In college, the drive through guy at our local TB could recognize my roommate’s car and enter our “usual” order without us having to utter a word. Yes, I love it that much. For the sake of my waistline, I’ve greatly curbed my intake. But let’s be honest, I’m never going to find an equally delicious substitute for fake meat, processed cheese and vinegar-based hot sauce. I share this dirty little secret with you because it brings up a critical question about what qualifies as Mexican food. Since this FirstBites is dedicated to finding the real Slim Shady of Mexican cuisine (which shall henceforth be known as “Real Mexican Food” or RMF, because who doesn’t love a fun acronym, right?); the wildly popular trend of Tex-Mex, yes, even faux-Mex must be addressed. We have endless options to choose from that all claim to offer RMF. And most of the dishes are really, truly awesome. (High five for chimichangas!) But as scrumptious as they may be, they’re frauds. So today we’re looking at what makes Mexican food authentic, delicious, and worthy of this weighty moniker.
Forget everything you think you know about Mexican food. If you’re like me, the minute you read the title of this blog you started day dreaming about nachos, burritos and delightfully crispy tacos. What you’re most likely in love with is a little vixen known as Tex-Mex. There’s nothing wrong with this genre of “Mexican” food, but many of the ingredients you’ll find in Tex-Mex dishes aren’t actually included in cooking south of the border. Let’s play a game called Fake-Out Mexican Ingredients (yay, blog games!). We’ll start with a few of the things that make Tex-Mex delicious. And we’ll see whether they make the “RMF” cut.
• Flour tortillas – Nope, nada, zilch
• Crispy corn tacos – Sorry, Charlie
• Cheddar Cheese – No way, no how
• Jack Cheese – It’s white, but it’s not fresh…wrong again
• Refried Beans – First, they’re always only fried ONCE. And secondly, no…RMF uses whole beans, not mashed/fried posers
• Cumin – Delicious, yes. RMF? Not really.
• Ground Beef – Mmmmaybe. Fresh ingredients are king in RMF so you’re more likely to see fresh cuts of meat instead of ground/processed ingredients.
So now you’re wondering what’s left, right? Plenty! If you remember nothing else from this blog, remember this, RMF at its best is made with FRESH ingredients. Here are some common ingredients you’ll find:
• Spices – Think oregano, cilantro, garlic, chipotle (smoke-dried jalapeño pepper), cinnamon and cocoa.
• Chilies – Sliced, diced, roasted, and stuffed; chilies and peppers are an integral part of RMF. They add flavor, spice and depth to the dishes. And don’t forget the salsa!
• Tortillas – Like I said before, flour tortillas are almost non-existent in RMF. But handmade, corn tortillas hot off the stone are everywhere. Next time you’re planning a Mexican meal, skip the white Frisbees and go with their smaller, golden tortilla brother. You’ll be glad you did. (Bonus, they’re healthier too!)
• Corn – One of the absolute staples in RMF, corn is served as a vegetable, but also as a base for lots of other dishes. Hominy (dried and treated corn kernels) is used to make the mixture found in tamales and it’s also a main ingredient in posole.
• Cheese – White, fresh cheeses are used in RMF. Queso Chihuahua is a slightly firm cheese that melts down beautifully, while Queso Oaxaca has more of a string cheese texture. Queso Fresco, on the other hand, is a crumbly white cheese that can also be deliciously melty.
• Tamales – Classic RMF comfort food! Tamales are usually served in corn husks (don’t eat the husk) and contain a corn/hominy based mixture stuffed with meat (pork, chicken), cheese and red or green salsa or mole.
• Mole – First, don’t embarrass yourself, it’s pronounced Moh-LAY (insert Austin Powers joke —-> here) and it’s a sauce – a red or brown rich and delicious sauce to be precise. It starts with at least two different kinds of peppers and incorporates ingredients like cloves, tomatoes, tomatillos, garlic, and oh yeahhh…CHOCOLATE.
• Posole (aka pozole, pronounced poh-zoh-lay) – A thick soup that’s usually made with pork, hominy, garlic, onion, chili peppers, cilantro, and broth. Many chefs will serve it with a lime wedge. Don’t be afraid…squeeze it and enjoy.
• Carne Asada – Literally this means “grilled meat” and it consists of thin-sliced, marinated beef steak that is added to tacos, burritos, stuffed peppers and more.
• Puerco Pibil – Pork shoulder that is marinated in citrus juice (orange, lemon, lime), vinegar, and peppers then slow roasted to perfection.
• Chile Relleno – Start with a fresh poblano (not spicy) pepper and stuff it with melted cheese such as queso Chihuahua or Oaxaca. Then add diced pork or another meat, throw in some raisins and nuts (sounds gross, but it’s not) and you’re on your way. Once the pepper is stuffed it’s covered in egg batter or corn flower and fried. It’s usually served a tomato sauce, but the sauces can vary.
I’m not saying you need to give up your Tex-Mex ways. Clearly my heart will always partially belong to Taco Bell. But real, authentic, robust Mexican food is delicious and 100% worth seeking out. Do you have a favorite Mexican dish or restaurant? Share it below!