When it comes to food, Mexico will always top our lists. From fresh seafood in Baja to Oaxaca’s street food, you name it and we’re into it. Beyond eating we’re also into the history behind where our food comes from, which, in the case of Mexico, means taking it back to central America’s ancient civilizations.
From cacao and corn to the beloved avocado, many of the foods we enjoy today come from Mexico’s indigenous peoples. Meaning quite a few of the foods we now consider commonplace were feeding and nourishing locals way before the Spanish arrived and shuttled them to other corners of the world.
Here, we’re going back to basics. As in, we’re breaking down a list of the most recognizable foods that got its start in Mexico (aka Mesoamerica, which also includes all of present-day Central America and parts of Costa Rica).
From avocado to beans and cacao to papaya, here are a few foods that call Mexico home!
Long before avocados adorned all of the toasts, Mexico’s indigenous civilizations ate and grew the creamy green fruit and considered it super important. So important in fact that the word avocado comes from a Nahuatl (Aztec) word “ahuácatl” meaning testicle. It's debated if the reference is due to the fruit's shape or that it was considered an aphrodisiac. Bottom line is that the Aztecs believed avocados gave you strength and the fruit was also important to the Maya who depicted in their calendar.
Puebla, a small city southeast of Mexico City is believed to be the historic ground zero for Mexico. But, today, the western state of Michoacan, with its perfect avocado growing conditions of fertile volcanic soil and a mix of sunshine and rain, is one of the few places in the world where avocados grow year-round.
Cook it in this: Classic Guacamole Recipe
The origins of beans are widely credited to central Mexico (specifically to the regions of modern day states of Jalisco and Durango) and throughout South America. Oftentimes, beans were grown in tandem with maize (corn) and squash as a farming technique to efficiently maximize the soil, and to minimize soil erosion.
Beans are present throughout Mexican cooking –– they’re served as a side, in soups, used as fillings and toppings, and more. And though pinto and black beans are the most common types we see used in mass-market Mexican food in the United States, there are countless varieties (many of which you can try thanks to our friends at Rancho Gordo)!
Before chocolate was known as a sweet indulgence, the ancient civilizations in present-day Mexico (as in the Olmecs, to the Mixtecs, Zapotecs, and Aztecs) grew cacao. Back then cacao was used in a variety of ways from rituals (including marriage ceremonies and initiations), to currency, and a bitter drink made with spices like vanilla or chile.
It wasn’t until Spanish conquistadors arrived and returned to Spain with cacao that sugar and cinnamon were added to create something resembling the Mexican chocolate we know today.
Cook it in this: Sweet Potato Tamale with Chocolate Sauce Recipe
Chiles – aka chili, chilli and chile pepper – are also native to Mexico, though more specifically the Mesoamerica region defined by Central Mexico to Central America and part of Costa Rica. The word chili is a Nahuatl (Aztec) word which belongs to the Aztec language.
In Mexican cooking, chiles can toasted and soaked or ground to be used in everything from salsas, soups, pureed into adobos (a sauce made with tomato and spices), or moles.
Cook it in this: Cocoa Chile Sweet-Spicy Snack Mix Recipe
Maize's (aka corn) roots go back 10,000 years and are connected to a wild grass native to central Mexico. Corn is a sacred plant in the culture since everything from the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs all ate and had a very deep connection with corn.
There are estimated to be more than 50 varieties of corn and it is a cornerstone ingredient in Mexican cooking –– used in everything from tortillas and tamales and tlacoyos to elote (a flavorful street food snack), to name a few.
Cook it in this: Mexican Corn Elote Panzanella Salad Recipe
Papaya –– specifically the maradol variety –– is believed to have come from Mexico,before traveling with Spanish and Portuguese explorers to locales including India and the Philippines.
Today, Mexico grows most of the world’s papayas, followed by Hawaii, Brazil and Belize. In Mexico City – home of inventive street food – you'll find papaya used as a key ingredient in fruit cups topped with chile and lime, in refreshers like paletas (popsicles) or aguas frescas (fruit water).
The word tomato comes from the Nuahuatl word tomatl and this staple ingredient in Mexican cooking also has origins in Mesoamerica. In Nahuatl, tomatl has a few recorded meanings, including “swelling fruit” and “fat water.”
Spanish conquistadors who traveled to Mexico introduced tomatoes to Europe, which they believed were poisonous and instead grown for ornamental reasons before gaining edible popularity. Today, tomatoes are used around hte world including back in their native Mexico. You'll find tomatoes used bases of salsas (which, btw refers to all sauces and not just the ones that come with tortilla chips) and simmered into rice.
FYI, you’ll sometimes see the word jitomate in reference to red tomatoes, while the little green tomatoes (wrapped in husks), are called tomatillos.
Cook it in this: Our version of Posole
More Mexico On Salt & Wind
- What To Pack For Mexico City
- What To See On Your First Trip To Mexico City
- Photos Of Our Favorite Places To Visit In Northern Baja California
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Opening photo by Joanne Pio