Local food terms
Mayan and Yucatecan Specialties
The Mayans had no pork, beef, or chicken but they had plenty of seafood and turkey (and eggs) as well as venison. In addition to maize, pumpkin seeds and amaranth were a major source of food. They have always had some of the world's finest honey.
Merida was a major port trading with Europe, but the Yucatán was hard to reach from much of Mexico. Thus, some European products such as Dutch cheeses are quite common in Yucatecan cuisine since they were easier to come by than Mexican products. The ubiquity of Edam cheese is an example - balls of it are sold in Cozumel's municipal market.
Mexico gave the world chocolate, vanilla, avocado, and turkeys. All are native to the region of Cozumel.
Achiote - Annatto, a brightly-colored orange seed used as a spice in many Yucatecan dishes (and to color dairy products orange worldwide)
Chaya - Leafy green much like spinach or chard. Good many ways, including with scrambled eggs.
Chile Habanero - One of the spiciest chiles. Eaten, roasted, like candy for breakfast by Yucatecan children (maybe). There is no enie in "habanero" and there's no such thing as a "habañero".
Chile Xcatic - much like a yellow banana pepper. Flavorful and not very spicy, it's part of the backbone of Yucatecan food.
Cochinita Pibil - Suckling pig marinated in bitter orange juice and achiote, wrapped in banana leaves, and slow-cooked in a barbecue pit called a "pib": Mexican pulled pork! These days it's likely to be pork butt wrapped in foil and cooked in an oven, but that marinade remains crucial.
Frijoles Colados - "sieved" beans, a Yucatecan specialty. Finely-sieved refried black beans. Often served molded in shapes to show off the fact that they're capable of holding such shapes, a mark of quality.
Huevos Motuleños - Fried eggs layered with ham on tortillas with salsa and, usually, peas. Named for the Yucatán city of Motul.
Joloches - Finger-sized tortillas filled with achiote-marinated meat
Lima - not quite a limón, these are aromatic citrus fruits in the lime family
Naranja Agría - Seville or bitter orange. Highly acidic with juice that's barely drinkable but a great ingredient and marinade.
Panuchos - Corn tortillas made with an internal layer of black beans and topped most traditionally with shredded turkey or chicken, pickled onions, avocado, and often lettuce. Some places serve cochinita, relleno negro, or other Mayan toppings on panuchos.
Papadzules - Corn tortillas dipped in pumpkin-seed sauce then rolled with chopped boiled eggs. Might be the precursor to enchiladas.
Poc-Chuc - Achiote and citrus-marinated grilled pork cutlet
Queso Relleno - Edam cheese hollowed out, stuffed with meat, fruit, and nuts, then steamed and served by the slice with some of the stuffing and a masa-based sauce
Relleno Negro - "Black stuffing". A rich, black sauce, often with turkey and masa dumplings
Salbutes - Little puffy tortillas topped like a panucho
Sopa de Lima - Soup made with chicken broth cooked with lima slices, copious lima juice, and shredded chicken. Before serving, fried tortilla strips and avocado are added. And more lima. Lima is the proper citrus to use, but many places use Mexican (or "key") limes, which work just fine.
Tikin-Xic - Fish marinated in achiote and bitter orange juice, wrapped in a banana leaf, and baked
Xni-Pec - Very spicy salsa made with habanero chiles. The name refers to runny dog noses, possibly because it induces rhinorrhea in those it doesn't kill outright.
Mexican food in Mexico (or, as Mexicans think of it, "food") can be nearly unrecognizable to Americans and Canadians accustomed to Tex-Mex or Cal-Mex food. (Indeed, there's a place in Cancun specializing in "Mexican food like you get back home"!) Tacos are nearly always on soft corn tortillas, burritos are uncommon, and hardly anything comes smothered in orange cheese or piled with lettuce, tomatoes, or sour cream. Ground beef is not a common taco topping. Tortilla chips are thick and crunchy, made from actual corn tortillas. Flour tortillas are not traditional in this part of Mexico.
Beverage, breakfast, and seafood terms below.
Al Ajillo - Topped with thin strips of dried guajillo chiles (which are somewhat smoky rather than particularly spicy), garlic, and butter.
Al Pastor - "Shepherd-style". Refers to adobo-marinated pork stacked and vertically roasted then shaved to make bits for taco toppings. Very similar to shawarma from which it descends. Best with pineapple ("con piña") and finely-chopped onion and cilantro ("cebollacil") - order "con todo".
Alambre - Kebab
Alla Plancha - Grilled
Albóndingas - Meatballs
Antojitos - "Little cravings". All the wonderful street foods, usually made with masa, including tacos, tamales, quesadillas, tostadas and so much more that are the glory of Mexican snacking
Arrachera - Similar to (beef) fajitas but more tender. "Outer skirt" cut.
Baguette - Usually implies a sandwich made from a baguette, like an elongated torta
Barbacoa - Slow-cooked, smoked mutton or goat
Birria - Stew, normally goat or lamb
Bistek - Beef steak, typically sirloin
Bolillo - Large pointy bread roll descended from the baguette
Buche - Pork stomach taco topping
Burrito - Southwestern US dish uncommon in Mexico, except where Americans abound. Various stuff wrapped in a flour tortilla.
Cabeza (de Vaca) - "(Cow's) head". All the gnarly bits of a cow's head made into separate taco toppings or mixed (surtido). Items include eyes (ojos), cheek (cachete), brain (sesos - usually rolled and fried), lips (trompita), and tongue (lengua). My son has loved cabeza tacos, particularly lengua, since he was a kid. I'll take his word for it.
Caldo - Broth, usually chicken if not otherwise specified
Carnitas - Pork slowly cooked in its own rendered fat until crispy on the outside and succulent inside
Cecina - Thinly-sliced dried beef ("chipped beef", but not creamed)
Cerdo - Pork
Champiñones - Mushrooms - see "hongos"
Chayote - Pale green squash, called Mirliton in French
Chiles Rellenos - Stuffed chiles, usually poblanos. There is no end to potential fillings, but cheese is probably the most typical.
Chile Pequin - powdered chile (usually pequin...) with salt and powdered lime juice. Tajin is a popular brand.
Chimichanga - Deep-fried burrito, developed in Arizona and uncommon in Cozumel
Chorizo - Wonderful spicy sausage used to flavor many dishes, particularly those with eggs or cheese
Chuleta - Pork chop
Consome - Beef broth from a taqueria, often served for free
Costillas - Ribs
Crema de... - Cream of (whatever) soup
Dorado - "Golden", which in the case of food means deep-fried
Elote - Sweet corn. Dried corn is called maíz.
Empanadas - Disks of dough (usually corn masa) folded and filled with things then fried or baked
Empanizado - Breaded. This implies that it's fried.
Enchiladas - Corn tortillas dipped in chile salsa, fried a little, then rolled with a filling. Enfrijoladas are similar but dipped in bean sauce, and entomatadas in a tomato sauce. Papadzules are older but similar in concept.
Epazote - Herb used in nearly every bean recipe in Mexico as well as many other applications
Escabeche - Pickled carrots, onions, and chiles or, in the case of fish, poached with vinegar
Especial - "Special". Usually implies with meat (for something that otherwise has none) or a combination of meats
Fajitas - Dish developed and popularized in Houston, Texas (probably at Ninfa's) but adopted in Mexico. Originally limited to beef inner skirt steak. Now means practically anything grilled and cut into strips.
Fideo - Angel-hair pasta, typically served in caldo with chicken as Fideo con Pollo
Frijoles alla Charra - Soupy pinto beans, "cowgirl-style"
Frijoles Borrachos - "drunken beans" similar to alla charra but made with beer
Frijoles Negros - Black beans, the most common type in the Yucatán
Frijoles Refritos - "Refried" beans (not actually fried twice; "re" is an intensifier). May be made from any type of beans, but in Cozumel most typically black beans.
Gringas - Al Pastor meat on a flour tortilla with cheese (see Mestizas). Supposedly named after a frequent order at a D.F. taqueria by a group of "white girls".
Guacamole - "Avocado sauce" often used as a dip. Consists of avocados, lime, salsa, and salt and preferably nothing else. Only edible when freshly-made, at which point it's glorious.
Guiso - Topping, in the taco or pizza sense
Hamburguesa - Hamburger, a very common and popular food in Mexico. There's no such thing as a "cheeseburguesa" - order a "hamburguesa con queso", though this is usually the default and you might need to specify without ("sencillo", or "plain") if you don't want cheese.
Higado - Liver
Hongos - Mushrooms - see "champiñones
Hotdog - Traditional Mexican street food consisting of mysterious tubes of finely-ground meat cured with nitrites and served in a wheat bun with toppings
Huaraches - Mexico City specialty of an elongated corn tortilla (resembling a sandal sole) topped like a taco would be, but usually including Oaxaca cheese, which is like string cheese
Jitomate - Tomato
Lechón (al Horno) - (roast) suckling pig. Like meat candy. But better.
Lengua - (Beef) tongue
Limón - Lime. Mexican food couldn't exist without it. Lemon is essentially unknown in the region. Thus, limonada is always limeade, never lemonade, no matter what the waiter or the English menu says.
Longaniza - Long, thin smoked sausage popular in Valladolid
Maciza - Shredded pork shoulder, used as a taco topping
Maíz - Dried corn or, if you like, maize
Mamey - A tropical fruit with no useful English name. It's a type of sapodilla, if that's any help. Which I realize it may not be. They taste... tropical in the extreme. Similar to chicozapote, the fruit of the tree from which chewing gum chicle comes.
Mariscos - Seafood
Masa - Dried corn that's been nixtamalized by treatment with lime and water, then ground to form a dough. It's the basis of much of Mexican cuisine
Mestizas - Al pastor meat on a corn tortilla with cheese (see Gringas). "Mestiza" means "mixed race", so the corn torilla makes it more Mexican than a Gringa.
Milanesa - Breaded cutlet. If something else isn't specified ("milanesa de pollo", e.g.), usually beef.
(Al) Mojo de Ajo - Garlic and butter sauce
Mole - Complex sauce made by grinding many ingredients together. There are many different types, the most famous being "mole poblano" from Puebla, which includes chocolate, chiles, dark toast, nuts, and many other ingredients.
Nachos - Totopos topped with beans and cheese, invented within living memory along the Texas border, possibly by a guy named Ignacio Anaya. ("Nacho" is a nickname for "Ignacio".) Without the beans, they're sometimes called "Panchos".
Pan Tostada - Toast
Papas Fritas (or Francesas) - French fries if you're North American or chips if you're British
Picadillo - Ground or chopped beef with chiles and other spices, and often fruits and nuts
Pierna - Roasted pork leg
Piloncillo - Cane juice boiled until it solidifies, ending up sort of like brown sugar
Plátano - Banana (or plantain). There are many amazing varieties besides the Cavendish-type ones with which you're likely most familiar. Seek out the perfumey local "finger" bananas!
Plátano Macho - Plantain (although the distinction from dessert bananas is really cultural, not biological)
Pozole (or Posole) - Stew of pork with hominy
Quesadilla - A disk of raw masa filled with cheese then cooked. Now, often a cooked corn tortilla folded over cheese and possibly other stuff then cooked on a griddle.
Queso de Bola - Edam cheese ("ball cheese"). Very traditional cheese in the region, domestic or from Holland.
Rajas - Strips of roasted poblano pepper simmered in thick cream. Delicious on tacos or with eggs.
Res - Beef
Salsa - "Sauce". There are countless types, not merely red stuff for dipping totopos.
Sincronizada - Ham and cheese quesadilla
Sopa de... - "Sopa" doesn't always mean "soup" - that "Mexican rice" is Sopa Seca! "Sopa de...", though, means "non-cream soup of..." whatever goes in the soup
Sopa de Fideos - Angel-hair pasta in a slightly tomatoey chicken broth
Sopa Seca - Mexican rice
Sope - Thick disk of masa fried then topped, often with beans, cheese, and even lettuce
Suadero - Brisket, pot-roasted in its own fat and juices along with longaniza, finely-chopped, and used as a taco topping
Tacos - Small soft corn tortillas topped with something delicious. The possibilities are limitless: eggs, stuffed chiles, fried shrimp, any kind of meat or poultry, beans, and so on. Cheese on tacos is fairly uncommon, as is lettuce, and you likely won't see olives. Crunchy tacos are "tacos dorados" and are usually rolled like a San Diego taquito and often filled with beef brains.
Tamales - Masa filled with something (nearly anything), wrapped in something (corn husk, banana leaf, etc.) then steamed. Fillings can be sweet or savory. The singular is not "tamale" - it's "tamal".
Tinga - Shredded, spiced, tomatoey meat (chicken, beef, pork)
Tortas - Sandwiches made with bolillos
Tortillas - Disks of thin dough (masa or flour dough) rolled or patted out thin then cooked on a griddle
Totopos - Corn tortillas (usually yesterday's) cut into triangles and fried. Thicker, crunchier, and more delicious than "tortilla chips".
Tuna - the fruit of the prickly pear (nopal) cactus. The fish is "atún" in Spanish.
(Caldo) Xochitl - ("Zo-SHEEL") Chicken broth with rice, shredded chicken, tortilla strips, avocado, and cheese cubes
Agua(s) de Sabor - usually means a choice between jamaica, horchata, and possibly tamarindo
Agua Fresca - cooler made with some sort of fruit, seed, or starch with sugar, and uncarbonated water
Atole - Hot drink made with masa, sugar, and usually cinnamon and vanilla
(Licuado de) Avena - Rolled oatmeal blended with milk and sugar, with or without flavorings such as cinnamon or, occasionally, fruit. Very filling for a beverage.
Café de Olla - Coffee made by simmering coffee grounds with spices and piloncillo sugar in a clay pot. These days typically it just means drip coffee with cinnamon, but still very nice.
(Agua de) Cebada - Barley water (with the whole softened barley), typically made with cinnamon
Champurrado - Chocolate atole, rich and satisfying for breakfast (or anytime), traditional with tamales around Christmas
Chelada - Beer with ice and lots of lime juice served in a salt-rimmed glass. Very refreshing.
Chocolate - The original way chocolate was consumed, as a beverage. Mexican drinking chocolate usually contains cinnamon and chile. Can be made with water or milk. Pronounced "Cho-co-LAH-tay". Hot chocolate is chocolate caliente to avoid any ambiguity.
Chocomilk - Um... chocolate milk
(Licuado de) Chocoplátano - Chocolate milk blended with banana
Horchata - Agua fresca made from finely-ground rice (or occasionally almonds), sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla with either milk or water
Horchata de Coco - Similar to regular horchata, but coconut replaces the ground rice. Yum.
(Agua de) Jamaica - Iced sweetened hibiscus flower tea, reminiscent of cranberry but much less tart
Kermato - Basically the same Clamato. Ugh. You Canadians may need it for your Bloody Caesars.
Licuado - Fruit or grain smoothie made with water (con agua) or milk (con leche), always made fresh
LImonada - Limeade (not lemonade). Can be still or fizzy ("con gas" or "con agua mineral").
Margarita - A margarita. Duh. Yes, it's less-popular than the Paloma in Mexico.
Michelada - Like a chelada with the addition of Maggi or soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and salsa (such as Valentina or Búfalo). Versions made with tomato or clam juice are an abomination. Recently popular are versions with mango, chamoy, or other fruit flavors, or even "blue bubblegum"(?!)
Ojo Rojo - Like a michelada with tomato juice or, even worse, Clamato/Kermato. Sometimes incorrectly called a michelada in other parts of the world.
Paloma - The most popular tequila cocktail in Mexico: "Squirt" grapefruit soda with tequila. Occasionally made with grapefruit juice and sparkling water. Often served in a salt-rimmed glass.
Piña Colada - Literally, "strained pineapple". Pineapple juice with coconut cream and rum. Definitely beats getting caught in the rain. I apologize unreservedly for the reference to Rupert Holmes's "Escape", as does my own special lady.
Refresco - Any carbonated soft drink
Rompope - Eggnog, usually alcoholic
Sangría - Wine with brandy, fruit and fruit juices, served over ice
Sangrita - Mixer or accompaniment to tequila made with bitter orange juice and chile. Tomato has no place in sangrita. There are several good brands, but Viuda de Sanchez is no longer one of them.
(Agua de) Tamarindo - Refreshing tamarind drink, tart and sweet. Distantly similar in taste to sweetened lemony iced tea.
Vampiro - A Paloma with the addition of sangrita, usually served in a salt-rimmed glass
Breakfast in Mexico is often considered incomplete without beans and corn tortillas. Chicken enchiladas and club sandwiches are very common breakfast fare.
Caballeros Pobres - French toast
Chilaquiles - Totopos with salsa (usually red or green, but mole or others are possible) and sometimes shredded chicken (if ordered as a main dish), sometimes topped with a fried egg. Often served on the side with your breakfast. Reputed hangover cure.
Crepas - Crepes
Hotcakes - Pancakes (or, if you like, "hotcakes"). Very popular in Cozumel.
Huevos a la Mexicana - Eggs (usually scrambled) with onion, chiles, and tomato
Huevos al Gusto - Eggs "your way"
Huevos Divorciados - Two fried eggs, sometimes separated by a line of beans, one with red salsa and the other with green salsa
Huevos Estrellados - Eggs "sunny side up"
Huevos Jarochos - Scrambled eggs with chorizo and onions rolled in corn tortillas and smothered in refried bean sauce, like egg-filled enfrijoladas
Huevos Rancheros - Eggs (scrambled or fried) with mildly spicy ranchera sauce
Huevos Revueltos - Scrambled eggs
Huevos Volteados - Eggs "over easy"
Migas - Scrambled eggs with crispy totopos and usually crumbled bacon mixed in. Mmmm.
Molletes - Bolillo or baguette sliced, spread with frijoles, topped with cheese, and broiled
Pan(es) Dulce(s) - Sweet breads and pastries typically served in a basket with breakfast
Pan Francés - French toast (less common than caballeros pobres outside tourist areas)
Wafles - I'm going to say... waffles? Originally invasive, now endemic and popular on the island.
Atún - Tuna (in Spanish, "tuna" refers to the fruit of the prickly pear)
Barracuda - Barracuda. Huh. Common in local waters and delicious, but rarely appears on menus. Sometimes causes ciguatera poisoning so stick to small amounts, but definitely try it if you can.
Boquilla - Grunt
Boquinete - Hogfish
Calamar - Squid
Camarón - Shrimp
Cangrejo - Crab - see "jaiba"
Caracol - Conch. Quite endangered, so avoid eating it.
Ceviche - "Raw" seafood with lime or bitter orange juice, onion, and chiles "cooked" by the citrus
Escochin - Triggerfish
Gambas - Shrimps. Possibly more along the lines of "prawns", but I can't actually tell you what the difference between "prawns" and "shrimp(s)" might be.
Huachinango - Red Snapper
Jaiba - Crab - see "cangrejo"
Langosta - Spiny lobster (no claws). Some people like it, but it's not as good as Atlantic lobster.
Marlin - Marlin, amazingly enough
Mejillones - Mussels
Mero - Grouper. Delicious, but endangered. Avoid eating it if you have any other options.
Pargo - Snapper (other than red)
Pez Espada - Swordfish
Pez León - Lionfish. Invasive, destructive, non-native, and highly delicious. Eat it at every opportunity.
Pulpo - Octopus
Snacks and Treats
Cacahuates - Peanuts
Cacahuates Japonés - "Japanese" Peanuts with a crunchy, savory coating. Sounds wierd, but it's a classic and delicious Mexican snack.
Chamoy - Fruity, spicy, sour, salty sauce often served with fruit
Choriqueso - Queso fundido with chorizo
Churros - Fried batter in a tube shape, filled with wonderfulness. Like a long, slightly crispy doughnut. Or - dare I say it? - much like a churro.
Coco Frío - Green "water" coconut. Drink the juice, then have the seller cut it open so you can eat the flesh with lime and chile pequin.
Crepas - Crêpes, popular as street food or from storefronts. Sweet or savory. All good. Savory is better.
Esquites - Boiled corn kernels sauteed in butter with onion, chiles and epazote then served in a cup with lime juice, chile powder, and mayonnaise
Helado - Ice cream. Mexicans love ice cream as much as anyone on earth, and they have some great and unusual (to non-Mexicans) flavors.
Marquesitas - Crispy, rolled waffle pastry similar to a sugar cone, with sweet or savory fillings
Paletas - Popsicles, in an amazing variety of flavors such as elote or mango with chile
Palomitas - Popcorn
Queso Fundido (or, occasionally, "Queso Flameado") - Melted cheese, like fondue
Quesongo - Queso fundido with mushrooms
Raspado - Shaved ice or snow cone
Tamarindo - Tamarind, which provides a dark, sweet-and-sour pulp, is turned into a huge array of candies and sweets, typically with the addition of chiles. They are all delicious. Also used a syrup for raspados or other tastiness.