There are no lemons in Mexico. I was told this by a Mexico City native in 2014 while on a taco tour in Puerto Vallarta. I was told the same again by another Mexico City native when I went to that city in the fall of 2019. And standing in line at the Latin butcher in Vancouver I asked the guy behind me about lemons in Mexico. Nope. But just to make sure, I asked again. This time I got a yes from a Mexican living here. She said that they do have lemons, and that they are everywhere and they are good. But I don’t know.
Limes all the Way
I never did see a single lemon in the parts of Mexico I was in. Though I did see a whole lot of limes in the many food markets I went to.
On many tables and street food stands it’s common to find a bowl limes wedges to squeeze over the food. I was always given a fresh wedge with my tacos. And lime with chile powder is ubiquitous. Mexicans even use a dry commercial product of lime and chile to sprinkle on fruit or corn or whatever. It’s an essential flavour.
Or you could have lime with a drink. You probably already know that a wedge of lime with a lager is a good thing. A micheladas is the same thing but with the addition of salt on the glass rim. Or how about a margarita. Both use fresh lime juice. I want one (both?) right now and it’s only 10:15 in the morning and this isn’t a holiday (which is a legit case for morning drinking).
Mexican limes, called limón in Spanish, are very juicy with a thin skin. They are green because, like all limes, they are picked unripe. They turn yellow when fully ripe. Often you see limes in Mexico with bits of yellow or entirely yellow. They’re worth getting as the natural sugars change so they taste a little different. Yellow or green, they never taste like lemons, though I suppose you could get confused if it’s lemons you’re after. Mexican limes are smaller than lemons. They’re slightly larger than a walnut and rounder. They are also more acidic than Persian limes where limes originated and also the kind sold here (but grown in Mexico).
The Spaniards brought limes to Mexico, and as far as I am concerned, they perfectly match two main indigenous foods, corn and chiles. You will find limes in a lot of savoury recipes. Those flavour combos have been developed to perfection – and continue to be.
The Sour Bit
Going to Mexico in 2014 was my first international trip in 30 years and my first time in Mexico. I loved it, even though it was a two-fold disaster.
It’s hard to say which was a bigger disaster, Hurricane Odile with her Class 4 rage (5 being the highest) or the flea bitten dogs I was looking after. Both the fleas and the storm tore through the house.
The 300 fleabites on my lower legs, the 40º heat, and the hurricane was more than I could stand so I left two weeks into my five week stay. I left the dogs in the care of the neighbours, called the owners to come home, and have never been back to Todos Santos.
You’ve heard that saying: when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. I guess I did that. I took a sour experience and made it into a sweet something. That awful trip got me to Mexico.
And how I love it. I love the Mexican people and I absolutely love their food – even if there are no lemons (and that seems to be up for debate).
I didn’t expect to find a lemonade stand in Mexico and that’s a place with many food stands! Nor did I see a limeade stand.
However, I did see a lot of fresh-cut fruit stands with limes wedges to squeeze over the fruit along with a dusting of powered dried chile or the commercial product. The bite-sized pieces came in clear plastic cups.
Some of those stands are run by kids. They peel and chop (with a sharp knife) and place fruit in the cup, and take money. They do it over and over until it’s time to go home.
I can’t imagine that running a lemonade stand would be a Mexican kid’s idea of fun, more like work. Kids with lemonade stands here are playing; the money they make isn’t going to buy more fruit to peel, cut, and serve, or buy school supplies, or clothes, or toothpaste. But if one of those kids did run one, they would use real lemons to make the lemonade, not frozen from a concentrate like most of the kid’s lemonade stands I’ve encountered here.
I was told that Mexicans find lemons too sweet. Curious. I don’t think of lemons as sweet, except sweet lemons, which are a gentle lemon tasting fruit, eaten like an orange. Perhaps they mean that lemons aren’t as astringent or as bitter as limes.
Here, lemons are more popular in baking than limes. They are high in vitamin C but that cooks out when heated. However, the tartness doesn’t so that means the addition of sugar is necessary – as in lemon meringue pie or lemon squares, or lemon poppy seed loaf, or lemon chiffon cake, or lemon pound cake…
None of which I found in Mexico. They love sweet things (ever tried their soda pop?) and baking. But everything I encountered in the commercial bakeries was very bread-like and none of it citrusy. I may have missed this as I couldn’t try everything. Nor could I ask because my Spanish is nonexistent.
Lemons have more vitamin C than limes (which are high in vitamin A), and were initially used on voyages in the 17th century to prevent scurvy. But limes were substituted for lemons because they were easier to get along the Caribbean route and so cheaper for the owners of the ships. Nobody knew anything about vitamins then and so scurvy reoccured. A sailor’s life sure wasn’t worth very much. They also ate rats to ward off scurvy. Sheesh.
So you can’t always exchange limes for lemons. Not at all, really.
Modern day proof if you need it – I mess with every recipe I encounter (it’s rebel instinct, nothing more), so I tried cooking Greek potatoes with fresh lime juice. Don’t bother.
Lemons and Limes
If lemons are hard to find in Mexico then I’m glad I live in Canada where there are both. I love Mexican food, but I couldn’t eat only that. Canadian food is like a pot luck – a beer with salt and lime, Greek potatoes, fish tacos, and a piece of lemon meringue pie. This is perfect eating.