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Authentic Mexican Ingredients

September 26, 2017 BY Mauricio


Mexican food no longer tops the list of must-visit ethnic restaurants in the United States. Is that because we don’t crave the cuisine? Studies suggest that we do crave it; in fact, we crave it so much it has become a comfort food in the U.S., and we no longer consider it ethnic or foreign. We have embraced the Hispanic culture and welcomed the many and diverse Mexican ingredients as our own. When we see chorizo on the menu, we assume it’s the authentic Mexican style. A dish like tamales does not carry the descriptor “Mexican” to denote its origins. The simple taco is almost as much an American food as it a Mexican one.

Amercians are more educated about Mexican customs, ingredients and dishes, this enables a deeper interest into true, authentic offerings, opening the door for many new possibilities of fusion. Mexican food at its root is a simple yet flavorful cuisine that bases its dishes off of a few key ingredients that are versatile and approachable for the typical American consumer.


Mexican cuisine is one of the top most eaten international foods in United states

Chart comparing most popular international foods

The United States Hispanic population has grown significantly over the past four decades.

Chart comparing most populous states with Hispanics

The Hispanic population is a large percentage of the United states total population.

Chart comparing percentage of population based on ethnicity

Mexican cuisine is considered American comfort food and is the only ethnic cusine on the list. The U.S. as a country have claimed it as its own.

Chart comparing responses to American's comfort food preferences
source: Harris Poll. Over 2,200 U.S. adults were asked, “What’s the number one ‘dee-lectable’ that makes your mouth water when you’re feeling blue?”



purple corn on white background

NOTES: This grain is native to what had been Mesoamerica, which covered central Mexico to Costa Rica. During ancient times, Mesoamericans used a process called nixtamalization to soften maize (corn) and make masa (dough). The process consisted in boiling the grain in water with calcium hydroxide to soften it and allow for better grounding. This method also helps you digest the grain better and enhances the nutritional value of maíze. Nixtamalization is still used today, as is maíze. The grain is very popular in Mexico and used in any shape or form in or along with most dishes. Maíze is a great example of an authentic Mexican ingredient, whether ground up as masa or just simply boiled on the cob.

PROFILE: Flavors found in the maíze are lightly sweet, musty, slight rancid, grainy and chalky. The texture is crisp and chewy.

USES: Mexican dishes and drinks made with maize include:

  • Tortillas
  • Elotes (Street corn)
  • Totopos (Tortilla chips)
  • Gorditas
  • Sopas (Soups)
  • Empanadas
  • Tamales
  • Salsas (Sauces)
  • Atole


Cocoa pod, beans and powder isolated on a white background

NOTES: Xocolatl, “the food of the gods,” or chocolate as we know it, was discovered by the Mayans and Aztecs. It is a drink consisting of fermenting, drying, toasting and then grinding the cacao bean to make a paste-like form. The paste is then heated with water, vanilla and chili peppers to make the drink. Xocolatl was a bitter drink that was said to give energy and endurance to whomever drank it. After the drink was introduced to Europe, sugar was added to balance out the bitterness and that’s where it became the sweet we know today as chocolate. In Mexico, chocolate has won its place in every kitchen pantry because it’s used in most moles, a traditional Mexican dish.

PROFILE: The roast level of the cacao bean affects the flavor profile of chocolate. A low roast gives it an acidic nutty cacoa flavor while a high roast leads to a burnt bitter cacoa flavor. Additional ingredients can be added to create more distinct flavors, such as: nutty, spicy, floral, fruity, earthy, caramel-like and vegetative. The texture can be a crunch with a buttery feel as it starts to disintegrate when exposed to high temperatures.

USES: Mexican dishes and drinks made with chocolate include:

  • Moles
  • Enchiladas
  • Pinole
  • Chocoflan
  • Barra de chocolate (Chocolate bar)
  • Helado (Ice cream)
  • Champurrado


vanilla beans with two flowers on white background

NOTES: Mayans and Aztecs used vainilla (vanilla), and it was one of the primary ingredients to make “the Food of the Gods,” chocolate. Its natural aroma and flavor helped smooth the bitterness of the chocolate.

PROFILE: Extracto de vainilla (vanilla extract) flavor is floral, bitter and caramellic. The aroma can be rum-like and dried brown fruit.

USES: Mexican dishes and drinks made with vainilla include:

  • Chocolates
  • Flan
  • Pan dulce (sweet breads)
  • Atole
  • Cajeta (Mexican caramel)
  • Helado (Ice cream)
  • Rompope (Mexican eggnog)


chili peppers isolated

NOTES: Ají picante (Chili peppers) are another great ingredient used by the indigenous people of Mexico before the discovery of the Americas. Today it can be found all over the world, but in Mexico it is a vital ingredient found in almost every authentic dish. Ranging from sweet to extremely hot, these peppers come in all colors, shapes and sizes. They can be found fresh, dried, pickled or as an ingredient in marinade.

PROFILES: The flavors depend on the type of pepper. If the pepper is fresh, it will be sweet, floral and with a light or intensified heat depending on the type of chili. If the pepper is dried, it can be smoky or earthy with some wood notes. The dried pepper has a light or intensified heat depending on the type of chili. When pickled or in marinade, the peppers’ flavors are carried from the original fresh or dried state, with a bitter, sour, tart-like flavor. The texture also changes depending on how the chili pepper is served: crisp with a crunch when fresh; if dried it is flaky and slightly chalky; and when pickled it is soft and meaty. For more information about chili peppers, please visit our Trending Flavors: Mexican Chili Peppers.

USES: Mexican dishes and drinks made with Ají picante include:

  • Sopas (Soups)
  • Tamales
  • Salsas (Sauces)
  • Guisos (Stews)
  • Mole
  • Ceviche
  • Chiles rellenos (Stuffed peppers)
  • Dulce mexicano (Mexican candy)
  • Helado (Ice cream)
  • Micheladas
  • Margaritas
  • Jugos (Juices)


Tomatoes on a white background

NOTES: The jitomate (tomato) was used by the Mesoamerican natives. The jitomate is an ingredient that can be found on most Mexican tables today. It can be different shapes and colors and is eaten straight from the vine or used in various methods of cooking.

PROFILE: A wide range of flavors can be found in jitomate: acidic/sour, sweet, fresh, bitter, green underripe and overripe. The texture is meaty and seedy.

USES: Mexican dishes and drinks made with jitomate include:

  • Sopas (Soups)
  • Ensalada (Salad)
  • Salsas (Sauces)
  • Guisos (Stews)
  • Mole
  • Tortas (Sandwich)
  • Arroz (Rice)
  • Micheladas
  • Jugos (Juices)


Center cut, peeled and whole tomatillo isolated on white background.

NOTES: The tomato and tomatillo not only share the same history, but also some strong characteristics in flavor, shape and color. The difference is that a tomatillo grows wrapped in a cascara or husk. The tomatillo is much more acidic and in some varieties sweeter than the tomato. Tomatillo is used mostly in green sauces, which helps give it that natural green color.

PROFILE: The flavors will depend on the variety of the tomatillo. The green tomatillo will carry a strong sweet, bitter, tart, green underripe, seedy flavor. The other tomatillos carry similar characteristics as the green one, with slight variations. A purple tomatillo is a sweeter version; milpero tomatillo will be more acidic in flavor; the zuni tomatillo will be more green grassy and acidic; and a piña tomatillo (pineapple tomatillo) will be much sweeter and acidic. The texture of each is hard meaty and seedy when raw and softer when cooked.

USES: Mexican dishes made with tomatillo include:

  • Salsa verde (Green sauce)
  • Guisos (Stews)
  • Mole verde
  • Salsas (Sauces)
  • Chilaquiles verdes


Mixed beans on a white background.

NOTES: Another great ingredient that has been used for centuries since the Aztecs and the Mayans is the frijol (bean). Frijoles come in different colors that vary by regions. The northern Mexican states use more of the lighter frijoles like the Peruvian and judía pinta (pinto bean). The flor de mayo (purple and beige beans) is popular in the central states. The southern states incorporate more of the frijoles negro (black beans). Frijoles can be served as a side dish or as an entrée, whole, smashed, refried and refried along with fried jalapeños or a red chili sauce.

PROFILE: The flavor characteristics of the frijol are sweet, metallic, sulfurous, musty, with a slight burnt taste. The texture is starchy and cardboard-like.

USES: Mexican dishes made with frijoles include:

  • Frijoles refritos (Refried beans)
  • Sopa de frijol (bean soup)
  • Frijoles de olla (whole beans)
  • Sopas (Soups)
  • Ensalada (Salads)
  • Tostadas
  • Tortas (Sandwiches)
  • Gorditas
  • Guaraches


avocados over white background

NOTES: The ahuacatl (avocado) is an ancient ingredient native to southcentral Mexico. Mexico is the world’s largest producer of the fruit, with the state of Michoacan making the largest contribution. An ahuacatl can be served alone or as a complement to a dish.

PROFILE: The flavor characteristics of the ahuacatl are fruity, herbal and fresh. Its texture is creamy, smooth, with a buttery feel.

USES: Mexican dishes made with ahuacatl include:

  • As a complement to tortas, tacos, tostadas, guaraches and flautas
  • Salsas (Sauces)
  • Guacamole


cactus leaf isolated on white background

NOTES: With an unknown origin, the nopal is another great authentic ingredient used in the Mexican cuisine. This cactus is abundant across the country, found in mercados or in the wild. Both the nopal pads and tuna (nopal fruit) are edible raw or cooked. Nopal and tuna are covered with spines that must be properly removed prior to eating. The pads can be found raw, canned, pickled and ground. The tuna is sweet and has a texture similar to a kiwi, but very seedy. The nopal is also one of Mexico’s patriotic symbols found on the coat of arms and the flag.

PROFILES: The flavors found in the nopal are fresh, tart, underripe and bitter. The texture is meaty, sticky and slimy with an outer crunch. Flavors found in the tuna are candy-like, sweet, fruity, floral and juicy. The tuna’s texture is comparable to a kiwi – jammy and seedy.

USES: Mexican dishes and drinks made with nopal include:

  • Guaraches
  • Tacos
  • Gorditas
  • Ensalada de nopalitos (Nopal salad)
  • Nopalitos con huevos (Eggs and nopal)
  • Carne con nopalitos (Meat and nopal)
  • Jugos verde (Green juice)


sprig of cilantro on a white background

NOTES: With origins from the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, cilantro (cilantro) has found a home in Mexico. It belongs to the parsley family and is often an ingredient that comes to mind when you think of Mexican food. It brings a leafy, fresh aroma to the table and is mostly used raw as a complement on the dishes.

PROFILE: Flavors found in cilantro are pungent, grassy, bitter, fresh, metallic and citric. The texture is leafy and crisp.

USES: Mexican dishes made with cilantro include:

  • As a complement to tacos and tortas
  • Guacamole
  • Salsas (Sauces)
  • Sopas (Soups)


Cumin seeds and ground powder on white background.

NOTES: Comino (cumin) is an ingredient brought to the Americas during the Spanish excursions. It belongs to the parsley family and it is used all over Mexico. It is often in red and green salsas, sopas, tamales, tacos and flauta fillings. Found as a whole seed, toasted or grounded, comino is a signature ingredient in Mexican cuisine.

PROFILE: The flavors found in comino are earthy, nutty, spicy and bitter with a floral hint. The texture is dry and chalky.

USES: Mexican dishes made with comino include:

  • Tacos
  • Tortas
  • Salsas de roja y verde (Red and green salsa)
  • Moles
  • Poses
  • Flautas
  • Sopas (Soups)
  • Enchiladas
  • Tamales
  • Guisos (Stews)


Fresh and dried oregano spices on a white background

NOTES: Orégano mexicano (Mexican oregano) is another key ingredient in the Mexican flavor profile. This is a different plant than the Mediterranean oregano commonly kept in home spice racks. Orégano mexicano is used fresh, dried or ground. Due to its pungent citric flavor, the spice is commonly paired with chiles, paprika and comino to help balance the flavors.

PROFILE: The orégano mexicano flavor is bitter, sweet, earthy, peppery, pungent and citrusy. The texture is leafy, green and grassy.

USES: Mexican dishes made with orégano mexicano include:

  • Escabeche (Marinades)
  • Posoles
  • Sopas (Soups)
  • Salsas (Sauces)
  • Moles
  • Guisos (Stews)


Authentic Mexican cuisine is not complex but inviting and comforting. Americans consider it our own cuisine after years of adoption, and crave more about this cuisine than what is currently embedded into our food culture. Using a regional Mexican specialty or flavor profile for your next project is not only a safe culinary exploration, but could also be a potential workhorse for any line that needs a little excitement or breath of fresh air.



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