Over the years, eating has played a major role in my travels and not a day passes without me spending at least a few minutes exploring the culinary delights of wherever it is I may be. I don’t just eat to eat, I instead eat in order to taste and savor the flavors of the world’s food creations. Usually, I seek out local specialties and tend to stay away from large restaurants, instead preferring to frequent small, out of the way, family-owned eateries, places not accustomed to serving travelers and simple food stalls scattered around the streets.
The problem is that when I end up traveling through a region of the world that is home to some generally uninspiring cuisine, my mind begins to act strangely. And this was the case last summer when I backpacked through Central America and began to hallucinate, with visions of Indian samosas, platefuls of Pad Thai, hand-made falafel and hundreds of other delicious food items floating in front of me, taunting and teasing me all day long.
Luckily, when the end of August arrived, it was time for me to cross the border into Mexico, the thought of which, at least from a culinary perspective, was more than appealing. All I could think about were tasty burritos and flavorful hard shell tacos, both of which I planned to stuff into my mouth at a rate on par with Kobayashi and his hot dogs.
Well, getting straight to the point, when I sat down for my first Mexican meal while waiting for a bus in the town of Tapachula, I was quite disappointed, heartbroken actually. I didn’t recognize a single item on the menu and I had to glance outside at the license plate of a car just to confirm that I had indeed crossed the border from Guatemala earlier that day. Instead of the burritos and tacos I had so desperately craved, my options were now tlayudas, chilaquiles and huaraches.
And that meant absolutely nothing to me.
FAST-FORWARD SEVEN MONTHS…
These days, I don’t even hesitate when handed a menu loaded with previously unheard of, and in most cases, unpronounceable dishes. And I’m happy to declare that I’m far more in love with authentic Mexican food than I was with the less authentic versions I’d eaten on approximately 174 occasions while growing up in the US.
But adjusting to authentic Mexican food wasn’t easy and truthfully, I don’t wish that kind of struggle on anyone. And so, I thought I’d help out by offering descriptions of what have become my favorite Mexican dishes so that you won’t be as unprepared as I was on that dreadful day in Tapachula.
WANDERING EARL’S GUIDE TO AUTHENTIC MEXICAN FOOD
Alambres – Chopped chicken, beef or vegetables, heavily marinated and roasted on an open-flame. It is normally mixed with onions and peppers, covered with melted cheese and served on a plate that is far too small for the amount of food placed onto it. Grab a fresh tortilla, fill it up, dunk it in some spicy green salsa and chances are, you’ll be more than satisfied, as well as in need of a new shirt from the juices that tend to spill out with each bite.
Chapulines – While I never thought I’d be a huge fan of fried and salted grasshoppers, this snack, most commonly found in the state of Oaxaca, is not nearly as bad as it may sound. The grasshoppers simply taste like potato chips, with perhaps a bit more mushiness than one might be excited about biting into. I only ate a small bag of them on one occasion, so I do wonder from time to time if I really did enjoy the taste or if I simply enjoyed the accomplishment of eating grasshoppers without vomiting. Either way, I recommend trying it out, although be warned that you’ll need to spend ten minutes picking grasshopper parts out of your teeth once you’ve finished your bag.
Chilaquiles – Small, fried pieces of tortilla simmered in a red or green salsa, piled high onto a plate before having a bucket full of eggs and/or chicken, sour cream and cheese thrown on top and a healthy dollop of re-fried beans plopped onto the side. This dish is generally served for breakfast and has a remarkable ability to expand rapidly inside of your stomach, keeping you full for approximately 9-12 days.
Chinicuiles – This is the only item on the list that I have no desire to ever eat again, so I thought I’d provide you with a friendly warning. Chinicuiles are Maguey worms sauteed with cilantro and chiles, and I kid you not when I say that each crunchy bite will be a struggle beyond comprehension. I’d already eaten a couple of fried worms in Asia before this experience, but when you’re required to dump a large spoonful of them into a tortilla, dip the thing in salsa and then take a large bite as everyone else at the table eggs you on, well, that’s just too much worm for me to handle. At least it’s common to down a shot or two of tequila after polishing off your worm taco, so you’ll have the chance to quickly wash the foul taste out of your mouth.
Enchiladas – Much narrower and smaller than the North American versions, these pickle-sized, rolled tortillas are stuffed with chicken, beef, pork or vegetables and covered with either red or green salsa, bean sauce or if you’re lucky to find it, a tasty mole sauce (see below). Normally, you receive four or five splendid enchiladas in an order, and unless the tortillas aren’t fresh (in which case they taste like cardboard dipped in sawdust), you’ll finish every last bite of enchilada on your plate and wish there were more of them to devour.
Esquite – Ladle-fuls of hot corn kernels scooped into a small cup and mixed with a nauseatingly large spoonful of mayonnaise, some sour cream, a spoonful of chili powder, lime juice and shredded cheese. Sounds nasty, looks nasty, smells even nastier…but it’s actually quite tasty.
Huaraches – An oblong shaped, half-inch thick piece of semi-soft tortilla about the size of my left foot, loaded with a layer of re-friend beans, followed by layers of lettuce, shredded cheese, red onions, sour cream, salsa, chicken or meat and any number of other ingredients that may be laying around the kitchen, including and not limited to the chef’s hair, ants and a piece of wood, none of which were actually listed on any menu, but have appeared on my huaraches nonetheless.
Mole – While this word is used to label a wide variety of sauces in Mexico, my personal preference is mole poblano, made of fried chili peppers, ground nuts, seeds, spices, onions, garlic, chocolate and over 15 other ingredients. The result is a rich, flavorful sauce that is either poured over enchiladas or over a piece of chicken and in most instances, leaves me more thankful for my taste buds than anything else in my life.
Panuchos – Similar to a tostada (see below), except that these small, fried tortillas are stuffed with beans before being topped with the usual list of goodies – lettuce, chicken or vegetables, cheese, salsa and sour cream. The result is a softer, puffier tortilla base, which certainly helps the inexperienced Mexican food-eater maintain decent control over this potentially sloppy treat.
Pozole – A typically red soup that consists of small, white balls of something, the texture of which reminds me of the chicken knuckles I was once forced to eat in Thailand. According to Wikipedia, those balls are actually nixtamalized cacahuazintle corn, which is exactly why I chose to call them ‘something’. It’s a tasty soup nonetheless, just be prepared to order something else along with it as it’s about as filling as eating a spoonful of saliva.
Tostadas – When I first ate a tostada, I hated it. It cracked, it crumbled, it spilled onto my lap and I somehow managed to get cheese stuck to my forehead after only the first bite. But now, after a few more tries, they hold the honor of being my all-time favorite Mexican dish. I now consider the tostada to be the perfected combination of all the Mexican staples – tortillas, beans, lettuce, vegetables, chicken, cheese, salsa and sour cream. Most people eat two or three of these in one sitting, but seldom am I able to refrain from ordering four, five or sometimes six. In fact, I ate four tostadas this afternoon at my favorite tostada restaurant here in Playa del Carmen and when I told the woman behind the counter, “Hasta manana!” as I left, I wasn’t just being friendly. I literally meant, “I will see you tomorrow!”
So there you have it, an unofficial guide to the Mexican food I’ve been eating over the past seven months. I sincerely hope that if you’re ever in this wonderful country, there will be no need to run off to McDonald’s or Subway when you discover that you’re not familiar with any of the dishes on a typical Mexican menu. As you can now see, even without burritos, nachos, hard shell tacos and chimichangas, authentic Mexican cuisine is loaded with culinary delights that deserve to be sampled.
Have you tried any of the above dishes? Are you a fan of authentic Mexican food?