There’s no reason to think that food in Mexico is stranger than anywhere else. Certainly tacos, enchiladas, fajitas, burritos and various other Mexican specialities have long been well-known outside the country, but dig a little deeper and you might be surprised by some of the oddities you’ll find on a Mexican menu, especially if you make the trip to Central America yourself.
Here are a few lesser-known Mexican dishes that are well worth tracking down:
It’s not necessarily what barbacoa is that raises eyebrows, more how it’s cooked. In theory it is roast lamb, served with the usual array of Mexican sauces and guacamole. But the way it’s cooked is rather unique: place a whole (presumably sheared) sheep into a large pit in the ground, and slowly steam it for days, under the cover of large leaves of either the maguey or banana plant. The meat should be unseasoned, but when served will be tender and delicious and wrapped in a warm tortilla.
Molé is a speciality of which Mexicans are particularly proud. The word can be used to describe a variety of sauces used in the country and each region of Mexico has a preference for a specific blend of ingredients. Popular ingredients in molé include raisins, lime, sour cream, chocolate, almonds and peanuts. These and others can be cooked together in various ways to produce sauces of different styles and colours to serve with meat, most often chicken. The only mandatory ingredient is, of course, chillies.
Originating from the city of Puebla, on the face of it a cemita is a sandwich, but with a splendid Mexican twist. The bread of the sandwich is made with egg and resembles a French brioche. Cut thickly, it’s then filled with a mish-mash of Mexican ingredients such as refried beans, white cheese, avocado, onions and pickled jalapeños. Although the meat in the sandwich is sometimes chicken or pork, the most commonly used meat is the thinly pounded and deep-fried beef milanesa.
4. Fruta con chile
This does precisely what it says on the label: fruit with chilli. It may not seem like an immediately appetising idea, peppering your mango with spice but it’s surprising exactly how refreshing it can be. It is served mainly as street food in Mexico, and all sorts of fruit are used including oranges, pineapple, mango, watermelon, strawberries, coconut and even carrots. Each fruit is usually served with lime to give it even more of an unusual tang.
Saving the best until last, we bring you escamoles, which are usually served in a taco with guacamole. And what are escamoles? The eggs of a breed of giant ant, collected painfully (the ant is highly venomous) and served as a delicacy in a similar fashion to caviar. The eggs are believed to have a vaguely nutty, buttery taste, with a consistency akin to cottage cheese – which would be fine, if they weren’t the eggs of a large venomous ant.
Tracking down these Mexican delicacies
Most of these foods are sold by the street food vendors (known as ambulantes) found all over Mexico. Street food itself is known as antojitos (‘little cravings’ in English) and Mexicans are proud of its long tradition. Their other wares usually include gorditas, chalupas, esquites, and the famous and ever popular tamales, a type of doughy cornstarch with multiple fillings, wrapped in banana or vine leaves.
Before your trip to Mexico, why not have a go at our Spanish level test? After all, brushing up your Spanish might help ensure your friendly ambulante serves you the cemita you asked for rather than a terrifying collection of ant eggs by mistake.