Living Meat-Free in Mexico

The year 1980 saw two milestones in our lives: my husband and I stopped eating meat, and we visited Mexico for the first time. Since then, Barry and I have traveled extensively around the country, especially since 2005, when we bought a home in the city of Guanajuato and began going on an annual paseo, visiting a different Mexican state every January. We’ve also traveled to other parts of Central America and to Colombia. As delightful as these other countries are, none are as vegetarian-friendly as Mexico.

In the last 40 years Mexico has expanded its cuisine to include many more vegetarian options, and it’s easier to find alternatives to meat. Mexican chefs and waiters are accustomed to vegetarians and won’t think you’re weird when you say, “No como carne” (“I don’t eat meat”). You don’t have to be fluent in Spanish to eat vegetarian, though knowing the names of different toppings and foods helps.

While many dishes do include meat, Mexico has a long tradition of eating beans—black beans, pinto beans, and frijoles peruanos (not Peruvian beans, as you might think, but a creamy yellow bean), available both cooked and refried. Whatever you’re eating, ask if they can give you “frijoles” instead of meat, and check, if you’re a purist, if the beans are cooked in lard (manteca de cerdo).

Walking through the day’s meals:

Breakfast: Mexico has a wealth of egg dishes, which usually come with a side of beans, tortillas, and salsa. You can enjoy huevos rancheros (fried egg on tortilla with salsa); chilaquiles (a breakfast version of nachos, topped with tomato sauce, cheese, beans, and a fried egg); and huevos a la Mexicana (scrambled eggs with onion, chili, and tomato). Most restaurants also serve granola with or without yogurt and fresh fruit.

Snack food: When traveling around Mexico, you can’t miss the puestos (fast food stands) offering gorditas (pocket sandwiches), tamales, tacos, or tortillas, with their different choice of fillings, including frijoles (beans), queso (cheese), huevo (egg)—use “huevo” in the singular, since the plural, by itself, is a slang term for a delicate part of the male anatomy!—nopales (sautéed cactus), papa (potato), cebolla (onion), acelga (chard), or champiñones (mushrooms).

Lunch: La comida is the main meal of the day, usually eaten around 2 p.m. In restaurants, the comida corrida (fixed-price meal of the day) usually includes meat, but you can ask if they’ll substitute a non-meat dish for the entrée. Barry and I often enjoy tortilla soup, also called sopa azteca, which is tomato soup poured over fried tortilla strips and garnished with an array of toppings: cheese, avocado, cilantro, fried chiles, onion, and sour cream. Mexican chefs seem to equate vegetarianism with sour cream, so if you’re vegan, say, “Sin queso o crema, por favor.” (No cheese or cream, please.)

Another vegetarian option to consider is a burrito, a wrap filled with rice and cheese. Beans and rice are another good bet, along with some pico de gallo (a diced tomato salsa). Or try mole. In Puebla, I almost cried over my rice and mole, the thick, smoky, often chocolate-y sauce usually served over chicken.

We’re partial to quesadillas, which traditionally consist of melted cheese tucked into a folded tortilla, but nowadays have variations, like the spinach quesadillas with roasted veggies I ate at a café in Querétaro. My all-time favorite quesadilla dish is the one I order at our local corner café in Guanajuato, with a filling of portabella mushrooms.

Dinner: Mexican dinner (la cena) is typically light, since the main meal is in the afternoon. Still, if you’re in a city, you can find plenty of restaurants open. International restaurants are more and more common. We’ve savored risotto in Zacatecas, tabouli in Guanajuato, and aloo gobi masala in Puebla. You can also find sushi anywhere (if you don’t eat raw fish, order it with avocado or cucumber filling).

Cooking en casa: At home, eating vegetarian is simple. Buy black or pinto beans in cans or plastic packaging if you’re in a hurry; otherwise cook them raw in a crock pot. The main Mexican chain supermarkets, Comercial Mexicana, Mega, and Soriana, increasingly stock vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and international foods. You can find tofu at most supermarkets and soy sauce even at your local tiendita—corner store.

Staying in rentals: All Mexican homes come equipped with a blender, since Mexicans enjoyed licuados (smoothies) long before the word became popular in English. Buy some mangoes, papayas, pineapple, mandarins, and greens, and blend up a hearty veggie smoothie. Just be sure to disinfect the produce first by soaking it in Microdyn, an antibacterial solution, available everywhere.

You may notice that a lot of these dishes are not exactly low-cal, and indeed Mexico is suffering a huge obesity crisis. To avoid weight gain (and protect your heart), ask for salsa instead of sour cream, cheese or heavy sauces, or order sour cream on the side (al lado). Guacamole is fine but skip the complimentary deep-fried tortilla chips (yummy as they are) and ask for jicama (a Mexican root vegetable), red pepper, or cucumber sticks instead for dipping.

Eating a meal in Mexico is a sensory pleasure—and not just the food. You can while away a couple of lazy hours over your comida in an outdoor café, in warm, forgiving weather. No one will hover over you to pay up and leave. Or you can hang out on a park bench in the zócalo (town plaza) and watch the vendors selling their wares and the kids playing and the couples strolling arm-in-arm, while you bite into your tamale. Let’s say today you opt for the tamale. After you’ve finished, you lick your lips and look longingly down at your now-empty bag, musing on the decision: another one?

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