Vacationers to Mexico often have trouble leaving its beautiful weather, gorgeous beaches and incredible cuisine behind. Ease the pain of departure by stocking up on these essential Mexican ingredients, so you can recreate your favourite dishes at home.
On our last trip to Mexico, we stayed at Cancun’s stunning Karisma El Dorado Royale resort, where executive chef Florian Durre gave us the lowdown on the best flavours to bring back. Following this list will produce delicious results, but don’t be afraid to seek your own favourites. Chef Durre’s advice? “Try everything, taste everything, smell everything! There is so much beautiful food here!”
Before you go
Leave empty space in your checked luggage before departing for Mexico so you have room to carry your goodies back. And always check the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s guidelines to see what you can and can’t import. In general, packaged goods, dried herbs, spices, coffee, teas and condiments will be fine, but the rules can change at any time.
If you only plan to buy one or two small, typical items — hot sauce, vanilla, chocolate — and are visiting a highly touristic airport like Cancun, you can easily find them there. But airport prices range from 20 per cent to 200 per cent higher than prices in towns, so shop local if you have a long grocery list.
What to buy
Grocery stores in Canadian cities often carry mole sauce brands like La Costena and Chef Durre’s recommended sauce, Dona Maria. But Mexicans will tell you that the best mole is homemade, and that each maker follows her own recipe. The next best thing to homemade can be found in local Mexican markets – look out for large buckets or bowls of mole paste. Unlike the mass produced and bottled versions, these hyperlocal concoctions are sold in bulk, vary from region to region, and contain different types and proportions of peppers, nuts, chocolate and other spices. We particularly enjoy Oaxacan mole negro, a mildly sweet base for a rich and chocolatey sauce.
If you buy your mole in bulk like this (and you should!) be sure to wrap it carefully and store it in your checked luggage, as customs officials may consider the thick paste a liquid, and confiscate it from your carry-on. Be prepared for an olfactory experience when you get home, and for every item in your suitcase to be scented with heady notes of sweet pepper, smoke and chocolate.
“Mexican vanilla is the best vanilla in the world,” says Chef Durre. “It is really thick, oily, beautiful and flavourful.” Ask a local chef or resident where they purchase their vanilla pods, and stay away from the diluted bottled stuff, which you can find at home anyway.
Dried Chili Peppers
Smokey chipotle, spicy chili de arbol, mild, slightly sweet chili guajillo and ancho chili will add authenticity and heat to your homemade Mexican dishes. “All these products you can find in the local markets” says Chef Durre, “like a fruit and vegetable stall.” Bonus: purchasing at a small market will allow you to smell first and get a sense of which peppers you’d like best, but don’t worry if you can’t find a local market: dried chilis are a staple in Mexican cooking, and are available pre-packaged in large grocery stores.
When you get home, Chef Durre recommends rehydrating chipotle peppers and blending them with fresh mayonnaise, spreading on a tostada (a deep fried tortilla) and topping with shredded lettuce, cilantro, thinly sliced red onions and sashimi-grade slices of raw ahi tuna for delicious fusion treat.
If you like it hot, you’ll be blown away by the sheer variety of sauces on offer in a typical Mexican grocery store. But hot sauce is popular in Canada too, and it’s worth checking your grocer’s at home to see before schlepping back bottles you may be able to find here. Aim for brands you’ve never seen in Canada.
Also known as recado rojo, achiote is a spice paste made primarily from red annatto seeds, which add sweet, earthy flavour and deep red colour to conchinita pibil, the Yucatan region’s famous barbecued pork. Find it in local markets and large grocery stores alike.
Mexican hot chocolate is typically prepared from thick slabs of chocolate which come in disks, rather than the dehydrated powder popular here. Chef Durre recommends Nestle’s Abuelita brand, available throughout Mexico. We’re also partial to Ah Cacao’s Chocolate Mexicano a cinnamon-spiced drinking chocolate which you’ll find in many of Mexico’s tourism hotspots.
Masa Harina and Tortilla Press
Can’t get enough of those fresh tortillas? Even in large urban centres like Toronto, the really fresh ones are hard to source, but if you’re patient, you can learn to make your own at home. To do it right you’ll need masa harina, a special corn flour, and a tortilla press. Investigate your options before you get to Mexico — what’s worth carrying back will largely depend on where you live — masa harina is relatively easy to find in big Canadian cities, and tortilla presses can be ordered online, but you’ll likely score a better deal in Mexico.
Travelling to Playa del Carmen? DAC Playa del Carmen is Chef Durre’s favourite local market. Ask for mole paste at the deli counter, and be sure to grab a treat from the food stand out front before you go. A few hundred meters away from DAC is MEGA Playa Del Carmen, a big box grocery store which carries a stellar selection of inexpensive packaged goods, including all the food items above.