How Mexico Made Me Love Breakfast

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

Brits do not do breakfast well, with the exception of the high-calorie, artery-clogging full English. But that is not something to be consumed all the time.

On an everyday basis, our breakfast offerings are remarkably sad. Our typical morning meal options run the gamut from beige to slightly less beige, including but not limited to flaccid slices of toast topped with rubbery microwaved eggs (my mum’s propensity to scramble eggs in the microwave has, in all likelihood, ruined my enjoyment of them forever), a bowl of soggy cornflakes floating in a sea of milk, an uninspiring dollop of porridge, or a sad cereal bar grabbed with haste on our way out of the door.

Is it really any wonder, then, that I spent my formative years valuing 15 more minutes in bed?

However, come 2014, my breakfast-shunning ways were put on hold, after a move to Mexico opened my eyes to real Mexican cuisine beyond the misleadingly marketed Tex-Mex chimichangas and fajitas of my British youth.

Every morning, as the street vendors of Mexico sprang into action, readying themselves to hawk their breakfast wares to weary Mexican commuters and a steady stream of irritatingly bright-eyed tourists, I’d amble outside to get my mitts on some morning sustenance.

I soaked up the glorious tackiness of floral oilcloths thrown lovingly over plastic tables, and gawked curiously at the weighty silver vats (or giant woven baskets) of steaming breakfast snacks carefully positioned at the side of the road, while perching myself on one of the many plastic stools scattered haphazardly along the pavement.

To this day, the original grab-and-go breakfast, the tamal, is still the undisputed Mexican breakfast champion in my mind. Your tamal choices are twofold: the corn husk-wrapped, vaguely crumbly variation, which is liable to lose all structural integrity as you hurriedly shove it in your gob on the overcrowded metro (much to the displeasure of your carriage mates), or the firmer, denser and sweeter tamal oaxaqueño, whose fillings often take it upon themselves to bubble up and out of their corn confines.

If I felt this doughy slab of early morning comfort food wouldn’t give me quite the carb boost I needed, however, I’d level up and order my tamal in a plain bread roll instead. Sure, a torta de tamal, or guajolota, may sound both bland and vaguely monstrous, but it’s deceptively delicious.

Of course, you always have to counter a guajolota’s tendency to sit heavily in your stomach, provoking an infamous mal de puerco (read: I ate too much and now I need a nap), by ordering a coffee too. Give the overly sugared, disconcertingly milky Nescafe a miss, and pick up a cinnamon-spiked, piloncillo-sweetened (raw cane sugar) café de olla instead.

While my reverence for the humble tamal, preferably in a bread roll, is well-documented (on my hips), there is one breakfast food I will also unfailing order from any café, restaurant, or fonda that serves it: chilaquiles.

Sometimes, and very wrongly, confused for a plate of overly soggy nachos, chilaquiles really have everything you need in a breakfast: crunch from the crispy totopos (similar to chips) and liberal last-minute addition of sliced white onion, plus spice from the runny sauce in which said totopos are doused, which is subsequently countered by the addition of smooth Mexican crema and the mildest of all the cheeses, cotija.

Add shredded chicken and/or a gloriously runny fried egg for chilaquiles perfection and gobble it down before your totopos have time to become a soggy mess lining the bottom of the bowl. (If your totopos were already soggy, leave that café immediately and never go back; they do not serve good chilaquiles, and you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.)

No conversation about Mexican breakfasts would be complete without at least a fleeting reference to the country-wide reverence for eggs, even though I’ve never really been able to get on board with them that early in the morning.

That being said, there’s one egg-based breakfast that I can’t say no to: huevos motuleños. Is it because the egg is not the centerpiece of the dish? Is it because the obligatory tortilla comes fried rather than served separately and swaddled in a plastic basket lined with tea towels? I actually think it’s the pleasingly uncommon addition of a fried plantain that adds a sweetness and novelty to the ubiquitous eggy breakfast dish.

Short on time? Grab a pan dulce (preferably a concha, because who doesn’t love sugar-topped bread?) and accompany it with hot chocolate, whipped into foamy perfection with arguably the most Mexican of all kitchen implements, the molinillo.

Hungover? Ditch the Gatorade, crawl your way to the nearest torta ahogada vendor, and order their spiciest drowned sandwich. I don’t know why, but the combination of salty birote bread (a specialty of Guadalajara and a must for a decent torta ahogada), filled with deep-fried carnitas and topped with radish and onion before being bathed — literally bathed — in spicy tomato sauce does wonders for a hangover.

To conclude, if like me you’ve been laboring under the illusion that breakfast should be skipped, book the next flight to Mexico, wolf down a plate of chilaquiles, and admit that you were wrong.