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Mexican Food and Cooking: Ingredients



Native Ingredients in Mexico

The Spanish explorers voyaged to the new world seeking new lands, lusting after the gold and jewels reputed to be in this new world.  They found many objects to satisfy the quest, but the real treasure was the variety of foodstuffs that that they brought back with them.  Those foods would alter the dietary patterns of the old world. 

Here is a brief explanation of the most important of the New World treasures, the real jewels found by the conquistadors.




Achiote or Annatto

Annatto or achiote refers to the bright red seeds of a bush that is native to tropical America, (Bixa orellana).  The seeds are used to give both flavor and color to Mexican dishes.  They are used heavily in Yucatecan cooking.  You can buy these easily in the supermarket.  The seeds should be a brilliant red.  They are quite hard and must be simmered in water for a few minutes, then allowed to soak overnight.  Crush in a mortar before grinding.

Those who are mystified by achiotte are unaware that it is used to give color to many products.  If you use margarine, you have eaten achiotte. If you like the golden color of cheddar cheese you have eaten achiote.


Avocado and Avocado Leaves

We are all familiar with the avocado by now, so much so that it is hard to believe it was once an oddity.  The avocado is akin to the laurel tree and is a native to the Americas. The name comes from the Nahuatl word ahuacacuahtl which means testicle.   Some say this is because the avocado has aphrodisiac properties, though the Aztecs were probably noting the shape and the fact that they grow in twos.  They have been cultivated in Mexico since 7000 B.C. There are many varieties.

Never refrigerate an unripe avocado.  It will not ripen.  Avocados actually ripen AFTER they are picked.  If you want to hurry the ripening process, put in a paper bag with a banana. 

Avocado leaves are aromatic and impart an anise-like flavor.  They are used for barbacoa, and when ground can be used in moles and pipiánes.  They are used primarily in the areas of Morelos, Puebla and Oaxaca.  They can be stored in an airtight container  for months without any loss of flavor. Rick Bayless suggests a combination of bay leaves and cracked anise seed as a substitute for avocado leaves. When used for cooking they are cut into pieces slightly larger than bay leaves.



Banana Leaves

Banana leaves are used to wrap tamales in Oaxaca.  They are also used to line the barbecue pit for the Yucatecan classic cohinita pibil.  They can be purchased frozen.

Banana leaves make watertight packages and transmit very little flavor or odor to food. They are also excellent if you need to thatch a roof.



Bitter Orange or Sour Orange - Naranja Agria

Citrus  in Mexico is frequently different in taste.  Sometimes or we are misled by names.  That which is called a lemon is actually more like a lime.  The Seville orange used for marmalade and is a bitter orange.

A substitute can be made by mixing equal parts of grapefruit, orange and lime juice.  Try to find the Seville orange, though.



Cactus or Nopal

Nopal is the Mexican word for cactus and this cactus is probably a native of Mexico.   Nopales are the paddles of the prickly pear cactus and can be found in Latin markets, even in some supermarkets.  They should be vibrant green and somewhat stiff.   They have the same quality as okra, exuding a somewhat slippery substance.  They are generally sold cleaned of the spines but if you need to do this yourself, wear very heavy rubber gloves. The Indians were eating cactus when the Spanish explorers arrived.  The natives flourished while the Spaniards fell ill.

Nopalito is the word referring to the pads once they are cut up and prepared for eating. There are two food crops derived from the prickly pear cactus. One is the "nopalitos" which are the cactus pads and the other crop is the prickly "pear" or fruit of the cactus.




Chayote is a Mexican native, its name from the Nahuatl chayutli.  It is a bumpy, pear-shaped vegetable of the gourd family and is also called the vegetable pear, an indication that we don't know how to classify it.  It is the fruit of a vine.  There are many types in Mexico, but those in the US will find only one type - the pale green pear-sized fruit.  It is used as a vegetable, baked or sauteéd, but can also be diced and tossed into salads.  In Mexico, it is also cooked as a sweet dessert with almonds and sugar.

Chayote is difficult to peel due to its irregular surface, etched with grooves, but it's worth the effort of having to wash your sticky fingers frequently during peeling.




Just as we continue to discover localized European cheeses that are new to us, there are many varieties of cheeses produced throughout Mexico that are not available  to us or are hard to find.  Most cheeses must be ordered online. 

Queso Fresco (fresh cheese) and Queso Añejo (dried cheese) - Both of these are basic Mexican cheese and both are non-melting cheeses. They are sprinkled over tacos, beans, enchiladas.  The fresh cheese is tangy and crumbles coarsely, in a manner similar to the Greek feta.  The aged cheese is more pungent in taste and has a finer crumble.



Chiles - Fresh and Dried

A vast and large topic as both fresh and dried chiles are used in Mexico and are major contributors to the subtlety and complexity of Mexican cooking.  Please see our chile page




Chicharrón  is the musical name given to crisp sheets of pork skin. Though we think of them as snack food, they are sold in meat markets in Mexico.   The skin of the pig, quite tough and unsavory on its own, is smoked, dried and rendered.  Then it is deep-fried which makes it both puffy and crispy.




Mexican chocolate is a mixture of chocolate, sugar, cinnamon and sometimes ground almonds. It is packaged in tablets.  Traditionally is is heated in an earthenware pot and whipped to frothiness with a molinillo, a wooden tool that is twirled between the hands.   Chocolate, chiles and nuts are combined in the sublime molé sauce.

read our articles about chocolate: chocolate history   chocolate facts   got chocolate




Mexican chorizo differs from the Spanish in that the Spanish is made from smoked meats while the Mexican is made from fresh meat. Its red color comes from a ground red chile, paprika, and sometimes the reliable achiote.




The great love-it/hate-it herb, pungent cilantro is widely used in Mexican cooking. Not a native, it was introduced by the Spanish, and the Mexicans too it to their hearts rapidly. Cilantro is a replacement for culantro a similar indigenous herb which has much tougher leaves. 

Cilantro loses flavor rapidly if cooked, so it is generally used as a garnish.  It will save well if put in a large container of water, then covered by a plastic bag and placed in the refrigerator.  Cilantro has been known to last for up to two weeks this way.




Corn or Maize or Maís 

The backbone of Mexican cooking.  see our page on maize




The cream used in Mexico is more like the French crème fraîche than a US cream.  This has a slightly sour taste and is a better thickener than US cream.    If you are not cooking with it, a commercial sour cream can substitute, but please don't try to cook with it. 




Epazote is a pungent herb, and is a love-it/hate-it herb.  The name comes from the Nahuatl epazotle.  It is indigenous to tropical America.

Epazote is from the 'goosefoot' family related to spinach and beets. The leaves are long and serrated. It is a favorite in the Yucatán especially with black beans. It is sometimes called pigweed or Mexican tea.  It grows so easily that it is considered a weed, and is frequently regarded as a garden pest.  If you can't find it, some like the surprising substitute arugula, primarily for its sharp taste. Some believe that it helps to eliminate flatulence caused by eating beans. It has been used as a folk remedy for intestinal worms.



Huitlacoche or Cuitlacoche 

Also called The Mexican Truffle, also called Corn Smut.  This merits a page of its own: huitlacoche


Masa, Masa Harina

Masa is the dough made from corn that has been through the process of nixtamalization (see maize) and is mixed with lard.  This is a wet dough, but masa can be made from dry corn flour (masa harina) which has been through the nixtamalization process. Masa is primarily used to make tortillas and tamales.  Plain corn meal is not identical, and is not used for making either of these classic Mexican creations.  Masa can be purchased fresh in some Hispanic markets and must be refrigerated.  There are two consistencies of masa, both fino and quebrado. 




Though they are appear similar to bananas, they are not fruits, but vegetables and used differently.  Plantains are always eaten cooked. Plantains should be purchased when black-skinned and soft.



Pumpkin Seeds or Pepitas

Pumpkin seeds have been used in Mexican cooking since pre-Columbian days.  They are used both for flavoring and for thickening.  They are eaten toasted in their hulls as snack, but you should purchase hulled, unroasted and unsalted seeds when for cooking.  They are integral to many moles and make a dish called Pipián.  The Mexican use many different seeds.  They burn easily.



Shrimps, Dried

These are tiny shrimps and are used in Chinese and Japanese cooking as well as in Mexican.  They will keep indefinitely if stored in a tightly sealed screw-top jar.



Squash Blossoms

Called flores de calabaza, these are prevalent in the cooking of Central Mexico.  They are sold in Mexican markets in bunches.



Sugar - Piloncillo

Piloncillo is unrefined sugar, molded into cones with a flat top.  Its flavor ranges from a soft caramel to a stronger molasses  taste.  Piloncillo is also know as panela and panocha. There are light and dark varieties. They are extremely hard.  Brown sugar is the acceptable substitute. It is similar to the Indian sugar called jaggery.




Tomatoes grow all year long in Mexico, a fact that can inspire anyone who has tasted a pink, under-ripe winter tomato to move to Mexico Lindo.  The first person to write of the tomato was Bernardino de Sahagún who made note of a prepared sauce that was offered for sale. In the sauce were tomatoes, hot red peppers, hot green peppers and pumpkin seeds, all foods associated with Mexican cooking.

please read more about the tomato



Though related to the tomato, this plum-sized member of the nightshade family is tart and used often in green sauces. It is also is called tomates verdes, tomates de cascara as well as fresadillas.  They are small and green and have a papery husk-like covering that is discarded before use.  Though it is a pale yellow when ripe, it is always eaten green.  They vary in their acidity - some will demand a touch of sugar to sweeten a dish.




Vanilla is actually an orchid plant, a rampant-growing vine that gives us luscious pods which we call beans. It is a native of the Americas and was another of the many gifts the explorers brought back to the old world with them.   It was sent north to the Aztecs from Veracruz where it first grew.  It remains a major export of Veracruz today.  Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron.







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