs and others were raising and eating corn, tomatoes and chilies long before the first Conquistador came along with European foods. In fact there is a long list of foods that we take for granted now that were unknown in Europe at the time of Cortez.
Around 6000 BC, Mesoamericans began to cultivate squash and chilies, within 500 years maize (corn) was being grown. Soon other crops, beans, jicama, tomato and squash all were being grown. The list of native fruits and veggies includes tomatillos, avocados, sweet potatoes, jicama, guava, papaya and many others. Can you imagine cooking without these foods native to the Americas? All of these influences have given Mexico a unique cuisine that can compete with that of any other region. In fact Mexican is one of the most requested foods when diners are polled.
In 2010 Mexican cuisine was added by UNESCO to its lists of the world's "intangible cultural heritage"
Corn, Beans and Chocolate
Corn, (what we would call field corn) and beans are traditional staples of the Mexican diet but most of the corn is ground into flour to make dough for tortillas and such.Sweet corn also came from Latin America as a natural hybrid. Wheat and barley were introduced by the Spanish. Corn may be the most significant contribution Mesoamerica has made to world agriculture. Corn is the most widely grown crop in the Americas with 332 million metric tons grown annually in the United States alone.
Chocolate has always had a major role to play, with records going back to before the Olmecs and conquering the world. Corn may be more important, but don’t ask a chocoholic which crop is more significant; which would you rather give up, corn or chocolate?
Meats for the Mesoamericans were mostly turkey and fish until the Spanish brought Europe’s traditional farm animals. Since then Mexicans have been eating beef, pork, goat, and even lamb to a lesser degree. These early Americans had no draft animals to domesticate which makes their level of civilization even more remarkable.
The Spanish introduced all of the European vegetables which were quickly added to the repertoire.
The original Mesoamericans didn’t have ovens so they cooked on a hot flat surface which is why they invented tortillas.
The difference between Spanish food and Mexican food is mostly the use of chilies. It’s difficult to make such broad generalities and all cuisines depend on location and climate. Much of Mexico’s cuisine comes from the Spanish influence but with local foods thrown into the mixture. Spain has been less influenced by American foods and more influenced by their Mediterranean neighborhood.
How to cook Mexican food
Havana Cuban bread man
Mexican or Cuban?
There are many similarities between Mexican and
Cuban foods but there are also major differences. First of all Mexico is much
bigger with more regional variations in cuisine. Mexicans use a lot more spices
and chilies, “hot” is definitely “in” in Mexico but not so much in Cuba.
Mexican cooks use a lot more cheese and a lot more sauces. Mole Poblano is
known around the world but is only one of the many Mexican sauces. When you go
to a Mexican restaurant they will start you off with a basket of tortilla chips
while a Cuban restaurant will serve you a basket of Cuban bread, displaying the
European influence over Cuban cuisine. The influence of Spain, the Aztecs
and Mayans are unmistakable in Mexican food while Cuba has a
long list of influences from Spain and Europe to Africa, the Caribbean and even
Mexico’s cooking varies by region and is far from the monolithic presentations we see in restaurants here. If you can find a restaurant being run by a Mexican family be sure to try it out, you may be in for a pleasant surprise, there is so much more to Mexican food than you will find in a Taco Bell.
Chili or Chile?
Chile with an "e" at the end is the correct spelling in Spanish.
Chili with an "i" at the end is the Americanized version.
I’ve used the Americanized spelling in this glossary. LR
Traditional Mexican cuisine
Watermelon Agua Fresca
Mexican Food and Recipes
Alambres at Tacos Don Guero in Mexico City
A round winter squash.
Candied cactus fruit
Annato tree seed
Achiote Paste -
Achiote ground with spices and lime juice or vinegar
A spicy paste used to marinate meats, poultry and fish, also used to store chipotles.
Agave nectar (also called agave syrup)
A sweetener commercially produced in Mexico and South Africa from several species of agave, including the Blue Agave. See Agave Nectar for pro and con discussion
Spanish: water refreshments are a combination of either fruits, cereals, or seeds with sugar and water, blended to make a beverage. Some of the flavors include tamarind, agua de Flor de Jamaica (made with Hibiscus), and agua de horchata (usually made with rice and cinnamon).
Juice of the maguey plant. The maguey heart is tapped while the plant is still alive. This gives many times the volume of sweet sap, called aguamiel (honey water), than if the heart was simply cut out, cooked and crushed as is dome making agave syrup, mescalor tequila
Cheese, rolled in paprika, aged, strong, firm, sharp, crumbly and dry. Grate, and use as Parmesan.. This cheese is not as strongly flavored as Cotija It is commonly used as a topping or stuffing for enchiladas, burritos, and tacos
Anis Estrellado -
Star anise - star shaped spice from Southeast Asia with a smoky, licorice like flavor. In Mexican cuisine, star anise is used in Capriotada (a traditional Bread Pudding), and the beverages atole and champurrado.
An hors d'oeuvre or small snack food
Sugar apple - an oval fruit covered with light green knobby skin. Sweet and said to taste like custard, there is also a pineapple sugar apple tasting like pineapple
means wire in Spanish but the dish does not have to come off a skewer. A typical alambre is made of green peppers, onions, meat and sometimes bacon and has been described as fajitas on steroids.
Anaheim Pepper -
Dried poblano chili
A smooth, yellowish cow’s milk cheese sharper than Queso Quesadilla cheese
Fruit jelly, typically made of quince or guava
Atoles are a thick beverage a made from corn masa gruel sweetened with raw sugar and flavored by fruit or berries or chocolate or even chilis. They hmay be made with water or milk and may be seasoned with cinnamon, vanilla or almond extract.
Scarlet runner bean, the seeds can be used fresh or as dried beans. The starchy roots are still eaten by Central American Indians
Mexican food in day of the dead
Cow Head Barbacoa
Glossary B C
To immerse in sauce
meat (usually cow's head) baked in an earthen pit, our word barbecue derives from this
Beat or whip
Cookies or sweet buns, generally flavored with anise
Crusty rolls about 6 inches long and a version of French Baguettes
Latin American name for sweet potatoes
Cooked with beer or other alcohol - drunken
In Mexico buñuelos are made of yeast dough with a hint of star anise that is deep-fried, then drenched in a syrup of brown sugar, cinnamon, and guava served with ice cream as a dessert. There are many variations depending on the country and region
A large tortilla stuffed and rolled with many different fillings
Al Carbón -
Barbecued over wood or charcoal , smoked
Young goat / kid
Cajeta de Celaya
Fudge sauce made with goat's milk
A hard round winter squash. Similar butternut squash but the name may apply to any number of squashes, gourds and melons grown around the world.
Latin American name for sweet potatoes
Seafood cocktail or something related to the Mexican state of Campeche
A dessert pudding served in the Easter season. It is made of of toasted french bread soaked in syrup, sugar, cheese, raisins, and walnuts. The syrup is made with water, piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar), cinnamon, and nutmeg.
Meat, especially b eef
Carne asada -
Mexican version something like our barbecue, carne asada is beef that has been marinated and grilled over coals
Carne Guisada -
A beef stew served over rice or tortillas
Carne Molida -
Carne a la Tampiqueña
Thin strips of beef, grilled.
Hot red pepper usually ground and sold dry, 30 to 50 thousand Scoville units (Hot)
A thin tortilla molded into a shallow bowl and deep fried before being filled
Ceviche (Cebiche) -
Raw seafood marinated in citrus juice
Deep fried burrito
Thick, filled, boat shaped tortillas
Hot chocolate Atole drink, made with masa harina, Mexican chocolate and seasoned with cinnamon or star anise, sweetened with piloncillo (raw Mexican sugar)
Fried pork rinds
Chili and tomato atole
Chili, chilies _
Any of the many varieties of hot peppers
Chili con queso
A melted cheese sauce with green chilies. Served with tortilla chips
Chilies en Nogada
Poblano chilies, stuffed, usually with seasoned ground pork and baked in a sauce made of walnuts
Deep-fried burrito filled with meat and or beans
Smoke dried jalapeno peppers, chipotles are dark brown to black and shriveled. Popular in Tex Mex and Mexican cuisines.
Strips of deep fried pastry sprinkled with sugar
Spicy pork sausage, the Mexican version is different from what originated in the Iberian Peninsula, Mexican Chorizo is a fresh sausage which may be prepared and cooked at home. It is seasoned with chili peppers, garlic, comino and other herbs and spices. In Europe, Chorizo is usually a fermented, cured sausage which can be eaten without further cooking.
Coriander's herb form, a popular herb, powerful, earthy and pungent when fresh, dried loses a lot of potency.
The round griddle used to cook tortillas
Spanish name for cumin; seeds of the cumin plant are earthy, and warm with distinctive flavor and aroma, cumin is the second most popular spice after pepper worldwide.
Seeds of cilantro. Used alone or ground, different flavor from cilantro herb, coriander tends to be a bit more pungent with hints of citrus.
A hard cheese also known as queso añejo. Known as the "Parmesan of Mexico" Good for grating and used like Parmesan
The Hispanic versions of sour cream.
Crema Mexicana - Slightly thickened and slightly sour cultured cream. Similar to a crème fraîche
Crema Centroamericana, thicker and sweeter than crema Mexicana,
Crema media, like whipping cream,
Crema Mexicana agria, thicker and more sour than crema Mexicana
Crema Salvadoreña, which is thick like sour cream
Glossary D E F
A sharp, firm, slightly smoky cheese, used for grating in a manner similar to Cotija
Sweet or savory turnover
Corn tortillas are softened by frying in oil, filled with meats, cheeses and or beans and baked with red (rojo) or green (verde) salsa
Corn tortillas filled and topped with thinned frijoles and baked
Leafy plant used as both a vegetable and an herb for its pungent flavor. Raw, it has a resinous, medicinal pungency, similar to anise, but stronger. Difficult to find except in Hispanic stores epazote is worth finding to lend authentic flavor to certain Mexican dishes.
Refers to a pickling mixture used on poached or fried fish (Or poultry and others) or to the entire dish of fish marinated in vinegar or citrus juice with olive oil, herbs and spices. Escabeche is served cold after being refrigerated overnight. Also sometimes served as a side dish of vegetables without any fish. Escabeche makes a wonderful dish for a warm summer night.
Fajita are a dish in Tex-Mex cuisine, not a true Mexican dish. Grilled meat served with flour or corn tortilla separately. The term originally referred to the skirt steak cut of beef used in the dish. Now it may have any type of meat that a restaurateur wants to sell. The meat is often cooked with onions and bell peppers and served with typical Mexican condiments.
Pasta, generally angelhair, used is soups. There are a wide many recipes, but the basic recipe calls for lightly browning the fideo in oil, adding broth and other ingredients and cooking till the pasta is done.
A baked custard dessert with a caramel sauce baked into the bottom, this is inverted on the serving plate so the caramel drips over the top
Deep fried, flute shaped stuffed corn tortillas
Spanish word for the tomatillo. This fruit is surrounded by an inedible, paper-like husk. As the fruit matures, it fills the husk and can split it open by harvest. The husk turns brown, and the fruit can be any of a number of colors when ripe, including yellow, red, green, or even purple. Tomatillos are the key ingredient in fresh and cooked Latin American green sauces.
Frijoles Refritos -
Black beans typically seasoned with salt, ham hocks, onions and garlic, tomatoes, cumin, oregano, chili peppers, vinegar, and other ingredients. Mexican style vegetarian black bean stew makes a delicious and inexpensive dish.
Granadilla, Passion flower fruit
Glossary G Thru M
Several species of passion fruit may be called granadilla, also called parcha and aracuya. Incredible flowers that remind some of the Passion of Christ gave this plant its English name. he pulpy flesh which surrounds the seeds is the part that is eaten as well, sometimes, as the seeds themselves. Grows widely as a weed in subtropical climates.
A thick tortilla, made with masa harina, deep fried and stuffed with meats or cheese
A mashed avocado condiment often served as a dip
Small green or yellow egg shaped tropical fruit, when ripe, resembles
taste of peaches.
Gusanos de Maguey
Worms living in agave plants that are considered a delicacy when fried. Also found in bottles of mezcal to denote the particular type of agave plant
Hottest pepper available.
A sweet rice drink Horchata is the name of several kinds of traditional beverages, made of ground almonds, sesame seeds, rice, barley, or tigernuts (chufas).
1See also agua fresca
Corn husk used to wrap tamales
Tortilla topped with ham, fried eggs and a sauce made with cheese, peas and tomatoes
Eggs cooked with a tomato salsa
A round, winter squash. It's similar to butternut squash
Type of chili pepper
Crisp, tan skinned white fleshed, root. Excellent eaten fresh or in
Jugo de Naranja
Coffee-flavored liqueur made in Mexico
Leche de Enco -
Leche Quemada - (Burnt Milk Fudge)
This Mexican fudge is a rich mixture of evaporated milk, corn syrup, vanilla, butter and pecans.
Two plants are known as Malanga.
1) The plant used as a starch in Mexico and Latin America is Xanthosoma. These are tropical and sub-tropical arums plants native to tropical America. Several species are grown for their starchy corms, also known as malanga, otoe, new cocoyam, tannia, tannier, yautía, macabo, taioba, dasheen, and quequisque,
2) Mostly in Asia, Eddoe is a tropical vegetable, a variety of Colocasia esculenta, closely related to taro (dasheen), requires careful cooking to remove the acrid taste.
Tropical fruit, orange flesh
Manioc- . Also known as Cassava, Yuca and Tapioca
Tropical root crop, cultivated for its starchy root this has to be carefully prepared to remove the cyanide compounds present in some plants. In spite of this danger Manioc is a major source of carbohydrates for much of the world
Chili pepper, Medium to hot at its peak.
Granadilla, passion fruit
A tequila based cocktail made with lime and triple sec
dough almost always made of Cornmeal
Masa Harina -
Is a very finely ground corn flour made from corn that has been dried, cooked in lime water, ground up and dried again. The cooking water always contains slaked lime which gives masa harina its distinctive taste.
A traditional spicy Mexican soup of beef tripe, and hominy in a seasoned broth
A rectangular stone grinding bowl
Mexican rice also known as Spanish rice, , is a side dish made from white rice, tomatoes, garlic, onions, parsley, cilantro. What we see here is probably a Tex Mex dish but a similar dish is served throughout Latin America.
Mexico’s famous national sauce, known worldwide, is a blend of chocolate, chilies, garlic, onions and nuts and much more. To someone who s unfamiliar with mole, the inclusion of chocolate may be surprising but in the hands of a skillful cook the chocolate disappears into a blend of flavors, leaving only hints of chocolate in the finished sauce. There are endless versions of mole depending on regional varieties and individual cook preferences.
has also been called the "national dish" of Mexico, contains about twenty ingredients, including chili peppers and chocolate most often served over turkey at weddings and at Christmas.
Moros con cristianos (Moores and Christians)
Adish made with black beans and rice, garnished with fried plantain
Glosssary N Thru Q
Sauce made from ground nuts
Naranja Agria -
Edible cactus, prickly pears, Nopales are very rich in insoluble and soluble dietary fiber. They are rich in vitamins; vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin K, as well as riboflavin and vitamin B6, and minerals; magnesium, potassium, manganese, and iron and copper and antioxidant flavonoids. Prickly pear cactus may be an acquired taste as they are somewhat slimy like okra with a similar flavor. Available raw in Hispanic groceries as well as canned
Cornhusk, used to wrap tamales
Olla de Presion -
Spanish dish with rice, meats and seafood depending on the cook.
Pan Dulce -
A soft white crumbly cheese, like queso blanco it does not melt when heated
Yucatan dish of corn tortillas filled with varying ingredients and topped with pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and tomato sauce.
Cast-iron grid or grate is used for grilling or making tortillas
A fresh minced salsa of tomatoes and onions, sometimes with chilies or peppers, cilantro and other ingredients.
Picada is a cooking technique from Spain where bread, almonds and liquid are pounded together and used as a last minute seasoning in some stews
CUBAN, Meat hash
Pressed, unrefined dark brown sugar. Other common names are chancaca, papelón, panocha, rapadura, atado dulce or empanizao
Chili pepper often used to flavor vinegars, Very Hot, 50 to 100 thousand Scoville units
Fruit that looks like abig hard banana, more starchy and less sweet than a banana plantains are almost always cooked although very ripe plantains can be eaten raw. Plantain Maduros: Recipe
Popular chili, not very hot, used for for chili rellenos. Ripe, red poblanos are hotter than green unripe peppers. Dried poblanos are called chili Anchos. Essential part of chilies nogada.
A soup made from beef or pork, chili, hominy and spices
Mexican Desserts, Recipes
is a thick, white-colored drink of 3-4% alcohol made by fermenting the sap of the maguey plant, (an Agave ).
Grilled or pan fried tortillas stuffed with various ingredients and folded in half.
Queso Añejo -
A hard cheese also known as cotija
Queso Blanco -
Mild white cheese that becomes soft and creamy but does not melt when heated
Queso Blanco con Frutas -
Mild white cheese with added pineapple and mango, good on broiled skewers because it does not melt
Queso Fresco -
Homemade fresh cheese
Queso Oaxaca -
white, semi-hard cheese, similar to un-aged Monterey Jack but with a stringy texture
Quinoa - Nutritious grain, originated in the Andes Mts.
Glossary R Thru Z
Rajas means strips in Spanish but in the kitchen it refers to roasted peeled poblano peppers cut into strips and frequently sautéed with onions, herbs and seasonings. Used as a condiment with meats or as a vegetable side dish.
Filled or stuffed
String of dried red chilies
This is a tiny chili that looks like a miniature patty pan squash. Originated in Peru, these usually have from 1,500 to 2,500 Scoville units, which means they are modestly hot.
Salt "Sin sal" means without salt,
is the Spanish word for sauce. Although there are many varieties of salsa, what we usually think of as salsa in the US are fresh sauces served as a condiment. These uncooked sauces might be pureed until smooth, semi-chunky, or the uniformly chopped as in pico de gallo. Salsa has replaced ketchup as America’s favorite condiment.
Salsa Cruda -
Salsa Fresca -
Round fruit with a thin, brown skin and off-white flesh, tastes like a sugared pear, grainy texture, with a sweet, malty flavor. Many believe the flavor is similar to caramel. The unripe fruit is hard to the touch and contains high amounts of saponin, which has astringent properties similar to tannin, drying out the mouth. Sapodillas ripen off the tree
Peppers red and green The serrano pepper is a type of chili pepper that originated in the mountainous regions of the Mexican states of Puebla and Hidalgo. These are hot peppers with a rating of from 10,000 to 25,000 Scoville units.
Mexican mirepoix, sofrito consists of garlic, onion, and tomatoes cooked in olive oil, and used as the base for many dishes. Essential to Mexican cooking.
Sopa Seca - (Dry Soup)
soups called sopas seca s that are dry and can be served as a mound. The "dryness" of the soup comes from a large quantity of thin, short noodles (called fideos ) that are added to a thin broth in the last few minutes of cooking. As the noodles cook, they absorb much of the liquid and give the soup its texture and shape.
Miniature fried corn-dough bowls filled with beans and sauce and topped with cheese
True Mexican tacos are soft, heated or lightly fried corn tortillas, and can contain any number of different traditional Mexican meats or fish. Served with many different condiments, The crunchy tacos we see in Taco Bell and the grocery stores are a Tex Mex invention made for the convenience of the manufacturer
Tacos al Pastor -
Singular of tamales
Can be any meat or cheese filling surrounded by a dough made of masa harina, then wrapped in corn husks and steamed. Unwrap to eat and serve with condiments like salsa and pico de gallo.
Liquor from the blue agave
Is a a regional American cuisine that blends food products available in the United States by the cuisines of Mexico. Un fortunately Tex Mex may be the only exposure some of us receive to Mexican foods. True Mexican foods are part of a wonderful and varied cuisine that is only hinted at by restaurants which sell tacos and burritos.
Tortilla dough encloses a simple filling and is grilled on a comal
This fruit is surrounded by an inedible, paper-like husk. As the fruit matures, it fills the husk and can split it open by harvest. The husk turns brown, and the fruit can be any of a number of colors when ripe, including yellow, red, green, or even purple. Tomatillos are the key ingredient in fresh and cooked Latin American green sauces.
A salad shaped like a volcano or pyramid
A sandwich served on a bolillo
A flat Mexican bread made of cornmeal or flour.
Tortilla - In SPAIN a tortilla is an omelette
Uva Pasa -
Vains de Vanilla -
Al Vapor -
A type of chili sauce, The Mayan word for this mixture means "nose of the dog," it will clear your sinuses. Made with Habanero chilies this sauce is hot