In my opinion, Mexico is the premiere gluten free foodie travel destination. The combination of a riveting traditional food culture – that is often gluten free – and a booming natural foods movement offers celiacs a wide range of choices. Mexico is a big country with many regional cuisines; with everything from humble, street side taco stands to haute cuisine, a celiac with have no problem scoring an epic meal. With a little research and a few Spanish phrases you will be enjoying some of the best gluten free food on the planet. This is my gluten free Mexico guide. I hope you enjoy!
I learned about my gluten intolerance living in Mexico. Ten years ago I inadvertently detoxed from gluten because I was eating all tortillas and no bread. When I went back to the United States my stomach problems returned with a vengeance. That was when I started paying attention to the foods I was putting into my body. Since then I have studied my DNA, worked with a nutritionist and thoroughly researched the gluten free options in Mexico. I work in the restaurant industry and have trained numerous chefs in the preparation of gluten free foods in non-gluten-free kitchen. I want to help avoid cross contamination and keep people from getting sick.
How to Avoid Being Glutened in Mexico
The most important thing that you can do to avoid being glutened is to communicate your condition to the people serving your food. Restaurants everywhere have good servers and bad servers. You can not expect that everyone knows what gluten is and what foods are gluten free. I have found that natural foods have a lower probability of containing hidden gluten. Foods that are made with an industrial process have a higher probability of using wheat protein as a stabilizing or thickening agent because it is cheap. Tell your server what you can and cannot have, and be specific.
At the end of this article I have included a short Spanish lesson about gluten dietary restrictions. It will allow you to explain gluten intolerance and tell your server what you are not able to eat, and what will happen if they cook your gluten free pasta in the regular pasta water!
Gluten Free Caution in Mexico
As in most parts of the world, fried foods are difficult for celiacs. The shared fryer has given me more problems than I want to admit. French fries that are fried in the same oil as breaded chicken will make us sick. I recommend looking at the menu to see what the restaurant serves. If they have chile rellenos or milanesas you are probably going to avoid the fried foods. I have a pozole restaurant that I love but the flautas are fried in a shared fryer and always destroy my stomach. It took me 3 or 4 visits to realize it was the shared fryer and not the spicy chile that was wreaking havoc on my digestive system. The shared fryer also affects sopes, tacos dorados, and flautas. If in doubt, ask your server.
Avoid Jugo Maggi and Salsa INglesa
The next big gluten bomb is going to be hidden in the form of three sauces that come up again and again: Jugo Maggi, worcestershire sauce and soy sauce. These little bastards are usually the ‘secret’ ingredients that restaurants use to make something salty and meaty. Watch out for ceviche, zarandeado, cocktails, chiles toreados, sangrita, micheladas, tostilocos, marinades and just about anything ‘prepared’. Not all ceviche will have the black sauces but you need to ask before you order. The zarandeado whole fish might have soy sauce in their secret recipe and you need to ask before they prepare and serve you a two pound fresh fish that you won’t be able to eat. You have to mention that these sauces will make you sick to avoid wasting a big plate of food.
Avoid Knorr Consume de Pollo
This one is a little harder to avoid because nobody wants to admit to using it, waiters have no concept of it and it is very hard to detect in the final product.
Salad dressings: Aderezo vs vinagreta
Aderezo is usually creamy style of dressing that many times will contain one of the salsa negras (salsa inglesa or Jugo Maggi) that you will try to avoid or ask lots of questions. The caesar salad from my beloved Avenida Revolución restaurant and hotel contains salsa inglesa. Again, some brands of salsa inglesa are gluten free and others are not. Vinagreta on the other hand is usually just a mixture of some form of a vinager, an oil and something to help bind it. Natural, home made styles of vinagretas will usually be gluten free but the more commercial or industrially processed product may contain gluten as a binding agent.
Gluten Free Mole??
I absolutely love mole in all of its beautiful forms. It seems that just about every corner of this country has a thick chile sauce that they call mole. Celiacs will have to avoid the industrial processed moles that come in the supermarket and take a lot of care when trying other forms of mole. The States of Oaxaca and Puebla are the two areas most associated with mole. The traditional recipes call for wheat flour bread or bread crumbs. However, at least in Guadalajara, I am seeing more high-end restaurants making obscure mole recipes that do not include bread. Tikuun Comedor Local serves a spectacular tamarindo mole that does not use any gluten products, and the staff was well educated on all things gluten.
In Guanajuato and Sinaloa I found gluten free moles, and most green moles are also going to be gluten free. Error on the side of caution when it comes to mole or make your own. The best mole I ever tasted was homemade with rare chiles and gluten free bread. It is a chore to make but well worth the cost! I now grow those rare chile chilhuacles because I love this mole so much.
Gluten Free Ingredients
In the last ten years there has been a huge increase in the availability of gluten free products. Most of these products are going to be available in the cities more than the rural communities. I get gluten free bread at Costco, Walmart and a little bakery called Pan Gabriel. There are a growing number of organic specialty stores that usually stock a small section of gluten free products.
One of the great things about living in Mexico is the selection of gluten substitutes. I have fallen in love with coconut flour and we regularly use locally grown garbanzo flour, tapioca flour, corn starch, rice flour among others to bake cookies, cakes and bread. There are lots of options available if you are willing to do the research and the baking.
Mexican Corn is a Gluten Free Treasure
Of all of the ingredients native to Mexico, a celiac treasures corn above all else. There is no comparison between the corn commercially sold in the United States and that which is readily available in Mexico. My celiac sister goes crazy for the tortillas I bring her because she can’t get them in San Francisco. There are a lot of heirloom tomatoes in California and a lot of heirloom corn in Mexico. Strains of corn that have been grown for centuries without crossbreeding them for higher yields. Or worse, genetically modifying them to be resistant to Roundup pesticide. In Mexico, corn is a gift from the gods and treasured as cultural heritage. Each region has their own species that are endemic and prepared in the local culinary traditions.
Mexican corn masa goes through a process called Nixtamalización. The dried corn is first cooked in an alkaline solution to break down the cellular membrane before it is ground. The alkaline solution increases the nutritional value of the corn and makes it taste even better. After the corn is cooked and ground, the masa is transformed into a plethora of shapes including, but not limited to, tortillas, sopes, gorditas, tlacoyos, tlayudas, chorreadas, tamales, corundas, uchepos, panuchos, tetelas and many more. While a great tortilla sprinkled with a few grains of salt can be considered a meal on it’s own, the corn nixtamal is usually just the beginning.
Finding a good tortilla shop should be easy. I recommend looking for someone that is using heirloom corn and avoid Maseca products. In the rural parts of the country excellent corn is the norm. In the cities it is more likely to find agro-industrial products that don’t taste as good. While it is rare, make sure that your tortillas are made with 100% corn.
What to Eat in Mexico
I eat a lot of meat and vegetables. I love the taco stands culture in Mexico and I rarely get glutened eating street food. Most of my gluten incidents happen at casual restaurants. My Mexican family is baffled that I can eat in so many street carts without getting sick but when we go to a hotel restaurant I end up spending all afternoon in the bathroom.
Check out my taco guide. It is almost 100% gluten free and even at the fish taco place you can find some great gluten free options.
This is probably my favorite Mexican food. It is a roasted goat meat served with a tomato and chile broth. This is the best traditional, gluten free dish in Guadalajara, considering the other one is a sandwich.
Barbacoa de Borrego
Lamb cooked in agave leaves and an underground oven. Very traditional from the States of Hidalgo and Mexico. It is usually served with a bowl of broth called consumé. I usually see it served with artisanal blue corn tortillas and the option for an order of blood sausage.
This is Yucatan style pork rubbed in a chile and axiote rub. Traditionally the pig is cooked in an underground oven and served with pickled onion. There are a ton of variations of this dish. My favorite is using turkey instead of pork and cooking in the oven rather than the underground oven (I don’t have a traditional underground oven in my house).
Lengua en Salsa Verde
Cow’s tongue in tomatillo sauce. I have never been served a tomatillo sauce that contains gluten. The cow’s tongue is cooked in a pressure cooker and comes out super tender.
Chile en Nogada
This is a very traditional recipe served when pomegranate comes into season around September, just in time for Mexican Independence Day. A poblano chile is stuffed with a ground beef filling and topped with a walnut sauce. Traditionally this recipe has no gluten. I have never been given one that has gluten, but I can imagine that a cheap recipe would use wheat flour to thicken the sauce if they were going light on the walnuts and cheese. Ask your server.
Pato en Salsa de Pétalos de Rosa
This recipe is from one of my favorite restaurants in Guadalajara called El Sacromonte. The duck in sweet and sour sauce is lightly perfumed with rose petals and tamarindo. There is a similar dish that is typical of the Purépecha communities around Lake Patzcuaro that uses a chile guajillo sauce and is equally exceptional.
Aguachile de Camarón
The folks in Sinaloa know what is up when it comes to shrimp. Restaurante El Cuchupetas un Villa Unión, just outside of Mazatlán has the best aguachile de Camarón I have ever tried. The shrimp is so fresh that it doesn’t smell like shrimp. It slowly cooks in lime juice at the table and only includes some tomato, cucumber and chile. You can tell the server how spicy you would like your order. If you are not in El Cuchupetas make sure to clarify that your aguachile does not use Jugo Maggi or Salsa Inglesa.
Callo de Hacha
The sea scallops in Mexico are epic. Huge, fresh scallops for a fraction of the price you will find them anywhere else. The best way to enjoy them is raw with a little lime juice, some ground chiltepin chile and some red onion. Mind blowing! The best scallops come from the State of Sonora.
Slow cooked pork shank in a mild chile rub. This is usually cooked in banana leaves and served with rice.
Crispy Fried Tripe
Tripe is something that Americans are not usually accustomed to consuming but you should really give it a try. Most of the tripe restaurants that I know prepare tripe and little else. Ask if they use a shared fryer but in most circumstances you should be ok. Here in Jalisco you get a bowl of crispy fried tripe in a bowl with tomato broth. It’s better than bacon!
Imagine an enchilada. Now switch the enchilada sauce for runny refried beans and finish with some soft queso fresco. I like them stuffed with carne asada but you fill them with whatever protein you would like.
Carne En Su Jugo
A Jalisco Style soup of bacon, beef and beans that is served with onion and cilantro.
Gluten Free Spanish Translations
Gluten = Gluten
Wheat = Trigo
Barley = Cebada
Rye = Centeno
Worcestershire Sauce = Salsa Inglesa
Jugo Maggi is a brand name and has no translation.
Soy Sauce = Salsa Soya
Jugo Maggi and Worcestershire Sauce are collectively known as Salsas Negras
Breaded or Battered = Empanizado o Capeado
Wheat Flour = Harina de Trigo
I can’t eat anything with gluten. It makes me ill.
No puedo comer gluten, me cae muy mal.
I have a gluten allergy (or intolerance).
Tengo un alergia (intolerancia) al gluten.
Wheat, barley and rye have gluten.
Trigo, cebada y centeno tienen gluten.
I cannot eat bread.
No puedo comer pan.
I cannot eat Jugo Maggi, worcestershire sauce or soy sauce.
No puedo comer Jugo Maggi, salsa Inglesa ni salsa soya.
…it doesn’t have wheat flour to thicken it?
…no tiene harina de trigo como espesante?
Corn is ok, rice is ok.
Maíz está bien, arroz está bien.