As I mentioned, much of my cultural discovery has revolved around food. I think there are a few reasons for this: my own love affair with food, the centrality of food in cultural identity, and the fact that most of the Mexicans I know proudly proclaim their food to be the BEST in the world. It’s like a cultural badge of honor. For some, it’s like pulling teeth to get them to even try non-Mexican dishes.
Original photo from http://www.esmas.com/vecinos
In fairness, Mexico food is delicioso! But to enjoy it in the company of Mexicans, you have to learn some ground rules. I’ve spent five years relearning everything I thought I knew about Mexican food. Here’s a cheat sheet to help you.
SALT and LIME/LEMON go on every freaking thing. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve heard, “Did you put the sal y limón on it?” What if I don’t want salt and lime on my steak??? No estés loca. Put it on anyway. What if I don’t think this soup needs a lemony aftertaste? Huh? No entiendo. Put it on anyway. Salt and lime (lemon and lime are pretty inter-changable, from what I can tell. Are they even the same word in Spanish – limón? Amigos, help me out!) are the finishing touches on everything. So to look authentic, squeeze some juice on your soup, meat, fruit, eggs, guacamole, etc. And don’t forget the dash of salt!
Forks are largely superfluous at a Mexican table. There are some exceptions, sure. But for the most part, you can save the dishes and just cook about 100 tortillas (Not all at once! Dios mio, they won’t be fresh!). Corn tortillas are a staple in any Mexican household. As in, we buy them by the case full at the grocery store. They are to be cooked throughout the meal on a comal and stacked, steaming, in a decorative tortilla warmer. Instead of picking up food with a fork and putting it in your mouth, the preferred method of eating is by way of tortilla. Pinch some of the food from your plate in the tortilla and then take a bite of the tortilla. Do not use a fork to place your food in neat rows on the tortilla, making a tidy taco to then eat bite by bite. You will get stares. I confess I still have not mastered this rule – perhaps due to stubbornness – and I almost always create said tidy tacos and receive said stares. I’m getting used to it.
Tacos – the Tuesday night tradition. Yummy ground beef with taco seasoning, piled in flour tortillas with lettuce, tomato, cheese, sour cream, and salsa… recipe for a cultural red flag. All your images and memories of this delicious Mexican favorite can now be erased. Take notes. Tacos are indeed quite common in Mexican cuisine, but the word ‘tacos’ actually refers to any meat you cut up in smallish pieces when cooking for the purpose of eating it on a corn tortilla with a very specific list of toppings. Ground beef would be an odd sight on a taco menu. You tend to find things like: pollo (chicken), al pastor (pork with seasoning), barbacoa (beef cooked in a special sauce), carne asada (steak), lengua (cow tongue). These should be eaten on corn tortillas and topped with cebolla y cilantro (onions and cilantro). The finishing touch is always the salsita. Tacos must be eaten with a salsa! There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of variations on salsa. But it must top your taco or you’re not doing it right. The myriad toppings we associate with tacos in the U.S. are all attempts to turn a taco into a salad, I think. Because I’m a guera (white girl), the servers will often ask me if I want lettuce, cheese, and tomato when I order tacos in a Mexican restaurant – a real Mexican restaurant, not Chi Chi’s. They never ask Jorge that question.
Tomato, onion, jalapeño (or insert pepper of choice), and cilantro cooked with literally any meat or eggs makes a meal. You thought taco seasoning made the meal Mexican, but no, it’s tomato, onion, jalapeño, and cilantro. Whenever we don’t have a dinner planned and I ask Jorge what we should eat, his response is inevitably, “Just cook some chicken with tomato, onion, peppers (whichever kind we have in the fridge), and cilantro. We still have frijoles, right?” Easiest Mexican cooking ever. Just remember that list of ingredients (which after three rounds of reading should be engrained in your mind) and you’re golden. But remember to make your 100 tortillas to accompany! And don’t forget the sal y limón!
Café con pan – a sweet, sweet daily treat. I love my coffee. I drink a cup of strong, black coffee every morning and have for years. But my Mexican family and friends seem to have a different take on the tradition of daily coffee. You start the day with a little café. That is to say, you add a little café to your cup of milk and mounds of sugar. If you’re really on the ball, you first microwave the milk to warm it up so your coffee doesn’t get cold on contact (Hint courtesy of the lovely Mabel). The coffee should look more like a Nilla wafer color than any version of black. Then, to accompany the sweet drink, eat several galletas (cookies) or preferably one or two amazing bakery items (the pan in this story). Pan is the word for bread, but in my experience, it almost always refers to the deliciously sweet conchas, stuffed empanadas, orejas, pastelitos, etc. that you buy from the local panadería on a regular basis. Café sin (without) pan is not a thing. They go together like Salt-N-Pepa — can’t have one without the other. It’s a double dose of sweet to start your day. And when you crash from the sugar high a few hours later, you are ready for round two. Café con pan is a twice-a-day tradition, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. After that second sugar crash, you’re ready for bed!
*I feel I need to put in a disclaimer that, of course, some of these things might be more regional than others, and of course, there will be some Mexican friends for whom these don’t apply. But in my pretty extensive experience thus far, I’ve found these to be true.