Divine Dinner Party

Traditional Mexican Foods, Dishes, and Famous Recipes

Before the Conquistadores, traditional Mexican foods were simple-- and largely based on corn, chilies, tomatoes, bell peppers and beans mixed with spices and herbs for flavor. After the arrival of the Spanish, however, Mexican foods began to incorporate ingredients like pork, wine, garlic and onions. Mexican food really began to expand, flavor-wise.

It's hard to pin down what the most traditional Mexican dishes really are-- because it differs from place to place. Specialties change from North to South to Central Mexico, and from East to West. Mexico has an incredibly rich food culture. And even remote villages have their own traditional recipes for local delicacies like iguana or rattlesnake.

Learning About Mexican Foods and Ingredients

Yes, Mexico has an almost too-rich-to-learn food culture. But if you're looking to learn how to cook Mexican food, there are some ingredients, sauces, and dishes you should know about before you get started. So read on my guide to the most common Mexican foods. And when you're done here, head over to Authentic Mexican Food Recipes for tons of Mexican info, recipes, and more!

Traditional Mexican Accompaniments and Sides

Frijoles: Mexican beans aren't always refried! Simple but flavorful boiled beans are a very traditional Mexican food, as well.

Nopales: These are the pads of a prickly pear cactus. They have a strange texture, and are nicest when cut rather fine.

Tortillas, Corn: Used often for tacos and enchiladas, made from a fine cornmeal "masa." (see recipe below)

Tortillas, Flour: These are used more in Northern Mexico, and are made with wheat rather than corn.

Traditional Mexican Snacks and Desserts

Mexican Churros Recipe with Hot ChocolateChicharrones: Similar to American style pork rinds but a bit harder of texture, these can be a snack or appetizer or an accompaniment.

Churros: These aren't the huge ones you get at the fair! Smallish, fried cylinders of dough coated in sugar and dipped in a rich, dark hot chocolate. Amazingly good.

Flan: A firm, egg-based custard cooked with a thin, dark caramel sauce and eaten cold or cool.

Sopapillas: Sopapilla is a chewy and delicious fried bread eaten in much of Central and South America, including Mexico. Can be eaten savory, or with honey or sugar as a dessert.

Traditional Mexican Sauces

Adobo: A tangy-spicy marinade for meats and vegetables.

Guacamole: Can be made smooth or chunky... one of the best traditional Mexican foods ever created! Avocado mashed with tomato, onion, lime, and salt.

Mole Sauce: One of the most complex and difficult Mexican sauces to make-- and worth it. Each mole sauce is different, containing chocolate, chilies, nuts, spices... everything but the kitchen sink. Served often with enchiladas.

Pico de Gallo: A Mexican salsa that's left chunky, simple, and fresh: a mixture of tomato, onion, and lots of cilantro.

Salsa Fresca: The Mexican classic tomato salsa: a mix of tomato, chili, lime, onion, cilantro, and garlic. Fresh and tangy, and can be as hot or as mild as you like.

Salsa Verde: A not-so-chunky green-colored Mexican salsa made with chilies, tomatillos, onions, and garlic. Really delicious!

Mexican Meats and Meat Dishes

Carne Asada: Grilled, spiced beef sliced thin. Often served in tacos.

Carnitas: Roasted, spiced pork, very tender and juicy. Often served in tacos with fresh or grilled onion.

Chorizo: A hot Mexican sausage based off the Spanish chorizo-- can either be a hard, sliced sausage or a loose sausage.

Cochinita Pibil: A wonderful smoky-spicy-sweet pork dish in a light sauce.

Traditional "Complete" Mexican Dishes

ReaL Mexican Tacos RecipeBurritos: A large flour tortilla filled with beans, meats, cheeses, etc., and wrapped.

Ceviche: A fresh fish dish eaten all over Central and South America. The fish is "cooked" in lime or lemon juice-- very fresh and beautifully textured.

Chilaquiles: The "real" Mexican nachos (nachos aren't really Mexican!) Crisp tortilla chips covered in salsa (often salsa verde), meat, and cheese. A lot "saucy-er" than American-style nachos.

Chiles Rellenos: A hot green pepper that is stuffed with cheese and fried in an egg batter.

Empanada: A fried turnover with a savory or sweet filling.

Enchiladas: Corn tortillas filled with a meat mixture (chicken, pork, or beef), and cooked with cheese and sauce.

Menudo: A spicy soup made from intestine-- a lot tastier than it sounds!

Pozole: A thick soup made from hominy (large dried kernals of corn).

Quesadillas: The traditional kind is made with corn rather than flour tortillas, fried, and filled with cheese, meats, beans, and just about anything else.

Tacos: A corn tortilla (soft, though-- not fried) with a meat or fish filling and a fresh garnish (onion, salsa fresca, etc.).

Tamales: A corn "masa" stuffed with a meat mixture (or left plain or served sweet) steamed in corn husks. (Making Mexican tamales is complicated but worth every second!)

This list may seem extensive, but... it really just scratches the surface, offering up only the most traditional Mexican foods. If you want to learn more, you've really got to study. One of my favorite Mexican food experts out there? Rick Bayless. Check out his books and cookbooks to really immerse yourself in Mexico.

All About Mexican Corn Tortillas

Since corn is historically the dominant grain in Central and South America, many of the traditional Mexican foods involve corn in some way-- as I'm sure you noted above. In the most famous and traditional Mexican foods, dried corn is ground and made into tortillas or into steamed packets as a tamal (hint: the word "tamale" doesn't exist in Spanish!).

Homemade Corn TortillasMaking Corn Tortillas from Scratch. Corn tortillas are made using a corn flour called masa harina. This flour is created when whole kernels are boiled with wood ash or lye. This removes the fibrous outer hull and the kernals can be ground much easier. The dried product becomes masa harina flour and can be mixed with water to form a dough.

Fortunately for us, pre-packaged masa harina is easier to find all the time-- and is wonderful for making your own homemade corn tortillas. Which is a lot easier than you might think! And no matter what traditional Mexican food you might want to prepare with them... it'll taste SO much better with fresh tortillas.

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2 cups masa harina
1 cups hot water (a bit more if needed)
Salt, to taste
A couple drops of lime or lemon juice (optional)

Instructions: 1. In a medium bowl, combine masa harina, salt, lemon, and water. Place dough on a clean surface and knead until pliable and smooth. Add more masa harina if dough becomes too sticky or sprinkle water if it becomes too dry. Cover the dough ball tightly with plastic wrap and allow to rest for 30 minutes.

2. Preheat a cast iron skillet or griddle to medium-high.

3. Divide dough into 15 equal-size portions. Smaller dough balls make smaller tortillas.

4. For each dough ball follow the same steps. In a large plastic bag place a couple drops of vegetable oil and one portion of the dough. Using the bag to prevent sticking, flatten the dough with your hands or a rolling pin.

5. Remove from plastic and place the tortilla in pan and cook for half a minute or until browned and slightly puffy. Use a wide flat spatula to turn the tortilla over. Brown the second side and remove to a covered dish with wax paper or damp towels between layers of tortilla.

Tip: Plan to make your own corn tortillas often? Look online for a traditional Mexican foods store that sells tortilla presses. They're cheap, easy to use, and will make the hardest part --the rolling out of the tortillas-- a lot easier!

Easy Mexican Mole Sauce Recipe

Making Traditional Mexican Mole SauceNot all of traditional Mexican food flavors are overwhelmingly spicy. Some recipes mix typically sweet ingredients like cinnamon, cloves and cocoa to add deep rich flavors to dishes. The combination of spices, cocoa and nuts create that beautiful sauce that is a favorite traditional Mexican food --mole sauce!-- which can be as hot or as mild as you like.

Now, without 100 ingredients, significant experience, and a lot of time, you're never going to be able to make a truly wonderful mole at home. Sorry, but... this is one of those traditional Mexican foods that requires a lot of expertise. Rick Bayless says it took him decades to perfect his mole sauce.

That said, if you're looking to make something quick and mole-ish at home, this is a good recipe to start with... you never know, you might graduate to make a more complicated and traditional version sooner than you think!

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3 dried Ancho chili halves, stemmed and seeded
1 cup chicken broth
1 1/2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1/3 cup onion, chopped fine
2 ripe tomatoes or 5 tomatillos, chopped and seeded
1 (4 ounce) can diced green chile peppers
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon dried cilantro

Instructions: 1. Place Ancho chili halves in a small bowl and cover with chicken broth to re-hydrate. Set this aside.

2. In a medium saucepan cook the onion using vegetable oil over medium heat until tender. Stir in the tomato and green chili peppers and cook for 10 minutes or until very soft.

3. Add the cocoa powder, garlic, cumin and cilantro and mix well.

4. Chop the Ancho chilies and add to the pan. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to low. Cover and let simmer 10 minutes. Pour contents of pan into blender and puree. Add chicken stock if needed.

Traditional Mexican foods can be complex and flavorful, but they can also be made easily in your own home! All it takes is a bit of trial and error and a flair for trying something new.

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Looking to make a whole range of traditional Mexican foods? You'll want to check out some of our other Mexican-food pages, like:

Traditional Mexican Drink Recipes


The History of Traditional Mexican Cuisine


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The date for Easter falls on April 20th this year!

Take a look at Easter Dinner and Party Planning for recipes, edd dye tips, assembling Easter baskets, and more!

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