Five Things to Learn Before Writing About Mexican Food

mexicoflag.jpg
Flickr user icexmaker

This is a painful post to write.

I am guilty, in my sordid past as a food writer, of all of these. I'm still no expert on Mexican food--part of its allure is that no matter how much I learn, there's still some abuelita in a forgotten rancho in a state all but ignored on signs on restaurants here who's making something special with the food she has available to her. I'm grateful to all the people who've helped to educate me in one of the great cuisines of the world.

1. Beans aren't served with seafood.


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Flickr user ulanice
Beans and rice, beans and rice, beans and rice. You could be excused for thinking the duo was mandatory with every dish if your experience were only Mexican restaurants in the United States. Seafood isn't served with beans; the seafood is the protein, and the flavor of beans doesn't go well with the astoundingly excellent fruits of the sea pulled from the Pacific and Caribbean. Unfortunately, in the U.S., even places that purport to be authentic often serve beans and rice alongside dishes that wouldn't see them in Mexico because they're tired of the questions.


2. Spanish rice is common and authentic, but not exclusive.

spanishrice.jpg
Flickr user tariqata_photos
The first time I was served white rice in a "real" Mexican restaurant, I actually said something to the effect of "But it isn't orange!" The owner smiled and said that white rice is the usual rice served in Mexico. Spanish rice gets its color from either tomato sauce or chile sauce if red or from bouillon or stock (and sometimes annatto) if yellow; those flavors may not match the accompanying protein. Mole always comes with white rice; seafood usually does, too.


3. Carnitas aren't supposed to be stringy.

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Flickr user rubber_slippers_in_italy
To someone used to Mexican-American restaurants, the division is simple: Chicken is chicken; beef is chopped into small, square-ish bits; and carnitas are stringy, like pulled pork. Right? Wrong. Real carnitas, called surtido de carnitas ("variety of little meats"), are made from all parts of the pig--esophagus, uterus, neck, the works--and tend to be chopped fine. The result, if they've been fried properly in a slowly bubbling cazo of lard, is one of the finest, porkiest tastes ever, as well as a mix of textures. The stringy maciza (shoulder) is only one part of it.


4. Chiles are not interchangeable.

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Flickr user anthro_aya
The state question of New Mexico is "Red or green?" This makes sense because New Mexico's famous chiles come in two colors. Unfortunately, this traffic-light taxonomy doesn't hold up in Mexico. Green chiles? Which ones? Serranos, jalapeños, chilacas or poblanos? Red? There are dozens of kinds. Each chile, under its capsaicin burn, lends a particular flavor, which is why moles made in the United States won't taste the same as moles made in Mexico; the chiles common in Oaxaca are hard to find here.


5. Tacos are not normally a dinner.

sonmuytacos.jpg
Flickr user ted_major
While you might make a meal out of tacos, they belong to a set of Mexican dishes called antojitos, meant as snacks or as street food, not as a sit-down dinner. It'd be the equivalent of making a meal out of tapas--common in the U.S., not so common in Spain. Why tacos are disdained and enchiladas are a normal dinner will have to remain a mystery known only to the keepers of Mexican-food lore.

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8 comments
Chip Huertas
Chip Huertas

Something i like to say as a mexican, why you never have a taco with lettuce, but you have tacos dorados with lettuce, or tostadas with lettuce but not sopes? i don't know for sure, but flavors are very different from a taco (carnitas, barbacoa, nopales, etc) and a taco dorado (fried taco), and lettuce taste good in one but it doesn't add in the other... it is like using red tomatoes and green tomatoes at the same time to make a "brown" salsa... just thinking about this salsa makes me cringe, there are things you don't mix and you don't even try... like frijoles rancheros with lemon... ughh...

Mexgourmand
Mexgourmand

Mexican cuisine is geographically diverse. Your points are probably true for some regional Mexican cuisines, definitely not all. For instance, in Veracruz and along the Caribbean coast black beans are one of the most common accompaniments to seafood. 

obbop
obbop

I sob nearly uncontrollably when I observe the too-high carbohydrate content of so many yummy Mexican-type foods.

I have to greatly reduce my carb. intake.

Sob.  Sniff. Sob some more.

Even my lusted-for mashed potatoes have become a rarity.

I deeply miss tacos, burritos, fried rice... heck, rice of any type must be avoided or eaten in such minute quantities as to just be a tease.

A few measly bites and that ends my rice-eating session.

And viewing the pictures of that i am unable to consume adds to the torture.

Akin to the trekker traversing the desert whose water supply has been deleted and the mirage entices with non-existent water.

Alas. Woe.

Back to my cucumber. An inadequate substitute for real food.

Forced to graze.

But the thoughts of devouring real food consume me.

Life, oh life, thou can be so cruel.

Sniff. Sob.

DanGarion
DanGarion

Regardless if the food is good it's good and it doesn't really matter.  Thanks for the lesson though. :)

MeToo
MeToo

I'll never look at taco Tuesdays the same way again. 

Jeff Overley
Jeff Overley

Does anybody know where to find distinctive Spanish rice? Seriously seems nearly identical everywhere. Aren't there any variations?

Tran
Tran

Sounds like Dave has a great question to Ask a Mexican.

Christian Z.
Christian Z.

Baja Fish Tacos serves white rice. Taco Rosa has several kinds of rice, including one with some mustard in it.

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