Fall is here and that means that the corn harvest will be starting in Mexico! Corn is the base of Mexican food. Since pre-Hispanic times, indigenous people in Mexico have made food from this humble ingredient. One of my favorite ways to use corn is in Mexican street corn or esquites (say it like: eh-SKI-tehs). Cooked corn is mixed with mayonnaise, shredded cheese, lime juice, and chile powder for a delicious snack! This dish is simple, easy to adapt, and both deliciously creamy and tangy!
History of corn in Mexico
Mexico is corn or rather, its food culture is largely based on this ingredient. You would be hard-pressed in Mexico to enjoy a meal without some element of corn. The corn tortilla is, after all, nearly essential at every meal here in central Mexico.
Some scientists believe corn was first found in the state of Puebla. Other theories place the birthplace of corn in Oaxaca, along with its cultivation. Either way, corn originated in Mexico and today there are at least 305 different registered species of corn.
Corn is the base of many Mexican foods like tortillas, tamales (like these), atole, gorditas, sopes, tostadas, totopos, pozole, bread, and of course, esquites or Mexican street corn! It is even common here in central Mexico to prepare and eat the fungus that grows on ears of corn (called cuitalacoche or huitlacoche).
Many of the corn-based food consumed in Mexico has prehispanic origins. So, in short, corn has been consumed and enjoyed in Mexico for centuries.
Esquites, what does it mean and where do you find them?
The word esquites comes from the nahuatl word izquitl. This word in nahuatl has origins meaning toasted corn. It is common here in central Mexico to find little stands selling esquites (prepared corn kernels) or elotes (whole ears of prepared corn). These little stands can be found in crowded places, like zocalos (the central city square), in front of churches, theaters, metro stations, bars, and stadiums. Most stands open in the evening to provide a late snack.
Mexican street corn variations
Generally, Mexican street corn is made by boiling the corn in water with salt and epazote until tender. Then, depending on each buyer’s preference, the corn, either whole or in kernels, is prepared with mayonnaise, shredded cheese (queso fresco, cincho, or cotija), lime juice, and chile powder.
I have also seen Mexican street corn prepared by grilling the corn with the husks on over low heat until the kernels are tender. In the US, I have used frozen corn kernels and roasted them on the stove in a dry pan to slightly brown the kernels and bring out a deeper flavor.
Some vendors serve the esquites with the broth they were cooked in for a soup-like consistency. Others remove most of the broth before they prepare the kernels with the remaining ingredients.
The beauty of this dish is that you can prepare it in whatever way suits you best!
How to prepare Mexican street corn
Mexican street corn is so easy to prepare, this might become one of your new favorite Mexican side dishes or snacks!
First, start with cooked corn. You can either boil the corn, grill it on low with the husks on until tender, or you can roast the kernels in a dry pan over the stove to brown them slightly. Note that the time in the recipe assumes that you are starting with cooked corn. Also, I prefer my Mexican street corn less soup-like. So this recipe outlines the preparation of the esquites without the broth. You can check the notes section of the recipe for alternative methods of preparation.
Next, I like to fry a bit of chopped onion in vegetable oil until translucent. Then I add in the corn kernels. Lastly, I add salt and chopped epazote to taste. I like the extra flavor this step brings to the overall dish.
Next, dish out the kernels evenly between 4 bowls. Mix in mayonnaise, lime juice, cheese, and top with chile powder to taste. You will want to serve this warm. It is really that easy!
Alternatively, you could place all of the ingredients in a medium-sized bowl and mix everything together, topping with the chile powder at the end. Enjoy!
Mexican Street Corn (Esquites)
- 2 Tbsp vegetable oil I use safflower
- 1/2 medium white onion, finely chopped about 1/2 cup chopped
- 2 cups cooked corn can either be boiled, grilled, or roasted. See notes
- Salt to taste
- ~12 epazote leaves, chopped (optional)
- 1/4 cup mayonnaise I use the McCormick brand (not affiliate) whole mayonnaise with lime juice already included
- juice of 1 lime
- 1/4 cup shredded cheese, either queso fresco, cincho, or cotija See notes
- Chile powder for topping
- Heat oil in a skillet over medium-high heat and fry onion until just translucent, about 2 minutes
- Add in the cooked corn and heat until warmed through, stirring occasionally, about 6-8 minutes
- Add epazote, if using, and salt to taste, stir to incorporate, and continue cooking until flavors are blended, about 4 minutes more. Remove the corn from the heat and place the mixture in a medium bowl
- Mix the corn with the mayonnaise, lime juice, and cheese. Top with chile powder and serve warm. Alternatively, you could allow each person to prepare the street corn to their liking, adding in the mayonnaise, cheese, lime juice and chile powder to taste.
- In Mexico, street corn can be served with the broth the corn is cooked in or without. I prefer to eat my street corn without broth. This particular preparation assumes that the corn you start with is cooked, but that you are not including broth in the preparation. If you wanted to eat yours with broth, boil the corn kernels until tender and dish into cups or bowls with a bit of the broth and mix in the mayonnaise, lime juice, cheese, and chile powder to taste.
- The corn can be prepared in many ways for this recipe. It is absolutely delicious with whole ears grilled and then the kernels cut away to make the preparation as specified here in the recipe. I usually boil my corn for ease of preparation, drain the water, and prepare using the recipe above. As noted in the blog text, you could also use frozen corn kernels and roast them in a dry skillet to brown them and create a grilled effect before preparing them.
- The fresh corn varieties that I have access to here in Mexico are generally white varieties and are a bit less sweet than the yellow corn typically sold in the US. However, I have made this dish in the US using frozen sweet yellow corn with excellent results. The point here is that the corn variety isn’t critical. Use what you have and adjust the flavors and preparation to your particular tastes.
- Here in Mexico, I like to use shredded cincho cheese for this preparation. I have not been able to reliably source this particular cheese in the US. I have used cotija cheese in the US with good results. I will caution, however, that cotija can be a bit strong flavored, depending on the brand and how the cheese is aged. You may need to taste a couple of different brands to find one that you like or adjust the amount of cheese used in the recipe. Queso fresco will be milder in flavor and is also available in the US.