The Mexican Pantry
Authentic Mexican cooking starts with ingredients that are traditionally used across the various regions of Mexico. Substitutions can of course be made or ingredients left out - the dishes will still be flavorful and tasty. But to enjoy the food as it was intended to be eaten, then you should try to get authentic ingredients. Depending on where you live, some ingredients might be easier to find that others. Luckily, there are several internet shops that can help out when you can't find the products locally.
This is not a comprehensive list of ingredients used in Mexican cooking, but a list of the most commonly used items. If you like to cook Mexican dishes, it might be worth your time to grow some of the fresh herbs - such as cilantro, oregano, epazote, and some chiles - at home.
- Achiote: Reddish-orange seed of the annatto tree. It is used to season and color foods. A seasoning paste is often made from the seeds, you can use either the seeds directly (often times ground first) or the paste in your recipes. Achiote is used extensively in the Yucatán region.
- Allspice: An aromatic spice used whole or ground to flavor many foods. In the US, it is commonly used to flavor pumpkin pies and other desserts. Allspice trees grow mainly in the states of Tabasco, Veracruz, Oaxaca and Chiapas (southern Mexico).
- Avocado: Avocados are native to Mexico and there are many varieties. One of the most commonly found in the US is the Hass variety, with is preferred due to its creamy texture and rich flavor. To ripen avocados, store at room temperature for 2 to 3 days or until barely soft when pressed lightly.
- Canela (cinnamon): Mexican name for the preferred cinnamon variety that comes from the light brown, soft bark of the true cinnamon tree native to Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon, that is why it is also known as Ceylon cinnamon) and now grown in Mexico. Canela is found ground and in sticks at Mexican stores and some supermarkets. The cinnamon commonly found in the US is a darker, more bittersweet flavoring from the cassia tree and will lend a different taste in foods.
- Chayote: Pear-shaped pale green vegetable related to the squash. Chayotes are indigenous to Mexico and are used as a cooked vegetable just like summer squash. They are also stuffed and baked for desserts.
- Chiles: The generic words used for a large number of capsicum peppers - both fresh and dried - ranging from mild to extremely hot. As a rule, the smaller the chile, the more concentrated the heat. Read my article dedicated to just chiles.
- Cilantro: Green herb also known as Chinese parsley. Cilantro has a distinctive flavor that is essential in many fresh salsas. It is popular and widely used in the US, so it should be easy to find (if you are in the US, of course).
- Crema: Mexican cream that is thick and slightly sour, similar to French crème fraiche. It is used to garnish enchiladas, tacos and many snacks. You can make crema at home or substitute plain sour cream diluted with a little milk.
- Epazote: Important green herb used in bean dishes, tamales, some sauces and stews. In some regions of Mexico, it is an essential flavor. It should also be available dried.
- Jicama: Large root vegetable with light brown skin and white flesh, shaped like a turnip and with a crisp, sweet taste. Jicama is eaten raw, peeled and sliced, only occasionally is it used cooked.
- Masa: Fresh dough made of specially processed dried corn that is used to make corn tortillas, tamales, and other masa dishes. Dried masa, called masa harina, is dehydrated into a flour, packages and sold in the flour section of many supermarkets.
- Nopales: Paddles from the prickly pear cactus that are eaten as a vegetable throughout Mexico. The edible fruit of the plant is called a tuna. Nopalitos refer to the sliced cooked, cactus paddles.
- Oregano: There are several herbs in the oregano family, and Mexican oregano has a generally more pronounced flavor than what is common in the US. Oregano should be crumbled or crushed before adding to recipes to release its flavor. It is found fresh and dried in many Mexican markets.
- Papaya: Fruit native to Central America and very common in Mexico. The Mexican variety is generally hand-sized with a dark green-yellow skin. The flesh is smooth pinkish-red with a rich, sweet taste. The grey-black seeds in the center are often thrown away.
- Piloncillo: Unrefined sugar often found in hard cones in Mexican markets and some supermarkets. Can be grated or ground in a food processor or softened in water. Some recipes will actually call for a number of piloncillos to be used. Dark brown sugar can be substituted.
- Plátano macho, known as plantains: This is a cooking banana, not to be eaten raw. They are generally fried, baked or mashed. The peel is thicker than that of a sweet, yellow banana and turns nearly black when ripe.
- Seville orange: Small bitter orange important in the foods of Yucantán, Campeche and Veracruz. These oranges are hard to find in the US and can be substituted with grapefruit or orange juice mixed with lime juice.
- Tamarindo: Brown pods from the tamarind tree whose contents make a tart juice used to flavor beverages, candies and sauces.
- Tomatillo: Small green fruit with a papery husk that looks like a green tomato and has a tart flavor. Tomatillos are most commonly used in cooked and raw salsas and sauces throughout Mexico.
- Yuca: Edible root from a tropical plant that is used like potatoes, mainly in southern Mexico throughout the Yucatán peninsula. Often fried into small chips.