Eating as a Whim

Antojitos are at the center of Mexican cooking. The word antojo translates as ‘a whim, a sudden craving,' so an antojito is a little whim but, as any Mexican will quickly point out, it is not just a snack. An antojito can be an entire meal, an appetizer, or a tentempíe (quick bite).

Markets are perfect places to munch on some really good antojitos. In the gargantuan Mercado de la Merced in Mexico City, the best antojito may be the huarache, a 30cm-long tortilla shaped like the shoe for which it is named, grilled and topped with salsa, onions, cheese and a choice of chorizo sausage, steak, squash blossoms and more. The huarache competitor can be found in the markets of Oaxaca city, where large flat tortillas called tlayudas are spread with refried beans and topped with Oaxacan string cheese, salsa and pork strips.

American award-winning chef and Mexican food expert Rick Bayless has a great way to define antojitos by grouping them according to the one component present in all: corn masa (dough). There are eight types of antojitos:

  • Tacos The quintessential culinary fare in Mexico can be made of any cooked meat, fish or vegetable wrapped in a tortilla, with a dash of salsa and garnished with onion and cilantro. Soft corn tortillas are used to wrap grilled meats in tacos al carbón, a range of stews in tacos de guisado, or with griddle-cooked meats and vegetables in tacos a la plancha. When tacos are lightly fried they are called tacos dorados. If you are in northern Mexico, chances are you will find tacos with flour tortillas (tortillas de harina) and the fillings will be more meat-based than vegetarian.
  • Quesadillas Fold a tortilla with cheese, heat it on a griddle and you have a quesadilla. (Queso means cheese, hence the name.) But real quesadillas are much more than that. In restaurants and street stalls quesadillas are stuffed pockets made with raw corn masa that is lightly fried or griddled until crisp. They can be stuffed with chorizo and cheese, squash blossoms, mushrooms with garlic, chicharrón (fried pork fat), beans, stewed chicken or meat.
  • Enchiladas In Spanish 'enchilar' means to put chili over something, so enchiladas are a group of three or four lightly fried tortillas filled with chicken, cheese or eggs and covered with a cooked salsa. Enchiladas are usually a main dish, and can also be baked, like the famous enchiladas suizas (Swiss-style enchiladas).
  • Tostadas Tortillas that have been baked or fried until they get crisp and are then cooled. In this state they can hold a variety of toppings. Tostadas de pollo are a beautiful layering of beans, chicken, cream, shredded lettuce, onion, avocado and queso fresco (a fresh cheese).
  • Sopes Small masa shells, 5cm to 7.5cm in diameter, that are shaped by hand and cooked on a griddle with a thin layer of beans, salsa and cheese. Chorizo is also a common topping for sopes.
  • Gorditas Round masa cakes that are baked until they puff. Sometimes gorditas are filled with a thin layer of fried black or pinto beans, or even fava beans.
  • Chilaquiles Typically served as breakfast. Corn tortillas are cut in triangles and fried until crispy. At this point they are indeed tortilla chips (totopos). When cooked in a tomatillo sauce (for chilaquiles verdes) or tomato sauce (chilaquiles rojos) they become soft and then are topped with shredded cheese, sliced onions and Mexican crema.
  • Tamales Made with masa mixed with lard, stuffed with stewed meat, fish or vegetables, wrapped and steamed. Every Mexican region has its own, the most famous being the Oaxacan-style tamales with mole and wrapped in banana leaves, the Mexico City tamales with chicken and green tomatillo sauce wrapped in corn husks, and the Yucatecan style, made with chicken marinated in achiote (annatto paste) and wrapped in banana leaves.