Mexico can boast of a colorful past that granted it diverse cultural influences. Because of this, its food took on a personality all its own. Not confined to the usual fare of tacos, nachos, and burritos that have become so popular among fast-food chains, authentic Mexican food can offer much, much more.
The novel, Like Water for Chocolate showcased how Mexican culture emphasized the importance of food. So ingrained is this way of thinking that, to this day, many farmers describe themselves as “el hombre del maiz.” They see themselves as men of corn because their ancient ancestors, the Mayans, Aztecs, and Toltecs based their cooking on this versatile crop. Peanuts, beans, avocados, tomatoes, squash, and coconuts were used by native Mexicans for hundreds of years. They have high regard for chocolate and refer to it as “food of the Gods.”
1521 saw the entry of a lot of influences to Mexico. The Spanish, led by Cortez, brought with them livestock. So, for the first time, the natives had a taste of pork, beef, and lamb. Milk and cheese also made their first appearance as far as the natives are concerned. The Spanish also brought with them many of the spices now considered staples in Mexican cooking like: cinnamon, oregano, black pepper, and coriander. Today, many Mexican dishes, such as cheese quesadillas or grilled beef fajitas are considered native to Mexico but little do people know, these dishes had a lot of Spanish influences to them.
Native Americans aside from the Aztecs have also left a mark on Mexican cooking. Native Americans who used to trade with the Aztecs were the ones who introduced corn tortillas to them. It’s just that tortillas have been such a fixture of Mexican cooking that it never occurs to anyone that they are not indigenous to Mexico.
Besides the indigenous peoples and the Spanish, the French added a bit of Gallic flair to Mexican food. Mexico was briefly under French rule in the 1860s, and the French occupiers left their mark on Mexican cook. One of their most popular dishes was chilies en nogado, a dish made of chilies stuffed with meat and topped with walnut sauce.
Finally, the Texans have left a little bit of America on Mexican food. South Texas has been a combination of Mexican and Anglo culture primarily due to the state’s proximity to Mexico. The Mexican “barbacoa” – a method of cooking where meat is roasted slowly over a spit – is seen as the origin of the word “barbecue”. Tex-Mex cuisine is known as an amalgamation of the two cooking styles and is characterized by the heavy use of beef, pinto beans, and rich, spicy red sauces.
Today, there are countless regional variations of dishes within Mexico. Sonoran Mexican food is markedly influenced by the Pacific coast and California’s abundance of vegetables. On the other hand, food along the Gulf of Mexico centers on luscious seafood. Too bad that the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico is now under a lot of stress because of BP Petroleum’s recent debacle. Should the damage be permanent, the world will lose some of the most wonderful seafood anywhere.
With all the variety and influences, there is one undeniable gift that Mexico gave the gastronomic world – chili peppers. However they may be spelled: “chili,” “chile”, or “chilies”, the sheer number of the different kinds of chilies has made Mexican cooking truly interesting. Whether one makes chili rellano using poblano peppers, or uses roasted japalenos for fajitas, or makes liquid fire using Serrano or habanero peppers, we have Mexico to thank for.