Rich & spicy flavours of Mexican cuisine are some of my earliest food memories. When I was five, I travelled to Mexico with my family and remember being blown away with the tasty food, colourful dresses and beautiful hand etched leather purses. That trip, we brought home more than wonderful souvenirs, I came home with a love for Mexican cuisine! That might be why i get so excited when Cinco de Mayo rolls around, its the perfect excuse to cook a Mexican feast.
While the Mexican cuisine we know in Canada isn’t overly complicated, authentic Mexican cuisine has beautifully complex flavours. Knowing how to dose the spice of the many chillies, the acidity from citrus and the sweet earthiness of the maze (corn) is something I’ve endevoured to master over the years with lots of practice and trial & error.
You don’t need to be a master chef to make good mMexican food, but you will need to have a few pantry staples. Here are a few I suggest to have on hand!
Image credited to Gourmet de Mexico
With more than 60 types produced in Mexico, chiles are a fundamental component of Mexican cuisine. The wide array of chiles available in the country adds complexity, depth, and heat to countless dishes. Many recipes call for a combination of two or three and depending on which are selected the outcome can vary tremendously. If you aren’t familiar with the varieties, forego the packet of premixed chilli powder and instead opt for buying whole or ground chiles so you can really taste what makes each so unique. Try as many varieties as possible because each will influence a dish differently. Some are more on the spicy side like cayenne or jalapeños, and others more smoky like chipotle and poblanos. Fun fact, many chiles have different names depending on if they are fresh or dried. The more you understand what each chile can bring to a recipe, the more tasty your recipes will get!
Epazote, avocado leaves, cilantro cinnamon and cumin are all integral ingredients used in Mexican cuisine. While you might be more familiar with and probably already have cilantro cinnamon and cumin at home, epazote and avocado leaves are actually easy enough to find and will definitely elevate your dishes. Epazote is a leafy herb, that looks a bit like mint and arugula had a baby lol, however the flavours are quite complex and will continue to evolve the more your let it stew in your recipe. It has fresh notes of citrus, mint and even anise yet it also has a very earthy aroma. Its difficult to describe because of its complexity but one thing is sure, you should give this little herb a try! Dried avocado leaves are wonderfully nutty and also have an anise flavour. Use them like you would bay leaves to subtly flavour soups, stews and sauces.
Its an ancestral corn variety that comes in different colours, (black, blue, red, yellow and white are the most common). Its kernels are often misshaped and more sparse, it can look like it didn’t grow properly to our eyes since were accustomed to the ‘"super-boosted” cousin that grows in Canada. Maze is harder to find in Canada because they simply don't export it. However, I have found some shops that carry maze flour which I highly recommend you use to make tortillas. Its also amazing in muffins and other baked goods.