Back in the day when Tex-Mex was the closest I’d ever come to tasting Mexican food, the thought of dumping a sweet dessert onto the glob of spicy carbs and fats already percolating in my stomach was the furthest thing from my mind.

Some sort of culinary feng shui always urged me instead to top off any Mexican food with a frozen margarita, and so several tragic years passed until I came to appreciate the difference between Tex-Mex and Mexican and in the process where ‘sweet’ fits into Mexican food.

Tropical tastes at the Mercado Libertad, Guadalajara

Tropical tastes at the Mercado Libertad, Guadalajara

My experience has been that sweets are to be found in abundance just about everywhere on Mexican menus except the center of the dinner plate.

On market days in Mexico it’s not unusual to see children sucking sweet syrup from short lengths of fresh sugar cane sold by street vendors.

In the mercados sugary concoctions made from every imaginable flavor of fruit are stacked like multi-colored bars of bullion.  Guava.  Mango.  Tamarind.  This is, after all, the land that gave chocolate to the world.

Then there are the baked goods and pastries.  Sweet pan dulce.  Sugar-dusted churrosTres leches cake.  Empanadas stuffed with every imaginable kind of tropical fruit.

Bakery case, Mi Tierra Bakery & Cafe, San Antonio, TX

You can get a Mexican sugar fix in the States at Mi Tierra Mexican Bakery on the Mercado in San Antonio, where acres of glass display cases are chock full of the most amazing range of pastries and confections.

The sub-tropical climate must surely help to make frozen treats – nieves – the most popular of all Mexican sweets.

Homeward bound schoolchildren and mothers with very young children cluster around ice cream shops in the height of afternoon heat.  Up until quite recently the town square in my little Mexican village boasted THREE shops and there are at least as many more within blocks.

The most popular items include ice  cream (helados) and ice pops (paletas), as well as the sno-cones (raspados) commonly sold by street vendors.

In Dolores Hidalgo, where Father Hidalgo sparked the Mexican war for independence by uttering his famous grito, ice cream shops are overabundant and there’s a sense of competition among them to introduce the next original flavor.  Avocado.  Jalapeno.  Tequila.  Nopalito.  You get the idea.

Ice cream vendor on Guadalajara’s Plaza Hidalgo

Michoacan, though, seems to be the acknowledged capital of Mexican ice cream.  Entire villages collaborate on the making and distribution of ice cream.  A chain of Mexican retail shops bears its name and Michoacan-style ice cream is widely sold at shops in U.S. Latino neighborhoods.

The striking thing about all of these sweets, though, is their richness of flavor.  Maybe it’s because there’s less need for preservatives because so much of this food is still made from fresh products in small batches very near where it’s sold.

Mostly, though, it’s the vibrant and distinctive flavors extracted from native fruits, nuts, and berries stamp these sweet concoctions as indelibly and indisputably Mexican.