With coronavirus making travel a tricky and even potentially dangerous prospect this year, we’re embracing the summer staycation. All week (and all summer) long, we’ll bring you transportive flavors and travel-inspired ideas from around the world, so you can take your tastebuds on a trip and give your mind a mini vacation while you’re still at home. Here, some of the best Mexican food staples you can order online, wherever you are.
Over the past two years, I’ve traveled to Mexico nearly a dozen times. Whether it was a newfound favorite salsa or an addiction to mango and chile flavored candy, with every visit, I’d come home with something exciting and delicious for my pantry.
With international travel currently on hold, I’m enjoying having more time at home to cook. However, since my local Mexican grocery store is temporarily closed due to COVID-19, I’ve had to get creative when it comes to sourcing my favorite ingredients, condiments and snacks.
Luckily, if you’re looking to add authentic Mexican flavors to your pantry, there’s a world of possibilities available online. For staples like salsas, moles, spices, and snack foods, online grocery stores like Mex Grocer have a plethora of products that can be shipped right to your door. There’s also a host of foodie friendly stores like Merci Mercado, which specializes in edible insects (a Mexican delicacy) and Sazon de mi Corazón (Seasons of My Heart), a line of gourmet Mexican food products created by Mexican chef and author Susana Trilling that includes her popular chile jellies.
Whether you’re hoping to recreate the taste of Mexico or simply looking for ways to kick your pantry options up a notch, we polled Mexican chefs and rounded up some of our favorite products that are available online stateside.
Canned Chile Peppers
Chile peppers are a key ingredient of Mexican cuisine and one that food experts have no qualms with buying in pantry form.
When it comes to flavor and versatility, Pati Jinich of the James Beard Award winning and Emmy nominated public television series “Pati’s Mexican Table,” is a huge fan of La Costena Sweet Chipotle Peppers—smoke-dried ripe jalapeño chile peppers that have been marinated in a rich blend of spices and piloncillo, a raw form of pure cane sugar that is commonly used in Mexican cooking and is sometimes referred to as Mexican brown sugar or molasses. As a result, Jinich says, “these chipotles are much sweeter and addictive.”
Sweet, smoky, and delicious, “you can use them inside sandwiches or tortas or taquitos. They are very versatile. You could also use them if you want to make a vinaigrette or a sauce. They’re an ingredient you can use as part of a dish or as a garnish,” she says.
If you’re not able to get your hands on the La Costena Sweet Chipotle Peppers just yet (they’re expected to be available stateside very soon, but are not yet widely available), try La Costena Sweet Chipotle Peppers in Adobo Sauce.
La Costena Chipotle Peppers in Adobo Sauce, $1.49 from Target
Add a smoky kick to anything.
A Mexican pantry staple, these smoky, flavorful peppers have been marinated in a rich adobo sauce with caramelized onions. You can also pureé canned chipotle to add to ceviches, pasta, soups, and stews (think: Chicken in a Tomatillo, Chipotle and Brown Sugar Sauce) or mix it with mayonnaise for a rub or dip.
If you’re craving a more acidic hit of heat, Jinich recommends stocking up on La Costena Green Pickled Jalapeno Peppers. She prefers the sliced variety because they include the seeds, which retain extra heat and flavor. These also make a great topping on everything from nachos to soups and tacos.
Dry Spices & Chiles
Another way to give your Mexican dishes an authentic flavor is with dry spices and chiles that are readily available online.
“Guajillo, pasilla, and chile ancho are great to enhance the flavor of any dish, without the intense spice. I use these when cooking dishes for my kids,” says Chef Juan Pablo Loza, the Director of Culinary Operations at Rosewood Mayakoba in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico.
Ole Rico Dried Peppers 6-Pack Bundle, $46.98 from Amazon
This bundle includes dried ancho, arbol, guajillo, pasilla, chipotle, and cascabel peppers.
While you’re stocking up on dried chiles, Loza also encourages home chefs to add to their spice rack. “Dried herbs, such as Mexican oregano, bay leaves, and avocado leaves are really important for seasoning the salsas, adobos, or stews,” he says.
Allspice Emporium Toasted Dried Avocado Leaves, $6.95+ from Etsy
Not as easy to find in your average grocery store.
Salts & Seasonings
My secret weapon when recreating Latin American favorites at home? Cocina Mestiza Mexican Seasoning Salt. Made with a blend of 20 different spices, this big-flavored seasoning salt adds a chile- and cumin-rich umami to anything you pair it with. I use it when making homemade salsa, seasoning meats, fish, veggies, or even eggs.
Like the ubiquitous Tajin—the powdered snack and fruit seasoning made of ground chile peppers, salt, and dehydrated lime juice—the Cocina Mestiza Seasoning Salt tastes amazing on ripe mango and on the rim of a margarita or Michelada.
[Ed. Note: Since it can be hard to find online, we also recommend looking for similar Mexican seasoning blends on Etsy and elsewhere.]
Moles & Pastes
So much of traditional Mexican cooking derives its unique and complex flavors from moles and other intricate pastes made from blends of spices. A mainstay in Pati Jinich’s kitchen is the La Anita Achiote Paste—a popular seasoning from the Yucatan. Made of annatto seeds, “Achiote paste is used to make Pibil dishes with pork or turkey. You can also use achiote paste to make tacos al pastor. It’s something that’s always in my pantry,” she says.
El Yucateco Achiote Paste, 2 for $6.40 from Amazon
This brand is a bit easier to find.
Another chef favorite is Mole Don Pancho. Israel Cetina, the Executive chef at JW Marriott Cancun is a fan of this mole and uses it at home and while cooking abroad. As he explains, “this mole has a very rich flavor and the preparation technique is more artisan than other brands. I used this product in several Mexican food festivals with dishes I prepared in countries like Switzerland, India, and Venezuela.”
Cetina says the aroma of freshly roasted dried chile peppers brings him back to the small towns of Oaxaca, Mexico where he learned to prepare mole from scratch and promptly fell in love with this famous Mexican dish.
Over the past few months, I’ve relied on the Chata line of pre-made fillings, like the Chata Chicken in Mole (a sweet and smoky shredded chicken), Chata Cochinita Pibil (a shredded pork marinated in achiote paste), and the Chata Chilorio (a richly flavored shredded pork cooked in a blend of apple cider vinegar, dried chile peppers, white pepper, oregano, coriander, and garlic).
Chata Chilorio (6-pack), $45 from Amazon
For super easy dinners.
Craving the creamy, perfectly flavored beans from your favorite Mexican restaurant? Jinich suggests stocking up on La Costena Refried Beans. “La Costena is king when it comes to refried beans and whole beans. They’re the brand of choice for Mexicans in Mexico. It’s what you grow up with in your pantry.”
What makes the authentic Mexican refried beans stand out from other brands: They’re made traditionally using dried beans that are cooked, mashed, and then fried in lard or oil with various seasonings including onions, salt and pepper. Far from vegan, I suggest trying La Costena Refried Beans with Chicharron (pork rinds) or Chata Refried Beans with Chilorio (seasoned pork) for beans that are rich in meaty, smoky flavor. For an entirely plant based option, try Amy’s Organic Vegetarian Traditional Refried Beans which are big on flavor and 100 percent vegan.
Salsas & Hot Sauces
Jinich is a fan of La Costena Salsa Verde, a medium spicy, chunky green sauce made with natural tomatillos that tastes great over eggs, with chilaquiles, enchiladas, or anywhere you might use salsa. You can also dilute it and use it as a base for Chile Verde Stew.
Hugo Ortega, Executive Chef and Co-Owner of Backstreet Cafe, Hugo’s, Caracol and Xochi in Houston, Texas is also a fan of salsa verde. While technically not a Mexican product, he always keeps a jar of H-E-B That Green Sauce in his kitchen at home. This multipurpose sauce is great for adding a jalapeño kick to tacos, eggs, and everything in between.
Those craving rich, smoky flavors with medium heat should add to their cart Cocina Mestizo Salsa Norteña (a traditional recipe from the state of Chihuahua that combines smoky chipotle and árbol peppers with peanuts and ripe plum tomatoes) and Cocina Mestizo Chipotle (a sweet and spicy salsa from the state of Veracruz which is made with chipotle peppers, tomatoes, onion, carrot, and brown sugar). I buy these sauces religiously and in bulk to use on egg dishes, tacos and quesadillas.
Can’t find your favorite tortillas in store? Get thee some masa flour and make your own. While there are many options available online, Cetina says he prefers Maseca Corn Masa Flour for a taste of home.
Maseca Instant Corn Masa Flour, $2.38 at Walmart
A versatile pantry staple that's also good for thickening your mole.
“With the corn flour I can prepare tortillas, sopes, gorditas, molotes, tamales, atole champurrado, enchiladas, quesadillas, huaraches, and many more. This is a product with a lot of versatility because you can prepare as many different dishes as you want, all you need is a bit of imagination. With Maseca in my hands I can satisfy all my cravings at any time. When I complement it with other products such as beans, sauces, chiles, Mexican cheeses, chorizo, and so on, I do not feel far from my country,” he says.
Don’t knock them until you’ve tried them. Chapulines (grasshoppers) have been part of the local Southern Mexican diet for centuries. Eaten as a snack or added to other dishes (for example, mixed into guacamole), chapulines are rich in protein, flavor, and crunch.
Merci Mercado Chapulines, $23.40 from Amazon
Your new favorite snack?
Merci Mercado has an excellent selection of Chapulines (plain, chipotle and adobo flavored) and other traditional edible insect treats. I’m personally a fan of the Chapulines Molidos (ground grasshoppers). A great entree into the world of edible insects, this smoky powder tastes great sprinkled atop salsas or as a rim trimmer for mezcal and tequila cocktails.
Nothing quite quenches the thirst on a hot summer day like an ice cold glass of Agua de Jamaica (hibiscus tea or punch)—the deep, cranberry hued drink that’s made from soaking jamaica flowers (also known as hibiscus or flor de jamaica).
Organic Hibiscus Flowers, $14.93 from Amazon
Brew these into the perfect summer drink.
Simply boil a cup of jamaica (hibiscus) flowers in a quart of water, let it simmer and cool down in the refrigerator. Pour through a strainer and add sugar (or sweetener) to taste. Loose Hibiscus flowers can easily be purchased online. Rich in Vitamin C, this tangy refreshing drink is a great way to cool off. (Or you can try a Hibiscus Margarita recipe.)
Abuelita Mexican Chocolate
If you’ve ever visited a Mexican supermarket you’ve likely seen the unmistakable branding of Abuelita Mexican Chocolate. While you can easily find gourmet Mexican chocolate online, this wildly popular hot chocolate, which is available in tablet form as well as a drink mix, is considered the ultimate comfort beverage by many.
“It’s grainy, cinnamon-y Mexican style chocolate. You’re supposed to make hot chocolate with it but I just munch on it. It’s so good,” says Jinich.
Nestle Abuelita Mexican Chocolate Tablets, $3.18 from Amazon
Great for mole too.
Cetina is also a fan. “The smell and the flavor takes me back to my childhood memories, I remember my mother used to make me and my family ‘Chocolate Abuelita’ in family gatherings with just water, as our financial resources were scarce at the time. One of the things I remember the most is my mum using a wooden whisk stirrer to make a very frothy hot chocolate, this particular tool made it delicious,” he says.
Cetina says a cup of “Chocolate Abuelita” is best enjoyed with “a delicious piece of sweet bread” while watching your favorite TV shows with your family—something we’re all doing more of these days.
Header image by Chowhound