By Jules Siegel
Feeding two adults, a teenager and two small children in good times and bad has been quite a challenge. I can still remember the day we arrived in Cancun and faced all the unfamiliar brands. Quality does vary, but the food is all safe to eat. All the packaged food you find on the shelves of Mexican stores is regulated and supervised by the government. American brands manufactured in Mexico are often better than the originals. We have found over the years that the best basic canned goods are Mexican brands. Spanish products are excellent. Product names in bold face are our preferred brands.
Important : Avoid any American product marked Para Venta Internacional. This often means that it does not conform to American food quality standards. Some companies have the rather stupid practice of dumping sub-standard products in Mexico in the belief that we won't notice. We do.
The following list is for basic elements that require no cooking, more or less in the customary order of preparing and serving a simple meal.
Water Agua (AH-gwah)Cristal (kree-STAHL) Inexpensive, tastes fine. Cancun tap water is purified at the well and re-purified by many hotels, but the high chlorine content can be quite intrusive. Many foreign spring waters are sold in Cancun. We find Cristal equal or preferable to most of them.
Juice Jugo HOO-go Jumex (hoo-mex). Fruit juices with authentic tropical flavor. Like sex, quality varies, but when good it's excellent and when bad it's still pretty good. We favor bottles over cans. Tomato is tremendous. Try guayaba (guava -- gwah-YAH-ba) for an unusual super treat. Beautiful labels tell you what's inside even if you don't know a word of Spanish. Alternate brand: Del Valle, good apple juice.
Beer Cerveza (cer-VEH-sah) Dos Equis Oscuro (dohs-EH-kees) Full-flavored lager as good as any European premium beer. If you prefer more American-style lighter beers, try Superior (soo-pehr-ior), or Dos Equis Lager. Yucatecan regional brands are excellent but the quality is not as uniform. Look for hearty, dark Leon Negro (lay-OHN NEH-gro).
Sodas Refrescos (Reh-FRES-kohs) Coca-Cola. The standard, tastes richer here because they use cane sugar instead of fructose. Cristal. Nice fruit flavors, especially naranja (orange -- na-RAHN-ha) and mandarina (tangerine -- mahn-dah-REE-na). All other brands are quite good, too.
Milk Leche (LEH-chay) Mexican milk and butter do not taste the same as American, mainly because of differences in the way they feed the cows, as well as other factors. If you must have the exact American flavor, you can get Prices's milk imported from Texas in Wal-Mart. If you like cream in your coffee, you'll have to use a non-dairy creamer, as we have yet to discover a Mexican cream that mixes well with coffee. La La. Alpura. Super-sterilized milk in cartons, fairly close to American flavor, best served cold. Fine for cereals or as base for chocolate milk. La Lechera. Canned condensed milk with high sugar content. A Nestle product.
Butter Mantequilla de Vaca (mahn-tay-KEE-ya deh VAH-kah) Lurpak (Danish) Anchor (New Zealand) Mexican butter is at best acceptable. All brands are about the same except for Gloria Gourmet in silver foil wrap. Salada -- salted. Sin sal ï¿½- unsalted.
Yogurt (yo-GOORT) Alpura. A little more tart than American. Fruit flavors are blended rather than containing whole fruit. Santa Clara, sold at their counter in Wal-Mart, is excellent.
Sour Cream Crema Acida (KREH-ma AH-cih-dah) ALPURA. It is much thicker than American sour cream.
Bread Pan (pahn) Bimbo, Wonder Bimbo Pan Integral (whole wheat) is a well-made standard commercial sandwich bread. Wonder Integral is a superior 100% whole wheat sandwich bread and preferable to Bimbo when available. Other Bimbo products are at least as good as their American equivalents, and often better. Try their sweet rolls when you feel that only Mother could get you through today's crisis. Bolillos (bo-LEE-yos), hero-style white rolls, are great for sandwiches and toasting.
Peanut Butter Crema de Cacahuate (KREH-ma deh kah-kah-HWAH-tay) Aladino. Con trocitos. (cohn troh-CEE-tohs -- chunky-style). Watch out for odd flavors such as chocolate and super-sweet (with blue label).
Jam Mermelada (mehr-may-LAH-da) Smuckers, Dalfour (France), La Vieja Fï¿½brica de Mermelada (Spain)
Cheese Queso (KEH-so) All packaged brands are acceptable. Lyncott Neufchatel cream cheese is preferred
Cold Cuts Carnes Frias (KAR-nes FREE-ahs) Names of varieties are usually the same as in the United States, flavors resemble Italian. Always ask to see and taste cold cuts before slicing. Parma. San Rafael. Saborï¿½. Siena are the preferred brands. Zwan is acceptable. Fud is edible. Ham Jamon hah-MOHN
Tuna Atï¿½n (ah-TUN) Canned tuna quality has declined so much that we no longer buy it
Sardines Sardinas Mexican canned sardines in tomato sauce in the familiar oval can are the cheapest emergency food you can buy, but imported brands of canned fish are better. Vigilante brand sardines imported from Spain are very good.
Dressings Standard brands such as Kraft and Hellmanï¿½s taste pretty much like they do on the other side of the border. Catsup Del Fuerte Mayonnaise Mayonesa ma-yo-NEH-sa Louit (Spain) Jars marked Tipo Casero have the flavor you are accustomed to. Mustard Mostaza (mo-STAH-sa) Coleman's English Mustard is sold in La Europea.
Cookies Galletas (gah-YEH-tas) Cupcakes Pastelitos (pah-steh-LEE-tohs). All Tï¿½a Rosa products are good and some are life-savers. Their croissants, corn muffins and cookies taste better than many American neighborhood bakery products, and are far superior to any commercial American baked goods. Mariana cookies are high-quality and quite inexpensive. Marinela products are for absolute junk food junkies. Try their Pinguinos -- creme-filled chocolate cupcakes, or Choco-Roles -- chocolate cake "fingers" rolled in chocolate and covered in chocolate. For total anti-ecological decadence, Gansitos -- chocolate, jam, sugarsugarsugar, cake -- are best savored cold.
Nuts Nueces (nu-EH-ces) Diamante, Mafer. Nice assortments of canned peanuts (cacahuates) and other nuts. Illustrations on the packaging will tell you what's inside. Japonesa -- Japanese-style. Enchilados -- with chile. Roasted peanuts are sold in one-kilo plastic bags in fruit and vegetable departments.
Chips All brands are excellent. These come in the familiar packages and are as good as or better than American brands. Papas fritas -- potato chips. Tostaditas -- fried corn tortilla chips.
Candy Dulces (DOOL-sehs) Mafer is excellent. Try their peanut brickle bars for instant energy. International brands are good.
Ice Cream Helados (eh-LAH-dos) Some guide books may still warn you against eating ice cream, but we have had no problems with the major brands and even allowed our kids to eat them. Ice cream sold from the little carts may be suspect, as some of it is home-made. Convenience stores have refrigerated cases with many different kinds of cones and cups in a vast selection of flavors. Holanda, Nestlï¿½ Sold everywhere in bulk and packaged. Made with milk substitutes, but you would never know it, as the flavor is great. Chocolate ice cream bars -- paletas -- are tops. Santa Clara Sold at their counter inside Wal-Mart and their own shops. Try the Triple Chocolate for total ecstasy of death by chocolate.
Jules Siegel is an American journalist whose work has appeared in Playboy, Rolling Stone, Best American Short Stories and many other publications. He has lived in Cancun with his family since 1983. He is the author of the Cancun User's Guide.