Is there more to Mexican food than tacos or enchiladas? Is tequila only for shots?

Fact: Mexican people are very proud of their cuisine, and so they should be; in 2010 UNESCO declared Mexican food a cultural heritage of humanity. “Traditional Mexican cuisine is a comprehensive cultural model comprising farming, ritual practices, age-old skills, culinary techniques, and ancestral community customs and manners,” the UN report reads.

“It’s important to remember when you eat Mexican food, that it is part of a culture not just a stomach filler,” says Mexican caterer, Norma French, of Los Sabores de México.

“Why are dishes here always served with Mexican style rice and refried beans, lettuce, and sour cream? And we don’t put cilantro on everything,” she adds.

While Texas was a part of Mexico in the 1800s, it seems there’s confusion as to which foods are Texan and which are Mexican – nachos and burritos, for example.

“While nachos are often served at Mexican-American restaurants, they’re not a typical Mexican dish,” says Christian Greiffenstein of Urban Productions, organisers of Calgary’s new *MexiFest. “They were inspired by the ingredients of Mexico but would seem foreign to most people living south of the Rio Grande.

“Burritos are so North American,” adds Norma French. “I come from Mexico City, and you will not find a burrito on the menus, NOT AT ALL.”

And hard shell tacos? “I have never seen anything like that in Mexico,” French says. “One of the beauties of Mexican food is the variety of dishes and salsas, especially fresh salsas. We do not use vinegar in our salsas, or cumin to spice them up.”

So what should we expect when we visit Mexico? We went to discover the popular and upcoming trends in Mexico City; here are just a few of our findings – and we’re hardly scratching the surface.

Corn tortillas, tortillas, tortillas with every meal. As a staple, and instead of bread, food comes on them, in them (as a taco), and between them, and there’s always a basket of them, fresh and warm, on your table – if not two baskets.

Breakfast regularly starts with bittersweet, rich, and maybe spiced, hot chocolate with sweet breads, (locally, pan dulces, and sometimes as big as your head!) such as the very popular conchas.

These could be followed by an egg dish such as huevos divorciados (divorced eggs) with one fried egg coated in salsa roja and the other with salsa verde, or the prettiest dish imaginable – Omelette Flor de Calabaza, made with zucchini flowers. Or maybe it’s a selection of dishes to be scooped in tortillas, such as nata (the thickened cream from boiling raw milk), guacamole, nopales, or even mixiote – BBQ spiced meat cooked in maguey leaves.

El Cardinal is probably the most famous breakfast spot in Mexico City, and still going strong after 48 years. Just one of their four restaurants feeds 500 people for breakfast every day, and 1,000 at weekends. Their most requested dish is Chilaquiles verde o rojos con pollo, a huge plate of tortilla chips simmered in green or red spicy sauce, topped with fresh cream cheese, onion, and 350 g of minced chicken – and you don’t have to share!

Lunch is generally between 2-4pm, and is the main meal of the day. It probably involves meat that can be rolled into tortillas, such as Al Pastor, slow-cooked or spit-grilled marinated pork; Arrachera, marinated and grilled hanger or skirt steak; and Cochinita Pibil from Yucatan – slow-roasted pulled pork marinated in citrus juice and seasoned with vivid orange annatto.

Or maybe the cooked meat is served on baby tortillas as sopes, topped with carnitas (pulled pork), pollo (chicken), chorizo, or lengua (tongue). Likely zippy tortilla soup or hearty pozole (soup with hominy, meat, and lots of garnishes) feature here too.

Street snacks are plentiful if you’re getting peckish late afternoon. Corn in Mexico isn’t sweet, and you’ll find elotes, corn cobs on sticks smothered in mayonnaise, cheese and chilis; and esquites, cooked kernels off the cob with the same spices.

And to wash down all this goodness? Mexico has its own culture too when it comes to drinks. Agua frescas, soft drinks made from fruit or grains with sugar and water, are very popular. Try Agua de Jamaica with hibiscus, and rice-based Agua De Horchata.

Made from fermented agave sap, Pulque is one of the oldest fermented drinks in Mesoamerica. A century ago, there were more than 1,000 pulquerías in Mexico City, but while still easily available, it isn’t to everyone’s taste.

Beer is far more popular, and is often served as Michelada with a salt rim and lime; adding clamato El Cardinalto make Clamatada; or with added Worcestershire sauce, Maggi sauce, and tabasco, for a spicy Cubana.

But of course tequila is the star, although not in the same way as here. “Tequila and mezcal are like the best cognac or whisky,” says Alberta-based Mexican beverage importer, Juan Carlos Santarriaga. “They are sipping spirits that you can enjoy with a meal as well. One of the main problems is that in Mexico, at the all-inclusive resorts, you will have not a good tequila, and people think that tequila is only that,” he adds.

Norma French completely agrees. “In Mexico, tequila and mezcal are viewed completely differently. We drink both to enjoy the quality and their flavours, just before a meal, during, or after. Every family is very proud of their selections of tequilas or mezcales,” she explains.

It’s very common to see people sipping premium tequila with a sangrita chaser, an acidic and spicy, non-alcoholic palate cleanser before or with meals, but smoky mezcal is the hot trend. High quality mezcal is served with apple slices dipped in grasshopper salt or lemon slices sprinkled with worm salt – maybe this will be the next big thing in Alberta too.

Try Norma French’s Sopa Seca de Fideo and be comforted by this staple comfort food from Mexico.

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