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Chef Chuck Hughes On Why He Loves Mexican Food

03/12/2014 03:17 EDT | Updated 03/12/2014 03:59 EDT
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Forget everything you think you know about Mexican food — and start focusing on authentic ingredients.

"What you see is what you get [in Mexican cuisine] – there’s nothing to mask the flavours and it’s all about fresh, really good ingredients," says Montreal-based chef and author Chuck Hughes. "The key thing about Mexican foods is that you’ll always have an element of salt, spice and lime – that trifecta. When you combine that with pork or seafood or fish, it’s just a winning combination."

Hughes, who's known for his Food Network Canada series "Chuck's Week Off," hosted an online chat on March 6, answering viewers' questions about cooking Mexican food.

There's no doubt Mexican food is one of the most popular cuisines in North America, but for anyone who loves authentic Mexican cooking, you know there are a lot more ingredients than taco shells and cheese that go into crafting the perfect dish.

Fatty and cheesy burritos and chimichanga may not be what Mexicans actually eat, and for the most part Mexican food can be pretty healthy. Hughes, k adds Mexican dishes use fresh vegetables, corn (for salsas and soughs) and plenty of seafood.

Whether he's travelling Mexico for his show or making his own meals at home, Hughes is a huge advocate for eating more Mexican food on a daily basis.

"There’s something to be said about Mexico in that it’s not a culture where they use much fat – a lot of the flavour comes from spice, acidity and salt but not necessarily much of it is fat," Hughes tells the Huffington Post Canada.

And if you're afraid of getting your hands dirty in so-called spicy Mexican hot sauces, don't be. Hughes says sauces and salsas can be both sweet and spicy — ideal for people who sweat at the thought of habanero peppers.

Ready to start cooking? Here are 11 ingredients you need to have in your kitchen before attempting Mexican cuisine:

11 Must-Have Ingredients For Mexican Food

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Queso Oaxaca

Queso oaxaca is a type of Mexican cheese that looks (and is stringy) like mozzarella cheese. Used in everything from quesadillas to pupusas (pictured here), this cheese has become a staple for authentic Mexican cooking.

Crema

Crema is the Mexican version of sour cream, made from buttermilk and cream. The same colour and texture of sour cream, this can be used for soups, tacos or anything else that needs that slightly rich and tangy taste.

Peppers Of All Sorts

Whether you're eating a hot sauce made from habanero peppers or adding freshly cut green or red chilies to your meals, keeping things spicy is 100 per cent Mexican approved.

Requesón

Known as the Latin cousin of ricotta cheese, requesón can either be made dry and firm or moist and runny. And as it turns out, you can even make your own from milk and orange juice.

Corn Masa

Masa is Spanish for dough, so if you're in the mood to try some authentic tortillas, make sure they're made with corn. Corn masa can be used for chips, tortillas and Mexican cookies.

Avocado

There's a reason why we expect a bowl of guac and chips when we go to a Mexican restaurant. Avocados are a stape in Mexican cooking and can made into soups, tangy guacamole and deep-fried for tacos. On top of this, avocados (when eaten moderately) are pretty great for you.

Nopales

Nopales is a type of cactus used in Mexican cuisine. Bought either fresh, bottled or pickled, nopales are used for soups, meat dishes and taco fillings.

Tomatillo

Mexican tomatillo fruits are similar to gooseberries and can be eaten fried, boiled or steamed. Another Mexican staple, they are also commonly used for making sauces and salsas ... and kind of look like green tomatoes!

Pico De Gallo

Pico de gallo is the Mexican way of saying salsa — an uncooked "salad" made from tomatoes, cilantro, chilies and onions. Want to impress someone at your next Mexican restaurant outing? Order a bowl of pico de gallo with chips.

Hot Sauce

If you can handle the heat, hot sauce is a must-have for cooking, dipping and spreading. Whether it's traditional, store-bought or made at home with minimal spice, chef Chuck Hughes suggests adding some kind of zing to your dish.

Limes

Probably one of the most used ingredients in Mexican cuisine, limes can top your tacos and nachos or make your margaritas taste 10 times better.