One of my favorite cuisines – and it really is, if you get the real thing – is honest to goodness Mexican. Mexican food covers a wide range of styles, seasonings, protein choices, and seasonal vegetables in so many colorful, tasty, unique dishes that you could eat something different just about every meal for a year and not repeat, if you had access to someone who knew how to cook the various regions of Mexican food.
Many people do not realize how large Mexico is, and how varied the terrain. Mexican geography plays a big part in what is cooked where, as for many centuries transportation was somewhat limited to some areas, especially the mountainous interior regions. There are seven major divisions of Mexican food, roughly based on the “states” (actually more like provinces) in Mexico.
In the north of Mexico, stretching nearly 2,000 miles along the U.S. border and with Pacific, Sea of Cortez and Caribbean shores, the north is known for ranch food, fresh cheese, and a growing viniculture/gourmand food culture. Did you know there are 40 different kinds of tortillas just in the northern region of Mexico? Wine grapes have been grown in Baja for centuries and the area is known for its varietals.
The Northern Pacific Coast region is known for pork production and seafood, as well as any number of spicy chilies. You will find another Mexican favorite of north of the border, too, as Jalisco is known as the home of tequila and many high end top shelf brands originate, and are legally labeled, to this region.
The Bajio stretches from the southwestern Pacific coast into the mountainous interior. Carnitas are favorites in this region, which is also known for spicy sausage, and especially delectable, sweet, decadent deserts.
Well down the Pacific coast lies the South Pacific Coast. A sharply mountainous region with deep cool valleys, this area is the most indigenous in population and food. Corn is a staple, and the seasonings tend to be unique, utilizing herbs not found elsewhere. When you see a mole used as a seasoning, or the fieriest of small peppers, you can bet it is from this area. The most famous seasoning we are very grateful they shared….chocolate.
The South has three distinct areas, but we would tend to view it as all Yucatan. Corn again is a key staple, both for food and beverages. Chicken and pork appear inland, while special delicacies of the sea along the coast include Mero, conch, and lagoon snails. One of the main spices in annatto seed which lends a bright red color and slightly nutmeg-y taste to dishes. Salsas most often are made from a variety of tropical fruits with honey, and jalapenos on the side. Coconut is a key ingredient also. And one of the fun things is many dishes are cooked by wrapping in banana leaves and roasted or steamed in coals.
The Gulf region shows the influence of Cuban, Creole, and African dishes from colonial periods. The introduction of European and African herbs and spices gives Gulf cuisine a lighter taste, often using local vegetables as additional seasoning base. African influence includes peanuts, plantains, yucca, and sweet potatoes that are cooked into dishes, vanilla grows here, and citrus as well as tropical fruits are utilized heavily in the cooking. This area has some unique seafood offerings as well found nowhere else in Mexico.
Central Mexico is home to Mexico City and its homogenous mix of international cultures. Street food is highly popular here, with all regions of Mexico represented as well as many cuisines from around the world. If you want tacos that remind you of the states, street tacos in Mexico City are the way to go. You can find Mexican restaurants of all regions, specializing in seafood, or even those offering pre-Hispanic civilization foods that include delicacies not eaten too many places.
Next time you stop by your favorite Mexican restaurant, browse the menu. See if you might be able to tell where the chefs or owners are from by the choices. You never know when you will find a new favorite dish.