Let me preface this delivery with the admission that there are lots of word lists or “Mexican Food Glossaries” on the web and they’re all well researched and defined but unfortunately many of them are just lists and not relevant or useful to anyone who doesn’t speak Mexican or live in Mexico. So I offer this Angloized Mexican food dictionary that, from a cooks perspective, provides more information then you’ll probably ever use unless you’re grinding your own corn, making you own tortillas or slaughtering you own meat protein. So here’s my random un-alphabetized crack at a Mexican kitchen glossary.
The process of soaking a grain or seed in a limestone ash and water solution, or cooking the corn kernels in a limestone vessel. This process helps to release the outer shell of the corn, known as the pericarp, so that the human digestive system can utilize the nutrients that otherwise would not be available. The processed corn was then drained, dried and ground into a meal used to make masa for tortillas, tamales and other constructs. When Europeans took maize home they didn’t bring this technology and so most of the cultures that attempted to adopt the cultivar soon experienced widespread occurrences of pellagra; the lack of niacin in a corn-based diet that eventually can lead to death. Without this undoubtedly chance discovery the pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica would never have reached the levels of sophistication we know them for.
Prepared ground corn that has undergone the nixtamalization process used for tamales, tortillas and other various underpinnings of Mexican food. This is not corn meal although is comes in easy to use mixes of corn or wheat. Both types, known as corn masa and harina preperada respectively, are usually stocked in most mainstream US markets. The term masa is applied to numerous preparation used in the lower Americas such as yuca, taro, bread fruit, yam or sweet potato that are used to either encase a stuffing or stand alone as a staple food.
Numerous varieties, colors, shapes and local names but no matter what type they form a complete human protein when combined with some form of processed/nixtamalized corn, grain or seed. This combination supported the early cultures of Mesoamerica as well as the poor of today.
Yup it’s the same chia seed you got with your chia pet 20 Christmases ago. The leaves have a taste much like sage and the seeds are ground along with corn and other flavors to make a meal called pinole. This meal is then mixed with water, to form a beverage, or construct a gruel that can be shaped into cakes or loaves and then sun baked. Next to maize and beans this was historically the most important Aztec crop in Mexico.
A wondrous cultivar eaten for its leaves and seeds. Interest in this crop has recently reappeared because it is one of the most nutritious foods grown and holds many hopeful portents for staving world-wide hunger. The seeds were a major dietary component of early Mexican cuisine but sort of fell off the plate when the Spanish arrived because they had a presence in many of the Aztec ceremonial blood rituals and the good Catholic fathers couldn’t have that. A form this food still exists in the sweet alegrias, or joys, that are shaped figures of popped seeds tinted red and mixed with honey, molasses, or even corn syrup and sold as a street food in Mexico City. The plants were raised on floating islands called chinampas that surrounded early Mexico City and the seeds were the fourth most important Aztec food crop while the leaves are still used today and often called Chinese Spinach.
Green tart husk tomatoes usually boiled or fire roasted for sauces, stews and soups.
A fresh water pond algae that provides an amazing source of protein, 60% by weight, that was another foundation food of Mesoamerican cuisine still available in most US health food store.
A seed that is processed for a colorant that gives Mexican rice and American cheese their yellow/reddish hue. Available whole, powdered and in paste form in most Latin markets throughout the US. It’s a really hard seed so if you’re going to use it whole it’s best to soak over night and if you want to process it dry use a coffee grinder.
A sauce with numerous varieties that usually contains smoked jalapeno peppers that provide a great smoky heat to whatever they touch. Usually contains vinegar and other spices depending on the manufacturer. Great for marinades and I even use a puréed form as a table condiment.
A dried seed like berry that is ground and has a flavor profile likened to cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg hence the name. You sparingly if you’re unfamiliar but it will impart a signature point to any of your dishes.
Many varieties of this well known cultivar that have been cultivated for at least 9000 years. The fruit ripens after its been harvested and the leaves are used like bay leaves as an aromatic whole or ground for moles and stews.
Used like corn husks to wrap tamales and other constructs in the jungle areas of Mexico and the lower Americas. They are also used in pit barbecuing, as cutting boards and even as plates.
The orange the Spaniards brought with them which in turn was brought by the Moors to Iberia known as the Seville Orange. In Europe it’s the orange of choice for marmalade and used extensively in the lower Americas as a ingredient for marinades and sauces. Regular oranges are really not a substitute but it’s no big deal unless you’re a anal foodie and the bitter orange looks more like a lime then a orange.
The premiere Mexican sandwich roll, much like the roll of the French usurpers that influenced it, used to make the archetypical torta.
Ubiquitous paddle cactus seen throughout the American West and Mexico. The paddles and blossoms are used to impart a kind of slimy thickening effect to whatever they’re added to much like okra, or sassafras does to gumbos. The blossoms are called prickly pears or tuna and they need to be dethorned before cooking. The fruit of the blossom can be used in sauces, stew or as a flavoring for ice cream.
A type of indigenous cinnamon, the dried bark of a tree
Braised then dry roasted piece of meat, usually shredded and used for tacos and other meat fillings, also the name of one of my pot bellied pigs who are the Three Sisters.
A squash like fruit form a huge vine that is used as a vegetable either baked, sautéed , or stewed and it can also be stuffed. The fruit is used raw in coleslaw like salads or served as a dessert when fried with almonds and sugar.
Also called a custard apple or a paw paw, looks a little like a green pine cone. The fruit is eaten and, like a whole bunch of unfamiliar fruits in the lower Americas, used for beverages and ice creams.
The green fresh leaves of the coriander plant used as a flavoring agent in salsas, sauces and stews. You can use culantro in its stead.
The seeds of the plant used for distinctive flavor, usually sold ground but can be used whole as in pickling spices.
The Mexican equivalent of French crème fraiche, sort of a sour cream/yogurt
A imported cultivar whose seeds are now well used in Mexican cuisine, usually available ground
The smoked, dried and rendered skin of a pig deep fried known as pork rinds in the American South. Serve with salsa instead of tortilla chips for an interesting take on dips. When the low carb diet was in vogue those promoting that philosophy suggested using them ground as a “bread” crumb substitution.
In Mexico a fresh pork sausage with lots of chili powder, or paprika, and achiote for color it also usually includes a bit of tripe. The Spanish variety is a cooked cured product and can’t be substituted.
An acquired Latin taste that is often added to a pot of beans to prevent flatulence. Known as pigweed or wormseed in the American South and has what has been described as a petroleum taste to the inexperienced consumer.
Cabra, or cabrito if young, used for festive occasions barbecued on a spit, roasted in a stone horno or like we did it in California placed in a new garbage can and pit roasted in the ground.
A refreshing water chestnut like root that can be used in salads or eaten with chili powder and lime juice.
Corn smut, sometime spelled Cutilacoche, the Mexican truffle. It is an ugly colony of black spores that grow inside the ear between the kernel and the husk that imparts a woody vanilla essence to foods.
The clarified and rendered fat of the pig has a lower fat and cholesterol content than butter, and is one hell of a lot better for you then margarine, so don’t stress.
Taste like a combination of tropical fruit (Hawaiian punch?). Eaten out of hand, in desserts, ice creams, beverages or as a main ingredient of salsa.
Masa Harina is the dry mix version of store bought RTU masa sort of the Betty Crocker, of wet masa.
Another fruit of the tropics used much like mangoes as well as a component of aqua fresca , the common street refreshment.
Granadilla is a fragrant fruit that is used in aqua frescas, desserts and sauces.
Looks like a banana but, unless it’s really ripe, needs to be cooked, used like masa for tamales and croquettes. Also fried in a variety of different shapes; sort of a Latin American potato chip.
Pumpkin seeds that are eaten as a toasted snack or used ground in moles and sauces.
Lime boiled corn kernels that have lost their pericarp and swollen to hominy, used as a vegetable and in their namesake soup and menudo.
Camarónes seco used in seafood dishes, tamales and available in American markets ground or whole, I prefer the ground, Asian shrimp paste if you need a substitute.
Calabacitas there are many varieties and they have occupied important places in ceremonial events. They were dried for storage and their blossoms were also stuffed. They were cooked in honey for a Mayan treat.
Home made stock like those in many other world cuisines.
Also known as panocha or panela is the unrefined brown sugar cones of Mexico.
There are also many artisan cheeses in Mexico that don’t get exported.
An unaged cheese therefore fresh, a little like cottage or feta.
Often called Mononita because it was formulated by the Mennonites in Mexico and its primary lust is to be melted in a quesadilla or on some nachos, light flavor.
Often called Anejado or aged with a salty stronger flavor that is used to topping on tacos, salads or beans. It can be made from either goat or cow milk.
Often called Oaxaca and is a little like string cheese a semi soft brined product that melts well, substitute Jack of Muenster.
A little like cottage cheese or ricotta and keeps its shape when melted.
Another adopted California expiate.
There are many types obviously with different Scoville (U.S. heat) levels & flavors and since chilies pollinate via wind they cross hybridize easily from one area to the next often called different names in different locales. They can be used fresh or dried and often fire charred and when powdered they are used to thicken stews and sauces. Because there are so many we will just discuss the best known and most available; so you have to sort of wing it. You need to experiment with each to determine your favorite type or blend.
Hybridized in Anaheim, California for a new production facility that was built there in the early 1900’s and is now used for gringo rellenos.
Probably the most widely used and is actually a dried Poblano, re-hydrated it can be stuffed, toasted and crumbled. It is used as a relish or table sauce when liquefied and again in Mexico it is called a variety of names often wrong but fortunately they’re sold, labeled and packed in cello bags in the U.S.
Means “jingle bells” usually used toasted and ground with nutty flavor and is the dry form of the Guajillo.
Moved into the main stream with Wendy’s and other fast food mongers and in fact is a smoked jalapeno that adds a smoky nuance to sauces and stews.
Developed in Fresnp, California about 1950 then went to Mexico on vacation and decided to stay, another example of cultural adoption and crossover.
Brownish red and thin also called many different names medium, hot/mild.
This puppy used to be the hottest of all the chilies in the world until one 20 times hotter was hybridized in India. Looks like a multicolored small bell pepper, but it ain’t, so handle it with caution.
In vinegar these small green chilies are a ubiquitous table and nachos condiment, either fresh or pickled.
Not common, used with turkey and other moles.
A fresh Chilaca chili dried whole or powdered and often blended with other for chili powder, mild flavor.
Also called marron with a sweet taste it is used for paprika.
Dark, almost black-green are best, triangular in shape very deep flavor, good with cheese, roasted corn and squash blossoms, they are the chili for rellenos stuffed with meats or cheese, are called by a variety of names in different locations.
Green usually used fresh and uncooked for salsa and guacamole, but are available dried and then called Serrano seco or chili Japones when they are used for sauces. They are also available canned and pickled with onions and carrots.
There are many more varieties including some newly introduced types from Asia but the above list should help you navigate any Mexican market.
POTS AND PANS OF THE MEXICAN KITCHEN
Clay round dish used for mole and sauces. If the inside of your pan is unglazed it’s a good idea to soak overnight to season the clay.
Literally a mud pot but it’s made from clay and sits in the fire for a long slow braising of soups and stews. Like all clay vessels it is heat sensitive so either microwave or start on a very slow heat other wise it may shatter on you.
Used to cook or heat tortillas and roast peppers, cast iron or nonstick material, looks like a griddle.
Metate y Mano
A hand grinder used to grind corn and spices, it looks a little like a paint roller pan, but is made of stone or volcanic rock.
Molcajate y Tejolote
A mortar and pestle to grind spices and seeds, like the one your teacher had in elementary school.
A wooden chocolate stirrer, often elaborately decorated, that many a tourist has brought back to the U.S. as a souvenir.
Wood or cast iron tortilla press hinged at one end. This is somewhat of a convenience and most poorer Mexicans just use their hands or buy from a local in town factory.