The Overseas Mexican Pantry

Mexico is usually referred to as the ‘horn of abundance’ because its territory has the shape of a horn and is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world.  In its territory, Mexico has 12 different climates – including all the climates in Europe – which has contributed to the breadth of Mexico’s unique cooking ingredients.

When cooking traditional Mexican food, a Mexican pantry is a great thing to have.  And whilst there are hundreds, if not thousands, of ingredients unique and native to Mexico, not all of them can be found overseas.  

Using my experience of living in many countries and input from chefs working all over the world, I have compiled a list of the ‘must-have’ and ‘not-too-hard’ to find ingredients for the Overseas Mexican Pantry

Corn Tortillas and Masa

Corn is the backbone of Mexican culture and food and us Mexicans often refer to ourselves as the ‘children of corn’.  According to ancient Mexican mythology, humans were created by the gods out of corn.  It was corn that gave rise to the ancient civilisations in Mexico and it explains why corn is so important to our history and pantry. 

  • Tortillas are the main form in which corn is consumed in Mexico.  Tortillas are both a food and an eating tool that easily replaces cutlery and tissues. And the best part is that you don’t have to wash it, you simply eat it!!  This is what we do at La Tortilleria every day! 
  • Masa – apart from making tortillas, the corn masa is used to make dozens of other staples of Mexican cuisine.  As Colin from @elgusanotaqueria will say “Made well and the flavour is amazing and it carries a lot of great Mexican street food. Gorditas, tamales, empanadas, tlacoyos, … the list is huge”

Herbs

From my travels, I have learned that herbs are very important to traditional cooking.  Even in Australia, Indigenous Australians have some amazing and unique herbs like the strawberry gum.  When used properly, herbs provide that special aroma that invites your senses to try the food.

  • Epazote – this is one of those herbs that despite growing easily – almost like a weed – it hasn’t really made it overseas. It has a pungent, slight anise flavour with oregano and mint notes.  It does have an interesting smell, like turpentine, which puts a lot of people off.  However, it is one of the most prevalent herbs in Mexican cuisine.  

I remember I didn’t like it growing up, but then the more I got exposed to it, the more I liked it.  Now, I can’t live without it. 

For Alejandro Huerta (@alhuertac), at Chica Bonita in Manly, epazote is his favourite herb as it brings memories of his mother’s cooking.  He uses the dry version which can be found in Mexican cooking stores.

  • Mexican oregano – regular oregano has minty undernotes whilst Mexican has lemon and citrus flavours.  In fact, they come from different plant families.  Given that the flavours are different I find useful to have Mexican oregano handy as many recipes will call for it. 

Chillies

Oh chillies!  What would be of Mexican food, and many other cuisines around the world, without chillies?  Most chillies in the world are originally from Mexico, and in fact, all chillies in the world come from somewhere in the Americas.  Imagine what would be of Indian, Thai or Korean food without the chillies!! Clark Valenzuela (@clarkvalenzuela), from Alma in Avalon, says chillies are his favourite ingredient. 

Whilst there are hundreds of different chillies in Mexico and different classifications for these, I like to classify them in two for my pantry: fresh and dry.  

Fresh chillies, as the name implies, need to be consumed whilst fresh whilst dry chillies have a longer shelf-life – if they are kept airtight and away from humidity.  It always amazes me how the fresh chillies change their names when dried, but also their flavour profile. This is a list of some of the basic ones that are easier to find outside of Mexico:

Fresh – straight from the farm

  • Jalapeño – without doubt the most common chilli found outside of Mexico and found at most fresh produce stores around the world. It has a typical bright green colour and it is correct to say that its heat level changes a lot depending on where you buy it, and the time of the year.  It’s great with fresh salsas, guacamole and to prepare jalapeño poppers. 
  • Habanero – for thousands of years, habaneros were the spiciest chillies on earth.  This changed when new varieties and hybrids were developed around the world.  Whilst the seeds and veins are very hot, the actual fruit has a sweet flavour.  This is Diana’s, co-founder at La Tortilleria, favourite chilli because of its complexity and sweet flavour. 

Dried:

Dry chillies are used for salsas, moles, and many elaborated dishes in Mexico.  These are the chillies Mireya from Luna Bonita in Port Macquarie (@lunabonitaportmac) uses for her salsas and moles on the menu.

  • Chipotle – another chilli that has taken the world by a storm.  But did you know that this smoky chilli is in fact a jalapeño that has been dehydrated using a smoker? It is a super versatile chilli which comes in two different presentations:
    • Just dry – Rosa Cienfuegos (@rosacienfuegos) from La Tamaleria in Sydney, tells me that it is her favourite for salsas.
    • In adobo – which is the same dry chilli but rehydrated with adobo sauce.  The adobo sauce is a combination of different chillies and spices which is Toby Wilson’s (@tobywilson), from Ricos Tacos in Sydney, and Carlos from Luna Bonita (@lunabonitaportmac), in Port Macquarie, favourite Mexican ingredient. 
  • Morita – a different type of chipotle, which is smoked less than the chipotle.  It couldn’t be left off this list as both Axell from Bar Patron (@axell_torresv) and our Iliana at La Tortilleria love the flavour of this one. For Axell, it reminds him of the salsa recipe that his mother taught him. 

Other fresh produce

There are two other ingredients that I consider important in the pantry and these belong to the fresh produce alley:

  • Limes – Mexican lime is smaller and sweeter than the bitter limes overseas.  In Mexico, we call it ‘Colima Lime’.  As our own Yasser from La Tortilleria will say, lime is essential for ceviche, tacos and drinks. Mexicans overseas cannot be too picky, so any lime will do, and we like it on everything! Except when they are 5 dollars a piece, yikes! 
  • Tomatillos – whilst tomatoes are very important in Mexican cuisine, tomatillos have a very special place in the Mexican pantry.  Their zesty flavour and texture make them the perfect salsa ingredient loved by Mexicans, like our own Luis at La Tortilleria, and foreigners – in love with Mexico – alike.  And talking about foreigners, both Paul Wilson (@by_paulwilson) and Kristal Smith from Clay Cantina (@claycantina) rate tomatillos as their favourite ingredient.

There you have it! Simple additions to your pantry stock you can find in Australia, to help you cook just like we do in Mexico in your own kitchen.

We are makers of award-winning traditional corn tortillas and tortilla chips, sold Australia-wide

Where to Buy

Want more Mexican? Get recipes, tips and news straight to your inbox!

You may also like:

10 Myths and Misconceptions of Mexican Food

Read more

Riding The Wave - Mexican Food In Australia

Read more