What Are 5 Important Ingredients in Mexican Cuisine?

What Are 5 Important Ingredients in Mexican Cuisine? Mexico’s cultural heritage is deeply rooted in delicious food traditions that span some 10,000 years – from the empires of the Mayans and Aztecs to the modern nation that emerged from its conquest by Spain. Each passing time period added essential Mexican ingredients to the cuisine that you enjoy today.

Mexican cuisine is delectable and memorable because of its simple and traditional ingredients.  Here are five of the most important Mexican ingredients you should know about beyond queso and tortilla chips.

1. Corn

The primary, traditional grain source in Mexican food is corn or “el maíz,” although there are at least 68 ways to say corn in the indigenous languages. 

There are also more than 60 varieties of Mexican corn. The corn is typically dried and then ground to create masa harina, the dough used to make tamales and corn tortillas. The traditional way is to cook the dried kernels and steep them in water and food-grade lime (calcium hydroxide). The corn is rinsed to remove each kernel cover and then milled to create what is known as nixtamalized corn. 

Many major name brand tortillas found in major grocery stores do not use this 3500-year-old process, but the brands that do mention it on the packaging (as “nixtamalized” or “lime-washed”). The basic recipe for tamales is likely as old as the Aztec civilization.

Besides flour, corn is also included in traditional stews, soups, and many other dishes. Corn is one of the most important ingredients for “antojitos” (little cravings). Elotes are also popular: corn on the cob covered in butter, cotija cheese, mayo, and chili powder. Esquites are the kernels prepared with epazote (a Mexican herb) and chicken stock, and it’s served with similar elote fixings. It’s also used to make Atole, a thick corn-based drink. 

2. Tortillas

This thin, circular Mexican flatbread was initially made from ground corn. However, Spanish conquistadors introduced wheat as a new alternative in the 16th century, and remains popular today. Wheat tortillas contain a leavening agent and a fat, unlike masa harina tortillas. Wheat tortillas contain a leavening agent and a fat, unlike masa harina tortillas.

Wheat tortillas are also popular for making burritos, enchiladas, fajitas and tacos.

Tortillas also dated back to the time of the Aztecs and were popular among North American and Mesoamerican cultures. Try making your own Aztec-inspired tortillas with our recipe. Imagine the many types of Mexican corn varieties and the different colors of tortillas: white, yellow, red, blue and purple. 

3. Chilies

One of the essential Mexican ingredients is chilies, which can be used to flavor salsas, stews and marinades. Here are a few of the most common types of peppers in Mexican cuisine:

  • Guajillos are bright, red chilies with a slight heat and a fruity taste, making them versatile in many dishes. They are traditionally used in the soup Mole de Olla and may be found at specialty grocers.
  • Habaneros are spicy chilies that pack enough heat that they’re typically used in hot sauces. They start as light green and mature into yellow, orange and red when ripening. You can find this pepper in many commercial grocery stores.

  • Jalapeños are diverse, spicy peppers that taste great fresh, pickled, roasted, or smoked (chipotle). Diced jalapeño makes a wonderful Pico de Gallo, which is a fresh salsa that includes coriander, onion and tomato. You can find this pepper in most grocery stores.

    Pasillas translates to “little raisins” but taste like smoked raspberries with a bite to them. Pasillas are dried and taste best with seafood recipes, including Camarones al Mojo de Ajo (garlic shrimp). These peppers are more often seen in specialty grocery stores.

    Poblanos are large, dark green peppers that are among the milder of Mexican chilies. Their sweetness resembles a prune or raisin and makes them perfect to stuff and fry. Chilli Rellenos, which translates to “stuffed chili,” is a popular dish that uses this pepper in particular. These are found in commercial grocery stores.

    Serranos are small and usually green in color, and their thick skins make them perfect for relish or salsa. Another traditional recipe that makes use of the serrano is Enchiladas Suizas. You can find these in many commercial grocery stores. 

4. Tomatoes vs. Tomatillos


Mayan and Aztec civilizations originally domesticated tomatoes, which have played an important role in Mexican cuisine since. Tomatoes make fresh salsa or are cooked into rice dishes, burritos, tacos, and stews.

The tomatillo, or Mexican husk tomato, is a popular, smaller green tomato wrapped in a papery husk. It resembles an unripe green tomato, but it’s ready to be sampled! It’s tart and a little sweet, best used in Salsa Verde or mixed into other salsas, sauces, and soups. Tomatillos are often called for in Mexican beef and seafood recipes.

Tomate roma (or “saladette”) is also known as a plum tomato or a roma tomato. These tomatoes are often small to medium in size, with a thick skin and fewer seeds than larger tomatoes. Due to low water content and thick skin, roma tomatoes are perfect for sauces and dishes such as Chilaquiles, Enchiladas Rojas, and Sopa de Fideo.

5. Achiote

Achiote is also known as annatto in English, which gives cheddar cheese and other products a natural orange tint. Achiote refers to the seeds of the achiote tree, native to Mexico, which are ground into seasoning for pastes. This seasoning lends color and flavor to rice, vegetables, and meat. Cochinita Pibil is a popular slow-roasted pork recipe from the Yucatan Province. 

Mexican cuisine, in its original and inspired form, is enjoyed by people around the world. The United States, the Philippines, Norway, Finland, and France are the top five countries that adore Mexican cuisine, according to a 2018 survey by Statista, and eight out of ten respondents listed it as one of their most preferred foods.

These five essential Mexican ingredients are the tip of the wealth that Mexican cuisine has to offer your tastebuds. We hope you’ll join us for a meal to see if you can pick out any of these rich, yet simple ingredients. Take a look at our menu here, and contact us here.