Regional Mexican Cuisine: Old World Meets New in Veracruz

Puffy gorditas.

Separated from inland Mexico by the Sierra Madre mountains, Veracruz is a place of contrasts, where 500 miles of wet, tropical coastline bleed into snow-capped mountains.

Zarela Martinez, the cookbook author credited with bringing regional Mexican food to New York, once lovingly called the cuisine "Mexico's simplest," but that's not to say the food is boring. Far from it. Veracruzano cooking might be Mexico's simplest, but it's also one of the richest.

The state of Veracruz was also where Hernán Cortés arrived on the mainland, establishing the eponymous city as the land's main port of entry. During the colonial era, many goods going in or out of Mexico passed through it, and nowhere else did the Spanish have such a strong impact on the local cuisine.

What food can you expect in Veracruz? Spanish cooking reimagined and seasoned with the ingredients and techniques of native Mexicans. Tropical accents with a distinct West African influence. Fish and seafood of all kinds stewed in chili sauces, grilled and served with snappy citrus and tomato sauces, and cooked into hash.

Veracruz is also home to plantain quesadillas and peanut salsas, smoked pork loin and chicken cooked in fruit liqueurs. It's where cooks favor olive oil over lard and tart up their food with banana vinegar.

An Agricultural Powerhouse

Sopa de xoneci, a soup made with wild greens. Lesley Tellez

Veracruz is Mexico's top producer of cattle, citrus, and shrimp. The state benefits from a year-round growing season, meaning great ingredients are never far away. Yucca flowers, green beans, and heart of palm are just some of the diverse ingredients cultivated here. It's the birthplace of vanilla, once upon a time cultivated exclusively by the Totonacs, ancient keepers of the orchid's secrets. The small, inky black beans produced here won over the Spanish, while the state's capital, Xalapa, is a jalapeno-growing hot spot. It's a damn good place to grow.

Veracruzano cooking hinges, in large part, on seafood and tropical fruit, both of which are cooked every which way. From tilapia-like mojarra to freshwater snails, if it swims, they eat it. Of all the many sea creatures on the menu, red snapper, shrimp (both fresh and dried), a kind of shad called totopos, and jaiba desnuda, or naked crab, are among the most popular.

A dizzying array of native fruit, like palm (chocohos) and wild cherry, makes its way into every facet of the cuisine. Sweet and savory preparations of pumpkin, tomatoes, citrus, and berries, are everywhere you look. Garlic is indispensable to Mexican cooking, but it's particularly prominent in the local cuisine, as Veracruzanos took to the Spanish tendency to cook seafood with loads of the allium. Meanwhile, slave-introduced crops like yucca and taro now grow in abundance.

Fish, Old World and New

Puffy gorditas.

From stuffed fish fillets to fish tamales cooked with tomato and chili, Veracruzano fish cookery stretches back to the region's ancient heritage while gladly borrowing from other cuisines. It's a delicious mix of the pre-Colombian technique of chili-laced stews with the Spanish love of garlic and hot condiments.

We've written before about the simple delights of cooking fish whole. Veracruzano cuisine is a master's class in cooking fish from gill to fin. Cooking techniques vary based on the fish, but many emphasize bright, lively sauces full of that local fruit laid against simple fish preparations.

What mole poblano is to Puebla, a la Veracruzana is to Veracruz. The inimitable and iconic tomato sauce, seasoned with ingredients like capers, garlic, pickled jalapenos, olives, is the poster child for the Spanish influence in the local cooking. It's typically but not exclusively served over red snapper, marinated in lime and cooked in the sauce.

Regional produce works magic in other preparations, as in tachogobi, a sauce of tiny crushed currant tomatoes fried with tiny chilpaya chilies served over fried or grilled mojarra, a popular fish related to tilapia. Pescado en chile y limon leaves tomatoes behind, hinging instead on fiery chilpaya peppers and fragrant limon criollo. Even simpler is the method for cooking the lake fish pompano, which sees it baked in salt with minty hoja santa leaves. Then there's hash: minilla is a famous hash that is often made with leftover grilled fish, dogfish, or crab.

And that's just whole fish! You also can't ignore dishes like chilies rellenos veracruzanos, jalapenos filled with garlic-laden crab. Or the state's refreshing seafood "cocktails," relatives of ceviche featuring mixed cooked seafood in a tart, bracing sauce.

Spanish influences become more apparent once we moved past whole fish, like arroz a la tambuda, a soupy take on seafood paella that Zarela Martinez wrote "resembles the rice dishes of Spain's Levantine coast." And you may have had a Spanish-style torta made of eggs and potatoes, but have you ever heard of Veracruz's torta mixta de mariscos, a fritada loaded with seafood like oysters, conch, and minilla?

Other indigenous Mesoamerican dishes survived the Spanish conquest more thoroughly intact. The ancient practice of stewing fish in chili sauces lives on in chilpachole, fish stock seasoned with tomatoes, dried chilies, and spices and finished with either shrimp or blue crab. Pipian, a thick, creamy sauce made from seeds like pumpkin seed, provides a link to inland Mexico (though in Veracruz it coats seafood), while hugely popular shrimp are often cooked in chili-based sauces as well. They're prepared with chipotle peppers, an emulsion of chilpayo chilies, garlic, and mayonnaise, and cloaked in a sauce of tomatillos, jalapenos, and hoja santa.

The Power of Preservation

Smoked ribs.

Not everything comes from the ocean. But when Veracruzanos turn to meat and poultry, they also look into the preservative powers of smoke and citrus. If there's one red meat dish to know, it's carne de chinameca, pork ribs marinated with achiote and paprika, then smoked over wood for several hours. It's a dish that might seem more at home in the American South, but one that was said to have been sampled by Cortés hundreds of years ago.

Citrus juice, particularly orange, is a popular medium for cooking chicken across southern Mexico. In Veracruz that means the sweet and sour sauce de pebre, made with fresh and dried fruit and sherry. Beyond offering preservative powers, these fruit sauces also show off the local sweet tooth.

Fruit gets a preservation treatment all its own—by getting turned into hooch. These fruit liqueurs are then in turn used for cooking meat. Orange and blackberry liqueurs and fruit vinegar bathe pork in carne en salsa de licores, while chicken is spiked with blackberry wine in pollo en mora.

African Influences

While pumpkins and peanuts are native to the Americas, West Africans took to them quickly, applying cooking methods they used for their native groundnuts and tubers to these new ingredients. In turn they helped locals see these ingredients in a whole new light. Peanuts, for instance, likely weren't eaten before Africans arrived on the continent.

Their legacy can be found in dishes like pollo encacahuate, a peanut sauce also found in the neighboring region of Puebla, and puerco con calabaza, or pork cooked with pumpkin and seasoned with cumin and coriander. But perhaps the best example of Africa-meets-New-World is encacahuatas, or folded tortillas in peanut sauce, enchilada-style.

African influences also extend to starchy sides and salsas like salsa macha—peanuts ground with olive oil, garlic, and compapeños chilies—and fufu-like machuca de platano, or boiled plantains mashed with jalapenos, onions, and lard.

Mole? Yes! The Inland Connection

Mole xiqueno.

When you think of mole, you probably don't think of Veracruz. But the state isn't without its own renditions of the famously complicated sauce. Moles and soup-stew dishes connect Veracruz with the pantheon of inland Mexican cuisine, proof that cooking traditions rooted in pre-Hispanic cuisine are alive and well here.

Prepared for all kinds of festive occasions, these moles are built on the backs of dried chilies but gain sweetness and texture from dried nuts, fruit, and spices. Mole de xico (or mole xiqueño), the state's most prestigious, is made with chocolate, raw sugar, prunes, and raisins for sweetness, while pecans, hazelnuts, and pine nuts are all essential tthickeners. The state's other great great mole, mole huasteco, is a simpler preparation that hails from the La Huasteca ethnic region. Typically served over poultry, it's made with cinnamon, cloves, dried chilies, mint, and tomato.

Moles are ripe for a cook's own interpretation, and Jarochas are known for putting their own spins on the sauce based on the local produce available to them. In a recipe attributed to the capital city of Xalapa, cookbook author Karen Hursh Graber counts avocado leaves, hoja santa, chayote leaves, chayote, poblanos, corn, zucchini, peas, fava beans, lettuce, epazote, and cilantro among the ingredients that may find their way into a home cook's mole pot.

Alongside the aforementioned moles and pipians, Veracruzano cuisine is linked to the cooking of central Mexico through the great tradition of "soup-stews," a liquid-based dish that's thicker than brothy soup but llighter than a full-on braise. Consider tesmole, a stew of meat, vegetables, and masa dumplings that comes in two basic forms. Verde is cooked with beef shin, fresh hoja santa, cilantro, and a medley of seasonal vegetables, including chayote, fresh fava beans, and corn. If you're in the mood for chicken, you'll make the dish rojo, with dried arbol or serrano chillies, tomatoes, epazote, green beans, and chayote.

Masa Snacks, Plantains, and Bread

Plantain picadita.

As we've noted before, the world of antojitos, or small snacks made from masa, ranges far wider than tacos and quesadillas. And every region of Mexico has its own variations on the masa theme. In Veracruz they take antojitos a step further by throwing plantains into the mix, using them in combination with masa or cutting the corn out entirely.

Such is the case for Veracruz's premiere antojito: the puffy gordita inflado, which sees sweet plantains, and sometimes wheat flour, mixed with masa and anise seed. It's typical to fill the fried pockets with puréed black beans, but dish is also sometimes made sweet with sugar and dairy. Plantains replace masa in the local spin on Central Mexico's masa calzone, molotes de frijol y platano, and are stuffed with queso anejo or a picadillo as platanos rellenos.

Still, plantains haven't usurped corn entirely. Masa still rules in picaditas, oblong griddled masa boats stuffed with a layer of puréed black beans, and picadas, pinched tortillas topped with lard, salsa, and beans added while the corn cooks.

Sweets and Drinks

Veracruz's bounty of tropical fruit is put to work by its pastry chefs and dessert wizards. Here you'll find ice creams flavored with local fruit like jobo, empanadas stuffed with guayaba, and dulce de camote con piña, or mashed sweet potatoes and pineapple in syrup. The most delicious dessert may be glorias, mashed banana mixed with vanilla and garnished with shaved ice, condensed milk, grenadine, and cinnamon.

Pan dulce—sweet breads—are enjoyed throughout Mexico for breakfast or as a late night snack. Jarochas contribute the concha veracruzano, a sweet roll sliced in half and stuffed with puréed beans and manchego cheese.

Peanuts are found in candy and the popular rum based drink torito, a cocktail that originated with the overworked farmhands who toiled the sugarcane fields. Originally made with aguardiente and fruit, the version now synonymous with Veracruz pairs rum with crushed peanuts and condensed milk, all blended together.

In addition to the many fruit liqueurs the state produces, you'll find Verde de Xico is another of Veracruz's originals, a lemon-y herbal liqueur made with chamomile, lemon balm, lemon verbena, land more. In Papantla, they indulge in vanilla cordial, a consequence of the Spaniards' infatuation with the local orchid's aged, aromatic pods.

Further Reading

Now that you've finished your primer in Veracruzano cooking, you're ready to move on to the big leagues.

As ever, Diana Kennedy's books are helpful; I'm particularly fond of My Mexico when seeking out recipes from Veracruz. Zarela Martinez's Veracruz as well as Veracruz native Patricia Quintana's Cuisines of the Water Gods, which deals with Mexico's coastal cuisines, are also helpful. And online, Karen Hursh Gaber has many English language articles and recipes on MexConnect.

Veracruz, though, is home to just one of the Mexico's many intriguing cuisines. In our next installment, we'll tackle the land of (many more than) seven moles: Oaxaca.


Regional Mexican Cuisine: All About Puebla and Central Mexico »