Everybody loves tacos. When you ask to an average Mexican, “what did you eat today?” it’s highly probable that the answer will be tacos.
Tacos are seen as the foundation of Mexican food all over the world, along with tequila. But our food is complex in ways that very few cuisines in the world are. Our cultural background, sometimes simple, other times chaotic, has blessed us with ingredients and techniques that people now might call fusion food; but in earlier ages, this was just whatever was available at a particular time and place.
When you dig deeper into Mexican cuisine, you realize that tacos are not so much a dish as a way of eating a wide range of dishes that collectively make up the cuisine. If you are on a journey of discovering Mexican food, here are a few basic ingredients and tools that you will need.
You can find these foods in any Latin American market. Increasingly, most of these can also be found in the “international” or Latin American section of your local supermarket. Rancho Gordo is an excellent source for both dried beans and chiles. And for something special, check out our list of smaller Latinx food brands.
Dried Foods and Staples
- Beans, black or pinto, dried: These are central to many preparations. The type of bean you use may depend on whether you want to cook central-south Mexican food (use black) or northern (pinto). Of course, you can always use canned, but starting from dried yields better texture.
- Chiles, dried: An essential element of the flavor of Mexican food comes from dried chiles. Their popularity probably arose because it’s easier to store chiles dried than fresh. There are several varieties of dry chiles, but if you’re starting out your pantry, try ancho, pasilla, arbol, morita and chipotle.
- Chocolate: Mexican chocolate is formulated with spices, usually cinnamon, and sometimes chiles. The solid blocks are dissolved in water (or milk) to make a hot drink that’s perfect for a cold night. Enjoy it with some pan dulce. Mexican chocolate is also used in some moles.
- Masa harina: In Mexico, we always use fresh masa, but a good substitute is masa harina from nixtamalized corn. This is a must-have ingredient for a lot of Mexican street snacks.
- Piloncillo or Panela: This unrefined sugar, similar to molasses, is formed into blocks you break apart and dissolve in liquids. More recently, it’s become available in powdered form to make it easier to use. This commonly-used sweetener has a richer, more caramelized flavor than refined white sugar. It’s the preferred sugar for coffee.
- Rice: Many people don’t believe that rice is such an important ingredient for Mexican food, but it’s been part of the cuisine for 500 years. We know that rice is the perfect ingredient for lots of soups and the perfect side dish for mole.
Chipotles in adobo: The smoky, sweet flavor and mild spiciness that these chipotles have are perfect for adding a little heat to many dishes.
Hominy/maíz molido/cacahuazintli: This variety of nixtamalized corn is used in pozole and menudo. When it’s Christmas or Independence Day or any birthday, pozole is the perfect dish.
Pickled jalapeños or rajas: These are the perfect condiment for any number of dishes. Sometimes they’re pickled with other vegetables, like carrots and cauliflower.
Tomato puree: An important base for a huge variety of salsas, soups, moles, rice, and meat-based preparations.
- Allspice: This is an essential spice, especially when you prepare food from the south of Mexico. It can be used as a substitute for black pepper.
- Bouquet (dried bay leaf, thyme, and marjoram): These three aromatic herbs are used religiously in so many preparations.
- Cinnamon: This spice is used in both desserts and in savory dishes. In the U.S., cassia is the most commonly used variety. But in Mexico, where cinnamon is called canela, mellower Cinnamon verum is used.
- Cumin: This dried seed is important to northern Mexican cuisine, in particular. Buy the whole seeds, rather than the powder, for better flavor. And always toast before using.
- Quesillo: A white cheese from Oaxaca with a texture similar to mozzarella, quesillo is perfect for quesadillas and in any dish where you want melted cheese, from tacos to tortas.
- Queso cotija: This dry, crumbly cheese gets sprinkled at the end of many dishes. It adds the perfect amount of brininess. You could call it the Mexican parmesan cheese.
- Queso fresco, or panela: This fresh, mild, and very versatile cheese is used cubed or thinly sliced in salads, on tortas, in soups, and more.
Fats and Oils
- Pork lard: Rendered from pork fat, lard is one of the secrets to the flavor of Mexican food. If you love refried beans and tamales, lard (or manteca) may be the reason. Use it as a cooking fat for recipes that don’t need a high temperature to fry; never deep fry with it.
- Vegetable oil: This is used mostly for deep frying. Mexicans like this oil because it doesn’t change or affect the flavor of the recipes. It is neutral and blends the flavors together.
Comal: This is a flat steel, stone, or cast iron pan used for cooking fresh, handmade tortillas (or reheating store-bought ones). You can also use it for roasting chiles and spices. A cast-iron pan is an adequate substitute.
Tortilla hand press: If you want to eat the best corn tortillas, always make them fresh using a tortilla press. You can also use a press to make quesadillas, sopes, gorditas, and huaraches.