• Mexico City - Puebla - Oaxaca - Puerto Escondido - Merida - Tulum - Isla Holbox •
It’s been on my bucket list for years – long before I was really interested in food. To travel to Mexico I mean. But sure enough, you shouldn’t go to Mexico if you’re not interested in good food. I have heard too many times that even “real” Mexican food in the US or elsewhere tastes nothing like what you get in Mexico. But I would say it is nothing like it. On this trip I discovered multiple new fruits, vegetables, spices, or combinations of familiar ingredients (such as soggy tortilla chips covered in salsa, or liquid black beans from a mixer).
Depending on where you are, you can either dine on street food for days trying to differentiate all the twining vendors (in Oaxaca)… or immerse yourself in raw-vegan smoothie bowls on wooden swings between palm trees (Tulum). And to sample the array of insects you’ll probably have to dine out which is a pleasant alternative too. I usually only ever drink tap water, but if you don’t like buying plastic bottles, then there are lots of eye-opening local refreshments, that even I repeatedly ordered. Last and sorta least, the desserts weren’t at all my thing… till I came to the Yucatan and discovered Marquesitas ;P
If I had to jot down some bullet points about the general food culture, I’d say:
- street food EVERYWHERE
- never too large portions
- very cheap for European standards, tacos for 30¢, full restaurant breakfast for two (3 drinks, two mains, fruit and bread) 7€
- overly sugary desserts and lots of candy
- they take their time; not american waiter standards for sure
- corn corn corn (tortilla, tamale, warm & cold drinks, on the cob with chili and mayo, shaved into a plastic cup…)
- colorful kindergarten styled plastic plates and table cloths at street food
But now some more concrete stories about my favorite finds and must-haves for your first time in Mexico:
Breakfast – Savory Street Food – Sweet Cravings – Drinks – Insects
My all-time favorite was the “soggy, soaked tortilla chips” aka Chilaquiles. It literally is a pile of tortilla chips (possibly filled with pulled chicken) covered in salsa rojo o verde and topped with raw onions, queso fresco, maybe an egg or avocado slices and possibly a side of frijoles (black beans). Other scrumptious ways we started our day were with sparsely filled enchiladas covered in black bean sauce (Enfrijoladas) or the same covered in mole (Enmoladas). In Oaxaca however I tried my first (and best) Tamale. The Tamale Oaxaqueño is wrapped in a banana leaf (not that I know what difference it makes to a corn husk). Inside was a steaming hot corny mush filled with Mexican pulled pork in black mole. And the last interesting breakfast I’ll recommend to you are Molletes, a Mexican version of … french toast?. Well the only thing in common is grilled white bread… but this savoury version topped with black bean smear and cheese can blow your mind, I’m telling you.
Chilaquiles at Ojo de Agua, Mexico City
our first tamales oaxaqueños cooked by our host mother in Oaxaca
home made enchiladas verdes in Oaxaca
Then in Tulum, depending on where you are you’ll see more Los Angelenos than Mexicans, but the demand for smoothie bowls is high enough to satisfy their needs. . . We splurged at Raw Love Tulum every single morning and had the most amazing combinations of mushroom brew and mesquite latte with tropical smoothie bowls or creamy raw white chocolate cake.
⇒ Savory Street Food
the art of making tortillas – after the second flip you have to wait till they blow up, then it's time for the third and final flip
the view ;)
Oaxaca (closely followed by Mexico City) wins the competition of those. We often passed rows of maybe 15 separate vendors, but they could have all been sisters. The ladies hand-flipping tortillas on hot stones, freshly filled with their pre-cooked fillings from clay pots. It’s not a struggle to be vegetarian – everyone had prepared squash flower (Flor de la Calabeza) and corn fungus (Huitlacoche). Beside it, plentiful distinct and amazing spiced meat mixtures, or scrambled eggs within their creations.
I’d never get tired of tiny soft tacos. They were super juicy and flavourful. Or the oval open-faced version, with thicker tortillas called Huaraches. Now Tortas are corn-free sandwiches. A big fluffy white bun, filled on spot with – actually whatever you kindly ask them to add – but often avocado or pulled meat with an herby rich sauce. Only once did I try a Molote (not too be confused with the breakfast Molletes), which has stayed in my memory since! A warm, soft and savoury corn-potato dough formed into a pointy oval shaped, ours filled with potatoes and chorizo (but there are lots of variations here as well).
It’s quite distinct from our usual tacos, tlayudas, huaraches, or quesadillas . . . Quesadillas! This was quite interesting. They don’t have to be filled with cheese. Actually our most common street meal was the quesadilla (I think, I don’t know how correctly I identified our meals). A large, thin, oval dough, topped with your toppings, folded in half. One day I ordered a Tlayuda (I expected a big round, flat, crispy tortilla with smeared on frijoles and some toppings). But they folded it in half 🙁 . So to me it was just a variation of the quesadilla – who knows what I really always ate…
. . . Sweet Cravings
Like I mentioned, most of the candy didn’t tempt me – constantly passing tiny food carts covered in wrapped candy from top to bottom . . . The much cooler desserts vendors are the ones selling Fruit with Chili.
Especially in Mexico City and Oaxaca you will stumble across freshly prepared mangos, pineapple, a little round green fruit called tuna (not fish), or even apples, fresh coconut, jicama and watermelon – topped with freshly squeezed lime juice and up to three different types of chili powders and sauces. A Mexican girl wrote them down for me: miguelito (a sweet chili-sugar mixture), tajin (chili-salt-dried lime powder) or chamoy (a salty, sweet and sour chili sauce that looks like ketchup). So, yeah maybe junk wrapped in trash has less sugar than a whole pineapple, but you’ll get used to it, it’s the way to go! Lastly, sort of the opposite, incomparable, but just as worthy: Marquesitas of the Yucatan. A crispy thin wafer-crepe dough, traditional but foremost rolled up with “a cheese from Holland” (that’s what the locals call it) and cajeta (goat milk’s caramel). Then maybe add a banana, or swap the cajeta for Nutella if you’re missing home sweet Germany too much (sorry, I wasn’t).
¡ Drinks !
The further we traveled through the country, the more I started valuing the variety of beverages. Oaxaca is the beast of chocolate or corn drinks, whereas Yucatan prefers fruit or herb infused waters.
What stayed with me most is Champurrado (the chocolatey version of the hot corn-drink atole). The closest I’ll come to describing this is “liquid chocolate pudding”. But not so rich that you feel like one cup is too much. It’s a magical creation for a cold fall or winter day, to snuggle up at home and dip in some cookies! (Yes, exactly what I am doing right now – except the corn meal won’t dissolve… next time I’ll try the recipe 😉 But in Oaxaca it was great on a pouring day, in August (rainy season) with pan de yema (very light, airy bread roll) dipped inside. That’s the tradition for Chocolate Caliente as well.
You can’t visit Oaxaca and not try their Oaxacan hot chocolate. It’s has a sharper taste than what you’re used to. Wonderfully spiced wit cinnamon and almonds. I never thought you could be famous for your “hot chocolate”, but in Mexican’s culinary state it’s definitely more than the child version of coffee. There’s also Tejate, a pre-hispanic mix of fermented cocoa beans, mamey pits, corn and flor de cacao (a mexican plant). That’ll be the super foamy bowl of pale brown liquid at every street corner – and if you don’t want it drowned in sugar, then again, you can just skip the added shot of sweetness, or ask for a only a bit. And Horchata: white, (again only post-sweetened) whipped up rice, cinnamon, almonds, pecans, vanilla, lemon zest. And don’t forget that Mezcal is at home in Oaxaca. If you’re interested you can visit their factory and learn all about the processing of its agave plant . . . I preferred the creation of Pulque, however.
This agave sap is only fermented for a rough week (instead of distilled for years), and gets turned into a viscous – thick, creamy – foamy and very refreshing cream colored liquid. (Well maybe the refreshing sweetness comes from an added fruit juice of your choice, which I highly recommend, like pineapple or mango.)
In Yucatan my first choice would be Chaya Water. Chaya is a leafy green, similar to spinach. They infuse it in water, and add some lime juice as always. It’s really refreshing and not to sweet. They also almost always have fruit or herb infused waters on the menu, such as the Agua de Jamaica, that really grew on me. Licuados, simply blended milk and fruit, are also to be found everywhere, although with chaya water of pulque on the menu you didn’t get me to try it.
Insects . . .
If you’re daring enough then these are definitely worth a try. Just close your eyes and pretend like you’re eating roasted onions with garlic. Chapulines, grass hoppers, were our definite favorite: a tasty crunchy animal protein. It actually felt sort of vegan to be honest. But the best part is that we can actually try making them back at home now. Since I’m back there are chapulines hopping around from the kitchen counter to my bed, (and I’ve never seen a grasshopper in Hamburg before this trip)! Their eggs must have caught on to our suitcases 😉 Gusanos (the mezcal bottle worms) might be more uncanny to try at first, but they’re ok … Well the white ones are great, the red ones gross. And lastly you can sample ants (Chicatanas) or their eggs (Escamoles) when visiting this country.
I could go on forever – into depth of my favorite restaurants and cafés throughout this country, our cooking lesson in Oaxaca, it’s market for locals or bar-tenders of Isla Holbox. But this is enough as a start. Maybe concrete recommendations will come soon 🙂