It pains me to say this, but next time you head to Western Mexico, stay away from the taco. I consider tacos to be a pillar of a truly balanced diet, but on a recent trip to the Mexican state of Nayarit, I found my favorite food overshadowed by the array of tasty, indigenous, and sometimes downright weird foodstuffs.
The roots of indigenous Mexican cuisine run deep throughout the region and much of the daily cuisine dates back to the Aztecs. Here are a few surprising and delicious can’t-miss snacks to seek out along Mexico’s west coast.
Photo by Maggie Fuller
What is it? This fermented corn beverage is the hangover cure we’ve all been seeking—or at least that’s what the locals say. In fact, many call it “the drink of the gods,” though that is more likely due to its pre-Colombian origins and ties to traditional ceremonies still practiced by the indigenous Huichol people. Made from the same masa dough used to make tamales, the drink’s very low alcohol content and added salt might actually be what makes it the perfect morning drink after a night of too many cervezas. And there’s no denying that with a scoop of lime sorbet, it’s absolutely delicious.
And it tastes like… While there is a slight tang—similar to that of tamarind—from the unrefined sugar used in the fermentation, tejuino is not a sweet drink. In fact, it tastes almost like a carrot-potato juice, but without that sweet carrot-y flavor.
Where to get it: You can find tejuino all over Mexico, but the drink is strongly associated with Colima and Jalisco and you can easily find it up and down the west coast.
What is it? Sidewalk shrimp are almost exactly what they sound like: shrimp dried out on the sidewalk. The dried shrimp are then ground and made into all sorts of incredible dishes—everything from thin, crispy tortillas, to a thick soup, mousse-like pâtés (pictured here to the right of the grilled fish), or even mixed into empanada dough and fried.
And it tastes like… Deliciousness. And shrimp, of course.
Where to get it: While you can get dishes prepared with dry shrimp in many places in Mexico, if you want the famous sidewalk shrimp, you’ll have to take a boat to the island city of Mexcaltitán. The city is flooded for half of the year, but during the dry season, the city’s high sidewalks are the perfect drying surfaces for the abundance of shrimp harvested from the surrounding waters. Tamaleria Angelina is well known for its empanadas de camaron and for its tortillas de camaron, but if you’re looking for a full meal, try Mariscos Kika, which sits on its own offshore island.
Photo by Maggie Fuller
What is it? OK, so shaved ice isn’t the most revolutionary dessert, but it is a classic in Mexico, and Nayarit’s Refresquería El Manantial takes the concept to a whole new level. Not simply content to use shaved ice and syrup, El Manantial tops its raspados with a rainbow of syrupy fruit flavors, condensed milks, chocolates, caramels, and all sorts of nuts and candies, and serves them in classic soda fountain glasses. If you can dream it, they can probably make it.
And it tastes like… A bowl full of ice cream toppings and a sugar high. The ice flakes are really just there to hold up the toppings.
Where to get it: The original Refresquería El Manantial is in Compostela, but they’ve expanded throughout Nayarit, from Tepic to Mazatlan and even down to Puerto Vallarta.
Courtesy of Refresquería El Manantial
What is it? Corn smut. It’s a fungus that grows on corn, has a very umami flavor, and is considered a delicacy in Mexico, where it has been a staple of the cuisine since the Aztec times. It’s often served in tamales or quesadillas where its strong flavor is balanced by cheese and starch.
And it tastes like… While huitlacoche has been called the Mexican truffle, don’t expect that distinctive truffle taste if you order a quesadilla con huitlacoche. It does pack a punch, but the flavor is far more comparable to a smoky, earthy mushroom.
Where to get it: Huitlacoche is actually experiencing a bit of a vogue throughout Mexico, where the recent culinary renaissance has put such indigenous ingredients at the forefront. While you can find it all over Mexico, if you’re interested in learning how to cook with it, check out the new indigenous ingredients program at the Four Seasons Punta Mita.
What is it? A spineless cactus with psychoactive properties.
And it tastes like… Transcendence.
Where to get it: Alright, alright so you actually probably won’t eat peyote on your trip to Western Mexico—it is illegal—but there are people in Western Mexico who can legally consume the cactus. And not just because they’re in touch with their inner Ken Keseys. For the Huichol community—an indigenous people who have been living in Western Mexico for an estimated 15,000 years—the plant is a sacred part of their religious rituals. They are therefore one of the few groups in the country allowed to legally possess and consume peyote. The legality of joining in for religious purposes is murky, but there is a community of Huichol people in Nayarit who host homestays, so if you happened to be staying during one of their yearly ceremonies and IF there is enough—this is important, the community’s religious leader stressed that they don’t always have enough to share—you might have the opportunity to risk it. For the experience, of course.