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.