Mexico is a country of vast history and traditions and this is reflected in the intense and varied flavours of their cuisine. The influence of the Spaniards who arrived in Mexico in 1521 is reflected in Mexican cuisine in varying degrees. When the Spanish landed in Mexico they found the people’s diet consisted mainly of corn-based dishes, a staple for over 4,000 years, mixed with chilies and herbs, and served with beans and squash. The Spaniards added domestic animals, such as beef, chicken and pork, as well as rice, sugar, cheese, wine, garlic and onions to expand on what they found already in Mexican cuisine.
The Aztec, Mayan, Zapotec and other natives inhabiting the Mexican land mass before the Spaniards arrived has also influenced the Mexican style of cooking. Pre-Columbian Mexican food included chocolate, maize, tomatoes, vanilla, avocado, papaya, pineapple, coconut, prickly pear cactus, chili peppers, beans, squash, sweet potatoes, peanuts and turkey. Spices in Mexican cooking can include cinnamon, cloves, anise, and cumin, as well as in the herb category, cilantro, thyme, marjoram, and the pungent epazote.
As with many countries, each region in Mexico offers its own unique regional cuisine, due to local climate and geography, and ethnic differences. The north of Mexico is best known for its meat dishes, while in southeastern Mexico spicy vegetables and chicken-based dishes are common. Virtually all southwestern dishes use four main ingredients, namely the tortilla (a round wafer-thin bread made from coarsely ground dough), pinto beans, cheese and chilies.
In the state of Puebla (two hours south of Mexico City) the first mole sauce was prepared. It is said that a group of nuns were asked to prepare a special dish for a visiting dignitary. The nuns, not knowing exactly what to prepare, combined the contents of their pantry into a pot with herbs, spices and chocolate-over 30 ingredients altogether, and left it to simmer over several days. The resulting mole sauce, which was served over turkey, was a definite success. Today the thick, sweet mole sauce is most commonly served over chicken. The area of Puebla is also known for its coffee and many unique desserts, especially camotes, a sweet potato confection.
On the Yucatan peninsula, known now as the Mayan Riviera, sauces are fruit-based, a popular one being achiote, a sauce made from annatto seeds, Seville oranges, pepper, garlic and cumin which is spread over chicken or pork. The meat is then baked in a banana leaf for a truly delicious meal.
In the seaside area of Veracruz, fish is the dish of choice. Fish served a la Veracruzana is topped with a sauce of tomatoes, olives, capers and chilies. Here tacos, tamales, and enchiladas are sure to be filled with fish. Coffee and exotic fruits like guanabana, mamey and cherimoya are also popular in this region.
Oaxaco is popular as being a more “fluid” region, offering coffee a la olla, which is coffee with sugar (or hunks of sugar cane candy) and cinnamon simmered in a pot for hours. Mescal, a very sober cousin of tequila, is also popular. Oaxaco’s mole sauce tends to be sweeter that Puebla’s version due to the addition of bananas.
Did you know that watermelons are indigenous to Mexico? The story goes that watermelons are responsible for the colours in the Mexican flag. It is said that in the 1820’s during a particular hot and bloody battle in Chilpancingo (the capital of Guerrero state), the troops took a break to cool off with some watermelon. When they saw the green, white and bright red colours of the watermelon they decision was made that those would be the colours for the new flag.
Mexican food consists of a variety of foodstuffs, including sauces, soups, and stews and are cooked in styles ranging from quick-fry to slow roasting. The most common items in a Mexican diet include:
o Corn – which is most commonly used for tortillas, tacos or tamales
o Chilies – the most popular varieties being jalapeno, poblano, Serrano, guajillo, chipotle, pasilla, habanero, ancho, mulato and cascabel, all of which are used in both fresh and dried forms.
o Beans – with varieties ranging from lentils, kidney beans and fava beans. Refried beans are popular and referred to as refrito (refried in lard)
o Tomatoes – used as a popular ingredient in salsas and sauces. Tomatillos, small green tomatoes with a stiff husk and a tart flavour) are also popular.
o Fruit – with a wide variety including mango, papaya, coconut and pineapple, which are eaten fresh or in sauces and desserts. The prickly pear cactus, or Nopales, can be sautéed and eaten as a vegetable, or can be used to sweeten desserts.
More exotic dishes from the Aztec or Mayan style can include iguana, rattlesnake, deer, spider, monkey and even some kinds of insects. These are relatively well-known dishes known as comida prehispanica, or prehispanic food.
There is a difference between traditional Mexican food and what is known as Tex-Mex cooking. Tex-Mex cuisine, according to historians, originated hundreds of years ago when Spanish/Mexican recipes combined with typical Texan cooking, and the term Tex-Mex first occurred in print in the 1940’s. It is difficult to be precise in determining exactly what constitutes Tex-Mex cuisine as it is more of a combination of a variety of Mexican cooking from different regions with typical Texan cuisine consisting of the ample use of beef. Enchiladas, tacos, chimichangas, tortillas, fajitas and nachos are all part of what is known as Tex-Mex cuisine today, which is now geared to appeal to the American palate.
All in all, Mexican cuisine is both varied, and tasty. All of Mexican cooking is laced with spicy flavours which echo the hot Mexican climate. Mexican cuisine is well-known throughout the world and can be enjoyed be all.