A Basic Introduction to the Salty, Spicy World of Mexican Snacks
From chips and nuts to even lollipops, many Mexican snack foods share a flavor profile dominated by spice, citrus, and salt. "More than just lime and chili, I think it's the combo of acid, salt, and heat that particularly drives Mexicans crazy," says Lesley Tellez, who runs a street food and market tour company in Mexico City and whose book, Eat Mexico, comes out next year.
"People put lime juice, chili powder, and salt on fresh-cut fruit, for instance, and you are expected to squeeze a little lime juice and salsa onto your taco. Even pizza in Mexico City comes with a side of Worcestershire sauce!" But according to chef Richard Sandoval—a Mexico City native with an empire of more than 30 Latin restaurants—Mexican snacks aren't all about heat. Kids also grow up eating chocolate, cakes, and other non-spicy treats.
We've selected sweet and savory items from across the range of Mexican snacks: chips, snack cakes, lollipops, and more, illustrated by some of the most popular brands in those categories. Check them all out below.
We dare you not to get hooked on these large peanuts in a hard, perfectly crunchy layer of wheat flour and soy sauce—like a savory candy shell. Known as cacahuates japoneses, they can be eaten plain, or you can take a cue from Sandoval, who adds a little lime juice. The Barcel brand sells the nuts in a variety of flavors, including several types of "Hot Nuts."
The nuts remind chef Julian Medina of New York's Toloache and Yerba Buena of traveling, "because they give you these as a snack on most planes in Mexico." But what are Japanese peanuts doing in Mexico? As the story goes, a Japanese immigrant named Yoshigei Nakatani created them in Mexico City in the late 1940's and sold them in La Merced Market.
These crunchy tube-shaped corn chips, which look like mini rolled up tacos or taquitos, are the Mexican equivalent of Fritos—both in texture and the fact that they're a childhood staple (with a whole new fanbase). The aggressively salty, spicy, and acidic chips come in a few flavors, but the Fuego does the best job of balancing the lime and chili. Fair warning: the red coating stays on your hands, as evidenced by a stained computer keyboard.
Whatever these light-as-air, wheat-based rings remind you of—onion rings, donuts, calamari, SpaghettiOs—they are just one thing: extremely addictive, thanks to an airy crunch and the way they almost pop in your mouth. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what they taste like, though the chili-lime flavor isn't as spicy or citrusy as the name suggests.
Mexican potato chips often come coated in chili powder, and if the packaging and logo of these chips remind you of Frito-Lay, it's because Pepsico owns Sabritas, the brand under which Frito-Lay products are made and sold in Mexico. (Others include Cheetos, Fritos, and Doritos.) These adobo-flavored chips, "made with 100% natural potatoes," look and taste just like Fritos as well. They're the perfect salty/tangy combo, with strong hints of garlic and vinegar. As Medina puts it, "You can't have a Mexican party without them. They're just addictive."
This thick disc of crushed peanuts, sugar, and artificial flavors—called dulce de cacahuate estilo mazapán—may be small, but it's mighty sweet. And though the halvah-esque dessert looks like fudge, it crumbles into pieces and melts into a cream pasty on your tongue.
This fruit leather treat—one of chef Sandoval's favorites—caused quite a stir back in 2007, when the California Department of Public Health found it to have a high level of lead. But nothing has been reported since then and it remains a favorite. While the package describes the chewy, grainy tamarind pulp candy as "hot and salted," Sandoval is right when he says they are sweet, sour, and spicy all at once.
Every snacking country has their chocolate bar, and in Mexico one brand is Carlos V. Named for the Holy Roman Emperor (named Charles back home), this small bar of milk chocolate was first produced in Mexico in the 1970's by the brand La Azteca. Nestle took over the company in the 90's. Though it's known as El Rey de los Chocolates—or the King of Chocolates—it tastes remarkably like a plain Hershey bar.
The U.S. has Yodels, Ho-Hos, and Twinkies; Mexico has, among other snack cakes, the Gansito. This is basically the Mexican version of a ding-dong: a chocolate-coated vanilla or chocolate cake with strawberry and cream filling. The top product from the Marinela brand, it originally launched in 1957 and is named for the company's first character, Gansito (Spanish for "little goose"). The individually wrapped goodies are more cake than filling—and a pretty dry cake at that, much more so than their ding-dong cousins. As a child, Sandoval would refrigerate them and have them with a cold glass of milk.
Dried Salted Plums
Known as saladitos, these dried salted plums (in this case lemon flavored) are just about the saltiest thing you may ever taste. As Tellez says, "I couldn't actually eat them as a child. They made my mouth pucker too much." We'd agree, but we can admire the plums' enthusiasm.
Yes, even lollipops can by sold with acid and spice, though this particular mango-chili lollipop isn't as hot as you'd expect. The coating is salty, vinegary, and sour; sweetness comes in when you reach the mango candy underneath. But like the plums, wow, this is salty and sour. Step aside, Warheads.
Some choose to eat this lemon-flavored powder straight from its mini packet, which is essentially like mainlining a packet of salt. Instead, use it to season fruit for an added citrus-salty tang. But the best use I found for it was a popcorn topping.