Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Street food for vegans in Mexico: it does exist!

Ah, Mexico: the land of pork and cheese. A vibrant, energetic place where “I don’t eat meat” means “I eat fish and chicken.” Where everything coming from those wonderfully Mexican street carts seems to be drowned in sour cream or swimming in lard.

Let me be very honest: navigating the country’s street food culture as a vegan is a lot easier when you’re “vegan-ish.” Following the principle of “what I don’t know won’t hurt me” is useful, because veganism has yet to fully translate on the streets of our beloved Mexico.

Tacos are so popular in Mexico, there’s a Taco Fair each year in Mexico City. (Graciela López Herrera/Cuartoscuro)

I’ve taken it upon myself to dive deep into the delightful world of street food, investigating exactly what can and cannot be adapted to a vegan or vegan-ish diet. My findings were surprising: there are more options than I’d ever dreamed, and I’m not convinced I’ve exhausted them all! 

I can’t say with 100% certainty that lard won’t have snuck its way into a few of the morsels included below. I’ve indicated the bites that aroused my suspicions. The possibility didn’t stop me, but it might stop you, so feel free to confirm with the cook or avoid altogether.

And so, ladies and gentlemen of the vegan community, I present to you Mexican street food for vegans, in all its glory.

Camotes: Mexico’s version of candied sweet potatoes. Camote vendors, whose distinctive whistle is forever seared into the ear canal of every Mexican expat, often sell cooked plantains too. Skip the side of evaporated milk.

Chilaquiles: Can you really call yourself a Mexican expat if you haven’t had chilaquiles? While this is not technically street food, chilaquiles are a classic easily made vegan by swapping their egg for avocado, a trend that will repeat itself multiple times on this handy list.

The classic chilaquiles is a dish easily made vegan, and is still every bit as delicious. (Magdalena Montiel/Cuartoscuro)

Churros: Churrería el Moro proudly claims its churros are vegan friendly. If you’re willing, go ahead and assume that means all churros are vegan friendly and grab a bunch en route to your favorite coffee shop tomorrow morning, right? (OK, truth be told, most of them are made with eggs and butter, but they’re amazing.).

Esquites: Roast corn in a cup? Yes, please. Locals prefer this delicacy smothered in mayo and cheese, but one can opt for simple salt with lime and feel equally satisfied.

Flautas: These adorable antojitos (snacks) can be made vegan by ordering the potato version and topping them with lettuce, guacamole and salsa.

Papas con limón y chile: The one street food I dare not indulge in, because who knows when I’ll stop? If your willpower is stronger than mine, never let me know how good these massive, crunchy potato chips doused with lime juice and a spicy concoction taste. I will not forgive you.

Papas a la francesa: Do you know any vegans whose favorite junk food of all time isn’t french fries? I’ll wait while I munch on these delicious, deep-fried-right-in-front-of-me mouthfuls of perfection.

Pozole: Not a true street food, strictly speaking, but widely available all over Mexico, pozole is one of my absolute favorite indulgences. Chicken broth is a common base for pozole, but it’s not impossible to find a spot that opts for vegetable broth instead. Get the veggie version without the cream or cheese toppings and ask for a side of avocado instead. It’s fast, filling and fantastic.

Raspados: The amount of business people I see walking back to work after lunch with small cups of shaved ice in their hands never fails to make me chuckle. If you’re in the mood for a sweet, sugary and cold pick-me-up, most raspados are vegan friendly. 

Tamales: This is one street food you’ll have to turn a blind eye to. Most tamales are made with lard, which your average street vendor doesn’t seem to consider a meat product. Nonetheless, if you’re willing to ignore that, sweet tamales are a viable option and can even be served on a roll as a sandwich — Mexico City’s famous torta de tamal —  which will keep your belly full for days to come.

Tamales remain a quintessential part of Mexican cuisine, and best of all, many varieties are already vegan (if you ignore the lard). (Mario Jasso/Cuartoscuro)

Tacos: The reason we all moved here, right? I’ve come to love tacos more than some of my Mexican friends, though asking for them without meat was rather intimidating at first. Now I know most street chefs are happy to make you a veggie version with mushrooms or nopales. Smother them in one or all of the salsas of your choice. Tacos guisados are served with rice and beans and the diner’s choice of meat. Forgo the meat and fill up on guacamole and salsa. Something to note: there is a chance that the rice and beans will have been cooked in chicken broth. 

Tlacoyos: Even the name is fun! Tlacoyos are more or less thick tortillas stuffed with some kind of filling – Mexico’s answer to the Central American pupusa or the South American arepa.Luckily for us vegans, one of the most popular fillings is beans! Top your tlacoyo with nopales and salsa — and, of course, avocado, if it’s available — and continue on your day happy and satisfied!

Tortillas: This might sound a little boring, but trust me, it’s not. What’s better than a stack of steamy, fresh tortillas smothered in spicy salsa? Next to nothing. Not to mention the whole meal will likely cost you less than 7 pesos, and that’s being generous. Make up for the lack of vitamins with a jugo verde from the juice cart and you’re good to go.

Tostadas: Tostadas are fried tortillas, usually topped with meat, lettuce, salsa, sour cream and even avocado. Equally as yummy without the meat. Scan the vendor’s cart for nopales, mushrooms or just plain onions if you want something chewy on top.

Bethany Platanella is a travel and lifestyle writer based in Mexico City. With her company, Active Escapes International, she plans and leads private and small-group active retreats. She loves Mexico’s local markets, Mexican slang, practicing yoga and fresh tortillas.  Sign up for her (almost) weekly love letters or follow her Instagram account, @a.e.i.wellness

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