Beyond burritos: seven delicious ways to bring a taste of Mexico to your table

Everybody loves a burrito, right? Fajitas, enchiladas and nachos are all regular fixtures on many British dinner tables. But while we might think we know Mexican cuisine, the truth is we should probably all broaden our horizons beyond the familiar routine of tortilla, meat, cheese, repeat.

Spanning nearly 200m hectares (770,000 sq miles) of varying landscape and reflecting a stew pot of influences from ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures to Spanish, Asian and African cuisines, real Mexican food is bold, bright and complex. Here are seven authentic ingredients guaranteed to elevate your next Taco Tuesday.

At first glance, this dinky green fruit looks a little like a small unripe tomato. Native to Mexico and Central America, they’re even nicknamed “husk tomatoes’’, thanks to the dry leaves that encircle them like paper lanterns. But tomatillos have a flavour all of their own; bright, summery and almost citrussy in their tartness, making them the perfect addition to a salsa verde or a zingy spin on guacamole.

Roasting tomatillos mellows their acidic quality and brings out a little sweetness, while adding them to stews, chillies and soups will give an exciting tang to your standard Mexican repertoire. Thinly sliced, drizzled in oil and spiked with lime, chilli, coriander and salt, they’re even perfect on toast. You can buy them tinned, but it’s worth hunting out the real deal if you can – or even grow them yourself, and enjoy the taste of verdant greenery right on into autumn.

Native to the tropical areas of the Americas, including Mexico and the Caribbean, it’s a spice that goes by many names – achiote, annato, roucou, achuete – and takes many forms; sold as seeds, paste, powder, bricks or steeped in oil. But you will know it by its signature orange-red hue, and the way it turns everything it touches to gold.

Commonly used as a yellow food colouring, achiote has an earthy, peppery flavour that works beautifully in rice and fish dishes, or in cochinita pibil, the Yucatán peninsula’s signature smoky, slow-cooked pork. Achiote paste is easy enough to find online or at specialty grocers, ready to be mixed into vibrant marinades (and scrubbed off your hands later).

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Forget everything you thought you knew about tequila.

Just like champagne, authentic tequila is all about provenance. Strictly governed by the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT), it can only be produced in five states, with 99% hailing from the mountainous Jalisco region in north-west Mexico – home to the town of Tequila, and the birthplace of mariachi music – where lush fields of blue weber agave mirror the sky, hand-harvested by skilled jimadores using methods passed down through generations. The result is a spirit that really sings.

A field of Agave tequilana, commonly called blue agave (agave azul) or tequila agave, is an agave plant that is an important economic product of Jalisco, Mexico. In the background is the famous Tequila Volcano or Volcán de Tequila
Blue agave growing in the Jalisco region. Photograph: Matt Mawson/Getty Images

Made from 100% blue weber agave and double distilled for sparkling clarity, el Jimador Blanco is the perfect re-education; a tequila that demands to be sipped and savoured with food and friends. Crisp, vibrant and aromatic, with a perfect balance of bright citrus notes and herbaceous warmth, try it neat over ice, or blend with freshly squeezed pink grapefruit juice, agave syrup, a squeeze of lime and soda water for the authentic Paloma, Mexico’s signature cocktail – and maybe your new signature too. For a truly authentic experience, pair your Paloma with a zesty shrimp or scallop ceviche or, if you’re feeling slightly less adventurous, a chile-laced guacamole and salty tortilla chips.

The iconic desert plant may have enjoyed a long stint as a homewares trend in the UK, but somehow dining on cactus hasn’t caught on in the same way. Which is a shame, because beneath their spines, these succulents are exactly that – tender and meaty, with a delicate, verdant flavour somewhere left of green beans and asparagus.

The most commonly edible cactus is the prickly pear – or nopales, as it’s known in Mexico, where it’s a common feature on menus and market stalls. Once safely peeled, the flesh of the large, flat pads can be eaten raw in salads or boiled and sauteéd. Mexican food blogger Mely Martinez recommends adding it to scrambled eggs, salads, or grilling the pads whole and topping them with melted cheese. The moral of this story? Even the prickliest characters can be worth getting to know.

Ancho chilli
Though it’s a misconception that “real” Mexican food is always hotter than the sun, the humble chilli pepper does have a starring role, with a rainbow of popular varieties ranging from the mild and fruity guajillo to the head-blowing habanero. If you’re still reaching for the same jar of generic powder every time a recipe calls for chilli, it’s time to level up.

Ancho chillies are a great place to start. The dried version of the plump poblano chilli, these wrinkly peppers might not win any beauty pageants, but their versatility makes them a great addition to your store cupboard. With a sweet, smoky flavour reminiscent of chocolate and raisins, ancho chillies bring depth and warmth to slow-cooked meat and sauces; they are a key ingredient in adobo rojo de chiles, the go-to marinade that forms the base of so many quintessential Mexican dishes. And if you’re a spice wimp, worry not – they’re relatively tame, measuring between 1,000 and 2,000 units on the Scoville scale (for comparison, the habanero starts at an eye-popping 100,000).

Mexican Tamale tamales of corn leaves with chili and sauces.
Tamales are steamed pockets of cornmeal dough stuffed with meat, vegetables, cheese or beans. Photograph: agefotostock/Alamy

When it comes to portable meals, Mexico has things all wrapped up. But while the UK is well versed in burritos, fajitas and enchiladas, it’s time for the lesser-spotted tamale to take its place at the table.

Tamales feature a soft dough made from lard, spices and cornmeal (typically masa harina, the same flour used to make tortillas), stuffed with an endless variety of meaty, veggie, cheese or bean-based fillings and steamed within a wrapper made from corn husk or banana leaf. No quick-fix supper, making tamales takes time – but hosting a tamalada, or tamale-making party, is a perfect way to divide the work and share the fruits of your labour. Pass the parcel.

Mexican chocolate
Chocolate? Sure, you’ve heard of it. But real Mexican chocolate is a world away from the smooth, sweet bars Europeans are used to. Notable for its distinctive, bitter flavour profile and rustic, grainy texture, Mexico’s traditional chocolate is made from cacao nibs, which are roasted and coarsely ground before being combined with sugar, cinnamon and sometimes other additions such as vanilla, nuts or cayenne pepper.

Though it’s satisfying to nibble on, the chocolate really comes into its own as a cookery ingredient, used in intensely chocolatey cakes and desserts and to lend depth and complexity to savoury dishes such as stews, chillies and the quintessential mole poblano sauce. But perhaps the most popular use of all is melted into hot chocolate, which is traditionally whipped into an aerated froth with a wooden molinillo whisk.

Discover the vibrant taste of modern Mexico for yourself with el Jimador’s 100% blue weber agave tequila. Buy everything you need to start your authentic tequila journey here

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Please enjoy 100% responsibly. el Jimador is a registered trademark. ©2022 Brown-Forman. All rights reserved.

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