How to Order Mexican Without Sounding Estúpido
February 2, 2012
Pozole – po-ZOH-lay
A corn and meat stew that dates back to Aztec times, pozole is a typical Mexican comfort food. It's not too different from Tex-Mex tortilla soup, but uses hominy along with a varying mixture of pork and chicken, chiles, and vegetables. In Spanish, the "le" ending is usually pronounced as "lay."
Flauta – fl-OW-tah
The pronunciation of the "au" diphthong in Spanish is similar to saying "ow" in English, as in: "Ow, I hurt myself." Try to make the "fl" and "ow" sounds fluid rather than staccato. Its direct translation, flute, gives an indication of what to expect when ordering these as a snack or appetizer. Small tortillas are filled with meat such as chicken or beef and then rolled up to resemble a flute and fried to a crisp. Flautas are basically the same thing as taquitos although connoisseurs distinguish the two depending on whether the tortillas are made with flour (flautas) or corn (taquitos).
Churro – CHOO-rr[trilled]-oh
Learning how to trill the double Rs in Spanish can be tough, but if your reward is warm, cinnamon- and sugar-covered fried dough you might be more willing to make the effort. The trill is a rolling of the tongue against the roof of the mouth, but some people are in fact not genetically predisposed to move their tongues this way. The long, thin cylindrical cruller-type of pastry is often dipped in melted chocolate, hot cocoa, or even eaten for breakfast with coffee or tea.
Tamales – ta-MAH-lays
Again, the "le" ending is pronounced as "lay" while the "A's" are both soft vowels following hard consonants. Best served hot from a tamalera steamer, tamales consist of soft corn masa mixed with a meat like chicken or beef and salsa, and are then wrapped and steamed. Usually the masa is wrapped in a corn husk but tamales can also be found wrapped in banana leaves — those usually appear as a fat, square package, often tied with twine.
Huaraches – wha-RAH-chays
In Mexico, ordering "huaraches" could mean you are either at a shoe store or a food stall because the name of the food comes from a typical style of sandal. The Mexico City street food is a thick, pan-fried corn pancake covered with a selection of toppings like salsa, cilantro, onions, meat, and cheese. In Spanish, the "hu" is usually pronounced without the "h" sound but the "hua" combination here sounds more like "wha" as in "what." For the most part "che" is pronounced as "chay."
Barbacoa – bar-bah-KOH-ah
If you can, roll the "R" before any consonant, but not as long as a double R. If you're thinking this sounds like "barbecue," you are right, but Mexican and Caribbean barbecue is usually not done on a grill but rather steamed inside a pit with hot coals. The meat is generally beef often cuts from the head, like cheek or lamb or goat.
Cochinita Pibil – co-chee-NEE-tah pee-BILL
This dish is a form of barbacoa but is usually pork which is marinated first then slow cooked. While "che" sounds like "chay," the "chi" in cochinita (which refers to a small pig) sounds like the "chee" in "cheese." In the second word, pibil, which describes the cooking method of wrapping the pork in banana leaves and steaming it in a pit, the "pi" is pronounced as "pee" rather than "pie."
Elote – eh-LO-tay
Often sold street-side, elote is boiled and grilled corn on the cob that is covered in butter, shredded cotija cheese, lime juice, and chili powder or hot sauce. Here again, the "e" ending is pronounced as "ay." Don't be surprised when the ear of corn you order in Mexico tastes different from North American-style sweet white corn because the native Mexican corn, like maize, has larger kernels and less sugar content.
Chilaquiles – chee-la-KEE-lays
A popular breakfast dish, the word chilaquiles is usually plural and contains the letter combination "qui" which is pronounced as "kee" or "key." Strips of corn tortillas are fried and mixed with red or green salsa and often other ingredients, including eggs and/or shredded chicken, then topped with onions, shredded cheese, sour cream, and avocado, with refried beans on the side.
Chiles Rellenos – CHEE-lays ray-YAY-nos
Chiles you've most definitely heard of, but relleno simply means filled, as in a stuffed chili pepper. The double L is always pronounced with a subtle Y sound, as in "yeah" or "yield." In this dish, mildly spicy poblano chiles are filled with cheese then battered and fried and often served with mild tomato sauce.
Mole – MOH-lay
Like chiles rellenos, mole is associated with the town of Puebla, a few hours from Mexico City, but has many regional variations. Though it would seem as if the menu is suggesting you order a birthmark, mole, pronounced "MOH-lay" not "MOHL," is a type of sauce most often served atop chicken or turkey. One of the most common types, mole poblano, contains about 20 different ingredients, including ground chili powder, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, and unsweetened cocoa powder, which helps give it a dark brown-reddish color.
A mainstay of Mexican cuisine, frijoles are beans of any type. In Spanish, the J is always silent and pronounced with an H sound, like in "hole" or "how." The most common kinds of beans are pintos (PEEN-tohs), also known as pinto beans or pink beans; negros (NEH-GROSS) which are black beans; and refritos (reh-FREE-tohs) are re-fried beans.