Deconstructing Mexican cuisine

Ah, Mexican food – it’s yummy. But with its rice, beans, and tortillas, hardly low-carb. What’s a traveler to do in Latin American countries? Or when the rest of the gang wants to go out for Mexican? I just spent a week in Puerto Vallarta, and I’ve got a few tips to share.

Just because rice, beans, and tortillas are mainstays of Mexican cooking doesn’t mean that’s all there is to it. But if you order a traditional plate and you don’t eat 80% of what’s given to you, it’s going to look a little strange (and Mexicans may be offended by the waste of food). So first off, make sure you know how to ask for no beans, no rice, no tortillas. They’ll still think you’re really strange, but at least they won’t be offended and you won’t be tempted to eat carbs just to look like you’ve finished your meal.

Focus on what you can eat – meat, seafood, salad, and extra salsa, guacamole, and sour cream! If you’re on the coast, you’re in luck – seafood dishes are plentiful and very fresh. Puerto Vallarta is filled with small seafood places that get their seafood fresh every day and serve them up with simple garlic and butter sauces, or “diablo” – a hotter version. Cilantro and lime are also popular (for just about anything). Unlike in the US, fish is eaten fresh and not battered and deep-fried. It often comes in tacos or on crispy rounds, but those can easily be removed – or just eaten – they are often much smaller than US tortillas and one won’t hurt if it’s your only starch. Another favorite of mine is ceviche – a dish originally from Peru with raw shellfish and fish marinated in citrus, onions, cilantro and other veggies and spices until the seafood “cooks”. This is a very low-carb and delicious appetizer.

Farther from the coast, you will be relying more on meat dishes, which are abundant. Try chicken mole, roast chicken, sausage (including the favorite chorizo), and carne asada – literally, “grilled meat.” Again, you’ll have to ask to avoid the rice, beans, and tortillas, since they’ll be expecting you to wrap it all up together, and may be rightly proud of their homemade tortillas.

Breakfast is possibly the easiest meal, as all over Mexico, eggs, sausage, salsa, and ham are breakfast staples. Vegetarians will probably have the easiest time here, as it is not hard to get scrambled eggs or omelettes filled with vegetables and topped with salsa. Although, if you’re not careful, you’ll STILL get your beans and tortillas with your breakfast – and maybe some potatoes too!

I should add a quick word about cooking low-carb in Mexico, which is surprisingly easy (other than reading the ingredients). Most dairy products are full-fat or more so than in the US, although light versions are beginning to show up. Meats are seldom processed or packaged, and there is a wide variety of meats and cheeses available in any amount and any cut. Even packaged foods have far fewer ingredients, fewer fillers and artificial ingredients, and are less sweet. It’s easy to buy typical Mexican sauces for your chicken that have fewer than 5 ingredients. Unlike in the restaurants, large groceries typically have abundant and varied produce. We found it much easier to shop and cook for a family member with celiac disease than we do at home, oddly enough.

Last but not least – have a margarita. It’s not too sweet (assuming it’s not made with a mix), relatively low-carb for alcohol, and is a good substitute for that dessert you just can’t have. Though I’ll show you how to make a low-carb flan or custard, coming up…

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