Has this happened to you? Instead of going to your favorite Mexican restaurant, you decide to try a new one in town. Of course, you have to order some chile rellenos. They’re your favorite. But, when the waiter brings your order, you discover that these rellenos are not the same as the ones you’re used to. They seem much different! What gives? You consider whether you should complain to the waiter that the chef doesn’t know his rellenos from his tacos. Sometimes what you consider Mexican dishes are simply Mexican cooking terms.
Well, before you go off all half-cocked, taste them. You might like them. Are they a chile pepper with a stuffing inside? Yes? Well, then they’re chile rellenos. See, those Mexican words are Spanish, and relleno means simply “stuffed” or “filled”. A chile relleno is just a stuffed chile pepper. The egg battered and gooey concoction you’re used to is by far not the only way of stuffing a chile! In fact, most of the Spanish words you associate with specific dishes are general terms. Here are some others:
General Mexican Cooking Terms
- Verde: You may have known this one from junior high Spanish. It means green. In Mexican cooking, it usually refers to recipes that use green tomatoes or tomatillos.
- Salsa: Just means sauce. Tostitos® brand is definitely not the epitome.
- Arroz: Rice.
- Carne: Meat. It usually refers to beef.
- Asada: As in carne asada, it refers to any method of dry heat cooking, such as grilling, broiling, griddle, or even frying or steaming.
- Pollo: Chicken
- Lomo: Pork
- Pescado: Fish.
- picadillo: Minced, ground or beaten up. This can refer to ground meat, or even to minced onions (picadillo de cebolla).
- Sopa: Soup. Also, caldo.
- Fresca: Fresh. Combine it with salsa and get “salsa fresca.” Now we’re getting the hang of it!
- Frijoles: Beans. Usually pinto or black.
- Chicaros: Peas.
- Torta: Sandwich.
- Dulce: Sweet.
- Empanadas: Filled turnovers, meat or fruit.
- Leche: Milk.
- Elote: Corn.
This is by far not an exhaustive list of Mexican cooking terms but it should help you navigate your next Mexican menu or cookbook.
Chile Rellenos with Rick Bayless
Speaking of chile rellenos, Rick Bayless, of Frontera Grill and television, shared a special chile rellenos recipe called “Mextlapique” de Chiles Rellenos de Camaron” or Shrimp Chiles Rellenos Grilled in Corn Husks. The word mextlapique is an Ancient Aztec word which refers to wrapping a food to cook on a grill. These chile rellenos are wrapped in soaked corn husks. Camaron, as you may have guessed, is the Spanish word for shrimp.
Now, you may be thinking you don’t want to husk a bunch of corn just to make chile rellenos. Well, all you have to do is save corn husks in the freezer to be used later for wrapping. See Rick’s recipe: Shrimp Chiles Rellenos Grilled in Corn Husks
I mentioned salsa fresca above. Here is a recipe for a basic fresh (uncooked) salsa. You may have wondered, by the way, about the difference between salsa fresca and pico de gallo. They are the same thing. It’s called pico de gallo around the U.S. – Mexican border.
Gallo means rooster or cock and pico means pick, or mince, or even beak, or mouth (familiar), among other things. Pico de gallo may refer to how people pick at the sauce and its similarity to chickens picking at their feed. Or, it may simply refer to the minced ingredients in the sauce, and their similarity to a chicken’s feed. When you think about it, those two explanations kind of come to the same thing.
This recipe might be called salsa fresca de jitomate. Notice the “tomate” part? Sound familiar? Like “tomate” or what we call tomato. This, however, is not a Spanish word at all. It derives from the nahuatl (aztec) word for tomatoes, xiltomatl. Jitomate, means red tomatoes, as opposed to tomate, for green tomatoes.
Basic Salsa Fresca (Pico de Gallo)
2 chopped red tomatoes, core removed
1 large white or yellow onion
3 cloves garlic
4 serrano or jalapeño chiles, seeds included
1/4 cup chopped cilantro1
Juice of 1 lime
1 teaspoon salt
Black pepper to taste
1 tsp sugar (if needed)
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and let it rest at room temperature for 30 minutes. Taste and add more salt or pepper if needed. Best served at room temperature, not chilled. Do not cook.
Store the leftovers in a tightly sealed container in the fridge. It should last about a week.