The Mexican Pantry


The Basics of the Mexican Pantry 

When I think about a traditional Mexican pantry, I think of my abuela’s house. At my paternal grandmother’s house, we had a large pantry — a despensa — it was like a walk-in closet only for food. I loved my grandmother’s pantry because it smelled of cinnamon, clove, anise seeds, and Mexican chocolate…of dried red chiles, oregano and bay leaves.

It was cool and dark and where the food kept longer in the hot Sonoran desert. It was there she kept the sacks of flower, dried beans, rice, sugar, and strings of garlic hanging on a hook. And it was there that I hid from my brother and cousins when we played hide and go seek.

The word despensa awakens all those aromatic memories of my grandmother’s kitchen and the life I was a part of then — simple, clean, wholesome and unpretentious. There was an orchard in the backyard, with apples, plums, apricots and figs. We had lazy slow-clucking chickens, and a mean rooster. More than once I saw my grandmother kill a chicken for the eventual arroz con pollo placed steaming hot on her white embroidered tablecloth.  

El amor entra por la cocina – Love enters through the kitchen.

The kitchen is the soul of the house.

Now I too have an unpretentious old kitchen, not half as nice or neat as my Abuela’s but every bit as soulful. Once in a while when I open the cupboard, I get a whiff of cinnamon, chile and chocolate, and I go right back to that rambling old adobe house in Nogales, Sonora, on Calle Morita and it brings me joy.

A well-stocked pantry was a point of pride in those days of frugal and careful living. Fruit was harvested, preserved and stored for winter. Plans were made for the winter holiday celebrations. Life just seemed more gracious, more mindful then, and less hurried and hectic.

Feeling nostalgic for that simple pleasure, I take inventory of my mini pantry and decide to stock it well, like my abuela’s.

Besides satisfying the nostalgia of a well-kept kitchen, stocking a pantry can make it easier to live a healthier life. Keeping basic ingredients handy can keep you from calling in a pizza or driving the kids through for fast food. There are ways you can make fast food at home. It’s cheaper and healthier.

Here’s my list for a well-stocked Mexican pantry:

Dry Goods

  • Vermicelli for a good fideo soup
  • Rice
  • Whole grain pastas
  • Garlic
  • Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate
  • Pepitas
  • Slivered almonds
  • Unpopped popcorn kernels
  • Potatoes
  • Oatmeal
  • Brown sugar
  • Masa harina
  • Whole wheat flour

Canned Goods*

  • Pinto beans
  • Black beans
  • White beans
  • Hominy/nixtamal
  • Tomato sauce
  • Stewed tomatoes
  • And everyone’s favorite: Rotel!
  • Enchilada sauces
  • Diced green chiles
  • Salsas
  • Chicken and vegetable broths – in a can or carton
  • Canned chipotles
  • Canned Jalapeños

Packaged foods

  • Taco and tostada shells
  • Blue corn tortilla chips


  • Mexican oregano
  • Bay leaves
  • Garlic powder
  • Chile powder
  • Paprika
  • Cumin
  • Cinnamon
  • Did I mention chocolate already?
  • Dark chocolate
  • Mexican chocolate
  • Powdered cocoa
  • Dried red chiles of different varieties
  • Anise seed
  • Mexican vanilla

Vinegars and Oils

  • Olive oil
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Rice vinegar
  • Apple cider vinegar

En el Refri

  • Queso fresco
  • Low fat milk
  • Onions
  • Tomatoes
  • Cabbage
  • Avocados
  • Green Chile
  • Tomatillos
  • Fresh cilantro
  • Limes
  • Onions
  • Mangoes, oranges, and papaya
  • Whole wheat flour tortillas
  • Corn tortillas
  • Eggs
  • Ground Turkey
  • Chicken
  • Mexican squash or zucchini

In the Freezer

  • Corn
  • Green beans
  • Assorted pre-chopped veggies
*Canned food is fine in my Mexican pantry. Just watch the sodium. Practice a tip from our certified nutritionist, Madrina Malena, rinse canned foods before using them! This gets rid of excess sodium.

These are the basics of my despensa. Some of these ingredients you will have in your dry pantry for weeks and even months, in the case of spices, sugar, flour, etc..And some, such as your refri items, you will need to replenish on a weekly basis depending on your weekly menus. I promise you that if you have most of these in your pantry, you will cut down on your trips to fast food restaurants or pizza delivery. You and your familia will be healthier and your wallet will be fatter. If I start the week off with these foods in my pantry, I can make at least 10 meals!

What are the staples in your pantry?  What is the quickest meal you can make with what you have on hand?

!Buen Provecho!

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