We are so happy to welcome Ray Blakney from LiveLingua.com. Ray lives in Mexico and this time he shares information about one of the first challenges that a foreigner may face in a new country… figuring out the food.
Survival Spanish Guide to Mexican Street Food
by Ray Blakney
First time in Mexico? Want to try out the Mexican street food? Of course you do. There is a reason why Mexican food is one of the most famous types of food in the world and why you can find Mexican restaurants in cities anywhere in the world. But do you know what kinds of food there are? Or maybe you just think you do.
I know how you feel. My name is Ray, and before marrying my Mexican wife and starting LiveLingua.com I arrived in Mexico the first day with an empty stomach but no knowledge of the Spanish language. I would walk through the markets – always the best place to find local food no matter what country you are in – and see all the amazing food… and I did not know what any of it was. I saw people asking for tacos, but what they got did not look like anything I had ever eaten at Taco Bell. I felt lost.
Now after almost 10 years of living in Mexico I finally have a handle on the complexity of Mexican street food. What makes things complicated is that the names of many of the foods either have another meaning, or sound like a word in English that really has nothing to do with them (false cognates). This guide is to help novice Mexican street foodies navigate through a market and order the food they want.
I thought I knew what a taco was, after all while in university Taco Bell was one of my favorite fast food joints. A nice hard shell shaped in a “U” shape stuffed with spiced ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream and a salsa. Boy was I wrong. A traditional Mexican taco is usually just meat (steak, chicken, goat, tongue, cow brain, tripe, etc.) on a soft corn tortilla. That’s it. Normally the taco stands have small bowls with different toppings – onion, cilantro, guacamole, salsa, pineapple, etc. – that you can put on top yourself.
The word “Gorditas” in Spanish means “little fat girl”, but before you get worried that the practice of cannibalism is running rampant in Mexico you should know that the food “gorditas” is actually a delicious flattened corn “bun” that is then stuffed with different fillings (called guisados). The color and size of a “gorditas” can change depending on the region of Mexico you are in. Here in Querétaro where my wife and I spend most of the year they are about 2 inches (5 cm) in circumference and made with the local blue corn. ¡Qué rico!
Guajolote means turkey (the animal) in Mexico and most of Central America. But, the dish Guajolote does not have a speck of turkey in it! A guajolote (also called pambazo in other regions of Mexico) is actually a deep fried sandwich or as I like to call “an easy-to-carry heart attack” . It is made by putting different fillings – most traditionally potatoes and chorizo – in a white bread bun, then deep frying it in oil that has red guajillo chile pepper in it. It is as delicious and bad for you as it sounds but worth the clogged arteries.
The word “Gringa” is used in Mexico to describe a foreign girl… unless you ask for one at a stall in a Mexican market. A “gringa” is a wonderful mix of the meat al pastor (pork on a spit with special spices), with pineapple all merged together with melted Oaxaca cheese and then put between two flour tortillas. It is all then grilled on a skillet so it all stays together. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it!
Meat or chicken with rice and beans, wrapped in a flour tortilla. What could be more Mexican than this? Actually, anything, since this is not a Mexican dish (and 5 de Mayo is not Mexican Independence day… but that is for another article). If you go to the market in Mexico and ask for a “burrito” the only thing you will get – if anything – is a small donkey. Nobody is sure who invented the modern “burrito“, but most accounts have it being a Mexican immigrant in Arizona or Texas. But regardless, most Mexicans have never had one. My wife Laura, who is Mexican and had lived in the U.S., tried her first burrito last year (2013).
… CON VERDURAS?
This is not a dish, but they will ask you this whenever you order any of the above. With almost all the dishes that are served in the Mexican market the person preparing them for you will ask you if you want the dish “con verduras“. If you translate that, it means “with vegetables”. But don’t be fooled. They are not asking if you want a salad with that. What they really are asking is if you want it onions and cilantro. Now just to clarify an onion is a root and cilantro is an herb. There is not a single vegetable that they will put on your plate.
So now that you are armed with this guide, go out to your nearest Mexican market and be ready for a feast!
Ray Blakney is the CEO and co-founder of LiveLingua.com. He is an avid world traveler and has lived and worked in U.S., Turkey, China, Philippines and now resides in Mexico with his Mexican wife. He is a serial language entrepreneur and started and ran a chain of Spanish immersion schools with his wife before selling them and focusing on online language education. In his spare time he practices Kendo, reads science fiction and spends time with his wife and dog.
Check out these other Mexican Culture articles.