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Stocking Your Mexican Pantry

Until fairly recently, the American perspective on Mexican cuisine tended to begin and end with Tex-Mex dishes like tacos, nachos, burritos, tortillas and guacamole. Today, with much more awareness and adventurousness among their customers, onsite kitchens can be much more creative and authentic in their Mexican menu offerings, but that also means a much-expanded universe of specialty products to source.

Here’s are some authentic Mexican ingredients you might try incorporating into your menu:

Achiote (Ah-chee-OH-tay) is the seed of the annatto tree (and is sometimes also called annatto seed). It comes whole or ground, or in combination with other ingredients (garlic, cumin, lime juice, oregano, etc.) in a commercially available paste. Somewhat flavorless in an earthy way, achiote is often used as a food coloring. If you buy whole seeds, make sure they are a rusty red, not brown.

Anejo (A-NAY-oh). A dry, white, crumbly cheese similar to feta.

Asadero. A good melting cheese, similar to mozzarella, that comes in rounds and braids.

Avocado leaves. With an anise/hazelnut-like flavor, the leaves of the avocado tree can be used fresh, dried or ground.

Banana leaves. Used as a wrap for tamales and steamed dishes, banana tree leaves are generally available in a cured form. They have a rather strong flavor that can overpower more delicate ingredients.

Chayote (Cha-OH-tay, also known as "vegetable pear" or christophene). A gourd-like fruit that was an ancient Mayan and Aztec staple, chayote comes in several varieties, ranging in size from smaller, egg-sized light green and white ones to a spine-covered dark green one the size of a large pear. The flesh, which surrounds a soft seed, is white and quite bland. It can be used raw in salads or split, stuffed and baked.

Chile. Mexico is home to over a hundred different varieties of this spicy pod, which is used either fresh or dried, and the various types play crucial roles in different regional dishes. Though the most familiar varieties are green, there are red, yellow, orange, black and even white chilies. Flavor ranges from mild to ninth-ring-of-hell hot, with pod size generally corresponding to heat (bigger is generally milder).

Chiuhuahua. A high-fat, mild cheese similar to Monterey Jack or mild Cheddar.

Chocolate. Central America is the original home of this now-universal treat. It’s most familiar use in Mexican cuisine is in mole poblano, but Mexican chocolate—actually a grainy blend of cacao, cinnamon, vanilla, sugar and ground almond—is most often used to make hot chocolate.

Chorizo (Chor-EE-zo). A spicy sausage made from fresh pork (the Spanish version uses smoked pork). Spicing varies widely but chile is generally a key ingredient in the mix.

Epazote (Ep-ah-ZOH-tay). Also known as wormseed, Mexican tea and—in this country—stinkweed, epazote is a highly pungent herb often used to flavor bean dishes, stews and soups. It is most commonly use din dishes from Central and Southern Mexico.

Hoja santa. A large anise-flavored leaf used primarily in Southern Mexican cooking, hoja santa (literally "holy leaf") can be used either as an herb or a tamale-style wrap.

Huitlacoche (Wheat-la-KO-chay) is a hard-to-find corn fungus (American farmers generally get rid of it when they find it infecting their crops). It imparts a sweet, mushroomy earthiness when cooked and is a prized ingredient in soups, crepes and casseroles in Mexico.

Jicama (He-CAH-mah). A tuber with a crisp texture, jicama resembles a cross between an apple and a potato (it’s also known as the Mexican potato). It has a mild nutty flavor and is generally eaten raw or barely cooked. To prepare, peel the thin skin just before use.

Nopal. A cactus that produces two Mexican staples: its fruit and its leaves (paddles). The fruits are known as "prickly pears" or "cactus pears" and have a mild, sweet, melon-like flavor. The paddles, known as nopales, have a taste and texture that is a cross between green beans and okra and are used in salads, stews and omelets.

Plantains. Similar to large bananas, ripe plantains are black and soft and have a mild, slightly sweet flavor. Since they are starchy like potatoes, they make a good thickener for stews and soups and are also often fried in oil

Queso fresco/queso blanco. A slightly textured white fresh cheese similar to farmer’s cheese.

Tomatillos. These Mexican tomatoes are green when ripe and come with a papery husk. Though available canned, fresh is generally preferred.

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