A Beginners Guide to Mexican Cuisine

We all love a little Mexican food to spice up our mealtimes. If you confuse your tacos with tortillas, or your burritos with buñuelos never fear – we’re here to unravel the mysteries of Mexican take-aways and restaurant fare.

There’s a lot more to genuine Mexican dishes than those ubiquitous enchiladas and chilli con carne (which are, actually, more “Tex-Mex” than pure Mexican). Mexican cuisine is rather complex – a lot of the Mexican dishes being based on recipes as ancient as the Olmec, Aztec and Mayan civilisations that once peppered the colourful country of Mexico.

The Main Ingredients of Mexican Meals

Then, as now, the main ingredients of Mexican meals were corn (the staple food of Mexico), chilli peppers and wonderful fresh fruit and vegetables like tomatoes, squash, courgettes, potatoes, spinach, avocados, mangoes, pineapple, guava, bananas, beans and mushrooms.

IT’S A FACT …. Historically Mexicans had no meat or dairy produce in their diet. It only changed when the Spanish Conquistadores arrived in the 16th Century with their domesticated animals and introduced the art of cheese-making.

What Are Mexican Moles?

No, they’re not little furry animals; these stars of Mexican cuisine are intricate and delectably delicious distinctive savoury sauces, crafted and slow-cooked to be served over meats or used as a dip. Mexican restaurants serve them up with just about everything and no Mexican take out meal would be complete without one.

 Moles are difficult to define – they’re all so different from each other in flavour, ingredients and consistency. They do all contain chillies, onions, garlic, tomatoes and a thickener of some sort as a base, but from there on a mole might contain up to 100 other ingredients (including chocolate sometimes). Making a Mexican mole is labour intensive, but for purists it’s what makes Mexican food special.

The three most common Mexican Moles that you’ll likely come across in authentic Mexican restaurants in the UK are Mole Poblano, Black Mole (or Mole Negro), and Mole Verde. For more details about Mole ingredients see the A-Z Glossary of Mexican food terms below.

Are Mexican Chillies Very Spicy?

The Chilli peppers that are native to Mexico are not very spicy at all. Some have subtle, sweet flavours and bring a lot more to a Mexican dish than just heat, giving Mexican food that complex taste and aroma that we all enjoy.

Types of Chillies Used in Authentic Mexican Food Include: 


Smoked and dried it is known as chipotle. Dried when ripe it will have a mild, sweet and fruity flavour. Very ripe dried Poblano (known as Mulato) is moderately hot.


Slightly more spicy than Guajillo with a fruity flavour.


The dried version of Chilaca peppers, they are mild to medium in heat strength with a rich flavour.


Usually eaten while still green and fresh, with a variable heat index, tending towards being hot.


A Spanish word meaning “rattle”, the mild dried version of the small, round Mirasol pepper has a distinctive nutty flavour.


As hot as it gets for Mexican food, favoured in dishes originating from the Yucatan Peninsula used either fresh or pureed.


Widely used for making salsa to give a moderate kick to meat dishes and tamales.

What to Drink With Mexican Food

If you fancy a beer, make it a bottle of Corona – served with a lime wedge tucked in the neck of the bottle. Its light bodied, crisp and sweetish malty flavour is the perfect accompaniment to Mexican cuisine. When it comes to spirits of course you have to go with indigenous Tequila, commonly served neat in Mexico and as a shot with salt and lime here in the UK (watch out for the high alcohol content!). Tequila is probably most enjoyed in a cocktail like the ever-popular margarita.

How to Understand a Mexican Menu

Study up on our Mexican menu A-Z and next time you pop down to your local cantina you’ll know just what’s on your plate!


Aguachile is a Mexican shrimp dish, the seafood being submerged in liquid seasoned with chilli peppers, lime juice, salt, coriander, and slices of onion.

Albondigas are Mexican meatballs, generally made of pork and beef. Not indigenous to Mexico but a dish imported from Spain, given Mexican flair with the addition of spicy chipotle sauce.

Antonjitos (translated literally as “small cravings”), is a collective term covering Mexican street food.

Arroz is rice. There are numerous different ways in which rice is prepared. Seafood rice, for example, is Arroz a la Tumbada, yellow rice is Arroz Amarillo, and rice with eggs is Arroz con Huevo.


Barbacoa is the origin of the word “barbecue”, but in Mexico it usually refers to fatty pot-roasted meat slow-cooked with onions and cilantro, then served up on warm corn tortillas (thin, flat maize flour cornflakes), garnished with guacamole and salsa.

Birria originates from the Mexican state of Jalisco. It is a spicy stew, traditionally made from goat or mutton meat marinated in adobo spices, but beef or chicken is also used. It is usually served with corn tortillas, onion and lime.

Bolillos are traditional Mexican bread rolls similar to a baguette, but shorter and usually stone-baked. Crunchy on the outside with a soft inner.

Burritos are a popular Mexican and American street food (Antonjitos). A large wheat flour tortilla is wrapped around a filling with one end closed, to form a cylinder. In Mexico, favoured fillings are meat and refried beans, but here in the UK burritos are filled with a wide variety of Mexican flavoured foods, including cheese, sour cream, guacamole, and all sorts of vegetables and meat. 


Caldo de queso is a traditional soup originating from northern Mexico containing diced potatoes, onions, tomato, chilli Verde, oregano, and chicken broth. Once it has all boiled up soft, creamy cheese is added.

Calabacitas con Puerco is a dish of pork sauteed in butter, oil, or its own fat. Garlic, onion, black pepper, tomato, salt and chilis are added, and it is left to simmer until the meat is tender. Finally, chopped pumpkin or zucchini goes in the pot. This dish is usually accompanied by refried beans and red rice.

Camotes are sweet potatoes, which have been an indigenous food in Mexico since the dawn of time. Today they represent one of the oldest Mexican street food traditions. Camote carts sell sweet potatoes, cooked on a bed of charcoal, served with strawberry jam and condensed milk.

Carne asada is marinated grilled, sliced beef, cooked so there is some slight charring to impart flavour. The cuts used can be skirt, flank or flap steak, and the marinade varies. Carne asada can be served as a main dish or is usually sliced up and used as a filling for burritos, tacos and tortillas.

Carnitas is a dish that we in the UK would probably describe as “pulled pork”. It is created by braising a large cut of pork in lard in a heavy-bottomed pot over low heat until tender, which can take up to four hours. Herbs such as cumin, oregano, marjoram, thyme and bay are added along with chilli and garlic cloves. Once tender the outside of the pork is seared to crisp it. The meat can be flaked away and used to stuff tamales, tacos, tortillas, and burritos along with guacamole, salsa and refried beans.

Cemitas come from Puebla and are a type of brioche roll, covered with sesame seeds, made into a sandwich. The filling is usually meat with sliced avocado, white cheese, onions and red salsa sauce, flavoured with the indigenous pápalo herb.

Chalupa is a genuine Mexican speciality, popular throughout the country and internationally. Chalupas are created by pressing a layer of masa (cornflour) dough into an oval-shaped mould. This is then deep-fried to produce a crisp, shallow corn cup which is filled with all sorts of ingredients, like shredded meat, chorizo, bean paste, cheese, chopped onion, chipotle peppers and salsa.

Chili Relleno is chilli peppers (traditionally poblano peppers) which are stuffed with cheese or minced meat, then dipped in egg batter or masa (cornflour) and deep fried. They are usually served in a tomato sauce.

Chiles en Nogada consists of poblano chillies filled with picadillo (a mince mix of meat, aromatic spices and fruits). This is topped with a walnut-based cream sauce, called Nogada (from the Spanish word for walnut tree), and pomegranate seeds.

Chimichangas are classified under the label of “Tex-Mex” – a southwestern USA adaptation of a Mexican dish. It is, in effect, a deep-fried burrito, and is made by filling a flour tortilla with the ingredients of your choice (rice, cheese, shredded meat or vegetables) and, once folded into a rectangular package, deep frying it. The Chimichanga is served with salsa, guacamole, sour cream and cheese.

Corunda are triangular-shaped steamed corn dumplings, similar to tamales (except they do not have a filling). They are often served with stews.


Elotes is the Mexican word for corn on the cob, a popular street food that is either boiled or grilled (or both). Elotes are usually served on a stick, and condiments such as salt, chilli powder, butter, lemon or lime juice and mayonnaise can be added.

Enchiladas are corn tortillas (thin flatbreads) which are rolled up around a filling – usually meat, cheese, beans or vegetables – and smothered with a red or green chilli sauce (salsa). If enchiladas are served with a mole sauce (con mole) they are known as Enmoladas.


Fajitas are a modern “Tex-Mex” take on tacos. The name refers to the cut of beef originally used in the dish (skirt steak) which is fried up with onions and bell peppers, served on a bed of tortillas. The diner can then add condiments to taste (sour cream, guacamole, salsa, cheese and refried beans). Fajitas can be made with all sorts of other meats or seafood, or vegetarian options.

Fideo is the Spanish word for noodles, which has been adopted for the Mexican soup dish, Sopa de Fideo. The fideo noodles in the soup are thin and browned before being stewed with other ingredients like vegetables, onion, garlic, chicken, chilli peppers and vegetable oil.

Flautas are small, snack-sized corn tortillas, rolled up around a filling and fried until crisp. They are then topped with sour cream and guacamole. They are also referred to as “taquitos”

Frijoles Charros (cowboy beans – charros are Mexican cowboys) is a traditional Mexican dish of pinto beans, stewed with onion, garlic, bacon, chilli peppers, tomatoes and cilantro. 

Frijoles refritos are refried beans – a very popular side dish or ingredient in Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine. Pinto beans are usually used for this dish. The dry beans are soaked overnight, stewed then drained and mashed into a paste. The paste is then fried with onion and garlic in a little lard (ideally, although vegetable oil or butter are alternatives), seasoned with epazote and other herbs and spices to taste.


Gorditas are the Mexican equivalent of a pasty. They are made with the ubiquitous masa dough and shaped as thick rounds, which are then baked or fried in a wok-like pan (called a Comal). Once cooked they are split and stuffed with a variety of ingredients and condiments. 

Guacamole is an avocado-based dip invented by the ancient Aztecs, which is now central to Mexican cuisine and enjoyed all around the world.  Apart from Avocado, Guacamole doesn’t have any hard and fast recipe but the simple way to prepare it is to mash up ripe avocado flesh seasoned with garlic, salt and lime juice – chilli can be added to taste.


Huaraches, particularly popular in Mexico City, is an oblong Mexican pizza. The base is of fried masa (cornflour), shaped in an oblong that like the sole of a Mexican sandal, called huarache. The base is covered with a variety of toppings – salsa, onions, potato, minced beef and cheese.

Huevos means eggs, and one of the most popular egg dishes is the Huevos rancheros breakfast, served in the style of the traditional Mexican ranch. It consists of a fried egg (or two!) on a fried corn tortilla, topped with a red chilli sauce and served up with refried beans, Mexican rice and guacamole.


Mancha Manteles (literally, “tablecloth stainer”) in Mexican cuisine, is a “pot luck” kind of stew of assorted meat, chilli peppers, vegetables, and fruits.

Mixiote is a meat dish from central Mexico that is now usually prepared in an oven. Cubes of meat (mutton, lamb, pork, chicken or rabbit) are seasoned with chilli peppers, herbs and garlic then wrapped into small packages in the leaves of the maguey plant (an aloe-like plant native to Mexico), which impart a unique flavour.

Moles are rich Mexican Sauces. The most commonly encountered moles in Mexican restaurants in the UK are Mole Poblano, Black Mole (or Mole Negro), and Mole Verde. Mole Poblano contains around 20 ingredients, including chocolate and mulato peppers and things like pulverized raisins, almonds and peanuts. It has a pleasing sweet-savoury flavour that is especially delicious with chicken. Black Mole contains all sorts of sweet, sour and spicy delights like cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, cumin, pumpkin and sesame seeds. Mole Verde gets its bright green colour from pumpkin seeds and green chilli, along with other greenery like green tomatoes, jalapenos, cilantro, celery, chard, and parsley. 

Molletes are made from bolillos sliced through the middle and hollowed out, then filled with frijoles refritos, topped with cheese and peppers, and grilled in the oven until the cheese melts. 

Milenesa is a term applied to any meat that is pounded until thin, and then breaded and fried (like a Wiener Schnitzel).


Nachos are a popular Tex-Mex dish made up of a bowl of corn tortilla chips (baked or fried tortilla segments) covered with a cheese sauce and jalapeno peppers.


Papas are potatoes.

Poc Chuc is one of the signature dishes of the Yucatan Peninsula. It is meat, commonly pork, that is prepared in a citrus marinade and cooked over a grill. Poc Chuc is often served with a side of rice, pickled onion, refried beans, and avocado. 

Pollo means chicken, which is cooked in a variety of ways.


Quesadillas are Mexico’s answer to the grilled cheese sandwich. A soft tortilla in a pan is sprinkled with cheese, and as it melts other ingredients are added, such as onions, or shredded meat. Then the tortilla is folded over into a half moon shape and served.

Queso means cheese, of which there are many native varieties which are made in Mexico. The most basic Mexican cheese is queso fresco, a white spongy cheese from which other cheeses such as panelaadobera and Oaxaca have been derived.


Salsa is a Spanish word meaning Sauce, but in the context of Mexican cuisine here in the UK it has become associated with a chopped fresh and raw tomato, onion and chilli mixture that is served as a dip or condiment. It’s not found in Mexico itself, though.


Taco is a crisply fried tortilla shaped to contain a filling – combinations are endless, such as beef, pork, chicken, vegetables, cheese, avocado, tomatoes onions, and lettuce, usually eaten garnished with salsa and guacamole.

Tamales are an ancient form of portable food, eaten by the Aztecs and Mayans, still enjoyed in Mexico today. Corn-based dough (masa) is filled with meat, cheese, fruit, vegetables, chilli – or anything you fancy – and wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf, then steamed. The wrapping is discarded before eating.

Tlayuda is a traditional Oaxacan dish consisting of a dinner plate-sized thin, crunchy tortilla which is partially fried then covered with refried beans, pork lard, cabbage, avocado, meat and Oaxaca cheese, topped off with salsa.

Tortillas are a type of thin, unleavened flatbread made from finely ground corn, which forms the staple food of Mexico.

All that remains after this tasty journey through Mexico’s specialities is to say… Buen Provecho (Enjoy your Meal!)