La Comida: The Regional Cuisines of México

Mmm…enchiladas…

I absolutely love Mexican food! Tacos, enchiladas, guacamole…yes, yes, yes! But what I didn’t know and what I’m still learning is that the old stand-bys that we all know and love are only the teeny tiny tip of the authentic, Mexican food iceberg (quite the image, I know!). After delving a bit deeper into some of the regions of Mexico in 2019, and definitely more so recently, I’ve been discovering (and tasting) a lot of this incredible variety. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Like in many large, diverse countries, the dishes of Mexico are often grouped by geographical region. The boundaries of these regions might differ slightly from person to person and occasionally a few are lumped together for simplicity, but in general, there are seven main regional cuisines: Baja, El Norte, Bajío/The West, Gulf Coast, Central, South Pacific, and Yucatán. 

Starting at the top left is the region of Baja, and you guessed it; this region contains the two states that make up the Baja California peninsula. The food of this region is sometimes called Cali-Mex, and it is often seen as somewhat of a fusion of Mexican and Californian fare. Being surrounded in water, seafood is, of course, a big part of the local cuisine there. Baja is well-known for its amazing ceviches (fresh, raw fish cured in citrus juices) as well as the infamous Baja fish tacos. Interestingly, Baja is also the point of origin for the now quite internationally famous Caesar salad.

(ceviche)
(one-stop, cheese shop)

Next, and easily the largest region in Mexico is El Norte (The North). This is the region that has arguably had the greatest effect on US-Mexican food (including the super Americanized hybrid that is Tex-Mex). This cuisine and culture evolved around ranch life; thus, beef is a main component. Flour (as opposed to corn) also reigns supreme here, and the need for a meal on the go (say via horseback) is how some say the burrito was born. Fajitas and other grilled dishes are also popular, and many of Mexico’s numerous cheeses are made in El Norte.

(carne en su jugo)

The next region on the list is very close to my heart (I live here), and funnily enough it’s often referred to as the “heart of Mexico”. Bajío means lowlands in Spanish, but the region generally includes states not necessary lying solely in the lowlands. This region, of which Jalisco is front and center, is known for its signature dishes, such as birria (a sort of meat stew), tortas ahogadas (literally “drowned sandwiches”, which are sandwiches swimming in tomato or chili-based sauces), and carne en su jugo (“beef in its juice”), as well as its desserts, like arroz con leche (rice pudding) and the absolutely delicious cajeta (caramel made from goat’s milk). Jalisco is also the birthplace of tequila, so the influence clearly doesn’t stop at food!

(torta ahogada)
(coconut fried shrimp)

Heading east, we come to the Gulf Coast of Mexico. This is the region where the Spanish first landed, and their influence can be seen even in the modern-day cuisine of the area. One of the most popular dishes is Huachinango, or baked snapper flavored with traditional Spanish ingredients like olives, garlic, and capers. The incredibly diverse Caribbean and African influence can also be seen in this region. Unsurprisingly, seafood is generally the protein of choice here, particularly shrimp, although plantains also feature prominently, as well as vanilla, which is indigenous to the area.  

Another big-hitter in the Mexican cuisine line-up is the Central region, which includes Mexico City and Puebla, two very influential areas. Here the Aztec influence can still be felt (and tasted), especially in the abundant use of chili peppers. In fact, Mexico’s most patriotic dish, Chiles en Nogada (which are stuffed chili peppers in a walnut sauce sprinkled with parsley and pomegranate seeds), hails from this region. Street foods such as tacos and tortas are also generally associated with Central Mexico and like El Pastor (spit-grilled pork), probably come from the mixing of cultures that has always been prevalent in this part of Mexico. Interestingly, while the Central region is famous for its street foods and cheap eats, this is also the location for Mexico’s haute cuisine scene as well. 

Down in the South Pacific region, lies another internationally renowned cuisine, particularly the dishes and food culture of Oaxaca. Known for its moles (traditional Mexican sauces/marinades) and the use of chocolate in savory dishes, the South Pacific has been influenced by the Zapotecs and other indigenous peoples. This is the region where chapulines (grasshoppers) can be found as well as other unique ingredients like huitlacoche (corn fungus). Oaxacan cuisine is often touted as one of the greatest untapped resources of the culinary world.

(panuchos)

Finally, we have the oft-visited, Yucatán peninsula. The resort cities of Cancún or Cozumel have their own culinary flair (catered to the needs of their many guests), but this region also has an array of incredible Mayan-influenced dishes. Papadzules (hard-boiled egg-stuffed tortillas covered in a pumpkin seed sauce), Cochinita Pibil (roasted pork), and anything with achiotes (flavorful seeds turned spices), are all unique, colorful, and absolutely delicious. As are the numerous tropical fruits incorporated into this region’s cuisine. Another personal favorite of mine, Yucatán cuisine surprises me at every bite. Even the seemingly simple panuchos (fried tortillas topped with beans, chicken, avocado, and pickled veggies) are just perfect.

(papadzules) (poc chuc) (relleno negro)

Of course, this is only a sample of the thousands and thousands of dishes that originated in Mexico. In fact, some of the most ubiquitous weren’t even included on this list because they don’t really belong to any particular region; dishes like chilaquiles (sort of like breakfast nachos), tacos, sopes (sometimes called Mexican pizza), tostadas, quesadillas, molletes (toasted bean and cheese flatbreads), pozole (hominy or puffed-corn soup), elotes, and tamales. They instead represent the country and its people as a whole; a country every bit as diverse as its cuisine. So, the next time you find yourself in Mexico (or even in a Mexican restaurant) try to stray away from the classic enchiladas or quesadillas and see what other offerings are available – you might find a few new favorites (much like I certainly have). Either way, ¡buen provecho!

(elotes) (chilaquiles) (flautas, fried tacos, y molletes) (sopes) (pozole)

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