Mexican cuisine is a style of food which is primarily a fusion of indigenous Mesoamerican cooking with European, especially Spanish, cooking developed after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. The basic staples remain the native corn, beans and chilli peppers but the Spanish introduced a large number of other foods, the most important of which were meat from domesticated animals (beef, pork, chicken, goat and sheep), dairy products (especially cheese) and various herbs and spices. While the Spanish initially tried to superimpose their diet on the country, this was not possible and eventually the foods and cooking techniques began to be mixed, especially in colonial era convents. Over the centuries, this resulted in various regional cuisines, based on local conditions such as those in the north, Oaxaca, Veracruz and the Yucatan Peninsula. Mexican cuisine is highly tied to the culture, social structure and its popular traditions, the most important example of which is the use of mole for special occasions and holidays. For this reason and others, Mexican cuisine was added by UNESCO to its list of the world’s “intangible cultural heritage”.
Basic Elements in Mexican Cuisine
Mexican cuisine is complex, as complex as any of the great cuisines in the world such as those of China, France and Turkey. It is created mostly with ingredients native to Mexico as well as those brought over by the Spanish conquistadors, with some new influences since then. Native ingredients include tomatoes, squashes, avocados, cocoa and vanilla, as well as ingredients not generally used in other cuisines such as various edible flowers, vegetables such as Huauzontle and Papaloquelite or small criollo avocados, whose skin is edible. European contributions include pork, chicken, beef, cheese, various herbs and spices and some fruits. Tropical fruits such as guava, Prickly Pear, sapote, mangoes, bananas, pineapple and Cherimoya (custard apple) are popular, especially in the centre and south of the country. It has been debated how much Mexican food is still indigenous and how much is European. However, the basis of the diet is still corn and beans with chilli pepper as a seasoning as they are complimentary foods.
Despite the introduction of wheat and rice to Mexico, the basic starch remains corn in almost all areas of the country. While it is eaten fresh, most corn is dried, treated with lime and ground into a dough. This dough is used fresh and fermented to make a wide variety of dishes from drinks (atole, pozol, etc.) to tamales, to sopes and much more. However, the most common way to eat corn in Mexico is in the form of a tortilla, which accompanies almost every dish in Mexico. Tortillas are made of corn in most of the country but other versions exist such as wheat in the north or plantain, yuca and wild greens in Oaxaca.
The other basic ingredient in all parts of Mexico is the chilli pepper. Mexican food has a reputation for being spicy, but its seasoning can be better described as strong. Many dishes also have subtle flavours as well. In Mexico, the various chilli peppers are used for their flavours and not just their heat, with Mexico using the widest variety of chilli peppers. If a savoury dish or snack does not contain chilli pepper, hot sauce is usually added and chilli pepper is often added to fresh fruit and sweets. The importance of the chilli pepper goes back to the Mesoamerican period, which it was considered to be as much of a staple as corn and beans. In the 16th century, Bartolomé de las Casas wrote that without chilli peppers the indigenous did not think they were eating. Even today, most Mexicans believe that their national identity would be at a loss without it. Many dishes in Mexico are defined by their sauces and the chilli peppers those sauces contain, rather than the meat or vegetable that the sauce covers. These dishes include entomatada (in tomato sauce), adobo or adobados, pipians and moles. A hominy soup called pozole is defined as white, green or red depending on the chilli pepper sauce used or omitted. Tamales are differentiated by the filling which is defined by the sauce (red, green, chilli pepper strips or mole). Dishes without a sauce are nearly inconceivable to eat without a salsa or with fresh or pickled chilli peppers. This includes street foods such as tacos, soups, sopes, tlacoyos, gorditas and sincronizadas. For most dishes, it is the variety of chilli used that gives it its main flavour.
The main contributions of the Spanish were meat and cheese, as the Mesoamerican diet had very little meat and dairy products were completely unknown. The main meats found in Mexico are pork, chicken, beef, goat and sheep. Native seafood remains popular especially along the coasts. Cheese-making in Mexico has evolved its own specialties. It is an important economic activity, especially in the north, and frequently done at home. The main cheese making areas are Chihuahua, Oaxaca, Querétaro and Chiapas. Goat cheese is still made but it is not as popular and harder to find in stores.
Food And Society
In most of Mexico, much of food, especially in rural areas, is still consumed in the home with the most traditional Mexican cooking still done domestically, based on local ingredients. Cooking for family is considered to be women’s work, including cooking for celebrations. Traditionally girls have been considered ready to marry when they can cook, and cooking is considered a main talent for housewives.
The main meal of the day in Mexico is the “comida” (literally “meal”) which is eaten between 2 and 5pm. It begins with soup, often chicken broth with pasta or a “dry soup” which is pasta or rice flavoured with onions, garlic and/or vegetables. The main course is a meat served in a cooked sauce with salsa on the side, accompanied with beans and tortillas and often with a fruit drink. In the evening, it is common to eat leftovers from the comida or sweet bread accompanied by coffee or chocolate. Breakfast is generally heartier than in other countries and can consist of leftovers, meat in broth (such as pancita), tacos, enchiladas or meat with eggs. This is usually served with beans, white bread and/or tortillas and coffee and/or juice.
Mexican cuisine is elaborate and often tied to symbolism and festivals, one reason it was named as an example of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Many of the foods of Mexico are complicated because of their relation to the social structure of the country. Food preparation, especially for family and social events, is considered to be an “investment” in order to maintain social relationships. Even the idea of flavour is considered to be social, with meals prepared for certain diners and certain occasions are considered the most tasty. The ability to cook well, called “sazón” (lit. seasoning) is considered to be a gift generally gained from experience and a sense of commitment to the diners. For Day of the Dead, foods such as tamales and mole are set out on altars and it is believed that the visiting dead relatives “eat” the “essence” of the food. If eaten afterwards by the living it is considered to be tasteless. In central Mexico, the main festival foods are mole, barbacoa, carnitas and mixiotes. They are often prepared to feed around five hundred guests requiring groups of cooks. The cooking is part of the social custom meant to bind families and communities.
Mexican regional home cooking is very different than the food served in most Mexican restaurants outside the country, which is usually some variety of Tex-Mex. Some of Mexico’s traditional foods involved complex and/or long cooking processes. Before industrialization, traditional women spent several hours a day boiling dried corn then grinding them on a metate to make the dough for tortillas, cooking them one-by-one on a comal griddle. In some areas, tortillas are still made this way. Sauces and salsas were also ground in a mortar called a molcajete. Today, blenders are more often used although the texture is a bit different. Most people in Mexico would say that those made with a molcajete taste better but few can do this anymore.
The most important food for festivals and other special occasions is mole, especially mole poblano in the centre of the country. Mole is served at Christmas, Easter, Day of the Dead and at birthdays, baptisms, weddings and funerals and tends to be eaten only for special occasions because it is such as complex and time-consuming dish. While still dominant in this way, other foods have become acceptable for these occasions such as barbacoa, carnitas and mixiotes, especially since the 1980s.This may be because of economic crisis at the time, allowing for the substitution of these cheaper foods or the fact that they can be bought ready-made or may already be made as part of the family business.
Another important festive food is the tamale. This is a filled cornmeal dumpling, steamed in a wrapping and one of the basic staples in most regions of Mexico. It has its origins in the pre-Hispanic era and today is found in many varieties in all of Mexico. Like mole it is complicated to prepare, and best done in large amounts. Tamales are associated with certain celebrations such as Candlemas. They are wrapped in corn husks in the highlands and desert areas of Mexico and in banana leaves in the tropics.
Mexican street food is one of the most varied parts of the cuisine. It can include tacos, quesadillas, pambazos, tamales, huaraches and food not suitable to cook at home including barbacoa, carnitas and since many homes in Mexico do not have ovens, roasted chicken. One attraction of street food in Mexico is the satisfaction of hunger or craving without all the social and emotional connotation of eating at home, although longtime customers can have something of a friendship/familial relationship with a chosen vendor. The best known of Mexico’s street food is the taco, whose origin is based on the pre-Hispanic custom of picking up other foods with tortillas as utensils were not used. The origin of the word is in dispute, with some saying it is derived from Nahuatl and others from various Spanish phrases. Tacos are not eaten as the main meal; they are generally eaten before midday or late in the evening. Just about any other foodstuff can be wrapped in a tortilla and in Mexico it varies from rice, to meat (plain or in sauce) to vegetables and cheese. Preferred fillings vary from place to place with pork generally found more often in the centre and south, beef in the north, seafood along the coasts and chicken in most of the country.
Another popular street food, especially in Mexico City and the surrounding area is the torta. It consists of a roll of some type, stuffed with several ingredients. This has its origins in the 19th century, when the French introduced a number of new kinds of bread. The torta began by splitting the roll and adding beans. Today, refried beans can be still be found on many kinds of tortas. In Mexico City, the most common roll used for tortas is called Telera, a relatively flat roll with two splits on the upper surface. In Puebla, the preferred bread is called a cemita, as is the sandwich. In both areas, the bread is stuffed with various fillings, especially if it is a hot sandwich, with beans, cream (mayonnaise is rare) and some kind of hot chilli pepper.
In the 20th century, U.S. influence has been strong. One example of this is the appearance of the hot dog, but prepared Mexican style. They are usually boiled then wrapped in bacon and fried. They are served in the usual bun, but the condiments are usually some combination of tomatoes, onions and chilli peppers.
Regional Mexican Cuisines
The foods eaten in what is now the north of Mexico have differed from the south since the pre-Hispanic era. Here the indigenous people were hunter-gatherers with limited agriculture and settlements because of the arid land.
When the Spanish arrived, they found much of the land suitable for cattle, goats and sheep grazing. This led to the dominance of meat, especially beef, found in the region’s most popular dishes: machaca, arrachera and cabrito. The distinctive cooking technique is grilling, as the ranch culture promoted outdoor cooking done by men. The ranch culture has also prompted cheese production and the north produces the widest varieties of cheese in Mexico. These include queso fresco (fresh farmer’s cheese), ranchero (similar to Monterey Jack), cuajada (a mildly sweet, creamy curd of fresh milk), requesón (similar to cottage cheese or riccotta), Chihuahua’s creamy semi-soft queso menonita and fifty-six varieties of asadero (smoked cheese).
Another important aspect of northern cuisine is the presence of wheat, especially the use of flour tortillas. The area has at least forty different types of flour tortillas. The main reason for this is that much of the land supports wheat production, introduced by the Spanish. These large tortillas allowed for the creation of burritos, usually filled with machaca in Sonora, which eventually gained popularity in the Southwest United States.
The variety of foodstuffs in the north is not as varied as in the south of Mexico because of the mostly desert climate. Much of the cuisine of this area is dependent on food preservation techniques, namely dehydration, canning and cheese-making. Dried foods include meat, chilli peppers, squash, peas, corn, lentils, various beans and dried fruit. A number of these are also canned. Preservation techniques change the flavour of foods; for example, many chilli peppers are less hot after drying.
The north has seen waves of immigration by Chinese, Mormon, and Mennonites, who have influenced the cuisines in areas such as Chihuahua and Baja California.
The cooking of Oaxaca remained more intact after the Conquest as the Spanish took the area with less fighting and less disruption of the economy and food production systems. However, it was the first area to experience the mixing of foods and cooking while central Mexico was still recuperating. The state has a wide variety of ecosystems despite its size and a wide variety of native foods. Vegetables are grown in the central valley, seafood is abundant on the coast and the area bordering Veracruz grows tropical fruits. Much of the state’s cooking is influenced by that of the Mixtec and to a lesser extent, the Zapotec. Later in the colonial period, Oaxaca lost its position as a major food supplier and the area’s cooking returned to a more indigenous style, keeping only a number of foodstuffs such as chicken and pork. It also adapted mozzarella cheese, brought by the Spanish and modified it to what is known now as Oaxaca cheese.
One major feature of Oaxacan cuisine is its seven moles, next to mole poblano in importance. The seven are Negro (black), Amarillo (yellow), Coloradito (little red), Mancha Manteles (table cloth stainer), Chichilo (smoky stew), Rojo (red), and Verde (green).
Corn is the staple food. Tortillas are called blandas and part of every meal. It is also used to make empanadas, tamales and more. Black beans are favoured often served in soup, and a sauce for enfrijoladas. Oaxaca’s regional chilli peppers include pasilla oaxaqueña chile (red, hot and smokey) along with amarillos (yellow), chilhuacles, chilcostles and costeños. These along with herbs such as hoja santa give the food its unique taste.
Another important aspect to Oaxacan cuisine is chocolate, generally consumed as a beverage. It is frequently hand ground and combined with almonds, cinnamon and other ingredients.
See also: Oaxacan cuisine
See also: Yucatan cuisine
The food of the Yucatán peninsula is distinct from the rest of the country. It is based on Mayan food with influences from the Caribbean, central Mexico, European, especially French and Middle Eastern cultures . Like in other areas of Mexico, corn is the basic staple, as both a liquid and solid food. One common way of consuming corn, especially by the poor, is a thin drink or gruel of fermented corn called by various names such as pozol or posolli.
One of the main spices is the annatto seed, called achiote in Spanish. It gives food a reddish colour with a slightly peppery smell with a hint of nutmeg. Recados are a seasoning paste based on achiote used mostly on chicken. Recado rojo is used for the area’s best-known dish, cochinita pibil. Pibil refers to the cooking method, generally wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a pit oven. Various meats are cooked this way. Habanero chillies are another distinctive ingredient, but they are generally served as (part of) condiments on the side rather than integrated into the dishes.
One feature in Yucatan cooking is tropical fruits such as tamarind, plums, mamey, avocados and bitter oranges, the last often used in the region’s distinctive salsas. Honey was used long before the arrival of the Spanish, used to sweeten foods and to make a ritual alcoholic drink called balché. Today a honey liquor called xtabentun is still made and consumed. The coast areas feature seafood, especially esmedregal, a type of jack fish, which is fried and served with the spicy salsa de chile xcatic. Other fish dishes include those in spicy chilli pepper sauces and those in achiote paste .
Street food in the area usually consists of snacks made of cooked corn dough and fruit-flavoured ices. The snacks include brazo de reina and papadzules.
The main feature of Mexico City cooking is that it has been influenced that those of the other regions of Mexico as well as a number of foreign influences. This is because Mexico City has been a center for migration of people from all over Mexico since pre-Hispanic times. Many of the ingredients of this area’s cooking are not grown here, such as tropical fruits. Street cuisine is very popular with taco stands, torta (sandwich) shops and lunch counters on every street. Popular foods in the city include barbacoa (a specialty of the central highlands), birria (from western Mexico), cabrito (from the north), carnitas (originally from Michoacán), various moles (from Puebla and central Mexico), tacos with many different fillings and large sub-like sandwiches called tortas. There are eateries that specialize in pre-Hispanic food including dishes with insects. This is also the area where most of Mexico’s haute cuisine can be found.
West of Mexico City are the states of Michoacán, Jalisco and Colima as well as the Pacific coast. The cuisine of Michoacan is based on the Purepecha culture, which still dominates most of the state. The area has a large network of rivers and lakes which provide fish. Its use of corn is perhaps the most varied. While atole is drunk in most parts of Mexico, it is made with more different flavours in Michoacán, including blackberry, cascabel chilli and more. Tamales come in different shapes, wrapped in corn husks. These include those folded into polyhedrons called corundas and can vary in name if the filling is different. In the Bajío area, tamales are often served with a meat stew called churipo, which is flavoured with cactus fruit.
The main Spanish contributions to Michoacán cuisine are rice, pork and spices. One of the best-known dishes from the state is morisquesta, which is a sausage and rice dish, closely followed by carnitas, which is deep-fried pork. The latter can be found in many parts of Mexico, often claimed to be authentically Michoacán. Other important ingredients in the cuisine include wheat (where bread symbolises fertility) found in breads and pastries. Another is sugar, giving rise to a wide variety of desserts and sweets such as fruit jellies and ice cream, mostly associated with the town of Tocumba. The town of Cotija has a cheese named after it. The local alcoholic beverage is charanda, with is made with fermented corn.
The cuisine of the states of Jalisco and Colima is noted for dishes such as birria, chilayo, menudo and various pork dishes. Jalisco’s cuisine is known for tequila with the liquor produced only in certain areas allowed to use the name. The cultural and gastronomic centre of the area is Guadalajara, an area where both agriculture and cattle raising have thrived. The best-known dish from the area is birria, a stew of beef, mutton or pork with chilli peppers and various spices. One important street food is Tortas Ahogadas, where the torta (sandwich) is “drowned” in a chilli sauce. Near Guadalajara is the town of Tonalá, known for its pozole, a hominy stew said to have been originally created with human flesh. The area which makes tequila surrounds the city. A popular local drink is tejuino, made from fermented corn and very cold or iced.
On the Pacific coast seafood is common, generally cooked with various European spices along with chilli peppers, and is often served with a spicy salsa. Favoured fish varieties include marlin, swordfish, snapper, tuna, shrimp and octopus. Tropical fruits are also important. The cuisine of the Baja California peninsula is especially heavy on seafood, with the widest variety. It also features a mild green chilli pepper as well as dates, especially in sweets.
See also: Veracruz cuisine
The cuisine of Veracruz is a mix of indigenous, Afro-Cuban and Spanish. The indigenous contribution is in the use of corn as a staple as well as vanilla (native to the state), and herbs called acuyo and hoja santa. It is also supplemented by a wide variety of tropical fruits such as papaya, mamey and zapote along with the introduction of citrus and pineapple by the Spanish. The Spanish also introduced European herbs such as parsley, thyme, marjoram, bay laurel, cilantro and others which characterise much of the state’s cooking. They are found in the best known dish of the region Huachinango a la Veracruzana, a red snapper dish. The Afro-Cuban influence is from the importation of slaves through the Caribbean, who brought the peanut with them, which had earlier been introduced to Africa by the Portuguese. This influence can be seen in dishes such as pollo encacahuatado or chicken in peanut sauce. Other African ingredients often found in the state include plantains, yucca and sweet potatoes. As it borders the Gulf coast, seafood figures prominently in most of the state. The state’s role as a gateway to Mexico has meant that the dietary staple of corn is less evident than in other parts of Mexico, with rice a heavy favourite. However corn dishes such as garnachas, a kind of corn cake, are readily available, especially in the mountain areas were indigenous influence is strongest.
See also: Chiapas cuisine
Like elsewhere in Mexico, corn is the dietary staple and indigenous elements are still strong in the cuisine. Along with a chilli pepper called simojovel, used nowhere else in the country, the cuisine is also distinguished by the use of herbs such as chipilín and hierba santa. Like in Oaxaca, tamales are usually wrapped in banana leaves (or sometimes with the leaves of hoja santa), but often chipilín is incorporated into the dough. As in the Yucatan, fermented corn is drunk as a beverage called pozol, but here it is usually flavoured with chocolate. The favoured meats are beef, pork and chicken (introduced by the Spanish), especially in the highlands, which favours the raising of livestock. The livestock industry has also prompted the making of cheese, mostly done on ranches and in small cooperatives, with the best known from Ocosingo, Rayón, Chiapas and Pijijiapan. Meat and cheese dishes are frequently accompanied by vegetables such as squash, chayote and carrots.