Traveling as a vegetarian can present some challenges. In Mexico, much of the traditional cuisine is meat-heavy. It’s generally easy to find vegetarian food in upscale restaurants that cater to a tourist clientele, but where’s the fun in eating all your meals in tourist restaurants? Fortunately, some Mexican classics work very well for vegetarian travelers, or can be made vegetarian with a few simple tweaks. Here’s what to look for on your next Mexican vacation.
Top 5 Vegetarian Food Picks for Mexican Travel
Jicama (pronounced hee-kah-mah) is a tuberous root that has a taste and texture somewhere between a radish and a turnip, with a hint of sweetness. In Mexico, it is traditionally served raw, marinated in lime juice and topped with chili powder. You’ll find it sold this way at fruit stands, usually with the jicama sliced into sticks and served in a plastic cup. In restaurants, you may find a more elaborate version presented as a jicama salad with other local fresh vegetables.
2. Nopales (Cactus)
The prickly pear cactus is a staple food in Mexico, and it offers plenty of nutrition for the vegetarian traveler, as it’s packed with vitamins and fiber. At markets, you’ll find it both fresh and canned. On menus, you may find nopales in salads, tacos, or quesadillas. If you’re at a restaurant that has no vegetarian fillings for tacos or quesadillas, try asking if they can substitute nopales for the meat, as they likely have some on hand. In some restaurants, nopales are included in the condiment bar with the various salsas and sauces, so you can order a cheese taco or quesadilla and add the nopales yourself. Huevos con nopales (eggs with cactus) is a popular breakfast dish.
3. Black Beans
Beans are a huge part of Mexican cuisine, but you have to watch out for refried beans – they are often cooked in lard. Choose whole black beans instead when you have the option. They may be served with rice as a side dish, or you may find them in sopa de frijoles – bean soup. The soup may be made with chicken broth, so be sure to ask. You can also find black beans as a topping for sopes, a traditional dish with a fried mesa dough base. Because of the fried dough, though, you won’t want to make sopes a staple food!
4. Rajas (Sliced peppers)
In Spanish, rajas means slices, but when you see it on a menu, it generally means sliced poblano peppers. Rajas con crema is a traditional Mexican dish of sliced peppers with Mexican sour cream. These are another option for a vegetarian filling for tacos or quesadillas, and don’t be shy to ask if they’re not listed that way on the menu. There are almost certainly some in the kitchen.
5. Pico de Gallo (and Guacamole)
Pico de gallo (or salsa fresca) is a fresh Mexican salsa made from tomatoes, onions, garlic, lime, cilantro, and jalapenos. It’s the very definition of fresh, local, whole food. Plus, of course, it’s packed with vitamins and antioxidants. Guacamole has the same ingredients plus fresh avocado. Both are incredibly delicious vegetarian foods available at just about every restaurant and bar, and the salsa especially bears almost no resemblance to the store-bought salsa you’ll find at home. The thing to watch out for is the tortilla chips. Mexican tortilla chips are literally tortillas fried in oil, and they are very thick and very oily. You’ll want to aim for a high salsa-to-chip ratio to make the most of the healthy vegetables and avoid eating too much oil.
The Bottom Line
You can find something vegetarian to eat in most restaurants and taco stands in Mexico, even if there’s nothing vegetarian listed on the menu – so don’t be afraid to venture into the more authentic places to eat!
Christina Newberry is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in national and local magazines and newspapers. With a Bachelor’s degree in English and Anthropology from the University of Victoria and a Journalism Certificate from Langara College, Christina brings keen curiosity and the love of a good story to her work with HealthCastle.com.
Christina is a passionate traveler and urban gardener with an interest in vegetarian eating and making good, tasty food from scratch. Sharing lessons learned from her own experiences, Christina writes about lifestyle topics for HealthCastle, with a focus on eating well at home and on the road.