All you need to know about tortillas and tacos in Mexico City, what to do when your chilli-eating bravado backfires, and how to avoid the dreaded Montezuma’s revenge.
What does Mexico smell like?
Shortly after arriving in Mexico City, I became aware of a distinctive aroma everywhere I went; an earthy, soul-awakening, almost primordial scent that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I’ve now realised what it is: corn dough or masa. Ancient Mexican civilisations worshipped maize, believing that man himself was created from it, and I can tell by the way that masa is so lovingly prepared, that it is still held sacred today.
A staple of the country-wide diet, Mexicans have come up with countless alternative ways to consume corn, so there’s no possibility of getting bored. Of course each technique has its own name, presenting anyone studying Spanish with a vocabularic nightmare! There have been days where I’ve started my day with a breakfast of crunchy/soggy (depending on who makes them) chilaquiles topped with refried beans and scrambled eggs, then a fluffy broad/fava bean-stuffed tlacoyo topped with nopal cactus and cheese for lunch, before completing my hat trick with crisp tostadas topped with octopus, sliced avocado and the hottest of habanero sauces.
Tortillas and tortillerías
Eaten with every meal on a daily basis, Mexican households consume some 630 million tortillas a day. Back home we typically associate the word “tortilla” with the flat, round, unleavened bread made from wheat. You will find wheat flour tortillas (tortillas de harina) here, but corn tortillas are by far the most popular and can be made using white, yellow or blue corn, each lending its colourful hue to the final product.
Every few blocks you will come across a tortillería in Mexico City, a kind of hole-in-the-wall, mini-factory with only enough room for a handful of people. You’ll recognise the best one in your neighbourhood by the lengthy queue of people outside. As you wait in line, you can watch as the dough (masa) is freshly kneaded in a single tortilla machine, before moving along the production line to be pressed into a perfect circle and roasted. Still hot off the conveyor belt, the vendor weighs out your requested amount and wraps them up in paper.
Although you can buy your tortillas in any supermarket, I guarantee you they will not compare to the hot, freshly-made tortillas you get from the tortillería! I never make it home without opening up the paper and rolling one up into as tight a roll as possible to be eaten as I walk.
The masa form you are probably most looking forward to trying as a tourist is the trusty taco, and in Mexico City you will find tacos for every taste and every budget, for vegans and vegetarians. You will find them everywhere from the back of street vendors’ pick-up trucks to prestigious Michelin star restaurants.
When they hear the word “taco”, many foreigners immediately envisage certain big-brand crispy corn shells, stuffed with minced (ground) beef, some shredded lettuce and if they are feeling very adventurous, maybe even topped with a couple of sliced jalapeños (pronounced hal-a-pen-yos, not ja-la-peen-os). This could be no further from the truth. I have yet to try a minced beef taco here in Mexico. What I have tried has taken so many shapes and forms, that I am having a hard time defining what really constitutes a taco.
Now, let’s imagine that Mexicans use the word “taco” like we use the word “sandwich”. Just like a sandwich, a taco can have any filling and these fillings can vary depending on region. The tortilla used for the taco can vary in colour, size, and shape but as long as it can be wrapped around a filling, it can be called a taco. It can also be grilled, fried or steamed with street vendors usually concentrating on one technique. In the name of research, I selflessly took it upon myself to try out numerous taco variations and filmed it all in this video. For an extensive guide to all-things-taco, see: http://www.seriouseats.com/2011/07/the-serious-eats-guide-to-taco-styles.html
By far the most popular taco in Mexico City is the taco pastor. Strips of pork are marinated in anything up to 60 ingredients before being piled onto a spit and cooked over charcoal doner kebab-style. Some taquerias even use hot volcanic rocks to heat their spit as can be seen in my recent video, and all taquerías include an obligatory impaled pineapple and onion, adding even more flavour to the mix. Slivers of meat are sliced onto a small, open, corn tortilla and topped with diced fresh onion, coriander and a slice of pineapple. A good squeeze of lime will highlight the tastebud-popping sensation caused by the fusion of such zesty flavours.
Sauces, salt and limes
Sauces are another fascinating part of Mexican cuisine. Before your order of tacos even arrives, you will usually be provided with some tortilla chips or tostadas (crispy tortillas) for snacking and various sauces either in cute clay pots, or in what can only be described as a multi-tiered sauce caddy. You will usually find at least 4 typical sauces in any taquería (taco joint). Let’s just say that the Scoville scale ratings for these can vary greatly depending on the place, so I recommend you always check each one for spiciness before dousing your taco.
Made with to-die-for Mexican avocadoes, Guacamole is usually quite mild but I have tried some that have taken even a chilli-lover like me by surprise. Salsa verde (the green one) is made with tart, juicy, green tomatillos, fresh coriander and chillies of varying spiciness. Salsa roja (the red one) is usually made from smoky, dried chillies and other ingredients depending on where you are. Pico de gallo is the one that most resembles what we generally call “salsa” back home and consists of coriander, chillies, lime juice, onions and diced tomatoes (green, white and red; get it?).
Those limes on the table are not for sticking in the neck of your beer bottle! (I’ve yet to witness a Mexican do that by the way). No taco is complete without a squeeze of fresh lime juice and a sprinkle of salt to bring out the complex flavours. These two ingredients that just happen to be on constant standby are also the perfect remedy for when you have surpassed your spice tolerance. Excessive consumption of hot chilli always ends in tears and there is even a verb to describe this process: “Enchilarse” (en-cheel-ar-say). When it happens (and it will), don’t go immediately reaching for your ice-cold beer. Mexicans swear by licking a little salt off your wrist (think tequila slammer minus the tequila), sucking on a lime or sipping on a refreshing agua fresca.
Any taquería will have a selection of aguas frescas available. Starting with a water base, these refreshing drinks then have other ingredients added to them such as fresh fruit, dried hibiscus flowers, tamarind or chia seeds (you know that super expensive super food that’s all the rage right now? Mexicans have been eating that for centuries!). Horchata, a creamy drink served ice cold and made with rice and cinnamon tastes just like rice pudding back home. Believe me, you won’t even dream of ordering an unhealthy fizzy drink to go with your taco once you’ve tried one agua fresca. In fact, why not make a point of trying every flavour before leaving Mexico?
Montezuma’s revenge or traveller’s diarrhoea can strike anywhere and it’s hard to know whether the cases reported in Mexico are related to hygiene issues during the preparation of food or simply due to weary travellers exposing their unaccustomed intestines to the concoction of strange ingredients, fiery hot chillies and increased intake of alcohol that accompany the Mexican experience.
To avoid the dreaded onset, I recommend you only eat street food where you see large queues and avoid empty taquerías. Tap water is touted as safe to drink here, however I suggest you only drink bottled water and avoid ice in bars and restaurants.
Don’t forget to visit my tacos and tortillas tips section for more information on eating etiquette.