Most Mexican cuisine found here in the U.S. is loosely based on the food of only the most northern of northern Mexico and the southwest U.S. Everything from nachos, burritos, fajitas, and chimichangas are inspired by Mexican recipes, but technically are considered American food commonly known as Tex-Mex.
If you are road tripping into Mexico as a gastric tourist, here are some truly unique and authentic Mexican recipes you’ll want to drive towards.
The foods eaten in what is now northern Mexico have always been different than the south, even prior to the Spanish arriving. Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahulia, and Nuevo Leon make up primarily northern Mexican cuisine and due to the harsh climates and vast deserts found in these states, food variety lacked. The people became hunter-gathers with limited access for agriculture, however, the land was suitable for the ranching of goat, cattle, and sheep which led to a preference for meat, especially beef in the region.
Popular dishes included machaca (dried meat, usually spiced beef or pork, commonly found wrapped in tortillas with eggs and potatoes), arrachera (skirt steak commonly marinated and grilled to create carne asada tacos or fajitas), and cabrito (roasted goat best known for cabrito al pastor where a goat is vertically roasted over embers in the open air and meat is shaved off onto tortillas with salsa).
The states bordering the Pacific Ocean, including Michoacán, Jalisco, Colima, Sinaloa, Nayarit, and to a lesser extent the Baja California peninsula, share a common food culture from the Purepecha. Due to the vast network of rivers and lakes, not to mention access to the Pacific Ocean, seafood is a staple in the region. Marlin, swordfish, snapper, tuna, shrimp, and octopus are readily available in any market or restaurant.
Tamales are another popular dish in the region and have been since 8000 B.C.! Wrapped usually in corn husks, masa or dough is filled with various ingredients ranging from meat, cheese, beans, vegetables, mole, fruits or any combination. The stuffed corn husks, with the stuffed dough inside, are steamed to cook everything inside. Don’t make the mistake of eating a tamale still wrapped in the husk, you must unwrap it first.
However, native to Michoacán is a different take on the tamale called corunda. The masa is shaped in various shapes like spheres or triangles and most of the time doesn’t contain a filling, but is eaten with cream or red salsa. In the Bajío region, tamales are often served with churipo, a beef stew flavored with cactus fruit.
Eastern Mexico and The Yucatán Peninsula
Veracruz’s role as the “gateway to Mexico” has meant the traditional Mexican staple of corn isn’t as prominent in the state relative to the rest of the country. The cuisine consists of a mix of indigenous, African, and Spanish influences with each culture providing key elements to almost every dish.
One dish stands out as the signature dish of Veracruz, though—Huachinango a la Veracruzana. A cleaned red snapper is marinated in lime juice, salt, pepper, nutmeg and garlic while a sauce consisting of onions, garlic, jalapenos, olives, and herbs is created. The red snapper is then baked in the sauce until the fish is tender, is topped with capers and raisins and usually served with small roasted potatoes and white rice.
The Yucatán Peninsula has a distinct spice used in almost every dish, the annatto seed or achiote in Spanish. It provides a strong pepper flavor while turning the food a reddish hue. From the achiote, a seasoning paste called recado rojo along with chirmole (a mixture of habanero and charcoal) is used to season chicken and pork in the region. A popular dish from the Yucatán is called cohinita pibil. This unique dish is from the Mayan word pibil meaning buried. Cochinita (pork) is marinated in bitter orange juices, seasoned with recado rojo, and typically wrapped in a banana leaf, then buried in a pit oven. The final dish is an extremely moist, shredded meat accompanied with red pickled onion, refried black beans, and habanero chilies.
Cuisine from central Mexico is probably the best known internationally of all regional Mexican cuisines, but the state of Pueblo in particular possesses two recipes that are world-renowned. Chiles en nogada is often considered Mexico’s national dish due to the toppings representing the three colors of the Mexican flag. A poblano pepper is stuffed with shredded meat, fruit, and a nut mixture, then dipped in egg whites and fried. Once crispy, it’s topped with green chilies (green), a white cream sauce (white), and fresh pomegranate seeds (red).
The second recipe is actually a variation of the classic mole sauce. Generally, mole is made of over 20 ingredients including fruit, spices, and chili pepper to create a sauce that is accompanied with some kind of protein. There are numerous types of mole including negro (black), amarillo (yellow), coloradito (little red), chichilo (smoky stew), rojo (red), and verde (green) to name just a few, but mole poblano is the most famous. Over 40 ingredients go into the mole including bread, tortillas, various chilies, sesame, almonds, raisins, and chocolate!
Food road-tripping through Mexico
There are many fun destinations and places to eat in Mexico. No matter where in Mexico your taste buds and your car takes you, be sure to remember to familiarize yourself with the basics of driving in Mexico. Lastly, nothing can ruin a tasty gastrotour than being in a situation south of the boarder without auto insurance—for that reason, be sure to evaluate if Mexico auto insurance is something you’ll need to protect you and your vehicle.
Happy eating! Provecho!