Cooking in Mexico: A Survival Guide
The challenge of feeding yourself in a healthy style when you are living in Mexico is under-reported and grossly underestimated.
Mexico boasts world-class regional cuisine that gets all the press. Dining out is constantly hailed in travel guides because it is so much less expensive in Mexico, and exceptional food. That's great for couples and tourists but not so relevant to you if you're single and cooking most days.
For one thing, unlike the U.S. where restaurants usually have a bar where a solo diner can eat companionably and inconspicuously, Mexican restaurants often only have tables.
I don’t mind dining in a restuarant alone, but I don’t (excuse the pun) want to make a straight diet out of it. Plus cooking at home is healthier and relaxing with a glass of wine, some music and an interesting recipe.
If you think you will just eat as Mexicans do for months at a time, you are fooling yourself. Most street food has a starch, bread or a tortilla, stuffed with a meat, lettuce, beans, tomato and some type of salsa. The variations from tacos are:
- Gorditas - called “fat” because they are deep-fried
- Pambazos - also a hungry-man sandwich, it includes potatoes in the filling
- Huaraches - may include meat or an egg
- Tortas - a white roll with filling
- Quesadillas - tortilla with filling
You can only live on this kind of thing for a few weeks.
In Mexico, be on the look out from the day you arrive for signs in the windows of restaurants saying they deliver and grab their delivery menus right then and there.
The meal, the tip and the delivery will probably cost less than $15. Just like at home, this is a particularly good option for ethnic food. They even deliver smoothies here.
That takes us to cooking more of your meals. If you are single, preparing healthy meals day after day, week after week is a hassle no matter where you live (As a friend of mine says, it just take soooooo long). Many of my female friends who cooked for picky children for years never fully recovered their enthusiasm for cooking.
At least they know in the U.S they can find the ingredients for their favorite easy meals at the grocery store. In Mexico, not so. And many of the recipes you bring from home just won't prepare the same. Here are the challenges.
1) Staple ingredients such as butter, beef, milk, sour cream and sugar taste different.
2) You have to translate the recipe from the back of the box from Spanish to English.
3) You sometimes have to convert measurements from the metric system in a recipe.
4) Crucial ingredients to your American recipes may not be available locally. For example, here, they don't really have what we'd call a green onion. They have something that looks like a mutant green onion, it's huge. But it has a much stronger flavor than ours.
5) It's more challenging to read ingredient labels. For example, when I want cranberry juice, I don't want it made from concentrate. That means reading labels in Spanish.
6) You will not have the variety of lettuces and greens for salads you are accustomed to in the U.S. In coastal areas, leafy produce doesn't last near as long.
Combine the normal challenges of cooking for one with being in a foreign country. You will find the only recipe you have left is the one for disaster, financially and physically as your diet completely falls apart.
As a single person, cooking for one used to mean wasted produce, soggy frozen left-overs and too much money spent on often equally inedible, unhealthy meals out. I almost starved to death my first six months here.
I can just imagine what dieters restricting their dairy, gluten or meat intake go through. Every now and then, I read a tetchy blog by some poor vegan who would otherwise love everything about the Mexico.
The thing to know right away about living in Mexico is that larger commercial grocery stores are more expensive but worth it. Locate the nearest one immediately.
Mexico’s open air mercados can be overwhelming in terms of humanity and unfamiliar smells. You have to take much more caution in soaking produce from a mercado in an anti-bacterial for twenty minutes before consuming it. I find that produce from mercados does not last as long.
This varies by region, as I have heard expats in other areas say they buy all their produce in mercados and they have a big variety of fresh organic fruits and vegetables.
Regardless of where you live, you'll need to visit your local mercado. Just don't assume, like I did, that you'll be strolling a clean mercado full of lovely produce every Saturday for your groceries.
I’m not proud of this, but I usually forget or am too rushed to soak produce from higher end grocery stores in the bacterial everyone keeps at hand.
My business associate, in an uncharacteristically indiscreet moment admitted the same. I do not advise this but it's been three years now and I haven't been sick yet, so if you forget, it's not necessarily the kiss of death people make it out to be.
Open air mercados are fun places to go when they aren’t busy; a great place to pick up small quantities of authentic Mexican spices, sweets and fresh juices. Don't count on them for all your major grocery shopping. The meat from a mercado is fresh alright, maybe a little too fresh.
No matter how long you live in another country, you will always want your food. I have a Vietnamese friend who has lived in the U.S. since he was 13 and he still prepares and eats the entire fish. Some of my expat friends have lived in Mexico for 15 years or more and their diet is only mildly different here.
Cattle in Mexico live a better life than in our country - they roam free. They are not corn-fed either. All that exercise and cheaper diet makes for tougher beef with a different taste.
Chicken and pork in Mexico is excellent. In coastal areas, the seafood will make you swoon. Chicken is yellow in Mexico because of a certain flower they are fed.
If you are not much a meat-eater, simple tostadas made at home with refried beans, cheese and little jalapeno are a quick go-to for protein.
Interestingly, the way a corn tortilla is made with lime juice chemically changes it whereby combined with beans, it becomes a super protein, thus making the combination greater than the sum of its parts.
This is why beans and corn tortillas are the center of a typical Mexican worker's diet and why those ingredients are price-fixed by the Mexican government.
Protein powder is available in many major stores. Protein powder and eggs can supplement your need for protein, which according to Men’s Health, is best spread in small amounts at every meal.
Smoothies make good meal replacements. You can hide a handful of spinach, oatmeal, chia seeds and a host of healthy ingredients in a smoothie. Tofu is usually available too.
Mexicans are more than happy to share recipes, but again you have the issue of language, differences in palate and the metric system bogging you down. Online cooking videos are very useful.
Translating recipes is not just a matter of looking up words. One of my favorite dishes calls for “secreto de cerdo,” which your dictionary will tell you is a “pig secret.” Try not to think about it (it's actually just flank steak).
You can get a big leg up for practicing your meal planning for Mexico up by checking out my Pinterest board, “Recipes that Translate,” where I have pinned recipes tested in my Mexican kitchen, taste like they do at home and don’t feed a family of 12.
If it seems there aren't that many recipes, perhaps it's because I bat maybe one in three. It's that difficult.
I particularly try to be on the look-out for recipes containing “SuperFoods” that are readily available here.
Superfoods available here
- Chia (available here)
- Sweet Potatoes
- Whole grains
- Lean meats (hamburger is not what you're used to here)
- Walnuts and Almonds
- Flax seed
- Bell peppers
- Green Teas
- Greek yogurt
You will see on my Pinterest board that I also have a sweet tooth that cannot be denied (Good thing dentistry is cheap in Mexico).
I hope it will help you stay healthy and happy when you come here for a long visit in Mexico, or once you decide to live here.
If you are still in the U.S and have a favorite recipe, send it to me and I will see if I can make it in my kitchen.
I stumbled upon this excellent food blog by folks in San Miguel de Allende. Tons of recipes by Cup Cakes and Crabs Legs.
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Hi, I'm a partner with Ventanas Mexico which provides insight and resources to singles considering expat life in Mexico, including the newly-released "If Only I Had a Place," a guide to renting written for the aspiring expat.
I am also author of the "Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online," a curation of the best Spanish language tools on the web. Don't pay hundreds of dollars just because they're on the first page of Google. Find the best free tools, organized into lesson plans at every level in the Guide.