A couple of months in the US has given me lots of time to ponder these differences which reveal so much about the way the two countries actually eat, as opposed to what we learn from cookbooks or tourist literature.
Here I am comparing two supermarkets in south Austin (HEB and Randalls) and two in south Mexico City (Walmart and Mega of the Commercial Mexicana chain). They have similar clienteles, ranging from wealthy upper middle class to lower middle class. They are similar in square footage.
Of course there are lots of people who know all about these differences. The management of cross border chains and of multinational corporations such as Nestlé. They don’t broadcast their knowledge though.
Since most readers are from the US, I will take US supermarkets as the norm.
More yogurt in the dairy case in Mexico, lots of it drinkable. (The man behind me at the check out today had 24 drinkable yogurts, 18 flavored ones and 12 gelatinas which are in the dairy case). Better crema and cream (not difficult).
2. Packaged goods
Lots of the dairy is here. Stacks of tetrapak long life milk in different sizes and fat levels. And lots of Nido (Nest-Nestlé, get it?) including special versions for children of different ages and whole milk (great for home made yogurt).
More rice, fewer varieties of rice. More beans, more varieties, some imported but still overwhelmingly Mexican.
Herb teas rather than black tea, single not mixed flavors. Coffee improving though Nescafé continues to reign.
Cheaper cookies, such as the Marinela line (made by Bimbo) with its signature chocolate-covered cake, Gansitos. Oreos make common ground north and south of the border. Galletas saladas (soda crackers) and habaneros. Bimbo bread.
Fewer canned vegetables, mainly mushrooms, corn, and tomato puree and carrots and green beans mixed for rice, overwhelmingly Mexican brands, Herdez, for example, in US part of Hormel.
Lots of bottled and tetrapak sauces including increasing numbers of Mexican red, green, and mole sauces, as well as the indispensable hot sauces, salsa maggi, salsa inglesa (Worcestershire) and soy. Oh and mayonnaise of course. In quantity.
Packaged cake mixes becoming more popular, Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines crowding out national brands.
EDIT. And if you have read that Mexicans cook with lard, comparing the four 1 lb packets of lard in the meat section with the rows and rows of bottles of cooking oil will make you re-think.
Main foreign cuisines on the exotic shelf are Jewish, Chinese and Japanese. Goya does not cut it in Mexico.
Much less pet food, much less variety.
Overwhelmingly boneless as in US, except that in Mexico it is cut thin rather than thick. Street food vendors buy in quantity. Move over mole, milanesa of beef, pork or chicken (thin, breaded slices) may be on its way to becoming Mexico´s national dish.
Fish piled up in ice, particularly in Lent. More tripe and pigs feet.
Packed sliced meats are Spanish.
Cheeses mainly Mexican (fresco, cotija, crema, chihuahua, quesillo etc.) Increasing foreign cheese selection, mainly Spanish (Manchego), Dutch (Gouda) and French (Brie and Camembert, often made in Mexico).
Grape leaves, hummus, etc.
5. Bakery and tortilleria
The in-store bakeries mimic traditional bakeries with aluminum trays and tongs to pick up your rolls (bolillos, panbazo) from wooden bins, your pan dulce (sweet bread) from wooden shelves. I counted around 80 varieties of pan dulce today, though many of them are minor variants on a few general themes. Also some “artisanal” European breads and lots of birthday cakes. Quality about as depressing as in US supermarkets.
Tortilleria makes corn tortillas on sale in 1/2 and 1 kilo packages and has the longest lines in the store. Also sopes, tiritos, totopos, etc.
6. Snacks and soft drinks
Lots of water here, but not designer water. This is because water from the tap is still iffy.
7. Fruits and vegetables
Good stuff here. Everything you find in a US grocery store, but fresher and cheaper. More melons, more tropical fruits. Plus lots of romeritos, nopales, and my very favorite, huazontle. More chiles, fresh and dried, more ingredients for aguas frescas, such as tamarind pods, guavas, dried jamaica blossoms.
Rum, brandy and tequila are the big sellers most of the former made by big international corporations. Wine is becoming commoner, with Argentinian and Chilean wines perhaps the commonest inexpensive wines, but beer is the regular drink of choice. Mexican brands or Heinekens, not surprsing since Heinekens owns FEMSA one of the two major Mexican companies along with Modelo.
9. Frozen food
Still not popular in Mexico, generally about quarter the space of American stores. Mainly hamburgers, french fries, some vegetables and fruit, and baked desserts. Oh, and ice cream of course.
10. Ready to eat
Prepared rice, mole pastes, rotisserie chicken and in some stores complete meals ready to go. Some salad bars.
I am struck by the integration of the Mexican and US/international food corporations as well as by their careful positioning to local markets (crema de chile poblano y crema de elote instead of beef vegetable soup).
I am also struck, in spite of the bad press supermarkets have had recently, of the wealth of choice and, if you are careful, excellent products that can be obtained in both countries.
EDIT. And perhaps the most striking difference is the number of items. I would reckon that in the same square footage the US stores have about twice the number of items. This seems to be largely thanks to the taste and flavor industry. Where (say) there are half a dozen kinds of canned tomatoes in Mexico, in the US there are more, with multiple different flavoring agents. Same with coffee or with rice or with crackers.