From burritos to quesadillas: a tasty guide to Mexican cuisine

Read on to make sure you're not flustered the next time you order dinner at a taqueria

Tacos are an age-old Mexican staple. Courtesy The Beet Box
Tacos are an age-old Mexican staple. Courtesy The Beet Box

Do you know your enchilada from your burrito, and the difference between a taco and a tostada?

From popular snacks to a top-notch dish primer, as well as the answer to your avocado woes, read on for an ode to Mexican food just in time for Cinco de Mayo feasts on Wednesday.

Tortilla 101

Even if you consider your burritos best-in-class and your taco game strong, knowing the subtle differences between the many different combinations of tortilla-based Mexican dishes can prove tricky. While our guide won’t grant you expert status, it should mean that the next time you place an order in a Mexican restaurant you’ll end up with exactly what you expected.

Burritos

The burrito from Barbacoa at Masdar City, Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Barbacoa
The burrito from Barbacoa at Masdar City, Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Barbacoa

A flour tortilla enfolds various ingredients (commonly meat, rice, refried beans and shredded cheese) to form loosely wrapped, generously stuffed rolls that are best eaten with your hands.

Talking point: The Spanish word burrito translates as little donkey, and is believed to allude to the idea that in the same way a donkey is able to carry vast quantities on its back, a burrito can be packed with several fillings.

Enchiladas

Breakfast enchiladas de coloradito at La Betulia
Enchiladas are traditionally coated in sauce. Courtesy La Betulia

Two main factors differentiate the enchilada from the burrito. Enchiladas tend to be made with corn rather than flour tortillas, and once filled and rolled they’re covered in a chilli pepper sauce (the Spanish enchilar, meaning to season or coat with chilli), scattered with shredded cheese and baked.

Take note: If your enchilada does not reach you hot from the oven, drenched with said sauce and dripping with still-bubbling cheese, something’s not right.

Tacos

Keeping our attention on the classic version, rather than the myriad uber-trendy incarnations, tacos can be made from either hard or soft shells and, unlike burritos, are served open or partially folded, rather the closed and rolled, giving greater scope for adding extra delicious fillings.

Trivia time: Tacos are an age-old Mexican staple born out of good old common sense and necessity; food legend purports that the wives of Aztec farmers transported lunch to their hardworking husbands in edible taco wrappers.

Tostadas

Coriander-yoghurt chicken tostadas with avocado cream and pickled slaw. Photo: Scott Price 
Coriander-yoghurt chicken tostadas with avocado cream and pickled slaw. Courtesy Scott Price

The taco’s lesser-known sibling, think of the tostada as the open-faced sandwich version of the taco. A crunchy toasted or fried tortilla base acts as an edible plate that’s layered with toppings – refried beans, ground beef, salsa, cheese, avocado, salad, you get the idea.

Top tip: How do you eat a towering tostada with any degree of elegance, you may well wonder? First up, ditch the cutlery. Instead, use both hands to support the underside of the tostada base and take small bites, working your way gradually around the perimeter.

Quesadillas

Black bean quesadillas. Photo: Scott Price 
Black bean quesadillas. Courtesy Scott Price

It wouldn’t be a disservice to call the quesadilla the Mexican equivalent of the ultimate grilled cheese sandwich. In its simplest and most authentic form, the quesadilla comprises two flour tortillas with a layer of creamy, white Mexican cheese in between. This is then cooked on the griddle or stove top until said cheese is melted and molten. Uncomplicated. Unassuming. Delicious.

Say cheese: The semi-hard white Oaxaca or soft white Chihuahua cheeses are most commonly used in a quesadilla.

Mexican at home

If you fancy bringing the flavours of Mexico into your kitchen the quick, easy and delicious way, then read on.

Guacamole

Tomatoes are optional, salt is essential in a good guacamole. Photo: Scott Price
Tomatoes are optional, salt is essential in a good guacamole. Courtesy Scott Price

You might think you don’t need a recipe for guacamole. And that’s fine, we’re not going to give you one. What we can do, though, is help take your guacamole to the next (fresh, zingy, creamy) level.

Its success hinges on your choice of avocado.

As Daniel Cabral, avocado aficionado and the procurement director at online fruit and vegetable retailer Kibsons, confirms for us, the rich, smooth Hass variety is the way to go.

When it comes to other ingredients, you’ll want a little raw onion for acidity, fresh coriander for depth of flavour, lime juice for an underlying citrus note and green chillies to provide a touch of heat. Chopped fresh tomatoes are optional, but salt is a necessity.

Make your mix, let the flavours mingle for a few minutes, then taste and customise as you wish.

Elote

Elote is a dish of corn brushed with sour cream, mayonnaise or Mexican crema, chilli powder, lime juice and Cojita cheese. Photo: Scott Price
Elote is a dish of corn brushed with sour cream, mayonnaise or Mexican crema, chilli powder, lime juice and Cotija cheese. Courtesy Scott Price

If you’re new to the sweet-savoury, slightly spicy Mexican street food treat that is elote (eh-loh-tay), then consider this a reason to fire up the barbecue one last time before the summer well and truly hits with soaring temperatures.

The delicious premise behind elote goes a little bit like this: juicy, charred ears of grilled corn are brushed all over with sour cream, mayonnaise or Mexican crema (or a combination of all three), before being dusted with chilli powder, lime juice and crumbled Cotija cheese.

There are a few tips and tricks to apply here. The mayo base is the glue that brings this dish together, absorbing flavours and holding ingredients in place, so distribute evenly and generously. An element of spice is essential to balance the natural sweetness of the corn and the richness of the coating; if chilli powder is not your thing, smoked paprika or cayenne pepper work well, too. The same goes for that squeeze of lime juice; omit the citrus element and you risk the end result being cloying.

Finally, if you can’t get hold of Cotija cheese, feta might not be entirely authentic, but it certainly tastes good.

Cajeta

Caejta is a confection of thickened caramel made of goat’s milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and baking soda. Photo: Scott Price
Cajeta is a confection of thickened caramel made of goat’s milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and baking soda. Courtesy Scott Price

This is the Mexican equivalent of the sweet, gooey, slow-cooked milk caramel known as dulce de leche. The major difference between the two being that with cajeta, it’s goat’s milk (rather than cow’s) that’s simmered down to a thick, golden, sauce-like consistency.

While it takes a few hours to do so, it’s entirely possible to prepare cajeta at home – all you need is a few ingredients (goat’s milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and baking soda), a heavy-based pan and a bit of patience.

That said, if time is not on your side and you don’t mind doing away with authenticity, we’ve had great results with doctoring dulce de leche. To do so, simmer your sauce (home-made or store-bought, there’s no judgment here) with a cinnamon stick and the seeds from a vanilla pod.

Serve warm drizzled over ice cream, waffles and pancakes, offer as dip for doughnuts, leave to cool and sandwich between cookies or eat straight from the pan (see previous point about judgment).

Know your avocado

When it comes to Hass avocados, the darker the skin, the riper the fruit. Touch . Photo courtesy Kibsons
When it comes to Hass avocados, the darker the skin, the riper the fruit. Courtesy Kibsons

If there is one ingredient that’s synonymous with Mexican food, it’s the avocado. There would, of course, be no guacamole without the fruit (yes, fruit), but even withstanding that, it features across the cuisine in salads, soups, salsas, burritos and more.

And yet it’s a culinary truth universally acknowledged that there is nothing more frustrating and crushingly disappointing than finding yourself with an under-ripe avocado hard, unyielding, lacking in flavour.

We’ve consulted the experts in a bid to prevent this from happening. Cabral says that for the Hass avocado, skin colour is the best indicator of ripeness – the darker the skin, the riper the fruit. Touch plays a role, too. “Place the avocado in the palm of your hand and squeeze gently. It should feel slightly soft, with some firmness,” he explains.

On the inevitable occasion when you do end up with an avocado that’s clearly not yet ready for eating, Cabral advises placing it in a paper bag with a few bananas and storing at room temperature. From there, science will do its thing and the ethylene released naturally by the bananas will speed up the ripening process.

Updated: May 5, 2021 09:14 AM

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