Glossary of Mexican Food

For our non-Spanish speaking friends, and those unfamiliar with the specific vocabulary of the vast offerings of Mexican cuisine, we’ve put together a little cheat sheet for you so you can order like a pro at any restaurant, fonda, or puesto.


A marinade composed of paprika, garlic, oregano, salt, vinegar, and in Mexico, of course, chilis that imparts a smoky, spicy flavor.

Photo: © 49Pauly via


A raw seafood dish seasoned with lime, chile, salt, cilantro, and cucumber.

Photo: © Jacopo Ventura via

Agua fresca

A refreshing non-alcoholic beverage made from fruit, cereal, or seeds blended with water and sugar.

Photo: © Juan José Alvaraeo Mendieta via


Grilled meat, typically beef, topped with bacon, bell peppers, onions, and cheese.

Photo: © Joshua Resnick via


Any food or snack prepared at street stalls or markets, literally “little cravings”.

Photo: © Alexcrab via


Skirt steak.

Photo: © Fotoatelie via


The method of slow-cooking meat (usually a whole goat, sheep, or lamb) over an open fire.

Photo: © Arinahabich via


A denser and crispier bread roll from Jalisco, better to support the salsa it is soaked in for tortas ahogadas.


A traditional soup or stew from Jalisco typically made with goat meat.

Photo: © Carlos Rojas20 via

Café de olla

Coffee that is made in a pot on the stove with cane sugar, cinnamon and other spices.

Photo: © Robert Patrick Briggs via


A savory broth to which meat, fish, or vegetables can be added.

Photo: © Mariha – Kitchen via


A type of street taco that combines different meats, often beef and pork.

Photo: © Natalia Cardenas via


A pressure cooked sweet potato served from the very cart it is cooked in, just listen for the distinctive high-pitched whistle, served with condensed milk, cinnamon, jam, or chili.

Photo: © Chengzuzheng via


An espresso with a shot of Licor 43, served shakeado (cold and shaken) or divorciado (hot with the liquor on the side).

Photo: © Emmanuel Pérez via

Carne en su jugo

Finely sliced strips of beef cooked in its own juice, with lime and other spices.

Photo: © photography by Tonelson via


Small seasoned cuts of pork braised in oil or lard for several hours resulting in tender and juicy meat.

Photo: © Carlos Rojas20 via


Salted, cured beef.

Photo: © Carlos Rojas20 via


Grasshoppers toasted on a comal (griddle) and seasoned with salt, garlic, lime, or chili.

Photo: © Esdeval via


Typically a breakfast food of corn tortillas which are cut up, fried, and bathed in red or green sauce with onion, cream, and crumbled cheese on top.

Photo: © ALLEKO via

Chile en nogada

A seasonal dish consisting of a poblano pepper stuffed with picadillo (ground meat with fruits and spices), topped with a creamy walnut sauce, pomegranate seeds, and parsley and served at room temperature.

Photo: © Mofles via

Chile relleno

Most commonly a poblano pepper stuffed with meat or cheese and coated in an egg batter.

Photo: © Juanmonino via


Tiny chili peppers that pack an exceptional punch, rated “exceptionally hot” on the Scoville scale.

Photo: © Donki13 via

Chorizo verde

A green sausage that is a specialty from the Toluca area, given its color through the addition of tomatillos (green tomatoes).


A snack of crunchy fried dough dipped in cinnamon and sugar, served with various dips like chocolate or cajeta (caramel made from goat’s milk).

Photo: © Perdojperez via

Cochinita pibil

A traditional dish from the Yucatán peninsula of slow-roasted pork in a citrus marinade with achiote, which gives it a distinctive orange color.

Photo: © Robert Patrick Briggs via


Corn on the cob sold from street vendors, slathered in mayo, cotija cheese, chili, and lime.

Photo: © Natalia Cardenas via


A pastry turnover with savory or sweet fillings, fried or baked depending on the origin, a.k.a. pasty.

Photo: © Blurr via


Corn tortillas, stuffed and rolled, and bathed in salsa.

Photo: © Carlos Rojas20 via


Like enchiladas but bathed in beans.

Photo: © Carlos Rojas20 via


Like enchiladas but bathed in mole.

Photo: © Arturogi via


The edible larvae of ants, which have a buttery and nutty flavor, known colloquially as Mexican caviar.

Photo: © monicagodefroy via


Same as elote above but corn in a cup instead of on the cob.

Photo: © Natalia Cardenas via


Also known as taquitos or taco dorados, a rolled up tortilla filled with meat, cheese, or vegetables, deep fried and topped with cream.

Photo: © Gabriel Bahena via


A simple, unpretentious eatery that often serves inexpensive comida corrida, a midday menu with three to four courses.

Photo: © KathyDewar via


A general word that refers to any fried street food or snacks.

Photo: © Ali çobanoglu via


Flour tortilla with melted cheese and typically stuffed with pastor.

Photo: © Carlos Rojas20 via


A thick corn masa stuffed with cheese, meat, or other fillings.

Photo: © Val Ibarrola via


A.k.a. torta de tamal, a tamale in a bread roll.

Photo: © Carlos Rojas20 via


A stew or casserole.

Photo: © Dulezidar via

Hoja santa

An aromatic herb of the pepper family, used to flavor dishes or wrap them in their large leaves.

Photo: © MazatlL via


A fried oblong masa base spread with smashed beans and various toppings and finished off with crumbled cheese.

Photo: © photography by Tonelson via


An edible fungus that develops on the exposed part of the corn, with a flavor often likened to that of truffles.

Photo: © Xarhini via


A seasoned and spiced pork sausage.

Photo: © Marcello77 via


The dough made from nixtamalized corn that is used to form everything from tortillas and gorditas to sopes, tlacoyos and tamales.

Photo: © MonicaNinker via


A drink made with beer and lime served in a glass with a salted rim, take care when ordering one outside of Mexico City as the name can refer to various other concoctions that include tomato juice, sauces, or spices.

Photo: © Mardoz via


A stone mortar and pestle, also used as a bowl to serve specific dishes from guacamole to meat and seafood.

Photo: © Natalia Cardenas via


A sauce or marinade made from a variety of spices, chilis, nuts, and fruit, from the Nahuatl word for “sauce”.

Photo: © Carlos Rojas20 via


Similar to an open-faced sandwich, a roll spread with beans and cheese, accompanied by fresh pico de gallo salsa.


The mixture of maize, water, and quicklime to create the process of nixtamalization, which prepares the maize, making it easier to grind as well increasing flavor, aroma, and nutritional value.

Photo: © Xarhini via


Refers to the pads of the prickly pear cactus which can be grilled or stewed to accompany tacos or salads, high in nutritional value, the edible fruit of the cactus is known as tuna.

Photo: © Iblinova via


A roll dipped and fried in guajillo chili sauce and filled with potatoes and chorizo.

Photo: © Carlos Rojas20 via

Pan de muerto

A pastry eaten in the weeks leading up to Day of the Dead (November 1-2), often flavored with anise or orange flower and dusted with sugar, the top is decorated with “bones” to represent the deceased.

Photo: © Natalia Cardenas via


A Yucatecan specialty made from a refried tortilla and layered with refried black beans, pulled meat, and pickled red onion.

Photo: © Paul_Brughton via


A traditional dish from the Yucatán consisting of boiled eggs in corn tortillas with a pumpkin seed sauce.

Photo: © Sweetcarrotfoodphoto via


A traditional stew made with hominy and meat (usually chicken or pork) and an array of garnishes, it can be made in many ways and with different color bases (white, green, red) depending on the region of origin, enjoyed year round but with special significance around holidays.

Photo: © Carlos Rojas20 via


Ground beef cooked with tomato and onion, used as a filling for tacos or chiles.

Photo: © JennyMoreno via


A food stall on the street or in a market.

Photo: © Juanmonino via


A folded and grilled corn or flour tortilla stuffed with… cheese, right? – not always, as in Mexico City, and to the dismay of folks from other parts of the country, you may have to order your quesadilla “con queso”.

Photo: © Val Ibarrola via


Succulent seepweed boiled in a mole sauce with dried shrimp, typically eaten around Christmas and Lent.

Photo: © Xharhini via

Rosca de Reyes

A sweet bread in the form of a ring, similar to a King cake, eaten around the Epiphany (January 6), to be shared among friends and family and the one who finds the plastic doll has to make the tamales for Candelaria (February 2).

Photo: © Girl With Red Hat via


Another Yucatecan specialty consisting of a puffed deep fried tortilla topped with pulled meat, avocado, and pickled red onion.

Photo: © Carlos Rojas20 via

Salsa macha

A rich, oil-based sauce combining any variety of chili with nuts, seeds, and garlic.

Photo: © Carlos Rojas20 via

Salsa martajada

A classic chunky red sauce common to many Mexican dishes, consisting of roasted and crushed tomatoes, chilis, and cilantro.

Photo: © VChornyy via


A staple of Mexico and particularly of Mexico City street food culture, a tortilla folded around any number of toppings and eaten with the hands.

  • al pastor – spit-grilled adobo pork (think shawarma style because it was brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants), order it con todo to add onion, cilantro, and pineapple.
Photo: © Carlos Rojas20 via
  • de cabeza – meat from the roasted head of the animal.
Photo: © Val Ibarrola via
  • de lengua – beef tongue.
Photo: © Zkruger via
  • de suadero – a thin cut of smooth pork or beef confited or fried.
Photo: © Natalia Cardenas via
  • de tripas – chitterlings, or the small intestines of domestic animals.


A base of corn masa steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf and filled with a variety of toppings or salsas, often eaten for breakfast.

Photo: © Carlos Rojas20 via


A fermented beverage made from pineapple rind and seasoned with piloncillo (brown sugar) and cinnamon, contains about 2% alcohol by volume.

Photo: © Carlos Rojas20 via


Shredded chicken cooked in a chipotle sauce, though vegetarian versions using carrots and hibiscus now abound.

Photo: © Carlos Rojas20 via


A type of sandwich served on a roll, typically with beans, cheese, avocado, and any number of other fillings.

Photo: © Andrés Soriano via


The cornerstone of Mexican cuisine, a thin flatbread traditionally made from corn, and now also wheat flour.

Photo: © Cparks via


A crispy, toasted tortilla base topped with any number of meat, seafood, or veggie combinations.

Photo: © Juanmonino via


A partially toasted tortilla with a thick layer of melted cheese.


A cooking method originating in the coastal state of Nayarit where the fish is split, smothered in chile and spices, and slowly smoke-grilled over mesquite.

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