For better or worse, there typically aren’t many edible accoutrements to enjoy while sipping straight spirits. Mezcal, however, is a different story.
The beloved, smoky distillate of the agave plant has a veritable chorus line of snacks served alongside it at mezcalerias across Mexico—and a wave of devotees are constantly finding new sidekicks for the drink’s diverse iterations. While many purists—and most people outside city centers—will say that mezcal, too, should be enjoyed by its lonesome, there’s almost always the option of adding on an accompanying snack (salty, chili-spiked orange slices, sweet-spicy seasoned wedges of fruit, crunchy grasshoppers) for those who want it.
Today, as mezcal’s star continues to rise in the U.S., some agave lovers on both sides of the border are starting to experiment with new-school pairings, proving that it can be an admirable partner for a whole slew of different foods, even things like salads, sushi, curries and cheese.
“The amazing thing about traditional mezcal is the diversity in flavors and aromas. There are some surprising pairings you can do…that work by contrasting with the mezcal or enhancing the flavors of the food,” says Andrea Hagan of Oaxaca’s Mezcaloteca.
The devotion mezcal is able to inspire in is its drinkers is not only a testament to its deep-seated cultural importance across Mexico, but to the subtlety and nuance of its flavors. Much like wine, mezcal is energized by the terroir of its home, with each sip a direct link to plants, roots and soil. That’s why, ultimately, the best pairing for mezcal is, perhaps, more mezcal.
“We always recommend rinsing your mouth with the first sip of mezcal,” says Hagan. “It helps accustom your mouth the high percentage of alcohol and season, if you will, your palate.”
However, in most mezcalerias in Mexico City and Oaxaca you’ll find a rotating cast of accompaniments—from the addicting agua de Jamaica to the ubiquitous sal de gusano. Here, a quick primer on mezcal’s most traditional sidekicks.
Sal de Gusano
Without a doubt, no mezcal pairing is more widespread than orange slices and sal de gusano (“worm salt”), made from ground-up gusano—larvae that feed on the agave plant—and seasoned salt. In the same vein as serving tequila with salt and lime, the juicy pucker of an orange kicked up with sal de gusano offers a one-two punch against the mezcal’s heat, resulting in flavors as rich and complex as almost any cocktail—with the added bonus of a little insect protein. Thanks to Mezcal Vago’s Judah Kuper an excellent version from Mitla—Gran Mitla—is now available in the U.S.
Agua de Jamaica
Agua de Jamaica—a ruby-hued, hibiscus-flavored agua fresca with Caribbean roots—has found its way into barrooms across Mexico City in recent years, providing a welcome glug of refreshment to counter mezcal’s burn. Floral and light, many countries believe mightily in its health benefits, and its relatively simple preparation (steep hibiscus buds, add sugar, chill) makes it a falling-off-a-log simple.
Mixed nuts are a pretty ubiquitous, and mostly ho-hum, bar food. Somehow, though, the cacahuetes (peanuts) in Mexico seem to transcend everything you’ve ever known about the pervasive snack. Skin on, slightly oiled and seasoned with garlic, lime and—of course—chili, they’re capable of making an addict out of just about anyone.
“Sangritas are more of a traditional Mexico City accompaniment to tequila, and that has been transferred over to mezcal now that it is so popular,” says Susan Coss of the all-mezcal blog Mezcalistas. The peppery, palate-cleansing, non-alcoholic chaser is crafted out of chiles, citrus and pomegranate (or tomato, in the less traditional, more widespread version). Some bars simply buy pre-made sangrita, but most of the pomegranate versions are made in-house. (Bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler has a great recipe, here.) To the same end, others are offering pickles as an accompaniment. “La Biznaga in Oaxaca has pickled things, like carrots and jicama, on the table as a snack, and I’ve also seen pickled flor de agave.”
Sliced up pieces of melons and mangoes sprinkled with Tajín (a cupboard-favorite supermarket spice made in Jalisco that’s comprised of chili pepper, salt and dehydrated lime) is a revered treat. The slight hit of sweetness smooths out and cools down the mezcal’s signature aggressive edge.