Signature Mexican exports such as tacos, enchiladas and guacamole are famous across the globe, but the country’s richly varied cuisine has also influenced the world in more subtle ways.
In the first in a five-part series exploring Mexico’s diverse food culture and heritage, we highlight eight key products that originated in this unique country.
Popcorn, breakfast cereals, ketchup… where would we be without corn? It’s thanks to the Mexicans that we’re able to incorporate this versatile ingredient into our day-to-day lives. The cereal comes from the Mesoamerican region (spanning the southern side of Mexico to Costa Rica), but it was the Mexicans who claimed it and developed the 60 varieties that are now grown across the country.
Corn is a treasured staple of Mexican cuisine and is used in everything from tamales, a corn-based dough, steamed or boiled and wrapped in a leaf, to atole, a hot drink often served with cinnamon or vanilla.
Belgium and Switzerland may have mastered the art of making (and marketing) rich chocolates, but the origins of the humble cocoa bean are rooted firmly in Mexico.
These almond-shaped little gems of goodness, not dissimilar from coffee beans, date back to 1750 BC. Settlers in the Gulf of Mexico and southern Mexico used them for balms, offerings, energy and even as a symbol of fertility. The Mayans were the first to cultivate cacao, and the bean was exported to the world during the Spanish conquest.
What’s more, just a few squares of chocolate a day can be good for everything from hydrating skin to cutting the risk of strokes. Let that counteract any misplaced guilt at a moment’s indulgence.
3. Quelites (green herbs and veg)
Mexico’s vegetable gardens are chock-full of deliciously unpronounceable and untranslatable herbs and greens such as epazote, cenizo and huauzontle. Since pre-Hispanic times, the diet of the rural population has come from one particular agricultural system, known as milpa, where corn, pumpkin and beans are grown together in one crop, nourishing both the soil and the people.
So fruitful is the milpa system that the ‘weeds’ that grow in between the crops – known as quelites – are in fact highly nutritious herbs full of complex and pleasant flavours. These include hoja santa, lengua de vaca and even watercress. One herb, quintonil, is so special that leading Mexico City chef Jorge Vallejo even named his restaurant after it.
According to the Totonac people, vanilla was created from the love of Tzacopontziza (morning star) and Prince Zkotan Oxga (young deer), who had their throats slit when the girl was kidnapped by the young buck. The blood of their sacrifice turned into a sturdy tree representing the prince and a delicate orchid embracing it, representing the girl. The plant exuded a pleasant scent symbolizing their eternal love… and thus vanilla was born.
After the Spanish conquest, the product spread all over the world, turning into a popular ingredient for cakes, frosting and, of course, ice cream. Pure vanilla is amongst the world’s most valuable spices. To sample the very finest vanilla pods, head to the Papantla region in Veracruz state.
5. Chewing gum
Nowadays, chewing gum is an industrial compound that mimics the legendary Mexican chicle. From the Mayan region, the thick liquid gum was taken from the chicozapote tree, then boiled, dried, kneaded and left to set, before turning into the natural product known as chicle. Herbs, spices and organic sweeteners were added to give it a pleasant flavour.
Today, several communities in the south of Mexico still produce gum in the old-fashioned way to preserve their tradition and protect their rainforest areas. Chicle doesn’t harm teeth; it’s free of added chemicals and is 100% biodegradable. This makes it beneficial as well as eco-friendly – a virtual stranger to its distant relative, the fluorescent pink bubblegum found in sweet shops around the globe.
6. Chia seeds
A regular in the smoothies and breakfast bowls of the rich, famous and super-svelte, the chia seed has leapt to popularity in recent years. But what the world’s celebrities and top models might not know is that this nifty little seed originated in pre-Hispanic times in Mexico.
The Aztecs and Mayans harnessed its oil, ground it and used it to treat indigestion and labour-related issues. The chia seed’s recent popularity is due to its high content of antioxidants and omega 3 fatty acids, which help prevent age-related ailments and heart disease. It works best when blended into a smoothie with banana and blueberry, or sprinkled on porridge.
Tequila famously comes from Mexico, but the potent spirit is actually part of the wider mezcal family.
Mezcal is obtained from agave, an arid or semi-arid plant with triangular or elongated leaves surrounded by spines. It looks a bit like an aloe vera plant and ranges in colour from bright green to blue-green. Mezcal is made by distilling fermented agave cores, which are then cooked, ground and mixed with water; whereas tequila is made from blue agave or tequilana agave. Tequila was first produced in the municipality of the same name in the State of Jalisco, but now it’s also made in Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. Anyone for a margarita?
Next time you’re carving out your Halloween decorations, remember your friends over in Mexico. The humble and versatile pumpkin comes from Mesoamerica and was first grown in Tamaulipas, Puebla and Oaxaca. After the arrival of the Spanish, it was distributed far and wide and later become part of many global cuisines.
Mexicans eat not only the flesh of the plant but also its flowers, which are usually stuffed and served as a main course or cooked or grilled as filling for tacos and quesadillas. Pumpkin seeds also form a popular snack, whether roasted or salted, with or without a shell.
Jorge Vallejo’s Mexico City taco guide
There’s much talk of vegetables and herbs, but we wouldn’t want to neglect the glorious taco, proud ambassador of Mexican food around the world. Like many of Mexico's staples, the taco can be found everywhere from street food stands to high-end restaurants.
So we asked Jorge Vallejo, chef-owner of Quintonil, No.35 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, to share his top-secret list of the 10 hottest taco joints in Mexico City.
Must-try: Taco de mole verde
Av. Universidad 199-B, Benito Juárez, Vértiz Narvarte, Mexico City
El Maquech Púrpura
Must-try: Panucho de cochinita pibil
Tepozteco 808, Narvarte Poniente, Benito Juárez, Mexico City
Must-try: Taco al pastor
Altata 22, Hipódromo Condesa, Cuauhtémoc, Mexico City
Must-try: Taco de tripa
Bolívar 56, Centro Histórico, Cuauhtémoc, Mexico City
Must-try: Taco de chicalada
Tolstoi 9, Anzures, Miguel Hidalgo, Mexico City
Must-try: Taco de tortuga de amaranto
Ometusco 56, Hipódromo Condesa, Cuauhtémoc, Mexico City
Los 3 Reyes
Murillo 94, Santa María Nonoalco, Álvaro Obregón, Mexico City
Must-try: taco campechano
El Borrego Viudo
Av. Revolución 241, Tacubaya, Miguel Hidalgo, Mexico City
Must-try: taco al pastor
Central de abasto
Canal de Río Churubusco S/N, Central de Abasto, Iztapalapa, Mexico City. Pasillo K-L
Must-try: taco de barriga
Av. Ámsterdam 135, Hipódromo Condesa, Cuauhtémoc, Mexico City
Must-try: taco de frijol con queso