It’s true. Mexico is a country that has tons of meat-based dishes and doesn’t really understand the concept of choosing not to eat animals. But, the good news is that it’s also a country with tons of delicious exotic fruits and vegetables to try, more varieties of beans than you even knew existed, and edible cactus (my personal favorite)!
As a lifelong vegetarian and Mexican, I promise you, it’s really not that hard to find veg-friendly food. You just have to have a bit of insider info and that’s what I’m here for! In this guide, we’ll go over everything you need to know to eat vegan and vegetarian in Mexico, including what to avoid, what to order, and some helpful words in Spanish.
Mexico’s Relationship with Plant-Based Diets
Overall, eating a plant-based diet is a foreign concept to the majority of Mexicans. Thankfully, In recent years, I’ve seen many vegan and vegetarian restaurants pop-up around the country, especially in more touristy or larger cities. This helped spread the word about vegetarian food, but in many areas it is still relatively rare to come across someone that doesn’t eat meat.
In impoverished areas, meat is expensive and seen as somewhat of a luxury item. Most people strive to eat meat at every meal, so why on earth would you opt to go without it?
I tell you this so that you’re not highly offended when someone offers you some chicken or fish when you tell them you don’t eat meat. Or when you ask the waiter what the vegan options are only to get a confused stare back. It’s a different culture. Be patient, understanding, use the advice below, and you’ll be fine.
Sometimes vendors and servers are very vague about their responses. In these cases, I may or may not have been known to tell them that I’m allergic or emphasis the fact that food with animal ingredients will make me sick. I’ve found this to be necessary because at times people will lie to sell their food without realizing how harmful this can be.
Speaking of cultural differences, Mexican cuisine varies as you travel from north to south. Northern Mexico uses a lot more wheat, meat, and dairy, due to influence from the U.S. and the amount of cattle farms and ranchers in that area. You’ll find flour tortillas, gooey queso fundido, and pinto beans.
Meanwhile, southern Mexico remains more connected to its indigenous roots, continuing to focus on corn, a bit less cheese, and a tiny bit less meat. Here you’ll find corn tortillas, black beans, and local greens incorporated into the food.
Commonly Used Animal Ingredients to Watch Out for in Mexico
It’s easy to find vegan and vegetarian food once you know what to watch out for. Here are the two most common animal ingredients to avoid, followed by foods they’re in.
Lard (pig fat) is used by many cooks as the fatty component in all kinds of innocent-looking items like refried beans to flour tortillas. It is an especially popular ingredient in northern Mexico. This isn’t really something you can ask for your food to be made without, as it’s usually in pre-made items. It’s This is a well-known fact and for some insane reason, it seems like vegetarian visitors to Mexico didn’t get the memo. So, I’m on a mission to let you all know…Mexicans love lard! So watch out!
Foods commonly made with lard: refried beans (especially in the north), tamales, flour tortillas, pan dulce, and some cookies.
Chicken Broth and Knorr Chicken Bouillon
This is my biggest pet peeve in Mexican cuisine. It’s in soups. It’s in salsas. It’s pointlessly sprinkled in way too many dishes just to “add flavor”. The commonly used chicken broth powder is referred to by the brand, “Knorr” or “Knorr Suiza”. Here are the ingredients: salt, sugar, corn starch, monosodium glutamate, beef fat, hydrolyzed corn protein, powdered cooked chicken, yeast extract (barley), chicken fat, natural flavor, maltodextrin, silicon dioxide (prevents caking), dehydrated parsley, disodium inosinate, citric acid, yellow 5, yellow 6, annatto (color). Need I say more? I wouldn’t want to eat this even if I did eat meat.
Foods commonly made with chicken broth: salsas, soups, enchilada sauce, mole, and rice.
What to Eat in Mexico if You’re Vegan or Vegetarian
So now you’re probably freaking out because you’ve realized that the tortillas, rice and beans you were planning on (or have been) living off of, aren’t actually vegetarian (by the way, this also applies to most Mexican and Tex-Mex food in the U.S.).
But, don’t worry! There are tons of alternatives and ways to eat a deliciously nutritious vegetarian diet in Mexico.
Here are some of my favorite foods to eat in Mexico, along with tips to make them lacto-vegetarian and vegan.
Ensalada de Frutas
Fresh fruit cart vendors are everywhere in Mexico. Seriously, just walk a block and you’ll find someone selling freshly cut fruit in cups. Papaya, pineapple, watermelon, and mango. Oh yeah, they also have cucumber and jicama. Order a cup, sprinkle with lime and chili powder (usually Tajin) and you’ll become an honorary Mexican.
This is my favorite Mexican breakfast! It’s tortilla chips, smothered in your choice of green or red salsa, cheese, Mexican sour cream, fresh onions and cilantro, and a side of beans. It usually comes with an egg on top which I substitute for avocado. Vegans should order these without dairy or eggs. Michael says it’s nachos for breakfast, except it’s not. It’s chilaquiles, damn it.
Ensalada de Nopal
I love, love, love this salad! It’s made with prickly pear cactus, tomato, onion, cilantro, lime juice, and olive oil. It’s topped with queso fresco (fresh cheese), so order without it if you’re vegan. It’s served with a side of tostadas (crunchy tortillas) or totopos (fried tortilla chips). Order without cheese to make vegan.
A classic Mexican sandwich with beans, cheese, tomato, onion, avocado, lettuce, jalapeños, mayo, and meat. I like mine without mayo and with queso fresco (fresh cheese). Vegans should substitute extra avocado for the meat and cheese.
A quesadilla is a tortilla with melted cheese inside. The best come from stands that make the tortillas on the spot and have bowls with different fillings. You typically just add one, but if you’re vegan you can omit the cheese and add another filling. My favorites are flor de calabaza, huitlacoche, mushrooms, and rajas (see below for descriptions).
Plain quesadillas are my emergency go-to at restaurants where nothing else on the menu is vegetarian. I also order a side of guacamole and beans to make them more filling. This is usually the case at fresh seafood restaurants.
A traditional Mexican dish, chile relleno literally means “stuffed chili”. It’s a large roasted Poblano (not spicy) chili stuffed with melted cheese and sometimes meat served with a side of rice or beans and tortillas. If you don’t eat eggs, ask if the chile is capeado (egg battered) before ordering. Some are and some aren’t. These are usually prepared in advance, so it could be difficult to order a vegan version.
Enfrijoladas, Entomatadas, and Enchiladas
These are all basically enchiladas (tortillas with fillings rolled up and covered in sauce) with different sauces. Enfrijoladas are covered in a pureed bean sauce. Entomatadas are covered in a tomato sauce. Enchiladas are covered in either a green or red spicy salsa. They’re usually topped with some cheese, onions, and crema (Mexican sour cream). Vegans can easily omit the dairy and replace the cheese filling with potatoes, beans, greens, and other veggies.
Frijoles de la Olla
This translates to “beans from the pot”. It’s just the beans in their own broth after they’ve been freshly cooked and before they’ve been transformed into their more commonly known refried version. I’ve never heard of anyone adding any animal ingredients to this, so it’s your best bet for veg-friendly beans.
My raison d’etre. Mashed avocado with diced tomatoes, cilantro, onions, and chili peppers and lime juice. Eat it as a dip with totopos (tortilla chips) or use it as a topping for pretty much anything.
Vasito de Elote or Esquites
Deliciousness in a cup. You’ll find this typical street food in every plaza in Mexico. It’s grilled, steamed, or boiled corn served in a vasito (little cup) along with butter, mayo, aged cheese (like parmesan), lime juice, powdered chili, and bottled salsas. I don’t like mayo, so I order it sin mayonesa.
You can also order it as corn on the cob on a stick, but I prefer it in the cup so it soaks in all of the lime and chili. My mouth is watering as I write this. If you like spicy, tell them you want it “que pique”.
Step-by-Step Guide to Ordering Vegetarian Food in Mexico
Whatever you do, don’t just drop the big question on some unsuspecting (and probably unprepared) server.
Unfortunately, people just LOVE to do this on my behalf when we sit down at a restaurant.
“She (points finger at me) is VEGE-TAR-I-ANA. What vegetarian food do you have?”
I cringe as the panic-stricken server fumbles over their next few words and confusingly offers up a “healthy” grilled fish option, only to be gleefully shot down by the person trying to help.
Trust me. Spare them the confusion and don’t put the poor server on the spot. 98% of the time it’s best to avoid asking them to list what the vegan or vegetarian options are.
Instead, follow the steps below for guaranteed vegetarian (and vegan) Mexican food deliciousness!
Step 1: Skim the menu for vegetarian options.
Ask for a menu and search for vegetarian items (see my favorites above). If there are none, skip to step 3.
Can I have a menu, please?
Me da un menu, por favor?
Step 2: Explain your dietary restrictions and ask about ingredients.
Feel free to copy/paste the following sentence into your phone’s notes and show it to your server when ordering.
I’m vegetarian. I don’t eat meat, chicken, pork, or fish.
Soy vegetariana/o. No como carne, pollo, puerco, ni pescado.
I’m vegan. I don’t eat meat, chicken, pork, fish, eggs, or dairy.
Soy vegana/o. No como carne, pollo, pork, pescado, huevo, ni lacteos.
Ask if there are any animal ingredients that cannot be easily removed like lard or chicken broth. Do this as soon as possible so that you can find another option in case your first one falls through.
Does it contain lard?
Trae manteca de cerdo?
Does it contain vegetable shortening or vegetable oil?
Trae manteca vegetal o aceite vegetal?
Does it contain chicken broth or knorr suiza?
Trae caldo de pollo o knorr suiza?
Does it contain tomato or vegetable broth?
Trae caldo de tomate o de verduras?
Step 3: Find vegetarian ingredients, sides, and fillings
If there are no obvious vegetarian items, skim the menu for vegetarian ingredients and fillings to build your own meal. See below for a list of common foods with translations for ideas.
For example, just order some tortillas or quesadillas and stuff them with multiple sides like beans, avocado, salsa, grilled nopales, and mushrooms.
Step 4: Order Your Vegetarian (or Vegan) Feast!
Now you’re ready to order!
May I have some cheese enchiladas without chicken, please?
Me da unas enchiladas de queso sin pollo, por favor?
I want chilaquiles without eggs or chicken with avocado and a side of beans, please.
Yo quiero chilaquiles sin huevo y sin pollo, con aguacate y una guarnición de frijoles, por favor.
List of Common Menu Items with English Translations
Here’s a list of the words you’ll be using the most when ordering your veggie meals.
Caldo = broth
…de pollo = chicken broth
…de res = beef broth
…de verduras = vegetable broth
Manteca or Asiento = lard
Sin = without
Carne = meat
Jamon = ham
Pollo = chicken
Pescado = fish
Mariscos = seafood
Huevo = eggs
Leche = milk
Queso = cheese
Honey = miel
Con = with
Aguacate = avocado
Champiñones / Hongos = mushrooms
Huitlacoche = corn mushroom aka Mexican truffle (see photo above)
Calabaza = squash
Chayote = squash
Nopales = prickly pear cactus
Papas = potato
Rajas = strips of poblano peppers (very mild)
Flor de calabaza = squash blossom
Espinaca = spinach
Quelites, Chaya = local leafy greens
Frijoles = beans
Pico de gallo / salsa mexicana = fresh tomato, onion, cilantro, and chili pepper salsa
Verduras = vegetables
Tortillas de maiz = corn tortillas
Helpful Apps For Vegans in Mexico
Another important tip for traveling while veggie is to download the following apps:
Google Translate will help you get over any language barriers you might come across. Make sure to download the local language for offline use for those times when you don’t have signal or wifi. I like to save keywords or terms (like “no meat”) to my favorites for easy referencing.
HappyCow is a lifesaver! It’s an app that finds different categories of veggie restaurants pretty much anywhere in the world. You can filter by vegan, vegetarian, or veg-friendly. It’s kind of like Yelp for vegans and vegetarians.
If you follow the steps above you should be well on your way to happily pigging out on delicious veggie-friendly foods in Mexico!
Do you have any helpful tips for vegans and vegetarians traveling abroad? Let us know in the comments below!
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