Mexican food in America is usually synonymous with hard shell tacos and queso dip. But beyond the ever-popular Tex-Mex favorites and San Francisco-style burritos that are actually a modern product of cultural integration in the USA, there’s a wildly variable food landscape in Mexico that deserves more of our attention.
There are seven important regions that you should know if you’re interested in learning more about Mexican cuisine. Due to their geography and history, each region’s food has distinctive characteristics, varying in everything from staple crops to the spices used to season dishes. Learning about the food in different regions can help you get a better understanding of what Mexican cuisine is really comprised of – and perhaps inspire you to go out and try something new.
A strong ranching tradition means that beef is king in Northern Mexico. Harkening back to those days on the range, grilling is a popular method of cooking. Hearty staples like refried pinto beans, rice, and dried beef are also popular.
The region’s wide variety of cheeses is also a result of the cattle industry. Wheat cultivation has led flour tortillas to be popular in the area. In fact, the flour tortilla burrito was invented in Sonora. Northern Mexico also includes the Baja peninsula, known for its wines, as well as for popularizing fish tacos.
Dishes to know:
Queso fresco: This fresh cheese is similar to feta, crumbly goat cheese, and creamy ricotta.
Machaca: Traditionally made by rehydrating dried beef, modern machaca is usually made from well-cooked, shredded beef that is simmered in its own juices and spices. It can also be made with pork.
Arrachera: This marinated skirt steak, cooked over a grill, is the origin of what we know as fajitas.
Cabrito: Cabrito is roast baby goat, a food especially popular in the northeastern city of Monterrey. The dish has its origins in the Jewish cuisine of the city’s colonizers.
Pan de Semita: This unleavened bread was made popular by Jewish colonizers in the 17th century.
Capirotada: This sweet dish is similar to bread pudding. It’s made with bolillo bread, along with sugar, spices, dried fruits, and nuts. The dish is usually served during Lent and on Good Friday.
Oaxaca (South Pacific Coast)
This area of the south Pacific coast is geographically characterized by mountains and deep valleys. Oaxaca’s cuisine was less affected by Spanish colonialism than other regions of Mexico, but was one of the first to experience the intermingling of food cultures with the Europeans. While the area still relies on the Spanish-introduced chicken and pork, much of the cooking culture maintains strong ties to the culinary traditions of the indigenous Mixtec and Zapotec people.
Oaxaca is widely known for its seven varieties of mole, and for its version of mozzarella, known as Oaxaca cheese. Corn is a staple of the region, and tortillas are eaten with every meal. Black beans and chocolate are also popular, while a variety of seafood is enjoyed on the coast.
Dishes to know:
Mole negro: Black mole, as it’s known, is the most popular in this region. A thick and rich sauce, it’s flavored with the herb hoja santa (see below), as well as chocolate, chiles, onion, garlic and more.
Mole Amarillo: This yellow mole is popular in empanadas with shredded chicken, though it’s also served with seafood, vegetables, and occasionally with beef. Mole amarillo gets its color from the chilhuacle amarillo chile, and it also often contains guajillo chiles, tomatoes, tomatillos, and masa harina, among other ingredients.
Mole Coloradito: Known as “little red,” this pink mole contains a flavorful blend of chiles, spices including bay leaf, peppercorn, thyme, canela (true cinnamon), and cloves, along with chocolate, dried fruit, plantains, and nuts.
Mole Manchamanteles: Literally “tablecloth stainer,” this mole is fruit-based and served with chicken or pork. It usually contains pineapple, ancho chile, plantains, cinnamon, and garlic, among fruits and spices.
Mole Chichilo: Mole chichilo, or “smoky stew,” is made with arbol, ancho, and guajillo chiles, whose seeds and skins are toasted along with a tortilla until charred. The base of the mole is beef stock, and other ingredients can include cumin, avocado leaves, oregano, allspice, tomatillos, tomatoes, potatoes, chayote, garlic, and onions.
Mole Rojo: Red mole is similar to mole negro, but contains less chocolate, and a variety of sweeter and spicier ingredients, like pasilla, guajillo and ancho chiles, dried fruits and nuts. It is also known as Mole Poblano, which is considered the national dish of Mexico.
Mole Verde: Green mole is made with pumpkin seeds, green chiles, and hoja santa, along with a variety of other ingredients that can include green tomatoes, poblano and arbol chiles, cilantro, onion, garlic, and other greens and herbs. It’s usually thickened with a few bolillo rolls or tortillas, and is served with chicken or pork, and rice or beans.
Enfrijoladas: This tortilla and pureed bean casserole is popular in several regions of Mexico, but in Oaxaca it’s made with black beans.
Queso Oaxaca: This stretchy, mild cheese is an adaptation of mozzarella, which was introduced to the area by Spanish invaders. It is also known as queso asadero or queso quesadilla.
Blandas: These corn tortillas are served with every meal in Oaxaca.
Empanadas: Oaxacan empanadas are made by heating an oval tortilla over a comal (a clay oven/griddle), then folding it in half over the filling of your choice, often mole amarillo, Oaxacan cheese and squash blossoms, or huitlacoche (corn fungus). This type of empanada more closely resembles what is called a quesadilla in other parts of Mexico.
Tamales: Moist Oaxacan tamales are wrapped in banana leaves rather than corn husks.
Hoja santa: Know by several names, including yerba sante, acuyo, tlanepa, and anisillo, this herb is essential to much of Mexican cooking. Its flavor is complex but shares similarities with anise, licorice, and tarragon, as well as black pepper and mint.
Mezcal: Mezcal is made from several varieties of the agave plant, though about 90% is made from the Oaxacan Espadin variety. This distilled spirit is made by cooking the piñas, the heart of the plant, in a pit in the ground. This is what gives Mezcal its smoky flavor. The majority of mezcal imported to the USA comes from Oaxaca.
Tlayudas: This “Oaxacan pizza” dish is made from a large tortilla topped with beans, some kind of meat, tomatoes, avocado, and often Oaxacan cheese.
Chiapas (South Pacific Coast)
Chiapan cuisine shares many similarities with Oaxacan cuisine, though there are some unique ingredients that distinguish the food from this area.
Corn is the dietary staple of the region, and common meats include beef, pork, and chicken, especially in the highland areas. Vegetables are an essential component of even the meat and cheese dishes, especially squash, chayote, and carrots. The region is also known for its exceptionally spicy chiles.
Dishes to know:
Simojovel: This chile is used in Chiapas, but relatively known in any other part of Mexico.
Chipilín: Chipilín is a legume that is used for its leaves. They can be used as an herb, added to tamale dough, or boiled and served as a side.
Pozol: This fermented corn drink is usually flavored with chocolate.
This region, including Michoacán, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, the Bajío, Jalisco, and Colima, boasts a variety of special dishes.
Set on a wide plateau bordered by mountains, the Bajío region geographically resembles the plains of central Spain, and in fact, its first colonizers called that area home. The influence of early Spanish invaders is still strong in the area. Rice, pork, and spices form the foundation for most dishes. Michoacán cuisine is similarly influenced, but also draws from a strong indigenous Purepecha cultural tradition. Lakes and rivers are abundant in the region and contribute fish to the local cuisine.
Guadalajara is a gastronomic center of this region, thanks to its strong agricultural and cattle-raising industries. Meanwhile, the coastal areas focus on seafood, often cooked with European spices combined with chiles.
Corundas: Similar to tamales, corundas are usually triangular or spherical in shape. They’re made of corn flour, salt, sour cream, and water, then wrapped in a long green corn plant leaf and steamed until golden. Unlike tamales, corundas don’t always contain a filling.
Churipo: This stew from the Bajío area is made with beef, cabbage, onion, chile, and xoconostle (a sour type of cactus fruit).
Morisqueta: This sausage and rice dish was deeply influenced by early Spanish settlers. It usually also contains beans and is served with a tomato based sauce, and can also be garnished with cheese.
Carnitas: This deep-fried pork dish is popular throughout Mexico, though it’s thought to have originated in Michoacán.
Cotija: Named after the city of Cotija in Michoacán, this is a salty, crumbly cow’s milk cheese similar to Greek feta.
Birria: This is a hearty stew made with goat, beef, pork, or mutton. It’s flavored with a variety of chiles and spices.
Tortas ahogadas: These sandwiches are most popular in Jalisco. They consist of a sandwich that’s drenched in a sauce made of arbol chiles, or a milder tomato-based sauce. Made with bolillo bread (also called birote), the sandwich is usually filled with fried pork and garnished with onions, radish, avocado, and chile peppers, though it can also be made with chicken, beans, or cheese.
Pozole: This hominy stew is made with nixtamalized maize, meat such as pork, chicken, or turkey, and chiles and spices. It is thought that the Aztecs made this meal during special occasions, where the meat used was human. The community would consume the dish together as an act of religious communion. When cannibalism was outlawed by the Spanish conquistadores, it was made with pork instead.
Bionico: This Guadalajaran dessert consists of a fruit salad topped with granola, raisins, shredded coconut, crema, and honey.
Chilayo: This spicy stew is usually made by stewing pork ribs in a spicy guajillo chile and tomatillo salsa. The dish is served with morisqueta rice.
Menudo: Also known as pancita, this stew is made by cooking beef stomach in a spicy red chile pepper broth. The stew is flavored with a variety of aromatics, including lime, onions, cilantro, oregano, and red chiles. Variations of this dish pop up throughout Mexico, sometimes including other cuts of meat or adjusting the chile peppers and seasonings used.
Yucatán (The South)
The Yucatán Peninsula separates the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico, and its geographical location has greatly influenced its cuisine. Yucatán food is different from that of much of Mexico thanks to a strong Mayan culinary tradition, as well as Caribbean, French, and Middle Eastern influences.
The spice achiote is a signature seasoning in the region, giving foods a distinctive reddish color. Habaneros are used as a condiment in many dishes, and tropical fruits like tamarind, plums, mamey, avocados, and bitter oranges are common. In coastal areas, seafood dishes are popular, such as raw conch marinated in lime juice, as well as local fish like Mero and esmedregal.
Dishes to know:
Poc-Chuc: This common dish is made of grilled pork that’s been marinated, usually with bitter orange juice or vinegar and achiote paste, then served with grilled onions and chiltomate.
Chiltomate: This habanero and tomato salsa is ubiquitous in Yucatán cuisine.
Cochinita pibil: This pork dish hails from the Mayans. Cochinita means baby pig and pibil means buried in Mayan, and the classic version involves roasting a whole suckling pig in a fiery pit. These days, it is commonly made with pork shoulder or pork loin that’s been marinated in sour orange and achiote, then wrapped in banana leaves and slowly roasted until tender.
Papadzules: This dish is thought to be the ancestor of enchiladas. Corn tortillas are dipped in a pumpkin seed (pepita) sauce, then filled with hard-boiled eggs and baked. It’s usually garnished with chiltomate and pumpkin seed oil.
Pozol: Yucatán pozol is a thin gruel or drink made of white corn. It is a staple food among the poor. It is sometimes also called Keyem.
Achiote: Annatto seed is the most popular spice in the region. It gives dishes a reddish color, and has a peppery, nutmeg-like aroma.
Recado rojo: Achiote paste, or recado rojo, is a blend of spices that usually includes annatto, oregano, cumin, clove, cinnamon, black pepper, allspice, salt, and garlic. The dried spices are pulverized, then turned into a paste by adding acidic fruit juice, vinegar, oil, or water.
Kibbeh: A Lebanese import, these spiced minced-meat and grain balls are a popular street food.
Brazo de reina: Literally “Queen’s arm,” this dish is comprised of a large tamale stuffed with hard-boiled eggs, then sliced. In Colombia, a dish of the same name is actually a cake roll filled with jam.
Veracruz (The Gulf)
Indigenous, Spanish and Afro-Caribbean influences dominate the area of Veracruz, on Mexico’s gulf coast. The European invaders introduced spices like parsley, thyme, bay leaf, cilantro, and marjoram to the area, along with rice, citrus fruit, and pineapple. Olives, olive oil, and capers are also popular ingredients that were introduced by settlers from the Spanish Mediterranean. These ingredients are used alongside a variety of native tropical fruits, like papaya, mamey, and zapote, and vanilla, which is native to the area. Along with ingredients like peanuts, plantains, yucca, and sweet potatoes that were introduced as a result of the Caribbean slave trade, the region’s cuisine is richly varied.
Due to its proximity to the coast, seafood is prominent in the local food. Corn is less popular here than in other parts of Mexico, with introduced starches like rice and plantains taking the forefront. However, in mountain areas with a strong indigenous influence, corn is still a staple.
Dishes to know:
Huachinango a la veracruzana: This is the most famous dish from Veracruz. It is prepared by baking a whole fish covered in a European-influenced tomato sauce that is seasoned with olives, garlic, capers, and spices.
Arroz a la tumbada: The most popular dish in the region, this paella-like meal is made with rice, shellfish, tomatoes, red peppers, epazote, parsley, oregano, and cilantro.
Pollo encacahuatado: This chicken dish with tomato and peanut sauce shows off the region’s African culinary influence.
Garnachas: These tortillas/thick corn cakes are fried in oil, then usually dipped in a salsa and topped with beans, onions, crema, and cheese. They’re popular in the mountainous areas of Veracruz.
Chileatole de pollo: Thickened with masa, this chicken stew is flavored with chiles, corn, brown sugar, and epazote.
Crema de palmitos: This creamy soup is made by pureeing hearts of palm with chicken stock, green onion, and garlic.
Mole Xiqueño: Named after the city of Xico, this mole includes bananas, peanuts, almonds, chocolate, cinnamon, oregano, and other ingredients. It is usually served on special occasions.
Mexico City/Puebla (Central Mexico)
Mexico City is an urban hub and center for migration whose cuisine is influenced by regions across the country, as well as many foreign countries.
Street foods like tacos and tortas are very popular here, as are specialties from around the country, like barbacoa, cabrito, carnitas, and various moles. Some restaurants focus on pre-Hispanic cuisine, like dishes with insects as the main protein component. As an urban hub, Mexico City is also the center of Mexico’s haute cuisine.
Puebla is located between Mexico City and Veracruz. Its cuisine is diverse, with a variety of indigenous and Spanish-influenced ingredients comprising its most famous dishes, cemitas and mole poblano.
Dishes to know:
Barbacoa: Though popular throughout the country, in central Mexico barbacoa is usually made by slow-cooking lamb over an open fire. Traditionally, the whole sheep would be cooked in a pit and covered with maguey leaves. It is usually served with cilantro and onions.
Cemitas: Typically served on a sesame seed-covered bread roll, these sandwiches are usually filled with beef milanesa, a thinly-pounded, fried piece of beef. Other ingredients include panela cheese, which is similar to mozzarella, avocado, onions, pápalo and salsa roja. Sometimes, pickled pig skin (cueritos), stewed pork (carnitas), or pork head cheese are used instead of beef.
Pápalo: This herb is described as tasting like a cross between arugula and cilantro.
Mole poblano: Known as the national dish of Mexico, mole poblano is perhaps the most well-known type of mole. There are about 20 different ingredients used to make mole poblano, including mulatto peppers and chocolate. It is generally served with turkey on special occasions and holidays.
Chalupas: Literally “small boat,” these crisp masa dough cups, similar to tostadas, are filled with a variety of ingredients. This can include shredded meat, onions, and salsa rojo or salsa verde.
Chiles en nogada: This dish has a special significance in Puebla, as it is said to have originated at the end of the Mexican War of Independence. The dish consists of poblano chiles stuffed with picadillo (a shredded meat, spice, and dried fruit mixture), then topped with a creamy walnut sauce and pomegranate arils.
Cecina: Cecina can refer to two different dishes – a marinated dried beef that can be eaten raw, similar to prosciutto, or a seasoned, thinly pounded pork that must be cooked before eating.