Grocery shopping in a foreign country is always an adventure—and so is cooking in a different kitchen every few days.
Don’t count on me for fancy restaurant recommendations and Instagrammable meals. I only had take-out twice, the first two nights in Playa del Carmen. First a classic burrito de pollo, then Venezuelan arepas. Both meals were okay but nothing special. Just as well, I was planning to cook. When you’re spending weeks on the road, eating out every day isn’t the wisest move health-wise and budget-wise.
Cooking on the road is still a culinary adventure that involves wandering around supermarkets aisles full of mysterious brands and products, looking for ingredients and dinner inspiration.
But first, a word on Mexican Airbnb kitchen. Literally a word—WTF? We mostly stay in new-ish apartment buildings, and I have no idea what architects or designers had in mind… but not cooking, apparently. These kitchens all featured two-burner induction cooktops and this technology drove me crazy. It needs specific cookware with enough iron to generate a magnetic field, but most Airbnbs just provided random pots and pans not designed for it. In Tulum,, boiling water was taking 30 minutes. Induction cooktops are also very sensitive, so burners would beep randomly then stop because they were too hot.
Other design flaws included sinks way too small to wash anything in them and a lack of counter space in kitchens that weren’t particularly tiny.
Final anecdotal observations based on our Airbnb kitchens, Mexicans seem to use pans more than pots (we always had pans… and rarely had pots) and quite logically, we only had a pot drainer available twice.
So, what can you find in a Mexican grocery store? Well, pretty much the same as in Canada or the US, just different brands, but plenty of American products.
Veggies and fruits are much cheaper and there are tons of different peppers, plus nopal cactus. There’s a lot of junk food, especially chips and cookies. The yogurt aisle was a bit disappointing—much like in Canada, the selection is small and I found yogurt extremely sweet. The cheese aisle is more exotic, with plenty of Gouda cheese, imported cheese, and local specialties like Manchego, Oaxaca and Chihuahua cheese (all pretty good).
Grocery store bakeries and independent bakeries are pretty awesome and very cheap by French and North American standards (i.e. $1 for four savoury buns, $0.50 for sweet buns). There are dozens of panes dulces, like the very popular conchas (sweet bread topped with a crumbly sugary crust), polvorones (kind of like shortbread cookies), orejas (the French palmier), oros de pancha (pound cake baked in puff pastry), budín (bread pudding)… and croissants are called cuernitos, the dough isn’t flaky and buttery, it’s more like brioche. In fact, most sweet buns are brioche-like, topped with sugar.
And if you don’t eat tortillas with your meal, you’re probably buying bolillos (the local version of baguette, each roll is about a third of the famous French bread) or teleras, often used to make sandwiches.
Mexicans apparently take Three Kings’ Day very seriously, or at least the traditional rosca de Reyes cakes eaten on January 6—there was a giant lineup at the supermarket that evening, and every customer wanted a freshly baked one!
Overall, I found food satisfying enough but not “OMG, this is so good, I want more!” There’s a lot more to Mexican cuisine than tacos, burritos, quesadillas or gorditas, yet this is what tourists expect, and that’s what they get in Playa del Carmen or Tulum. Street food and small eateries are reliably tasty but for more exotic specialties, this part of the country isn’t the place to be.