The Essentials of a Mexican Storecupboard, by Paul Wilson

Paul Wilson
08 June, 2015

Mexican food has been a big trend in the UK for the past few years, and with a recent survey showing that it has become one of the most popular cuisines to eat out, there’s no sign of it abating. We caught up with Paul Wilson, author of Cooked’s Cantina: Recipes from a Mexican Kitchen, to talk core ingredients and store cupboard essentials.

Cantina mexican storecupboard paul wilson

Mexican food is increasingly establishing itself as an important food culture.

However, this is no trending fusion cuisine; the new wave of popularity is simply timely recognition for an ancient and intellectual food culture, about which we have much to learn. I have have come to realise that we owe so much to the ancient cultures of the pre-Columbian Americas. The Spanish conquistadores were introduced to an array of foods that we simply couldn’t live without today: from tomatoes, corn, avocados, beans, squash, peppers and chillies, potatoes and peanuts, to vanilla, strawberries, pineapple and chocolate, to name just a few.

The tomato, as we know it, came from Yucatán, where the Mayans cultivated it long before the Spanish conquest.

It made its first appearance in Europe in the mid-16th century and today it seems unthinkable for Italy to be without their much-loved napoletana sauce!

Guacamole Cantina Paul Wilson

Avocados originated in southern Mexico, where they were used as an aphrodisiac.

The excitement about this fruit spread to the Rio Grande and central Peru, way before the Europeans learned about it. In the United Kingdom and Australia, the avocado didn’t really become popular until the 1960s, but since then we have truly embraced it.

Peppers and chillies have also been cultivated in the Americas for more than 6000 years.

Today the Capsicum annuum species, with its many strains, has spread far and wide, and is crucial to nearly every fiery dish of the world’s many cuisines.

Perhaps the one ingredient we are most grateful for is chocolate.

This Mayan ‘food of the gods’, made from the toasted, fermented seeds of the cacao tree, is arguably the New World’s greatest gift to world cuisines. It was so highly prized that, as well as eating it, the Aztecs and the Maya used cacao beans as currency.

But to make the most of these now-everyday ingredients, Paul recommends having a stash of the following in your cupboard: 

Anchiote paste

Otherwise known as the saffron of Mexico, made from Annatto seeds. It has lovely zesty, earthy notes, great for marinades for white meat and seafood. (Available from Mex Grocer, Cool Chile and specialist supermarkets)


Agave nectar

Extracted from the blue Agave plant, it’s a vegetarian honey of sorts, and an excellent substitute for sugar or great for balancing the flavours of cocktails such as margaritas. 

Margarita cantina paul wilson

Masa flour

It’s a wonderful gluten-free corn flour that tastes like bubble gum, for want of a better word. Just add water for tortillas or lard and baking powder to make fried puffy tacos. It’s also excellent for batters; add pureed corn to the mix and you’ll have heavenly tamales.  (Available from Mex Grocer and specialist supermarkets)


Hot sauce

I love Yecateco habenero hot sauce; it dials up the heat perfectly. (Available from Mex Grocer and specialist supermarkets)

Tinned Chipotle in adobo

Chipotle are smoked dried Jalapenos in a rich, smoky garlic sauce. Add to a stew for umami punch, or blend with mayonnaise or sour cream and lime  for a great fish tacos sauce. I also love adding them to braised vegetables like kale or tomatoes-based dishes. A good tip is to blitz a tin then store in ice cubes tray in the freezer; you simply pop out a cube as you need dishes.

pork carnita paul wilson


Tinned or fresh, these are such a versatile fruits similar to a green tomato but more zesty. You can oven bake then blend with lime, chilli and herbs, then serve with ripe avocado, chipotle and a pinch of cumin for a versatile Mexican relish or dip. 


Bitter chocolate

Chocolate is used in so many ways in Mexico; I urge you to try it in savoury dishes. As a seasoning, it has a mysterious bitter sweet note, really good for slow cooking and barbecue sauces.


My spice blend

Spices are a big part of Mexican foods; the below is my go to for guacamole, chicken, stir-fried veg or even for pepping up your favourite sauces. 

Paul’s Mexican spice blend


Makes 50g
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp ground smoked paprika
2 tsp ground allspice
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp ground anise
1 tsp ground cloves


Just combine the spices, then store in an airtight container for up to a month. 


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