Across Mexico, the very different types of terrain and variations in climate provide a remarkable range of ingredients. In those days, agriculture was done using the mixed-crop method. In this method a variety of different crops were planted in one area. And what’s more they were all even harvested at once. This method made the soil remain nutrient rich, because each crop uses a different variety of nutrients. For example crops such as corn, chillies, beans and squash would all be planted together.
After the conquest of Mexico, their food culture got influenced greatly by trade with India and Spain. Mexico was introduced to rice, olives, wines, spices from India, beef and also different kinds of fruits. Some of the animals that are commonly used today in Mexico, like for example pigs, horses, cows, sheep, goats and chicken were not known in those days. The Spaniards also introduced Mexicans to many condiments including black pepper, olive oil, cinnamon, cilantro and oregano.
Corn: Corn was the main staple of the pre-Colombian Mexican people. Locally grown and in plentiful, they would make a number of dishes with it, like tortillas or tamales. Tortillas would be filled with ingredients such as meat, rice, beans, or vegetables or a combination of these. Every part of an ear of corn is used in Mexican cuisine: the husks for wrapping tamales, the silk in medicines, the kernels for food and the stalks for animal feed. Sun dried and fire dried white corn kernels are ground and made into flour called masa harina which is the base for tortillas and other corn dishes.
Beans: Beans are staple food in Mexico and there is a pot of dried beans simmering daily on the stove in many homes. The popular varieties of dry beans like pinto beans and black beans are indigenous whereas chickpeas are not native to the country but were brought in from the Middle East. However now they have become popular and feature in several dishes.
Rice: Mexicans have been using rice since it was introduced to the country by the Spanish in the 16th century. The rice grown and used in Mexico is long-grain and is used in a variety of dishes like dry soup to rice pudding. Ground rice is used as flour in cakes and cookies. Horchata is a drink made with rice that has been soaked and then finely ground.
Chocolate: Chocolate along with various nuts and seeds is an important element in sweet and savoury dishes. Main use for chocolate in Mexico is still as a beverage. Bitter chocolate or cocoa finds its way into the rich stews.
Nuts and seeds: Pecan, walnut and almonds are widely used. Pinenuts are used in some desserts and pastries and coconuts are valued both for their flesh and the cooling water they contain. Seeds from pumpkin and squash have been important ingredients in Mexican cooking for centuries. Sesame seeds are also used, both in pastes and as a garnish on dishes.
Piloncillo or Mexican Sugar: Mexico produces an unrefined brown cane sugar called piloncillo. It comes in small cones and adds a distinctive flavour and colour to any dish to which it is added. Unfortunately, piloncillo is still not readily available outside Mexico, but brown sugar can be used in recipes as a substitute.
Fruits: Mexican markets are awash with piles of fresh fruits. You might identify the mangoes, papayas and limes and oranges. Some are region specific like granadillas, guavas, pineapples, prickly pears, pomegranates, sapodillas and sapote.
Vegetable fruits: Vegetable fruits like avocados are the most famously used in Guacamole, the mashed avocado dip. Mexicans use tomatoes in so many of their recipes that it would be impossible to list them all. What is unique to Mexican cooking are the tomatillos used in table salsas and tomato verde salsa the sauce that is poured over enchiladas before they are cooked. Plantains are used in both sweet and savoury dishes…a dessert made by cooking plantains in butter and cinnamon, with a little sugar and a good amount of rum is very popular.
Sweet bell peppers: They come in green, yellow and red varieties and contribute colour and flavour to salsas, stews and meat fillings as well as fish dishes, vegetable medleys and salads.
Chillies: The soul of Mexican food! You find them fresh and dried. The Mexicans are also known for using a variety of chillies in their cooking, jalapenos being one of the more popular ones. They would combine them with other herbs to add more flavour and spice to their dishes, a method that is still popular today.The heat level of the chillies is measured in Scotsville units where 0 is the heat level of a sweet pepper and 300,000 is the hottest chilli, the habanero. The most commonly used fresh chillies include the serrano, jalapeno, poblano and fresno. Dried chillies too are used and have intense flavour. You can choose from ancho, cascabel, chipotle, habanero, pasada, guajillo and pascilla.
Cheese: There are many different types of cheeses available in Mexico, but special are Queso Fresco (fresh cheese), Asadero (roasting cheese, substitute is mozzarella), Queso Anejo (hard cheese, substitute is parmesan cheese), Queso Chihuahua (less salty but like anejo, substitute is medium Cheddar) and Queso De Oaxaca ( stringy cheese, substitute is Monterey Jack).
Others: Mexico has been blessed with a variety of vegetables like corn, green beans, sweet potatoes, squash and chayotes. Nopales are edible leaves of several varieties of prickly pear cactus. Fat and fleshy they are often called cactus paddles. Used in stews and soups, nopales are used in salsas and salad dishes. They are even added to scrambled eggs. Other popularly used ingredients are chorizo, dried meat and salt fish. Mexican cooking makes use of a wide range of flavourings. Chillies are clearly at the top of the list but spices like cinnamon and allspice are popular too. Fresh herbs like epazote are native to the country and has a distinctive sharp pungent flavour.