Seven Regions of Mexican Flavors

By Brooke O’Connor

When someone asks about Mexican food, the iconic taco springs to mind (see the article by the Chaikens elsewhere in this issue). While tortillas are served everywhere throughout Mexico, and provide the basis of some dishes, Mexican cuisine itself varies sharply by region, and offers much more. The regions vary – there might in fact be a dozen distinct Mexican cuisines. When we see a dish described as a la Veracruzana or Oaxaqueña, what does that mean?

With each cuisine comes history and culture – another example of how diverse and colorful Mexico is.


Starting close to home, the state of Oaxaca offers a unique cuisine that can’t be mistaken for any other region. Apart from being known as “The Land of Seven Moles” (more on mole later), Oaxaca produces cheese, chocolate and mezcal.

Because of the diversity of Oaxaca’s climates, and 17 different indigenous groups with their own cooking traditions, Oaxaqueños are proud of their cultural cuisine. They represent the most pre-Hispanic traditions in Mexico, and many families cherish recipes handed down for thousands of years.

What Is Mole, Anyway?

Mole comes from the Náhuatl word mōlli meaning “sauce.” It refers to a family of sauces and not one recipe. There are hundreds of mole recipes throughout Mexico. In Oaxaca alone, there are over 200 known mole preparations. Some are quite complicated, made with over two dozen ingredients like chili peppers, fruits, nuts, seeds, cacao beans, and spices.

It should be noted that the next-door state of Puebla also claims to be the birthplace of mole. Here are seven well-known moles oaxaqueños.

Mole negro (black), perhaps the most popular mole, contains 20-30 ingredients – including chocolate – and is sweet, savory and very rich. Mole Rojo (red) is sweet, savory, and rich like mole negro, but has other flavors like guajillo and pasillo chiles, tomatoes, almonds, peanuts, sesame seeds, and spices. Mole amarillo (yellow) is much lighter, less rich and contains things like green tomatoes, ancho and guajillo chili peppers, hoja santa, and spices. Mole verde (green) includes green chili peppers, tomatillos, pepitas (pumpkin seeds), hoja santa, epazote, and other leafy greens.

Mole coloradito (reddish) includes ancho chili peppers, garlic, tomatoes, sesame seeds, and spices. Mole manchamanteles (tablecloth stainer) is named because of the bright red chorizo grease and ancho chili peppers used in the recipe, but also includes tomatoes, onions, garlic, almonds, plantains, and fresh pineapple. Mole chichilo (made from chilhuacle chile peppers) is also rare; it is similar in color to black mole but not quite as thick, and it’s the only mole among the seven that’s flavored with beef.

Oaxaca is famous for some other dishes. Tlayudas are large, thin, crunchy, partially fried or toasted tortillas, covered with a spread of asiento (lard melted to grease), refried beans, lettuce or cabbage, avocado, meat, Oaxacan cheese, and salsa. Memelas are fried or toasted cakes made of masa topped with different fresh ingredients. An empanada de amarillo is a handmade corn tortilla folded over and stuffed with chicken and yellow mole. Enmoladas are essentially enchiladas covered in mole sauce. A tetela is a triangular empanada or quesadilla that predates the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Garnachas istmeñas, coming from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, are crispy, thin masa cakes with finely ground beef and pickled cabbage. Caldo de piedra is a famous soup of fish and shrimp soup, heated with hot river rocks. (Don’t eat the rock). Tamales oaxaqueños are filled with cornmeal encasing shredded meat and mole sauce, then wrapped with banana leaves and cooked.

Some miscellaneous Oaxacan specialties include chapulines, grasshoppers of the genus Sphenarium, toasted on a comal with or without spices (see the article by Kary Vannice elsewhere in this issue). Nicuatole is a pre-Columbian gelatinous dessert made from ground maize and sugar. Pan de yema is a rich, sugar-coated egg bread; and Oaxaca’s coffee and chocolate are both highly prized.


After Oaxaca, the cuisine of the Yucatán Peninsula is recognized for the variety and originality of its cuisine. There are culinary influences from Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East; Yucateco cuisine is unique in its use of spices like cumin and allspice, and herbs like large-leafed Yucatecan oregano. They also make seasoning pastes with ingredients unique to the Yucatán.

It’s interesting to note that the people of Yucatán Peninsula, which comprises the states of Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Yucatán, consider themselves a bit set apart from the rest of Mexico. Probably due to geographic position, they have been culturally isolated and have their own unique ways and beliefs. Many locals consider themselves “Yucateco” as readily as “Mexicano.”

This is where we get cochinita pibil (roast pork marinated in achiote and orange, cooked in an underground oven called a píib), panuchos and salbutes (types of tostadas), sopa de lima (tortilla soup with lime), tzik de venado (shredded venison salad), and pavo en escabeche (pickled turkey).


Nearly half of Mexico is considered northern territory, and Tex Mex border food got its inspiration from this region. States considered norteño are Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Nuevo Leon, all on the border; Sinaloa is on the lower Sea of Cortez, and Durango is landlocked right next door.

We find meat, particularly beef, with very large white flour tortillas and rice everywhere. Pinto beans and Spanish rice are common side dishes. There is also some seafood near the coast, and roast cabrito (baby goat). Nachos and burritos originated here, as well as caldo de queso (simple soup featuring potatoes, green chiles, chicken broth, and cheese) and aguachile (a type of ceviche of fresh raw shrimp, cucumber, red onion, lime juice, and water-pulverized chilis).

Sonora produces coyotas, which are traditional cookies made from flour dough and filled with piloncillo, an unrefined brown sugar. The coyota is named for a female coyote; the term is also slang for a female of mixed Indian and Spanish heritage.


The state of Veracruz lies along the Gulf of Mexico, where the port city of Veracruz is located; the state capital, Jalapa/Xalapa, is high in the mountains. Veracruzano cuisine gives seafood a leading role. There are heavy Caribbean, Mediterranean, and African influences in the traditional dishes. This is also the home of the beloved jalapeño pepper; it is believed that vanilla originated here as well.

In many veracruzano dishes, you can find capers and olives, which rarely appear in the rest of Mexico. Pescado a la veracruzana is fish, particularly huachinango – red snapper – with tomatoes, capers, and olives. Other Veracruzano seafood dishes are arroz a la tumbada (a type of thick saucy paella), chilpachole (thick seafood soup), and acamayas (a shrimplike river crustacean often prepared al mojo de ajo).

Not to be missed if you see it on a menu in Veracruz is mole de Xico – Xico is a city in central Veracruz, the mole from Xico is very rich and sweet.


The state of Puebla produces two of Mexico’s most iconic dishes: mole poblano (an especially complex sauce of dried chiles, chocolate, nuts and seeds) and chiles en nogada (picadillo-stuffed chiles with a walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds – see Julie Etra’s article elsewhere in this issue). There are also cemitas and chanclas (Poblano tortas, or cakes, the latter soaked in salsa), chiles capones (simple cheese-stuffed chiles). Puebla also gives the U.S. one of its most popular Mexican dishes, chiles rellenos (again, see Julie Etra’s article).

Puebla is also famous for its soups: sopa poblano (a smoky chili soup), chileatole verde (broth and chiles thickened with masa), and sopa de hongos y poblano (made with mushrooms, roasted and diced poblano chili peppers, corn, tomatoes, chipotles, epazote, onions, garlic, and zucchini flowers)


The state of Jalisco is particularly proud. They have a saying that translates to “Jalisco is Mexico,” because many things we would recognize as traditional Mexican culture originate here – tequila, the rodeo and mariachi bands.

The variety of geography from coastline, snow covered peaks, and the largest freshwater lake in the country allow for a variety of foods. The most well known may be birria (chile-stewed goat or lamb), torta ahogada (the Mexican style French dip – ahogado means drowned), caldo michi (a fish soup), pacholas (a ground meat patty with chili), pozole rojo de Jalisco (a broth-based soup with posole [white corn or hominy], vegetables and a variety of meat and condiments).


Last but not least, let’s not forget that the state of California was Mexican land until 1848. So much of what is considered Cali-Mex cuisine is in actuality a fusion of norteño and Baja traditional cuisine.

There are unexpected influences here of Russian and Chinese immigrants. Moreover, Japanese colonies established the fishing industry in Ensenada and even today, fish and shellfish from these waters are sold to Japan’s global auction market.

Caesar salad and margaritas originated here. Seafood is all around you, so you’ll find an abundance of tacos of tempura fish and shrimp, ceviches, grilled lobster, and seafood cocktails. This area now also boasts vineyards, cheese and olives.

Wherever you travel in Mexico there are bound to be delicious food, hearty smiles and gregarious hospitality. However, I’ve found making a point of eating the traditional food, in the areas where it originated, is particularly satisfying.

There is one caveat. Unless you are a connoisseur of salsas, and have a craving for surprises, it is better to ask how spicy hot the salsa or sauce is. Some salsas are made to be used in very small quantities, while others are to be used liberally all over the plate. I often ask, Este nivel de picante es adecuado para los niños? (Is this spice level ok for kids?) Asked with a smile, people are happy to guide me in the right direction.