10 Groceries These Mexican Grandmas Always Have on Hand
A Mexican abuela is at the heart of many families. Our matriarchs are a source of warmth, affection and, above all, a delicious and comforting home-cooked meal. I have fond memories of my abuela (known as Mamá Angelita to all of her grandchildren and great grandchildren) staying at our house for a few months to watch my sister and me after school. She’d make us one of her many specialty dishes (she had dozens!), like eggs and nopales and chicken and mole.
While I wish my abuela was still around, I decided that the next best option was to reach out to the other grandmothers in my life: my tías (aunts), both of whom hold that same tenderness only a Mexican abuela knows how to give. I reached out to my tía Virginia from my mom’s side (grandmother to eight and great-grandmother to two) and my tía Lupe from my dad’s side (grandmother to six) to learn more about the groceries they find essential in their everyday cooking. These are the 10 items these two are almost never without.
When I first asked my tías what was the top grocery item every Mexican grandmother always had stocked in their kitchen, they both said limes. Perhaps the most important ingredient in Mexican cuisine, limes are a quintessential part of an abuela’s kitchen. They’re not only a useful ingredient in cooking, but are also used for cleaning and even in home remedies.
Buy: Lime, $0.39 for 1 lime at Target
2. Caldo con Sabor de Pollo
Despite its German origins, this chicken bouillon is a staple in many Mexican grandmothers’ kitchens. When I was growing up, I always thought this was a Mexican ingredient called “norswisa” (an affectionate Spanish pronunciation of Knorr Suiza) and only knew it by this name up until a few years ago. My tía Lupe always has at least two bottles in her pantry to add extra flavor to a sauce for chilaquiles, chicken tinga, and the broth for menudo or pozole.
Buy: Knorr Caldo con Sabor de Pollo, $6.98 for 2 (3.5 ounce) jars at Amazon
Nopales, or cactus pads, are one of the most nostalgic foods for me. While other kids were eating cereal for breakfast, I would eat nopales with scrambled eggs and a crispy corn tortilla made perfectly by my abuela. Although both of my tías lamented that their grandchildren aren’t fans because of nopales’ semi-slimy texture, they always have a few of these to make a fresh nopal salad for themselves.
Buy: Nopales, $2.99 for 1 pound at Mercato
4. Chile de Arbol
The smell of chiles cooking or being blended brings back memories of watching my abuela make fresh salsa in her kitchen. I specifically remember the smoky aroma of chiles de arbol (I can feel it lingering in my nose just thinking about it now). While I am a green salsa girl at heart, a chile de arbol salsa is the perfect addition to any abuela’s home-cooked meal. While my tía Virgina prefers to pick out the chiles herself, my tía Lupe likes the convenience of the pre-packaged kind.
Buy: El Guapo Arbol Chile Pods, $2.99 for 2 ounces at Instacart
5. Corn Flour
There may be no greater symbol of Mexican culture and cooking than an abuela making homemade tortillas in her kitchen. The smell of the corn, the sound of patting the dough, and the crunch of a warm tortilla are a cultural experience second to none. Although both of my tías prefer stocking up on pre-packaged tortillas from their local tortilleria or Ochoa (their favorite brand from Mexico), they both say they keep Maseca stocked in their pantries to make fresh tortillas by hand for special occasions.
Buy: Maseca Corn Flour, $4.29 for 4.4 pounds at Amazon
6. Pan Dulce
Whenever she’d get the chance, my abuela would remind me that when I was a child, I liked to eat only the crisp, sugary topping of conchas (my favorite types of pan dulce to this day). Picking out a few freshly baked pieces of pan dulce, or Mexican sweet bread, from my local Latinx supermarket’s bakery section feels as warm and loving as the hugs my abuela used to give me. My tía Virgina says buying some pan dulce helps encourage her great-grandchildren to spend some time with her around the table during early weekday evenings.
Buy: Vallarta Mini Conchas, $6.99 for 16 ounces at Instacart
7. Instant Coffee
As is common in most Latinx cultures, coffee is a major part of our diet. To pair with your favorite pan dulce, a cup of coffee made with Nescafé’s instant coffee and steamed milk is part of the morning and evening rituals at many abuelas’ homes. My tía Lupe frequently hosts weekend breakfasts at her house where a cup of cafecito is the first thing any family member asks for (yes, even the kids!).
Buy: Nescafé Clásico, $4.99 for 3.5 ounces at Target
8. Queso Fresco (and Other Cheeses)
Another one of my favorite kitchen memories is my abuela cooking in our kitchen while my sister and I peered our heads from the hallway to try and see what she was making. To keep us away, she would hand us each a generous slice of queso fresco. Cheese, especially queso fresco and cotija, is a must for a majority of Mexican dishes, like enfrijoladas, chilaquiles, quesadillas, and elotes. When I interviewed my tía Lupe for this story, she had just returned from grocery shopping and had a fresh ball of queso fresco in her shopping bag. She’ll purchase it up to three times a week because of how it quickly it vanishes from her home!
Buy: Cacique Ranchero Queso Fresco, $4.49 for 10 ounces at Instacart
9. Pinto Beans
To me, this list would not be complete without pinto beans. The smell of beans cooking means you are likely near an abuela’s kitchen, and both my tías agree. My tía Virginia says she cooks beans about twice a week, along with rice and grilled chicken, because it’s an easy, nutritious, and satisfying meal for her grandkids to have after a long day at school. Her mother, my abuela, did exactly the same thing.
Buy: El Mexicano Pinto Beans, $5.89 for 4 pounds at Instacart
If you grew up in a Mexican home, you know that soup on a hot day can be a daily custom. Soup has always been one of my favorite foods, so I never minded this tradition — especially if the soup in question was pozole. One of the stars of pozole is hominy, which are dried maize kernels soaked in a lye solution. My tía Lupe always keeps a 110-ounce can of hominy on hand so she can make a large amount of pozole (and then freezes some, if necessary). When the holidays come around, she says she has up to three of these gargantuan cans to make sure the pozole never runs out for our family.
Buy: Juanita’s Foods Mexican Style Hominy, $1.69 for 25 ounces at Instacart
Don’t see your grandma’s grocery staple above? Tell us about it in the comments below!