No cuisine is more vegan-friendly than Mexico’s. In fact, if you were so inclined, you could easily eat a diverse and satisfying vegan diet while sticking only to Mexican-style foods.
What’s more, the healthfulness of vegan Mexican food is unbeatable. You won’t find another cuisine that puts such strong emphasis on wholesome foods like fresh vegetables, tomatoes, and avocados. Protein sources from Mexican staples—beans, rice, and corn tortillas—are likewise satisfying and nutritious. Despite its Asian origin, cubed tofu, either grilled or sauteed, fits perfectly into Mexican cooking if spiced with classic Mexican seasonings.
The corollary here is that the quality of Mexican food often hinges more on the freshness of its ingredients than on the skills of the chef. There’s less room for trickery in Mexican cooking than in other cuisines—flavors are a reliable gauge of the dish’s wholesomeness.
Sure, mainstream Mexican restaurant food may be loaded up with meat and cheese, but leave that stuff out and the heart of this cuisine is as plant-based as regional cooking gets. Here are the core ingredients that appear in most Mexican dishes:
Corn or Wheat Tortillas
Corn tortillas are small (about 14 centimeters in diameter), and appear in a great many dishes. Every town in Mexico has at least one tortilleria (a tortilla bakery). If you’re visiting Mexico, by all means find a nearby tortillaria. About 25 cents’ worth of pesos will buy you a stack of piping hot tortillas. Like bread, corn tortillas don’t freeze well and will suffer in texture and flavor if not eaten the day they’re made. I therefore consider the corn tortillas sold at natural food stores and supermarkets to be nearly inedible, since they’re usually several days old.
Corn is gluten-free, so corn tortillas are invariably small otherwise they would fall apart. Because their gluten helps hold them together, wheat tortillas are often at least twice the diameter of corn tortillas. Wheat flour tortillas are most commonly used for burritos and quesadillas. You can buy organic whole grain wheat tortillas in any good grocery or natural food store.
Rice is about as popular in Mexico as it is in Asia. It shows up in any number of dishes, and perfectly compliments the flavor and texture of beans. Mexican restaurants tend to use long grain white rice, which unfortunately lacks fiber and nutrients.
Beans are served whole, or mashed up and then pan-fried as refritos (refrieds). It’s great that beans are a cornerstone of Mexican cooking, because the two other main proteins (corn and rice) are low in the essential amino acid lysine. Beans, by contrast, have plenty of lysine so they render the amino acids from corn and rice complete, and able to be properly used by the body. Black and pinto beans are the two most popular varieties in Mexican food.
Guacamole is a favorite topping on many Mexican dishes, and it’s the ultimate accompaniment to tortilla chips. It’s mostly mashed avocado, jazzed up with some garlic, ground pepper, cilantro, and salt.
Organic blue or red corn tortillas chips are sold at most natural food stores. These chips may or may not taste better than yellow or white corn, but they look cool and might have some beneficial phytochemicals that white or yellow chips lack. Conventional corn can be associated with GMO’s and heavy pesticide use, so this is a good occasion to spend a bit more for organic.
The most common variety is made from chopped tomatoes, onions, garlic, and cilantro, but salsa translates simply to sauce, and there are numerous kinds of delicious Mexican salsas made from all sorts of ingredients, including mangos or peaches. If you’re eating corn chips, cooked salsa is best since it adheres nicely to the chip and you won’t have chunks of tomato and onion falling onto your lap.
Most Mexican restaurants serve sides of pickled sliced jalapeño, carrots, potatoes, and onions. This is remarkably similar to the pickled accompaniments offered in Indian restaurants, minus the curry spices. In better burrito joints, there’s usually a counter devoted to these garnishes, as well as a few types of salsa, so you can choose your favorites.
Just like Indian food, Mexican food can really bring the heat. But unlike Indian food, you can dial back the hotness if desired without losing irreplaceable authentic flavors. The two most popular Mexican peppers are the eye-watering jalapeño and the blindingly hot habanero. Jalapeños bring a bunch of delicious flavor notes in addition to their heat, but I don’t think that’s the case with habaneros which are massively hot but lack other peppers’ delicious flavor profiles. Roasted jalapeño seasoned with chili spices are called chipotles, and they’re one of the most delicious items in all of Mexican cooking. Chopped chipotles are incredibly delicious in burritos.
Mole (pronounced MO-lay)
A sauce made with cocoa and spicy peppers that’s one of the great Mexican concoctions. While most famous dishes in world cuisines have close counterparts with other dishes in other regions, there is nothing like mole sauce. Unfortunately, unless you’re dining at a vegan restaurant, mole sauce is rarely vegan because it usually contains lard and chicken stock. If you take the trouble to seek out a dish made with vegan mole you’ll likely have one of the great dining experiences in Mexican cooking.
As you can see, Mexican cooking draws from numerous plant-based ingredients. But there is no getting around the fact that most mainstream Mexican dishes contain meat, cheese, and sour cream. If you want those textures and flavors, they’re easy to find in vegan form. Vegan meats, cheeses and sour cream are widely available and can be added to any vegan dish you’re cooking. These foods are carried by every natural foods store and many supermarkets, and they can round out the flavors of almost any Mexican-style dish. And since most vegan meats and cheeses are fat and protein rich (just like their animal-based counterparts), they’ll improve satiety.
If you’re new to cooking, Mexican recipes might be the easiest cuisine to start with. The preparation techniques for the most popular dishes are as basic as can be: boiling up beans and rice; mashing avocados; chopping vegetables. The spices and seasonings are straightforward too. All of this is hard to mess up. Sure, your kitchen skills may be no match for someone’s abuelita, but you can quickly learn to make convincing Mexican food even if you’ve never ventured further south than Minneapolis.
The non-fussy nature of Mexican cooking has a big implications when eating out. Since Mexican food is so easy to make, it’s harder than most cuisines to screw up. You can usually count on a vegan restaurant’s burrito being pretty good even if their falafel is inedible. If you’re at a non-gourmet vegetarian restaurant serving multiple cuisines, the safest bet is always Mexican.
Despite the many virtues of Mexican cooking, Mexican restaurants are a minefield for vegans.
The problem is that animal products show up in so many plant-based offerings. Beans may contain scraps of pork, and refried beans are commonly fried in lard. Rice is often boiled in chicken stock. And guacamole may contain sour cream—not because sour cream improves the flavor, but because it’s cheaper than avocado. Prior to the 1990s, wheat flour tortillas usually contained lard. But growing concern for health has caused most tortilla makers to switch to vegetable oil. Corn flour tortillas are made without oil so their vegan status has never been an issue.
Oftentimes counter or wait staff has no idea of preparation methods, so you can get different answers from different people when you inquire about a dish’s vegan status. If you want to be certain you’re eating vegan food, you can do so much more reliably at a big chain than at an independent restaurant. One virtue of Mexican-style chains like these is that their websites usually list the ingredients of every menu item, which saves you the trouble of having to extract this information from staff.
Most of the leading burrito chains—including Chipotle, Taco Del Mar, and Qdoba—are good about not sneaking animal products into foods without reason. Taco Del Mar even publishes a PDF containing every single vegan menu item and food ingredient they offer. The beans (both whole and refried), rice, guacamole, salsa, and tortillas at these chains are all vegan.
Classic Mexican Dishes
A traditional plate of vegan Mexican food brings together the basics: beans, rice, salsa, guacamole, a little chopped lettuce, some pickled vegetables on the side, and perhaps a basket of tortillas or tortilla chips. Here are some other popular vegan-friendly possibilities:
Burritos are the most popular Mexican food in the USA, but they’re actually rarely eaten in Mexico. They’re perfect for when you’re hungry enough to eat a horse—the fact that burrito means “little donkey” in Spanish gives you a clue about how filling they are. A typical vegan burrito will include beans, rice, salsa, and guacamole.
The same fillings used in burritos are ideal in tacos. Tacos are good with lettuce and chopped tomato, which I don’t think belong in a burrito. There are two kinds of taco: hard and soft. Hard tacos use a deep-fried corn tortilla shell, whereas soft tacos feature a soft corn or wheat flour tortilla wrapped around the filling. Soft tacos are traditionally eaten with knife and fork. In Mexico, soft tacos are more popular than burritos and hard tacos combined.
Traditional enchiladas have a meaty filling wrapped in a corn tortilla, then covered in a spicy red sauce. Get rid of the meat or cheese and you’re in business. Just swap in a vegan meat, seasoned tofu, or vegan cheese as the enchilada’s filling.
Tamales are mashed seasoned corn masa (dough), wrapped by inedible corn husks, then steamed. The husks keep the moisture in, giving the filling a satisfying texture. The same sort of red sauce that goes on enchiladas is also spooned onto tamales, usually in lesser quantity.
Tamales are tricky to make correctly, and are the sort of food that’s ideally suited to large batches. Many restaurants therefore outsource them to someone who specializes in making tamales. Consequently, these establishments often only offer tamales one or two days a week, or on special occasions.
It’s common for tamales to contain beef or chicken, or for meat broth or lard to be added to the masa, so tamales are rarely vegan unless declared as such.
Just as English and Irish breakfasts are meat-filled gut-busting affairs, enfrijoladas are the Mexican counterpart to this kind of breakfast. A traditional plate of enfrijoladas is grilled meat and eggs wrapped by corn tortillas, topped with a bean-based sauce. Vegan enfrijoladas typically use mashed potatoes or grilled vegetables in place of the meat and eggs. Made this way, enfrijoladas are a remarkably healthful and substantial breakfast since they’re full of vegetables, and the bean sauce and corn tortillas combine for a nice dose of complete protein.
Another popular Mexican breakfast, and one of the simplest meals imaginable. Molletes are made from bread, often halved Bolillo (a small baguette-style roll), grilled and covered with refried beans, then sprinkled with your favorite vegan cheese and perhaps topped with salsa. This can be made in minutes but it will stick to your ribs all morning.
Up there with Molletes as one of the easiest-to-make meals ever. To make quesadillas, simply:
- Spoon a couple teaspoons of your favorite red or green salsa onto a large whole-grain tortilla.
- Add a quarter-cup of shredded vegan cheese.
- Microwave for 20-30 seconds (or whatever time is just sufficient to melt the cheese).
- Fold the tortilla in half and then half again (so it’s a quarter circle).
The foundation of Mexican cooking is learning to cook rice and beans. Anyone who frequently cooks Mexican food will therefore benefit from owning a pressure cooker or Instapot for their beans, which cuts cooking time by at least two-thirds. A rice cooker is also a fantastic appliance for Mexican food enthusiasts. It won’t reduce cooking time, but it saves a lot of hassle and results in perfect rice every time.
For Mexican-style rice, toss in a teaspoon of chili powder per cup of dried rice, and perhaps some finely-sliced carrots or onions. For added flavor use vegetable stock. Choosing brown rice instead of white can make your meal a lot more healthful—more fiber, more nutrients, and a lower glycemic index. Short grain brown rice will cling together in a burrito better than long-grain rice.
For the beans, by far the two most popular varieties in Mexican cooking are black or pinto (kidney beans come in a distant third, but deliver a rich flavor that’s well worth trying). Regardless of your choice of beans, minced garlic and chili powder are excellent seasonings. In home cooking, it’s common to mash up leftover beans from the previous meal, and saute with garlic and onions. Water is added to thin the consistency, and some chopped cilantro may be tossed in just before serving. The resultant dish is called refried beans (refritos, in Spanish), and it appears practically everywhere in Mexican cooking.
I doubt there is any dish as delicious as guacamole that’s so easy to make. Just mash some ripe avocados along with sautéed minced garlic, black pepper, fresh cilantro, salt, and perhaps a little finely chopped tomato or peppers. It all hinges on using avocados at their peak of ripeness; nicely soft but never brown. Add some lemon or lime juice if not serving immediately to prevent browning from oxidation.
Fresh salsa is as easy to make as guacamole. And just like guacamole depends on having perfectly ripe avocados, you shouldn’t even bother with salsa unless you’ve got red, ripe tomatoes. Don’t even try making salsa with Florida-grown winter tomatoes. Dice your tomatoes up along with some onions, then mince some peppers and garlic. Then add a bit of freshly chopped cilantro and you’re ready to go.
If you’re new to Mexican cooking, buy a big cheap jar of Mexican spice blend. That’ll immediately acquaint you with the flavors of the standard Mexican spices, and you’ll grow more familiar with these spices over time as you try more Mexican recipes. The most important spices to have on hand when cooking Mexican-style food are pepper (black, red, and white), cumin, and paprika.
Cilantro is by far the most important herb for Mexican cooking, and for people who don’t have the gene that makes cilantro taste like soap, it’s a mandatory ingredient for both salsa and guacamole. Oregano, thyme and parsley are three other herbs widely used in Mexican cooking. A garnish of lime wedges offers a nice contrast for many savory meals, and Mexican lager beers are usually served with a wedge of lime as well.
Onions and garlic show up nearly everywhere in Mexican food, and perfectly compliment most bean and rice dishes. They’re also key components of salsa, along with tomatoes, cilantro, and lime.
There are several vegan cookbooks entirely devoted to Mexican cooking:
- ¡Salud! Vegan Mexican Cookbook, by Eddie Garza
- Vegan Mexico, by Jason Wyrick
- Vegan Tacos, by Jason Wyrick
- The Taco Cleanse, by Allison et al.
For many people who live outside of Latin America, Mexican food is the gateway to becoming familiar with the more diverse cooking of Central and South America. Terry Hope Romero’s Viva Vegan is a popular vegan cookbook exploring Central and South American cooking. Mexican food lovers will find much there that’s familiar, as well as a variety of new flavors and ideas rarely encountered in Mexico.