Meat was scarce before the Spaniards arrived, so the Mexican natives used corn and beans as their main nutritional staple. Chiles and heavy spices were used to give their dishes flavor. Mexico's seaside communities relied on the plentiful array of seafood as a source of meat for their dishes.
Soon the Spaniards brought over garlic, onions, cheese, wheat, chicken and more. The native Mexicans soon melded these new items into their indigenous dishes.
One of the first things that may come to mind when you think of Mexican food are chiles. There are many types of chiles used such as the spicy jalapeno, the flavorful ancho and the fiery serrano. Chiles flavor anything from soups and sauces to salsas and mole. They can be used fresh, whole, smoked, dried or powdered and can be considered a spice.
Another widely used ingredient are beans, such as black beans and pinto beans. They are used to make dishes such as refried beans, bean salads, soups and more.
You won't find butter in traditional Mexican cuisine. Today most people will use vegetable oil as the fat for cooking, but the more traditional way is cooking with lard. Lard gives a wonderful flavor to the masa used for tamales and to refried beans.
Let's not forget corn. The natives have used this staple for centuries as one of the main sources of nutrition. It is usually dried and ground then liquids or fats are added. Ground corn makes up tortilla chips, corn tortilla's, masa and more.
Fresh tomatoes are used raw in salsas, and are also used as toppings and fillings for taco's and burritos. Tomatoes are not usually used to make a sauce. Most of the red sauces you find in Mexico are made from chiles. Cooked or canned tomatoes are also used as flavors for rice, salads and soups.
Sometimes unusual ingredients are used to layer flavors. A perfect example is traditional Mole (MOH-lay.) Over 30 different spices are used to make it including cocoa and peanuts or peanut butter. Cocoa is a great seasoning to bring out a rich flavor.
Cactus is also commonly used as a base for main dishes. The prickly spines can be difficult to work with and there are even special knives to make it easier.
When the Spaniards started introducing new foods, the natives began making flour tortillas and adding meats to their traditional dishes.
You may think an abundance of cheese is traditional in Mexican dishes. In reality it is a more recent addition to Mexican Cuisine. Mexican cheeses like Panela, Queso Blanco or Queso Fresco do well in enchiladas and quesadillas. Jack cheese, which hails from the USA is also delicious and pairs well with most Mexican flavors.
Now that you have a little knowledge of common ingredients used in Mexican food, try out a recipe!