Demystifying Mexican Ingredients

Plus recipes and easy-to-find substitutions

While most restaurants in America don’t necessarily serve traditional Mexican dishes, we decided to learn more about the country’s ingredients and ways to cook with them or find substitutions that are more readily available in America. To aid us in this endeavor, we turned to cooking instructor and culinary tour leader Nancy Zaslavsky and chef Bernard McDonough from Hotel Matilda in San Miguel de Allende for some information and recipes.  


Mexico is a very large country and one that naturally sees regional differences in cuisine, but, depending on where you’re from of course, Zaslavsky says that you’ll see “pinto beans, golden colored beans, and black beans. There’s always a pot of beans on the stove and corn is a big deal of course.” She mentions that corn is usually grilled on the cob and that corn tortillas are almost always used in Mexican cooking except for people who live in the Texas-Mexico border states, then flour is usually used. Chilaquiles is great recipe for using leftover corn tortillas or you can always try making your own homemade tortillas.

Epazote, which has an anise-like flavor, is an herb that’s native to Southern Mexico and other Latin American countries. If you aren’t able to find it, then cilantro makes a suitable substitute, since it is "another ingredient that is used fresh all the time," according to Zaslavsky. Epazote is also used in the carnitas recipe pictured left. 


Quesillo Oaxaca is a white cow’s milk cheese that originated in the Mexican state of Oaxaca (it’s also called asadero).  Zaslavsky says that the cheese is a little tangier than supermarket string cheese sold in America, but the “joy of this cheese is that it melts in a flash.” She suggests making a quesadilla out of tortillas, shredding the cheese on it with some fresh chiles and squash blossoms, and then grilling it until the cheese melts and oozes out. It’s basically a “Mexican grilled cheese sandwich” that can be made with flour or corn tortillas, but corn is slightly healthier. If you can’t find quesillo Oaxaca, then unaged Monterey Jack cheese makes a good substitute.


Named after Cotija de la Paz, Cotija cheese is a popular Mexican cheese that can be made from either cow’s or goat’s milk. Usually crumbled over carnitas or enchiladas (like in the recipe pictured left) or used to season other Mexican dishes, it has a similar salty flavor to feta or Parmesan cheese. You may also see it being called queso añejo or queso añejado.


White onion is a popular ingredient as well that’s often used in guacamoles and salsas. A typical characteristic of Mexican cuisine is to serve guacamole with one or two other table salsas like this Cantaloupe Table Salsa recipe or this Blackberry-Citrus Salsa. Chef McDonough explains that salsas are also a main component of the traditional dish chilaquiles that uses leftover or stale tortillas like in the recipe pictured left.  


Zaslavsky explains that the “most typical chiles are the fresh green chiles — jalapeños or serranos. They are basically interchangeable but the serrano is spicier.”

Queso Chihuahua is a mild cheese from Mexico that has a similar taste to a medium white Cheddar and can be used in dishes like queso fundido or for stuffing poblano peppers. 


Click here to see El Greatest Guacamole recipe.

Click here to see the Squash Blossoms Quesadilla recipe. 

Click here to see the Elotes Callejeros (Grilled Corn) recipe. 

Click here to see the Carnitas Taquitos recipe. 

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