MAIZE (Zea mays L.)

Maize (corn) is a word of Caribbean origin, employed in the Antilles, meaning the cause of life. The Nahuatl—i.e., Aztec language—term for this plant is centli. After the Spanish conquered Mexico, the word maize took root in Mexico; the Spanish were used to the term because of this previous experience in the Caribbean.
Maize is an annual herbaceous plant. Depending on growing conditions, it can reach a height of over three meters. Its flowers are unisexual. The masculine flowers are located at the end of the stem and the female blossoms are found in the axils of corn leaves, and form dense spikes of tightly inserted grains, called pods.
Scientific studies postulate that Mexican annual teocintle (teocinte) was the ancestor of cultivated maize, which first arose through a process of domestication.
Some researchers suggest this transformation occurred in southern Mesoamerica approximately 9000 years ago. Others propose there were several centers of domestication during some 8000 years. Still others postulate that a unique event occurred in the Balsas River basin.
Today Mexico is home to at least 61 varieties of corn that vary in size, color and flavor, according to the ecological zone in which they are planted and the food use to which they are put.
Since it is cultivated for greater plasticity, and for various soil types, altitudes and climates, corn can currently be cultivated any month of the year in various parts of the country.
In addition to its natural characteristics, corn possesses a cultural value resident in a series of myths, beliefs and ceremonies. The agricultural cycle involves a ritual cycle, which in turn plays a role in worldview and religious syncretism. Since pre-Hispanic times, humans’ relationship with maize led to various tools for cultivation, grain preparation, preservation and storage. Large clay pots for preparing nixtamal were developed, along with volcanic stone metates used to grind corn by hand, clay griddles for heating tortillas, tenates for the grain’s preservation and cuexcomates for its storage.
Today as yesterday, corn and its derivatives are both a staple and an indigenous symbol of Mexican identity. Beverages can be prepared from corn’s sweep sap. Cane pulp can be a medium for sculpture. Corn’s fresh leaves are used to wrap tamales. Dried leaves serve as wrapping and a raw material for crafts. Corn silk is used in infusions, as an aromatic for atole beverages or even as a diuretic. Whole tender corncobs can be eaten boiled or roasted; sliced they accompany broths, stews or can be pickled. When the ear is attacked by a fungus called cuitlacoche, we can eat the mushroom in soups, fillings or as a ground ingredient in sauces. Kernels are eaten as esquites, or are added to soups, broths and stews; when ground, they form the base for atoles, soups and tamales. After drying the cob, roasted and ground kernels can be used to prepare pinoles, or as a base for atoles and biscuits; or can be soaked and cooked with lime (nixtamal for use in pozole and menudo stew. Ground into dough or flour, we make tortillas, corn-based specialties known as antojitos, tamales, atole, or thickening stews. The stem and leaves are used as fodder or natural fertilizer. Dry, stripped cobs become fuel, fodder, paper; tools for stripping dry cobs, polishing wood and pottery, or even container stoppers.
Finally there are traditional fermented beverages made with corn. Preparations and nomenclature vary by region.
A process that revolutionizes corn is “nixtamalization”— soaking dried kernels in water with ashes or lime—which makes corn a nutritionally whole food by bringing about protein, niacin and calcium bio-disposition.

Recipes

Menudo norteño
White, red, or green pozole
Mole de olla
Torta de elote
Wakabakki
Ponteduro
Cegueza con espinazo de cerdo


BEANS

The genus Phaseolus is American, and comes in some 70 varieties, of which five have been domesticated: Phaseolus acutifolius A. Gray, Phaseolus coccineus L., Phaseolus dumosus Macfadyen, Phaseolus lunatus L., Phaseolus vulgaris L. All coexist with counterpart wild populations.
Mexico is the center of origin for Phaseolus vulgaris, a wild plant first domesticated about 7000 years ago.
The nation is home to a large variety of wild wild and domesticated beans; the former disperse their fruit to the ground while the latter preserve it on the sheath.
Beans are one of three staple crops in milpa agricultural systems. They are herbaceous vines that offer tender sheaths for immediate consumption (i.e., green beans and tender beans), dry seeds for storage and later consumption (beans), and additionally fix nitrogen that corn needs to grow in supporting soils.
Beans are mentioned in different pre-Hispanic codices, by sixteenth-century chroniclers and travelers and in nineteenth-century folk literature.
The importance of the bean (etl in Nahuatl) was such that in the days before the arrival of the Spanish, beans were paid as tribute that the Aztecs demanded from subject nations. During Mexico’s colonial viceroyalty, bean shipments continued to feature as tribute dispatched to the region’s new overlords.
In Mesoamerica, during the epochs of the Maya and the Nahua, enigmas surrounded beans that still give rise to riddles, songs and proverbs, at the same time they serve as raw material for handicrafts. Since the beginning, they have figured in rituals and ceremonies, and play a role in both worldview and religious syncretism.
Beans are grown throughout Mexico, in different seasons and by means of different production systems. Different consumer preferences—alongside the bean’s biological versatility, market trends and genetic recombination—have allowed for diversity within the species.
Beans have been an important food product and—in conjunction with supplementing corn protein—lend nutritional value to the national diet. They contain important carbohydrates and minerals and are considered the diet’s principal source of vegetable protein. Given the bean’s importance to food and nutrition, some researchers place beans among the five most cultivated and consumed plants in the most recent 400-year-period. The other four such staples are maize, potato, sweet potato and cassava.
Mexico sows four varieties that vary in size, color and flavor according to the area where they grow, the nutrition they receive as plants, and their intended use: Phaseolus vulgaris (several endemic bean types), Phaseolus lunatus (lima beans), Phaseolus coccineus (ayocotes) and Phaseolus acutifolius (teparis). They are also classified, by color, into seven groups: black, yellow, white, purple, bayo, pinto and spotted.
Mexicans consume bean foliage in the form of the herb known as quelite, found in soups and stews. Likewise, bean blossoms are eaten whole or with tamales and tacos. Tender pods are stewed as vegetable and added to salads or as a garnish in broths, stews and soups. Tender seeds, raw or cooked, complement tamales and stews. Mature and dry seeds, roasted and ground, are used to prepare bean flour that will not spoil over extended timeframes; they can also be cooked in multiple preparations for stews or stew garnishes; crushed, they become part of atoles and soups; and beans can be refried to be an ingredient in appetizers or served as side dishes. Yet plain cooked beans with a bit of broth and warm tortillas are a complete meal in themselves.

Recipes

Atápakua de ayocotes
Frijoles charros
Frijoles con puerco
Puerto Nuevo lobster tacos
Enchiladas potosinas
Joroch' with squash blossom


SQUASHES AND PUMPKINS

Squashes and pumpkins belong to the genus Cucurbita; they were the first plants cultivated in Mesoamerica, about 10,000 years ago. Mexico is home to both wild and cultivated species, which constitute an important part of everyday diet in urban as well as rural areas.
The nation is the center of origin and domestication of Cucurbita moschata and Cucurbita argyosperma subsp. Argyosperma, and is also the center of domestication for Cucurbita pepo subsp., Pepo and Curcubita ficifolia Bouché. They vary in size, color, shape and flavor, according to the area where they are planted and the food use to which they are put.
Pumpkins are climbing or creeping vines, with tendrils, lobed leaves, two types of flowers (male and female) and fruit. From ancient times to the present day, they have been planted between corn rows in cultivated fields.
Mexicans eat pumpkin stems (guias) and foliage, in broths, soups or as garnishes for stews. Male flowers, the first to sprout in order to protect female flowers, which in turn gives rise to the fruit (the pumpkin), are also eaten in broths, soups, appetizer fillings, stews and atoles, or can be themselves be stuffed. Seed/fruit use and consumption varies.
Cucurbita moschata bears fruits of different sizes, shapes and colors; some are smooth or feature rounded ribs, a thick shell, are rigid and durable, or alternately soft and perishable; yellow to orange with abundant pulp, sweet to the taste; oval and thick, flat-shell seeds, smooth and light-colored, yellowish or dark green inside, as for example is the case with Castilla squash (cuaresmeña pumpkin, sweet potato squash, Tamala, pumpkin helmet, etc.). The variety is grown in Mexico’s Northern and Central Highlands, North and Central Pacific, and North and Central Gulf regions. Pulp is cooked as a vegetable to accompany soups and stews; used as stuffing for fresh and caramelized tamales; pumpkin seeds—pepitas—are roasted (shelled or unshelled) and consumed as a snack, as base for sauces (pipianes and moles) or as sweets (pepitorias and palanquetas). Some gourds are cleaned and dried to form jícara bowls or musical instruments.
Cucurbita argyosperma subsp. Argyosperma, whose fruits are shaped like pears, with a rigid and durable shell, completely smooth, come in various colors (from white to dark green, sometimes yellow or green stripes), have yellow flesh and sweet, orange, oval or round and abundant seeds, a flat or inflated shell, smooth and light colored, with brown or dark green insides. One variety is pipiana pumpkin (painted or scratched pumpkin, clog pumpkin, zapoma pumpkin, etc). It is planted mainly in the Northern Gulf region, the Yucatán, Mexico’s North Highlands, North and Central Pacific regions and is grown primarily for seed production; the seeds are peeled, roasted and ground to prepare green pipián sauce. It can additionally be eaten in ways similar to those of castilla squash.
Cucurbita pepo subsp. Pepo includes numerous local types, grown in diverse ecosystems. The fruits take different forms, but are predominantly oval or nearly round, with both soft and rigid, almost smooth shells, depending on ripeness; come in different colors (light to dark green); bear abundant, slightly fibrous pulp, cream to yellowish in color, plus oval, flat and narrow seeds. Varieties include round cabbage, pumpkin or long zucchini (reed pumpkin, tempanilla pumpkin, etc.), which are grown in many Mexican regions. When immature, they are eaten cooked, and incorporated into broths, soups and stews. They can be stuffed, fried or baked.
Cucurbita ficifolia Bouché bears a globular, oval or elliptical fruit, with a rigid to soft and smooth shell, depending on ripeness, and come in different colors (light to dark green with white stripes). They bear abundant, fibrous pulp, white and sweet; oval, flat, narrow, or thick black seeds, again depending on ripeness. Examples include chilacayote (chilacayota, chilacayo or chilaca) grown throughout most of Mexico. When fruits are unripe, Mexicans consume them as vegetables in soups, some stews or sauces, and even as an ingredient in chilled ades. Ripe they are in desserts (angel hair) or crystallized; roasted seeds are a main ingredient in pipián sauces. Cleaned and dried, the shell becomes a gourd or even a musical instrument.

Recipes

Wakabakki
Mole de olla
Red rice
Milpa tlatonile
Joroch' with squash blossom
Scallops with pico de gallo
Green pozole
Pazkal
Mole de chiapas with turkey
Papadzules


CHILE

Chiles (also chilies)—from the Nahuatl chilli—enjoy an ancient cultural tradition in Mexico. Next to corn, beans and squash, chiles were a fundamental part the pre-Hispanic diet. They have been used in religious rites and ceremonies, as medicines, as a means of castigation, as currency and a as a tax, among other diverse uses.
Researchers consider them the first domesticated and subsequently cultivated plants in Mesoamerica. Starting in the sixteenth century, they gained currency in Europe, Asia, and, later, in Africa. Today, chiles are globally distributed, used and eaten.
Capsicum—which includes Capsicum annuum, Capsicum chinense, Capsicum frutescens and Capsicum pubescens, among others—is native to the Americas.
Mexico is center of origin, domestication and diversification of the Capsicum annuum variety, plants that belong to the family Solanaceae that feature a woody stem in the shape and height of a shrub. Flowers are usually white, sometimes greenish. The fruit varies in size, color and flavor, depending on soil type, climate, etc.
C. annuum var. glabriusculum was derived from Capiscum and is prevalent in coastal areas from Sonora to Chiapas, Tamaulipas to the Yucatán, and is known chile piquin or chiltepin. C annuum var. annuum is the origin of all other chiles in Mexico.
Capsicum chinense (habanero) is native to the Amazon. Capsicum frutescens (amashito or chilpaya chiles) come from tropical and subtropical regions in the Americas. Both are grown in Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Colombia, Venezuela and Puerto Rico. Capsicum pubescens (manzano, peron or wax chile) comes from Bolivia.
Chiles are a cultural constant throughout Mexican history as a continually consumed ingredient in the everyday Mexican diet. They contribute to and balance a diet based on corn, beans and squash, since they are a good source of nutrients and flavor. Besides being the subject of popular refrains and folk songs, they continue to exert a presence in rites and ceremonies, and are an important component in both traditional and more modern medical practice. Beyond their qualities as a seasoning, their nutritional properties have bolstered Mexicans’ health since pre-Columbian times.
The flavor of a chile lies in in its outer shell and in the itching (burning) produced in its placenta and veins, which contain capsaicin, the name given to a certain capsaicinoid that causes some 60% of the piquant effect. Seeds do not contain that substance but are hot because they are in contact with the placenta. Today, capsaicin is used in the manufacture of industrial products such as drinks, sausages and medicines.
In pre-Hispanic times, the chile was appreciated for its properties as a stimulant to the appetite, as well as for its flavor. Since then Mexicans have acquired both a tolerance and a taste for its scorching effects, thus over the centuries it has become obligatory at meals for millions of Mexicans.
Chiles’ adaptability has led to abundant varieties; chiles are characterized by notable plasticity and can be grown in different geographies. In Mexico vast varieties of chiles, identified with specific names that vary by location, color, ripeness and fresh or dried status, are cultivated. In their diversity, they have become a hallmark of various regional cuisines.
Mexicans eat chiles fresh; or slice, chop or grind them to prepare raw salsas or to serve as garnishes; they are roasted, boiled or fried (as well as ground) to serve as the base for numerous salsas, simple moles, stews or chile-flavored atoles; are served alone or with vegetables, marinades and pickles, and, famously, can be stuffed. When dry (or in some cases smoked) they are roasted, boiled or fried to be a base for numerous soups, sauces, moles, pipianes, marinades and stews. Dried chiles are eaten singly or with pickles and pickled vegetables, and can also be stuffed.

Recipes

Atápakua de ayocotes
Milpa tlatonile
Chilayo colimense
Mole de chiapas with turkey
Cegueza con espinazo de cerdo
Wakabakki
Red pozole
Shrimp stew
Enchiladas potosinas
Rabbit ximbó
Enchiladas de molito
Mole de olla
Pazkal
Sardine tostadas
Fish veracruz style
Frijol con puerco
Papadzules
Tikin xic fish
Pescado zarandeado
Enchiladas verdes
Green rice
Red rice
Guacamole
Arroz a la tumbada
Fish tamales
Tuna in amaranth crust
Crab Chilpachole
Mescal cocktail
Bocoles
Mushroom and quelite herb chileatole
Asado de boda
Scallops with pico de gallo
Green shrimp aguachile
Frijoles charros
Crawfish huatape
Chilapitas with squid salpicón
Green pozole
Enchiladas rojas
Wtihe rice


TOMATILLO AND TOMATO

Both plants belong to the Solanaceae family. Their differences arise not only from taxonomy but also from color, flavor and origin.
The name tomato comes from the Nahuatl tomatl, a generic term that designates genus Physalis plants native to Mexico. Tomatoes bear spherical fruits featuring lots of seeds and aqueous pulp that comes semi wrapped in leaves known as the calyx. When the fruit ripens, it breaks out from its brown wrapper.
In pre-Hispanic times, in certain regions of Mexico, tomatillo use and consumption was more common than that of the tomato, an assertion borne out by abundant archaeological data regarding the use and domestication of tomato plants as part of the Mesoamerican diet. In the case of the tomato such information is limited; mentions of use and consumption are found only in chronicles from the sixteenth century onward. In contrast to widespread tomatillo use in Mexico, the tomato found greater acceptance in the world at large, changing eating habits in numerous regions and becoming some of the world’s most in-demand produce.
The most common species include the tomatillo—the green tomato—Physalis ixocarpa and Physalis philadelphica; the miltomate, tomatillo or tomate de milpa (Physalis ixocarpa Bro, Physalis peruviana L, Physalis angulata and Physalis pubescens L.), whose fruit is green and smaller in size; and the purple-hued xaltomate. All are found in milpa cultivations throughout Mexico. Mexicans eat the fruit raw—peeled and chopped or pureed, it can also serve as a base for martajada-style salsas, cebiche or dishes that require them; roasted or boiled, they are essential ingredients in certain salsas, various moles and numerous stews. Leaves have a role to play in heating up tequesquite (natural carbonates) and are also used in a number of regional tamal recipes, as baking powder or carbonate salt.
Jitomate, a common Mexican name for the tomato, is derived from the Nahuatl xitomatl, and though the plants originated in South America, their domestication was effected in Mesoamerica. The most common species are called the bola (Lycopersicum esculentum), featuring nearly spherical and highly juicy fruits, and the guajillo or saladet (Lycopersicum esculentum var. Pyriforme), which are oval and smaller.
Use of the term jitomate, though, is generally restricted to the center of Mexico; it is known as tomate in the rest of the country, as throughout the rest of the Spanish-speaking world.
Mexicans consume tomatoes raw, in salads, as garnishes or as a complement to cebiches and other cold dishes; they can be hollowed out and stuffed. Boiled, roasted, ground or reduced martajado style they serve as the base for innumerable salsas, stews, soups and broths, as well as a wide variety of moles; and are used to season rice and pasta. They are also produced to be consumed as juice.

Recipes

Sardine tostadas
Crab chilpachole
Chilapitas with squid salpicón
Enchiladas rojas
Encacahuatado
Fish veracruz style
Papadzules
Frijol con puerco
Frijoles charros
Red rice
Guacamole with tomatoes
Arroz a la tumbada
Shrimp stew
Cegueza con espinazo de cerdo
Fish tamales
Scallops with pico de gallo


QUELITES

In Mexico, the name quelite designates several edible wild plant species in their tender state. Quílitl comes from the Nahuatl and means grass or edible tender shoot, in other indigenous languages the plants are known as bok 'itah (Maya), yuve (Mixtec), xakua (Purépecha), and guiribá (Raramuri), etc.
The designation includes immature leaves, tender vegetables, tree saplings and edible stalks, as well as some flowers.
Mexico is home to about 350 species, distributed throughout all climate zones, which are mostly associated with cornfields or grow next to roads and ponds. Few are cultivated, except for introduced species, adapted, adopted and incorporated into Mexican kitchens starting in the sixteenth century.
Quelites are consumed tender, before they bloom, especially in the rainy season and before corn harvests. In some places they are not eaten but rather discarded as weeds.
These plants were valued by pre-Hispanic peoples and have been classified ever since into medicinal, edible, tree, flower and grass varieties. Today they are an important food source in rural areas.
Starting in the sixteenth century, quelites were scorned by Mexico’s Spanish overlords, leading to their replacement in the form of vegetables imported from other parts of the world. For this reason their use declined or was even abandoned as a part of the Mexican mixed Spanish-indigenous mestizo diet. Other native plants were replaced by imported varieties as well.
In time it has been possible to “rescue” quelites, yet indigenous people never stopped considering them fit for consumption and studying them. Despite an abundance of species, since the time of the arrival of the Spanish to Mexico, quelites have not been favored due to their perceived low social status, a lack of culinary knowledge regarding how to prepare them, and scarce market availability.
Today, quelites are eaten fresh in both rural and urban areas at the beginning of the agricultural cycle, when the dry season ends and the rains begin, a period in which food from the previous agricultural cycle grows scarce. Thus its green shoots, rich in nutrients, supplement the everyday diet until principal crops can be harvested; quelites also serve as condiments or for medicinal purposes. Quelite use and knowledge continues on the local level, in places where people, mostly indigenous, have managed to preserve native resources, rituals, regional recipes and traditional herbalism practices.
Quelites are a source of calcium, vitamins, minerals and proteins, in greater amounts than in green vegetables such as lettuce, chard or spinach, and are also rich in fiber. This and their affordability make them an excellent complement to or substitute for other daily staples.
Quelites are an ingredient in countless recipes. Some leaves and tender stems are consumed raw. Most are steamed, roasted in the pan, lightly sautéed or fried. They can be the main ingredient or an addition to certain preparations (atoles, broths, soups, salsas, moles, stuffed tamales, appetizers, salads and fresh beverages). Because of larger leaves, others are used as edible wrapping for tamales. Many cooks add tequesquite (natural carbonates) during preparation to keep quelites’ green color while retaining nutrients; curiously, this characteristic was important to pre-Hispanic peoples.
The most commonly used varieties are quintonil (Amaranthus spp.), a wild relative of amaranth and epazote; jicama leaves, chaya leaves (Cnidoscolus chayamansa) and yerba santa (Piper sanctum) leaves, pigweed (Chenopodium berlandieri)—which when domesticated is known as goosefoot (the flower) and pigweed (the leaves); chayote (Sechium edule) tendrils, mallow (Malva parviflora L.), dock or sorrel (Rumex spp.), papaloquelite (Porophyllum macrocephalum) and pipicha; romeritos (Suaeda torreyana), revoltijo stars, purslane (Portulaca oleraces) chivitos (Calandrinia micrantha) and watercress (Nasturtium officinale). They are eaten raw and in complement to stews or salads.

Recipes

Amaranth cookies
Tuna in amaranth crust


EDIBLE FLOWERS

Ornamental and edible flowers are a valuable contribution to Mexican cooking inherited from its pre-Hispanic ancestors, and still used to the present day. In ancient Mexico, a variety of flowers were cultivated due to their importance in everyday life and in rituals and ceremonies. Flowers, from the Nahuatl term xochitl, had multiple meanings and symbolism; some made reference to songs or poems, others represented warriors´ blood and bravery; some were associated with joy, wit, music and even carnal pleasures. Besides being admired for their beauty, flowers were also known for their medicinal and culinary properties; others still brought on hallucinations and were used by shamans in special rites. This knowledge has survived over time.
Mexico is home to some 100 different varieties of edible flowers, used in stews, drinks and traditional herbalist practice. Some grow in milpas, others on the milpa’s border or in greenhouses.
In Mexico’s regional cuisines flowers are an ingredient that complement and lend variety to the daily diet, and are also a rich source of vitamins and iron. When cooking flowers, the reproductive organs—pistils and stamens that can be a source of bitterness—should be removed. Flowers can be prepared sautéed or steamed. Raw or dried, they make pancakes (prepared both capeada style or fried) that are smothered in a stew or sauce; raw and chopped, flowers are an ingredient in soups; raw, whole or chopped they are incorporated into broths in final simmering stages.
Flowers become ingredients for tamales, or a complement to stews, salads, jams, desserts, atoles; or are used as garnishes and decorations. Other flowers make up the aromatic element of certain dishes and beverages such as vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) and rosita cacao (Quararibea funebris), indispensable to the development of Oaxacan tejate (a corn and cocoa beverage).
Notable edible flower examples include runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus L.) flowers, in red or orange, sometimes purple or white, that are an ingredient in atoles, broths and antojito stuffing. Oral tradition tells us that red colorín or Zompantle (Erythrina coralloides) flowers, also called chocolín, gasparito, chilicote, pemuche or pito, were prepared during Lent and called “carne de vigilia,” i.e., “abstinence meat.” Blossoms and ripe corollas become an ingredient soups, stews, salads and cakes. White, pink or lilac cacahuananche tree (Gliricidia sepium) flowers, are known in Spanish as “cocoa’s mother” because they provide shade to cocoa plants; they are used in jams, jellies, beverages and as tamal stuffing. Izote flowers (Yucca periculosa) are white and aromatic and are also known as cuaresmeñas because they blossom during Lent; their consumption dates from the time of time of the Nahua and Huasteca peoples and they are a main ingredient in certain adobo marinades and can also be prepared as a sweet preserve, in croquettes in tomato sauce, and as part of salads. Yellow pericon flowers (Tagetes lucida) are used as an aromatic when cooking corn and certain stews; infusions are destined for medicinal use. White nard tuberose (tuberous Polianthes) flowers are converted into beverages. Cactus flowers (Opundia ficus indica) of varying colors and sizes, are consumed as quelites. Dahlias (Dahlia spp.) in a variety of hues are stuffed and sometimes battered and deep fried.
Flowers from palms such as prickly chapaya (Astrocarium mexicanum) and pacaya (Chamaedorea aguilariana) are used—battered or shredded—in soups. Inflorescences, such as green goosefoot (Chenopodium berlandieri moq), are considered vegetables.
Epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides) is a traditional aromatic in Mexican kitchens whose culinary and medicinal uses stretch back hundreds of years.
The inflorescence of yerba santa, acuyo, momo or tlanepa (Piper auritum) is used to flavor beverages.
Mexico’s now-famous yellow squash blossoms (Cucurbita pepo) are one of the most widely eaten flowers and are an ingredient in soups and broths, are used as stuffing for antojitos, tamales and chiles; or can themselves be stuffed with cheese and then battered and deep fried.
The hibiscus flower (Hibiscus sabdariffa) is not actually a flower, but its calyx, and is not native to Mexico, but has been adopted for use in infusions, fresh beverages, ice cream, popsicles, dressings and sauces.

Recipes

Joroch' with squash blossom


EDIBLE MUSHROOMS

Mexico has been home to a strong ethnomycologic culture since pre-Hispanic times. Ancient Mexicans used mushrooms for food, medicine, festivals, rituals and ceremonies, as testified to by numerous documents from the time.
In the sixteenth century Spaniards were surprised by natives’ widespread consumption, knowledge and classifications with regard to edible, poisonous and medicinal mushrooms, even as there was also extensive mushroom selection and use in Europe as well. The conquistadors and subsequent Spanish overlords banned certain rites that called for hallucinogenic mushroom use.
To date there are 204 recognized mushroom species that have been identified and classified as edible, fermentative, medicinal and hallucinogenic. At first, such distinctions were arrived at by trial and error, since many mushrooms, eaten raw, serve as purgatives or emetics and therefore cause digestive disorders. Yet some mushrooms’ delicious flavor led to observation in places where they grew, as well as identification by means of individual odor, taste and texture. Today indigenous groups use them as food, medicine and as a natural insecticide. Mushroom use is widespread in numerous Mexican regions, where they grow wild and have also been domesticated and cultivated.
Mushrooms live in any soil where organic matter, water and proper temperature are present; they are found in equatorial, tropical, subtropical, temperate and even cold climates; from sea level to altitudes of over 400 meters [sic], in damp and even in desert regions during periods when mushrooms can access even slight moisture. In Mexico fungal growth occurs in summer, the rainy season; the rainy season’s duration depends on local climatic conditions.
In Nahuatl mushrooms were called nanacatl (singular) and nanacame (plural), from which is derived nanacate, a term that is still used in certain areas. Nanacatl seems to be the plural of nacatl (meat), perhaps due to mushrooms’ fleshy consistency; similarly, when cooked, they give off an odor not unlike roasting meat. Rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals, they lower cholesterol, improve blood circulation and act as an anti-carcinogenic.
Edible mushrooms can be prepared roasted, sautéed, boiled or fried. After cooking, they are a complement to atoles, stuffing for tamales and antojitos and base for stocks, soups, stews or side dishes. They also are the main ingredient of certain stews. Some varieties are dehydrated and kept whole or ground (as a condiment for sauces) or to be later rehydrated.
A wide variety of edible mushrooms come from Mexico’s forests, mainly the temperate woods of the Central Highlands, but some varieties from tropical regions can also be eaten. The best known Central Highlands varieties—pancitas, pantes or pambazos (Suillus granulatus) and yellow mushrooms (Amanita Caesarea)—are found in ocote pine forests. Cornetas (Hypomyces lactifluorum), duraznillos (Canarela cibaria), pata de borrego (Hydnum repandum) and cabeza de oso (caput Hydum-ursi) varieties come from oyamel spruce forests. Oak forests provide pastelitos (Boletus pinophilus) and cornetas blancos (Russula brevipes, R. delica, R. romagnesiana).
Grass mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus), patas de pajaro or escobetas (Clavaria botrytis), hongo llanero (Agaricus camprestis), pedos de coyote, cemafiles and xolotes can be found in gardens and roadsides.
Cuitlacoche (Ustilago maydis), a fungus that attacks corn ears, is collected in rainy months. This pest gives rise to misshapen ears that turn dark gray as they ripen, with gill-like protuberances. Sautéing is the perfect way to prepare cuitlacoche, which becomes a base for soups, antojito stuffing, an ingredient in sauces and a garnish. Agave mushrooms (Pleurotus opuntiae) grow among the namesake cactus’s fleshy leaves. Not least of all, there are hallucinogenic mushrooms used for magic and ritual practice, which typically grow in pastures or where manure is found.

Recipes

CACTI

As a botanical family, cacti are found in the Americas from Canada to Patagonia. They are perennial plants of differing habits, and comprise some 100 genus and more than 1500 species, of which approximately 800 can be found in various parts of Mexico.
That nation is their most important center of diversification and features large numbers of endemic plants that predominate in arid and semi-arid zones. Other species occupy hot, humid regions.
Cacti possess internal tissues for storing water, thus allowing for survival in arid zones, and for this reason they are known as succulents.
Botanical and historical research documents cactus use since pre-Hispanic times, for food or medicinal purposes, in magical-religious rituals and as ornaments.
This plant family’s importance is derived from its food/benefit ratio in the diet (related to stems and fruits) as well as cactuses’ appeal as ornamental plants. With regard to nutrition, cacti provide fiber, glucose and vitamin C, depending when they are harvested.
Additionally, in ecosystems where they live, they shelter enormous numbers of birds, reptiles and mammals that use their branches, trunks and roots as nests and burrows. Cacti as well as their flowers and fruits feed a variety of insects, birds and bats, at the same time they protect the soil against erosion, collect water and gather moisture.
According to the forms they adopt as they grow, cacti have been divided into categories such as columnar—shrubs or larger trees with cylindrical stems, branches with thorns, white or pale flowers and fruit covered with spines or without them; epiphytes and creepers—which grow on or are supported by other plants, have long not-unduly-spiny branches and large white or colorful flowers, plus large fruit; globular—featuring spherical stems, singly or in groups; and paddle cacti—stemmed shrubs or flattened-stem trees.
Noteworthy columnar cacti include garambullos (Myrtillocactus geometrizans) that abound in the states of San Luis Potosi and Hidalgo. Small flowers called garambullo carnations are used as vegetables; fruits also named garambullos are eaten fresh as a dessert, or in beverages, sorbets, popsicles, and, to extend their longevity, in jams, syrup, sugared fruits or liqueurs (in Mexico State, Hidalgo and Querétaro). Another noteworthy variety is the pitayo: there are about 20 species from the genus Stenocereus, most are native to Mexico, and feature flowers and large fruits called pitayas, bearing pseudo-thorns, that are sweet with colorful pulp, and are consumed in fresh beverages or sorbets, popsicles or jams. The pitayo tunino (from Oaxaca’s central valleys), produces fruit used to make sorbets. Pitayo marismello (from Baja California and the North Pacific Region) is harvested wild and eaten as fresh fruit; its seeds are rich in protein, and, dried or ground, can be added to ground corn to make tortillas. The jiotilla, with yellow flowers and red fruit, is harvested to make liqueurs, sorbets and popsicles.
Of the more than 40 species of wild epiphytes and creepers found in Mexico, only one is cultivated for food use: the pitahaya, genus Hylocereus, from the State of Quintana Roo. Its fruits—clad in a pink egg-shaped shell, with white (occasionally red) pulp and abundant small seeds—are eaten fresh; the flowers are used in infusions as a heart disease remedy.
Paddle cacti called nopales, genus Opuntia, are the most widely distributed cactus genus, and range from the north to the center of Mexico. They bear colorful flowers consumed as soup and stew garnishes, along with medium-sized spiny or spineless fruit called tunas, that feature sweet pulp, white or colored, that is harvested fresh to be eaten as dessert, or as a fresh beverage, in sorbets, and popsicles. Tuna can also be sugared to extend their food-life. Chopped, nopal paddles are used as vegetables eaten fresh, in smoothies, roasted or cooked, or as an ingredient in salads, soups, stews or garnishes.
Biznagas, genus Echinocactus, are notable among globular or short-stemmed cacti. Completely covered in thorns, they feature edible flowers called cabuches, which are commonly prepared in brine or cooked to be added to stews. These flowers produce sweet and sour fruits; the yellow variety (Nolina longifolia) contain more sugar and are called borrachitos.

Recipes

Rabbit ximbó
Mole de olla
Dulce de xoconostle


FRUITS

Fruits: they have been depicted in pre-Hispanic codices and murals; mentioned in Bible stories, chronicles and travel writing; form part of nursery rhymes, folk songs, verses and aphorisms; are the subject of still life painting; are portrayed on tableware and sculptures; are a taste sought after by the rich and the poor; a serve as a kind consideration to the sick and convalescent.
They contain vitamins, minerals, fiber, and carbohydrates, making them an energy food.
Fruits come from superior plant species’ reproductive activity. The fruit is the ovary, transformed and ripened after fertilization.
Fruits have been associated with religious rites and ceremonies since ancient times. They were first collected, later domesticated, and over time, cultivated.
Fruits have exerted a key role in the human diet. Some researchers argue they were primitive peoples’ nutritional staple, since fruits are typically pithy or pulpy food, rich in water, and are refreshing when consumed raw. Mexico’s variety of readily available fruit is a consequence of the nation’s soil, climate and ecosystem diversity. Its vast offering includes native fruits as well as fruits from other parts of the Americas that came to be domesticated here, and include avocados, apompos, bonnets, star apples, chokecherries, sapodillas, cherimoya, ciricote, plums, soursops, guayas, guava, huamuchils, jinicuils, mameyes, nances, pingüicas, pineapples, pitahayas, pitayas, hawthorns, timbiriches, prickly pears, xoconostle, yellow and white sapotes, and black sapodillas.
Mexico additionally cultivates fruits that have been imported from the sixteenth century to the present day. Starting in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, fruits represented the largest commercial exchange between Europe, America and Asia, in trade that included different types of apples, pears, plums, grapes, mangoes, bananas, peaches, melons, watermelons, papayas and apricots, as well as other fruits such as coconuts, quince, pomegranate, figs, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries, blueberries, loquats and, finally, citrus fruits: oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruits, citrons, lemons and tangerines. All of them found a home on Mexican soil, and all found a welcome place in native cooking technique. The arrival of sugar cane, spices, wheat, milk and dairy products, coupled with new production techniques, complemented and increased the both endemic and imported fruit consumption.
Mexico even has what are known as frutas de horno—“baked fruits”—cookies made from corn flour or cornmeal, lard, and brown or cane sugar.
Mexico’s fruit-eating customs vary according to methods of preparation and preservation (which in many cases implies the application of heat). Other uses include fruits used as offerings on Day of the Dead, as well as those fruits tucked into Christmastime piñatas.
Whole fresh fruit, thin-skinned or in cases where peeling is not necessary, is eaten in bites or wedges. Many other fruits are peeled and seeded, sliced or cubed. They likewise come together in picos de gallo, fruit cocktails and salads, are used as stuffing or a stuffing ingredient. Fruits are also present in various sweet and savory recipes, served hot or cold, and are the decorative detail on innumerable desserts and even savory dishes.
Harvesting fruit pulp, Mexicans prepare atoles, tamales, fresh beverages, sorbets, popsicles, smoothies and dulces de platón. Fruit juices become fresh beverages, sorbets, popsicles, and sweet, salty, spicy, hot or cold salsas. A number of fruit juices have led to industrially developed concentrates, candy, pie fillings, ice cream, jellies and medicinal syrups.
Fruits are preserved when dehydrated, whole or portioned, or can even be chilied with ground chile powder. They are preserved in sweet syrup to be packaged manually or industrially, or become sugared fruits, jams, jellies and ate pastes.
Finally there are seasonal punches, as well as fresh and/or dried fruit drinks, sweetened and perfumed with spices; fruits become the base for low-alcohol fermented beverages, or, as is the case with curados, they sweeten fermented pulque. Not least of all there are fruit liqueurs that feature a higher alcoholic content.

Recipes

Empanaditas de guayaba
Dulce de tejocote


GAME (including invertebrates)

Mammals, birds, amphibians, batrachians and invertebrates have been a part of Mexican ethnicities’ traditional dietary patterns in all areas of the nation. The use of the animals as a source of food in pre-Hispanic Mexico implied diverse efforts leading to their capture by means of gathering, fishing and hunting. In time there was limited domestication and breeding, though to a different degree than what was observed in other parts of the world, where ample domestic livestock led to major advances in husbandry and grazing.
Many experts supported the notion that pre-Hispanic peoples’ basic subsistence patterns relied almost entirely on plants, in part due to the fact that certain researchers date meat consumption to the New World arrival of domesticated livestock, starting in the sixteenth century. Such notions emerge from ethnographic and ethno-historical documentation and allow us to learn about wild game used as food, domesticated species exploitation levels and the role of animal-based foods in local Mesoamerican diets.
On land, Mesoamerican hunters are said to have pursued hares, armadillos, rabbits, opossums (tlacuaches), skunks, peccaries, squirrels, gophers, raccoons, badgers and certain types of monkeys; wild mountain birds as well as migratory species that reached lakes and lagoons; as well as turtles, tadpoles, frogs, salamanders, snakes and iguanas.
Domestication was limited to wild turkeys (guajolotes) and dogs. Certain species were kept in captivity, such as deer, rabbits, chachalacas and ducks (the latter both for their meat and their eggs). However, consumption of hunted game was more important. Dogs were also considered food and their young were used in rituals.
Consumption of meat was largely restricted to festivities, during the hunting season or for consumption by elites. Meats were salted, sun-dried or smoked to be preserved, grilled, roasted or cooked, to be incorporated into various types of sauces, or cooked in earth ovens.
Following the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the introduction of cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and poultry, mainly in cities, changed how these species were acquired, used and eaten, but did not change conquered peoples’ approaches to conservation and preparation, into which these new viands were incorporated. Plant-originated products imported from other regions, as well as the culinary use of pork and beef tallow, were additionally incorporated.
At present, domesticated guajolote turkeys are found in milpas, as a means of naturally controlling pests. Other birds that help control pests are quails (various species), the common mourning (huilota), roadrunners, garrapatero birds, thrushes, winged blackbirds and sparrows, to mention only a few; their existence depends on the ecosystems in which specific crops are cultivated. Turkey is indispensable at festivities, celebrations and even Day of the Dead offerings. It is cooked and served with various moles and pipianes, or encased in tamales. Other birds are grilled, roasted or cooked, dressed in different salsas, stews, or serve as an ingredient, and are an important part of the rural daily diet. Various predator species also inhabit the milpa, especially raccoons, opossums, trompudo bats, spotted skunks, collared peccaries, spiny mice, various squirrel species, gophers and castellano rabbits. Many are hunted and eaten roasted, boiled or incorporated into various sauced dishes, are prepared wrapped in maguey leaves and grilled or prepared in a number of stew recipes.
A separate mention should be made of edible insects and worms (which are major sources of protein), a dietary custom that has endured the test of time. Many such animals were considered food, tribute, deities and even medicine. Today human groups enjoy them as daily sustenance (in rural areas) or as a delicacy (in urban areas), due to their ease-of-capture, -processing, -preservation, -storage and fine flavor. Some 512 edible species have been currently documented, some subject to well-established cultivation; examples include various types of dragonflies, grasshoppers, bedbugs, crickets, beetles, butterflies, mosquitos, flies, bees, ants, maguey worms, jumiles and wasps. Many are sold in local street markets (tianguis) in communities that traditionally consume them (mainly among Zapotec, Mixtec, Nahua and Otomí peoples). Most are roasted or form part of sauces and stews, or serve as stuffing in appetizers and corn-based antojito snacks.

Recipes

Rabbit ximbó
Pazkal
Mole de chiapas with turkey


SEAFOOD (fresh and saltwater)

Ancient Mexicans had a profoundly entrenched fishing culture; they captured different species both in inland waters and at sea. They preserved seafood in salt or sun-dried it; they also consumed fresh seafood that was sometimes cooked directly on the grill, wrapped in plant leaves, or cooked in soups and stews with sauces.
Innumerable foods are collected from the seas, but just as on land, where vegetables were the first foods to be consumed, at sea everything started with eating seaweed.
Excepting the case of marine mammal capture, sea animal harvest in Mexico is divided between fish and shellfish. The former are represented by edible cartilaginous fish, sharks and rays and bony fishes such as sardines, tuna, swordfish, grouper, snapper, pargo, sea bass, bream or yellowtail, among others. Shellfish are edible invertebrates, mainly crustaceans (shrimp, lobster, crab) and mollusks (oysters, mussels, clams, squid, octopus). Most cold-freshwater species are trout; in tropical waters, there is tilapia; temperate waters are home to carp and catfish; brackish waters provide prawns and acamayas.
Mexico features some 10,000 km of coastline. Its most important fishing ports are Guaymas (Sonora), Ensenada (Baja California), Mazatlán (Sinaloa), Ciudad del Carmen (Campeche), Progreso (Yucatán), Tampico (Tamaulipas) and Veracruz (Veracruz), in addition to the rivers, lakes and reservoirs where commercial fisheries operate, mainly in Tabasco and Veracruz, and at places like Chapala (Jalisco), Pátzcuaro, Cuitzeo, Zirahuen (Michoacán) and Catemaco (Veracruz).
The economics of harvesting sea life in Mexico follow two basic modes: manual fishing, known as river, coastal, rustic or small-scale fishing (which yields shark, skate, dogfish, carp, oysters, liza, crappie, sierra, mackerel, crab, clams, squid, chub, bream, sea bass, red snapper, lobster, abalone and snail); and industrial or deep sea fishing (which yields shrimp, sardines and tuna) and whose product extraction and storage requires vessels and complex, high-cost equipment.
Fishing populations along the Pacific coast are most numerous and productive in Baja California and the North Pacific as well as along Central and South Pacific regions. Along the Gulf of Mexico, the greatest concentration of fishermen is found in the North, Central Gulf and Yucatán (Campeche), as well as further down in the South Gulf and Yucatán regions (the states of Yucatán and Quintana Roo).
The search for alternative food production sources has led many countries, including Mexico, to promote species cultivation and fresh-water fishing through aquaculture. Paradoxically, something originally carried out by Ancient Mexicans, and grown nearly extinct, has, since the 80s, become an important activity once again. Today’s aquaculture operates in three ways: in small bodies of water and production units, mainly for self-consumption (typically species like tilapia and carp); aquacultural fisheries that are the product of systematic cultivation in medium- and large-sized reservoirs (principally carp, tilapia, catfish and bass), as well as such systems as emerge from the management of endangered wild stock (as the axolotl) and its spawn; and commercially oriented controlled fishing systems (mostly trout, catfish, shrimp, oysters and mussels).
Mexican seafood is marketed fresh, salted, dried, frozen, canned or cured, as well as in the form of flours and oils. Mexican cooks prepare fish and shellfish in cebiches, cocktails, grilled or roasted, in broths and soups, as stuffing for tamales and antojitos, in stews and casseroles, accompanied by various sauces, or wrapped in corn husks or plantain leaves and cooked on barbecues. Freshwater seafood is consumed in similar ways.

Recipes

Tuna in amaranth Crust
Chilapitas with squid salpicón
Green shrimp aguachile
Arroz a la tumbada
Shrimp stew
Pescado zarandeado
Fish veracruz style
White cebiche
Tikin xic fish
Crab chilpachole
Arroz a la tumbada
Puerto Nuevo lobster tacos
Crawfish huatape
White cebich
Fish tamales
Sardine tostadas
Scallops with pico de gallo


HERBS AND SPICES

Aromatic herbs and spices are ingredients containing aromatic, flavorful or stimulating substances used both for dressing food and beverages as well as enhancing their aroma and taste.
For Mexicans since ancient times, numerous examples were used as medicine, condiments and were an important element in religious and magical rites. Local peoples possessed extensive knowledge about their harvest, cultivation, use and consumption—knowledge that has spread over time.
An extensive number of native Mexican herbs are found close to or within the milpa; homegrown herbs figure to a lesser extent. These—alongside those that have arrived from Europe and Asia since the sixteenth century—make Mexican cooking a cuisine of aromas.
Herbs and spices offer almost unlimited possibilities when it comes to enriching and varying the flavor of what its cooked, but personal preferences, habits, customs and tradition play an important role in their use and consumption. Often they are considered basic ingredients. Their main function is to enhance other ingredients’ flavors, fragrant additions that season foods and lend them their own, unique character, as is the case with oregano and cumin from northern Mexico; epazote and cinnamon that come from the nation’s center; yerba santa and allspice from the southeast; and chaya and achiote from the Yucatán.
Herbs are used fresh and dried, whole, chopped or ground, or as decoration, in savory and sweet dishes. In addition to their aroma, they provide key vitamins and minerals.
Spices are consumed dry, and come from seeds, fruits, stems, roots and bark. Their remarkable ability to enhance flavor allows them to be used in small quantities. They rarely provide nutritional elements, but can stimulate the appetite. Several are used to color food and some are notable as preservatives; others lend more character to an ingredient or recipe via their distinctive flavor. Whole or ground, herbs and spices can be added at the beginning of the cooking process; roasted, fried or prepared tatemada-style, and are used to prepare salsas, moles, preserves, pickles and escabeches.
Notable Mexican herbs include: field anise flower or pericón (Tagetes lucida), chepilin or chepil (Crotalaria spp.), epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides), hierba del conejo (Tridax coronopifolia), yerba santa (Piper sanctum), papaloquelite (Porophyllum ryderale), pipicha (Porophyllum tagetoides) pitiona (Limpia spp.), chaya (Cnidoscolus chayamansa), nuriten (Satureja macrostema), Mexican oregano or oregano de monte (Dalea greggi), avocado leaves (Persea americana), all in addition to numerous other regional herbs.
Non-native herbs now adopted by Mexican cooks include cilantro (Coriandrum sativum), parsley (Petroselinum hortense), oregano (Origanum vulgare), bay leaf (Laurus nobilis), marjoram (Origanum majorana), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), etc.
Mexican spices include achiote (Bixa orellana), or fat Tabasco pepper (Pimenta dioica), safflower (Ditaxis heterantha), and other regional spices.
Imported—yet practically Mexican—spices include cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), anise (Pimpinella anisum), black pepper (Piper negrum), cumin (Cuminum cyminum), and cloves (Syzygium aromaticum), to mention the most important.
Another group consists of medicinal plants (leaves, flowers, seeds, roots) that play an important role in traditional herbalism, even if several also form part of Mexican cuisine. Many are associated with the milpa, mostly grow wild and are harvested for curative applications. In Mexico, this knowledge and these practices have been handed down from generation to generation, especially in rural areas, and are administered via infusions or poultices. Noteworthy examples include anisillo (Tagetes spp.), hierba de pollo, lemon grass, basil (Ocimum basilicum), and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), among others.

Recipes

Plátanos al tequila
Torta de elote
Mamey dulce de platón
Frijol con puerco
Tikin Xic Fish