If you're a fan of Mexican food, you're already familiar with its typical ingredients, like tortillas, jalapeños, and chipotle peppers. But if you've traveled to Mexico (beyond the Spring Break tourist traps in Cancun) or have been watching the final episodes of Top Chef Season 14, you've probably spied some ingredients that are a little more foreign. Here's the lowdown on five of them:
1. Hoja Santa
"Hoja santa" means "sacred leaf," and it's the large leaves of this plant that are used in Mexican cuisine. They're often used to wrap other ingredients like meat, fish, or tamales before cooking to infuse the food with its unique flavor, which resembles a combination of anise, eucalyptus, and black pepper. Fresh hoja santa is also used to season yellow and green mole, soups, and even some drinks, like hot chocolate and tea.
2. Pitaya (aka Dragon Fruit)
You can't miss these dramatic prickly-looking hot pink fruits, which you'll also find at Asian markets. The fruit of a cactus, pitaya, also known as dragon fruit, has a thick, flexible skin that easily peels off to reveal the white or pink flesh inside. The juicy, sweet flesh is studded with small black seeds that are edible. It's delicious cubed and eaten on its own, or added to salads or blended into smoothies.
In Mexico, you'll find chamoy in many forms. It's a spicy, salty, sour, and sweet condiment that's used as a sauce, paste, or seasoning powder for fruits and vegetables, candy, popsicles, and tortilla chips. To make it, fresh fruit such as plums or apricots are pickled in salt and then dried; the resulting liquid is seasoned with chile powder and turned into chamoy, while the dried, salted fruit is sold separately as a snack. It adds a great tang to smoothies and cocktails, too.
4. Chayote Squash
You may have seen this veggie in the supermarket but weren't sure what it was. This mild, pale green squash resembles a large pear and has a thin skin and crisp, juicy white flesh. On its own, it doesn't have much flavor, which makes it a great vehicle for marinades, sauces, and spices. It can also be thinly sliced or shredded and added raw to salads and slaws.
Also known as "corn smut" (lovely, we know), this gray, puffy fungus grows around ears of corn. It sounds gross, but it's quite a delicacy and has a deliciously earthy, slightly sweet mushroom flavor. It can be used raw or cooked, though it's difficult to find fresh—you're more likely to find it frozen, canned, or jarred. Toss it into quesadillas or tacos, pair it with meats, or blend it into sauces.
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