Essential Ingredients in Traditional Mexican Food


Authentic Mexican cuisine is easy to enjoy. Perhaps the ingredients used in traditional Mexican food dishes are what make this style of cooking so loved, by so many.

The common ingredients used in traditional Mexican food recipes are often influenced by regional differences – some Mexican seafood dishes are more popular along the coast, for instance. Traditional Mexican food has certainly made its mark on the United States.

There are staple Mexican ingredients that tend to always make the list, such as cilantro, cumin, chili powder and black pepper. It’s also a great truth to note that not all ingredients used to make traditional Mexican food are spicy in nature. There are plenty of sweets to enjoy in Mexican cuisine!

If you’re planning on cooking your own traditional Mexican meal, the following checklist highlights the essential ingredients you need for traditional Mexican food dishes.

Essential Ingredients for Mexican Cooking Checklist

Stock your pantry with a few basic ingredients to create an authentic Mexican meal.

  • Avocadoes:

This rich, buttery fruit is a true Mexican staple. Avocado adds a Mexican flair to almost any dish, including such basics as sandwiches and salads.

  • Beans, canned:

Both black beans and pinto beans are go-to staples, depending on the dish and the preference of the chef. Each can be made into refried beans by buying them whole, soaking in a spice mixture, then mashing and refrying.

  • Cheeses:

Made in Mexico, queso Oaxaca is a white cheese ideal for quesadillas. If your local Mexican market doesn’t carry it, substitute mozzarella. Queso fresco is a soft, crumbly cheese that adds a touch of saltiness to dishes like enchiladas. Mild Feta can be substituted for it.

  • Chipotles:

Buy these smoke-dried jalapeños canned and they’ll last up to six months. (Transfer them to a jar after opening.) Used frequently for salsas and marinades, chipotles have a slight heat accompanied by a smoky flavor.

  • Chocolate, Mexican:

Mexican chocolate has a bitter, earthy flavor that pairs nicely with other ingredients in dishes as various as mousses and flans and spiced turkey breast and mole sauce. Nowadays it can be found in many large grocery stores and in Latin markets, but you can substitute semisweet chocolate plus a dash of cinnamon.

  • Crema:

Basically a Mexican version of sour cream, crema can be used in hot or cold sauces, adding that last punch of bright, tangy flavor. It can bring flautas or tacos to the next level. In bigger cities, you’ll probably find crema in large supermarkets and Mexican grocery stores. If you can’t find it, sour cream can be substituted in any dish except a hot sauce (since heating sour cream can make it separate or curdle).

  • Limes:

The humble lime is considered by some to be a Mexican cook’s most flavorful tool. It’s a must-have ingredient for finishing a dish—squeeze it on tacos, into salsa, and on just about anything that benefits from a bright, tart pop of flavor.

  • Oregano, Mexican:

This variety is a little more aggressive and savory than the herb that Americans are used to. It can be tracked down at specialty stores, most Mexican markets, and some well-stocked supermarkets. If you can’t find it, use regular oregano.

  • Poblanos:

These mild chili peppers are prevalent in Mexican dishes, especially when roasted and peeled. (Once cut into strips, they’re called rajas.) They’re used in everything from salsas to quesadillas to chiles rellenos.

  • Tomatoes:

Mexican cuisine incorporates a wide variety of sauces, many of them tomato-based. Buy the best tomatoes you can find in season.

  • Tortillas, corn and flour:

If you’re not making your own, look for the freshest ones you can find in the supermarket or a specialty store. When shopping, always read labels and opt for tortillas with the fewest ingredients because they’re more likely to be fresh.

These staple ingredients are most responsible for making traditional Mexican food dishes so wonderful. Whether you decide to stir-fry, deep fry or bake, Mexican cooking is a very enjoyable experience that we’re sure you will love, just like we do!


Tex-Mex v. “Real” Mexican Food


Growing up in the South I thought that Tex-Mex food was Mexican food. Later, I learned that Tex-Mex food is a cuisine native to Texas that borrows heavily from Mexican peasant food. This variation on an ethnic food continues to evolve, with new dishes continuing to appear from time to time.

Mexico is a huge country, with many different eco-systems, ethnic groups and economic levels. Each of these has its own particular dishes and common types of ingredients. When most people think of Mexican food they think of enchiladas, tortillas, tacos and beans. The reality is far more varied, both in terms of types of dishes and regional cuisines.

In small towns and impoverished pockets of Mexico, beans, rice and corn continue to be the staples of the native diet. To balance these, and provide some fat to the diet, avocados are commonly used. All of these are native to Mexico, and are cheap and easy to grow in much of Mexico.

People living in areas that are near the ocean use seafood as one of their food basics. Ceviche a raw marinated seafood dish with tomatoes, cilantro, lime juice and onions is one of the most well known. However, fish and shrimp are prepared in all manner of dishes, and form a basic part of these regions’ diets.

In land-locked areas, beef and chicken form a basic part of the diet for those who are able to afford it. Frog legs and goat are also commonly seen. Vegetables and rice are typical, and tortillas tend to be a favorite everywhere.

While some of Mexico is at a high altitude, Mexico City is at an elevation of over 7000 feet, most of Mexico is located in more temperate or tropical climates. Foods common to tropical climates are commonly seen. Cilantro and chocolate are favorite seasonings.

In contrast, Tex-Mex food has a much more limited menu. The original influence for Tex-Mex food comes from the area immediately south of its border. (Similarly, Mexican food in other border states is influenced by the cuisine in their nearby area of Mexico.) Local chefs, however, have given the food their own particular twist.

Tacos, enchiladas, tamales, chalupas, tostados, nachos (mini tostadas), chile con queso, guacamole, tortillas, rice and beans have long been the fundamentals of the Tex-Mex diet. While traditional Mexican tacos were made by gently frying a tortilla, the hard pre-fab taco was the creation of a local Texas company. The ground beef filling common to this area is not the filling used in most parts of Mexico, which use a shredded beef or chicken filling.

The Tex-Mex tamale has a thin outer corn meal covering in contrast to the softer thicker corn meal covering found in most other areas. Chile con queso (cheese with chiles) is a soft fondue dish rarely found elsewhere. Tex-Mex tortillas were always corn, never flour. Dessert was a choice of pralines or ice cream.

This is the classic Tex-Mex of the 1930′s to 1970′s. One of the biggest additions since then is the fajita. This dish of grilled marinated meat, green peppers and onions rolled into a large flour tortilla was created in Texas in the early 1980′s. What is currently called nachos is another relatively new dish. In contrast to the dish of crisp tortilla chips with a mixture of cheese, meats and chiles poured over it, the earlier Tex-Mex version was a neatly made layering of beans, cheese, tomato and salsa on a miniature crisp tortilla.

Since this time, Tex-Mex food has been influenced by other regions of Mexico and other parts of the United States. If you ever go to Texas and find flautas, flan or taquitos on the menu, you are looking at the impact of other American-Mex foods on the local Texas cuisine.

Just How Healthy Is Traditional Mexican Cuisine?

(Chile Rellenos)

Although “real” Mexican food differs based on the geographic region from which it is derived, most traditional dishes are much lower in fat and higher in nutrients than what you’ll find at Taco Bell or Chipotle’s.
Here are some examples of traditional Mexican dishes and the corresponding fat and calorie content of an average serving size.

Ceviche: 140 calories and 5 grams of fat.
Raw fish — usually shrimp and scallops — marinated in lime juice and flavored with spices, such as chili, salt, cilantro, garlic, and peppercorn.

Chile Rellenos: 237 calories and 8 grams of fat.
Large Anaheim chilies stuffed with spicy meat and/or cheese.

Poc Chuc: 160 to 230 calories and 8 grams of fat.
Grilled pork steak, cooked with tomatoes, onions and spices.

Huachinango a la Veracruzana: 144 to 270 calories and 2 to 9 grams of fat (depending on size of fish fillets).
Pacific red snapper sauted with mushrooms, jalapenos, chilies, onions, tomatoes, and garlic.

Satisfy your craving the healthy way

If you cannot bear to think of life without seven-layer burritos, I have good news for you: You can still eat the Mexican foods you love — I’ll just tell you how to make the Americanized versions healthier.


Avocados include oleic acid, which has been shown to lower “bad” cholesterol. They are also full of vitamin K and a good source of potassium. Whenever possible, ask for real avocado instead of the processed guacamole found in many American-style Mexican restaurants.


Beans are a great source of protein and fiber, and certain types provide antioxidant benefits. Try to avoid the fatty, refried beans you find at your local Taco Bell and ask for whole pinto or black beans instead. You’ll save fat and calories, and they usually taste better.


It’s rare that you will find real chilies at most U.S. “fast food” Mexican restaurants. However, the larger, more traditional chains are starting to include more of this all-around healthy spice in many of their dishes. Chili peppers contain an ingredient called capsaicin, which boasts anti-inflammatory and pain-relief qualities. Chilies also have cardiovascular benefits (they aid in lowering bad cholesterol), and they are high in vitamins A and C.


Corn is a staple in traditional Mexican cooking and it has amazing health qualities. Corn is high in folate and vitamins B and C, and is a good source of dietary fiber. It is a heart-healthy food that aids in digestion and can help stabilize blood sugar levels. Try corn tortillas or add corn to your burrito for extra flavor.


Mexican food is famous for salsa, no matter which region you are visiting, and fortunately, tomatoes are the main ingredient. Tomatoes are rich in potassium and vitamins C and A, and they include lycopene, which is an antioxidant that has cancer-fighting properties.
que pasa?

So… is Mexican food healthy? The answer is yes and no.
Traditional Mexican food is high in nutrients, packed with vitamins and is generally low in fat. Sadly, Americans weeded out the “good stuff” long ago and replaced it with oil, fat and calories — which is what you’ll find in most Mexican restaurants in the United States.

Sure, American-style Mexican food tastes good, but if you want to experience the benefits of true Mexican cooking, avoid the fast food and Tex Mex joints, and try something authentic.

American’s Unconditional Love for Americanized Mexican Cuisine


Crispy Tortilla Chips with Refried Beans, Monterey Jack Cheese, and topped with Jalapeños , Guacamole, and Sour Cream. (Sold at Polvos, in Austin, Texas)

Ask the average American if they like Mexican food, and they’ll probably tell you that they ate it last week. Mexican has become one of the three most popular cuisines in the U.S., with nearly 90% of the total population having tasted it.

It has become such a part of the traditional American diet — regardless of heritage — that new Mexican-inspired dishes are even popping up at some of the most ordinary U.S. chain restaurants — like Applebee’s, Chili’s and IHOP — just to satisfy the demand.

When Mexican food comes to mind, the average person immediately thinks of burritos, tacos, nachos, and quesadillas. What people do not realize is that, although your nachos supreme come from a “Mexican restaurant,” the people living in Mexico are probably not incorporating giant platters of cheesy fried tortilla chips into their everyday meals.

Real Mexican food is one of the most colorful and varied cuisines in the world. Mexican dishes are prepared with loads of fresh produce, protein-packed beans, fiber-filled tortillas, and nutritious spices like chilies, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, and cumin.

Unfortunately, the average Mexican food joint in the U.S. cannot boast about the health benefits of its meals. Americans have super-sized and super-fattened nearly every dish that we consider Mexican today — in fact, many Mexican dishes were created in the U.S., so they don’t even exist south of the border.

American-style Mexican food is usually high in fat, sodium and calories, and it uses less of the fresh, nutrient-packed ingredients that traditional Mexican food includes.

Want proof?

Let’s compare a few traditional Mexican dishes with those that you find at the average Mexican restaurant in the United States:


Taco Bell: Nachos Bell Grande — 760 calories and 39 grams of fat.

Chipotle’s: Beef Burrito —1,026 calories and 46 grams of fat.

Find out how “real” Mexican food measures up, and how to make the Mexican meals you love healthier…