Mexican food is one of the most loved types of food around the world, both by vegetarians and meat eaters. Because a great deal of Tex Mex is vegetarian, however, many vegetarians feel that it is safe to eat the real thing when they travel to Mexico. For ones who are only concerned about chunks of meat and are not worried about a bit of runoff juices, the food will be fine but those who follow a strict meat-less diet would be surprised to learn some of the authentic Mexican food items that contain traces of meat.
Some vegetarians are already on the alert for traces of meat in their beans while in the United States, but others don’t even think about it. When in Mexico, however, it is a fairly safe assumption that almost all beans have meat in them. When making re-fried beans, most Mexicans will add chorizo (sausage) or some other red meat. At the very least, almost all re-fried beans will contain chicken stock. But what about whole beans such as black beans or pinto beans? Those are naturally meat free, right? While they are naturally meat free, most Mexicans will add flavoring to them during cooking in the form of chicken stock. So if you are eating beans you didn’t make yourself, be sure to ask.
Vegetarians in Mexico will quickly notice that a great deal of Mexican food is meat based. This means that sometimes your only option will be to simply have a bowl of rice (or beans, both if you are lucky). But while rice can very easily be vegetarian, that is not always the case. Most of the time Mexican rice will have a lot of added flavor in the form of vegetables and seasoning. The bad news for vegetarians is that this seasoning often comes from chicken stock. That does not mean all rice does; in fact one of the most popular rice flavoring packets sold in stores doesn’t contain meat stock, but you should always be alert.
Strict vegetarians know that no matter where you are there is a good chance that the soup has meat stock of some sort. While this is true in the United States, it is even more so in Mexico. While cream soups probably won’t have chicken stock, almost every broth soup you come across in a restaurant or in someone’s home will. Once again, this is simply for flavoring, but it applies even for vegetable soup and the very popular noodle soup. If you are on a strict meat-less diet, ask before trying this Mexican food.
Tamales are one of the most popular breakfast items in Mexico but these are another unintentional trap for vegetarians. If you go get a tamal, you will first notice that many of the flavors involve meat (mole con pollo – chicken and mole, salsa con pollo – chicken with salsa, salsa con carne – meat with salsa) but you will also notice several flavors that don’t have any pieces of meat and are “vegetarian.” The most common of these include rajas (hot peppers), salsa verde (green salsa) and salsa roja (red salsa) although there are also variations of these that add vegetables such as mushrooms. This is where vegetarians must be careful because part of the process of making tamales includes chicken stock and in some cases it will also include manteca (lard). If you want a truly vegetarian tamal, you will have to go with either one de dulce (sweet) or de elote (sweet corn).
By now you are probably noticing a trend that most of the hidden meat in authentic Mexican food comes in the form of chicken stock and that is true for mole as well. This traditional spicy chocolate sauce is part of one of the most popular dishes in the country. While it is usually served with chicken (so you wouldn’t have it anyway), it is also popular on enchiladas (both vegetarian and meat ones) and in other forms. But beware because one of the 22 ingredients in the traditional version of the sauce is chicken stock.
Another Mexican food that most people would imagine is vegetarian is the quesadilla. The most popular options for ingredients include meat, but there are also plenty of vegetarian options such as a plain one, mushrooms or potatoes just to name a few. The thing to keep in mind, however, is that in most cases when you buy quesadillas they have a bit of manteca (lard) to help them cook better. You can ask to get them without manteca, but even if you do, chances are good that there will be some leftover manteca on the grill and as with all street food, they are cooked on the same surface as the quesadillas with chicken or meat.
One of the staples of Mexican food is of course the tortilla and while the tortilla itself is completely vegetarian, that is not always true of the preparation methods. That is because, as with quesadillas, sometimes tortillas are cooked with manteca. This means that when you have tortillas in a restaurant or eat something that has tortillas, such as tacos, quesadillas or sopes, there is a chance that you will be eating lard. This is not always the case, but it is something to keep in mind if you want food completely meat free.
One of the most popular types of Mexican food you can get from a stand on the street is the torta, which is just a large sandwich. Most of the options will contain meat, but there are usually one or two that will not. The most popular is the Suiza (Swiss) and this has three types of cheese: queso blanco (white cheese), queso amarillo (American cheese or “yellow cheese” and queso Oaxaca/quesillo (Oaxacan cheese). While the ingredients themselves are vegetarian, the process of making the torta is usually not. That is because they are usually fried (the bread, the cheese or both) and the most common method of frying them is using manteca (lard). So think again if you want a truly vegetarian sandwich.