Mexican food is one of the most popular cuisines globally. It has evolved with Mexico through its history with the Mayans and Aztecs, and eventually the numerous countries that have colonized Mexico or made trade on her shores.
Mexican cuisine is a combination of Mesoamerican (Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Northern Costa Rica and the Honduras) and Spanish cuisine. The Spanish influence came via the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in the 1500’s.
The indigenous people of Mesoamerica probably hunted game and gathered plants like wild chili peppers for food. In 7000 BC, corn was not yet cultivated so it’s highly likely that the natives feasted on a lot of roasted agave hearts.
By 1200 BC, corn had already been cultivated and the ingenious natives developed a process (called nixtamalization) to soften corn for grinding and properly extract nutrients from it. The early Mexican diet comprised mostly of carbohydrates. There were no domesticated animals to get meat and dairy products from, so a lot of the early Mesoamericans had bone problems.
When the Spaniards colonized Mexico, they brought with them a variety of food and cooking techniques from Europe. In the hopes of recreating their home cuisine in their adopted home, they introduced herbs like oregano and coriander, spices like cinnamon, onions, garlic and cloves, as well as rice, a carbohydrate rich grain that would soon become one of Mexican cuisine’s staple foods. The Spanish also introduced the domestication of pigs, chicken, lamb and goat and the use of milk to make various dairy products like cheese.
The early Mesoamericans were also known for their use of cocoa beans for rituals, food, drink and medicine.
Even with the growing influence of foreign culture on Mexican cuisine the staples of Mexican food remain. Today, Mexican cuisine revolves around corn, corn products, chili, beans, rice and protein.
Another indispensable part of the cuisine is the use of mole and salsa.
Mole is a broad term that refers to the different types of sauces that are used in Mexican cuisine. These sauces can be made with fruit, as in guacamole, or with chilies and chocolate. Some moles can have as many as 23 herbs and spices in them!
One of the most recognizable features of Mexican food is the abundant use of chili. Whether stuffed, roasted, ground, pickled, canned or turned into a mole, Mexicans can find any way to use locally grown chili. If not for Mexican food we would not realize the broad spectrum of tastes offered by chilies. Some, like the habanero, can be off-the-scale-hot while others, like the poblano chili, can be mildly spicy and taste slightly fruity.
Corn is also one of the mainstays of Mexican cuisine, in which corn becomes so much more than just corn on the cob, it turns itself into thin tortillas (an edible vessel of many Mexican dishes) and even into dough. Originating in Mesoamerica, the process of nixtamalization is responsible for the endless ways in which corn is used today. This process of soaking or cooking corn in an alkaline solution increases the nutritional value of corn, improves its taste and allows it to be used as dough. After being transformed by nixtamalization, corn can now be enjoyed as tortillas and tamales.
GLOBALIZATION OF MEXICAN FOOD
In Mexico, Mexican food remains largely regional. Depending on what’s readily available, the northern areas of Mexico use a lot of meat in their dishes, while those in the south depend largely on chicken and vegetables. Those who live in the coastal areas have an abundance of seafood in their diet. Most areas will have their own regional variation of tacos, salsas and tamales.
The globalization of Mexican food can be traced back to the early Mexican-American or Tex-Mex food. California, Texas and New Mexico already had thriving Mexican communities. So when the mining and defense industries started bringing more people into these areas, Americans started taking an interest in Mexican food. Offering their own takes on the traditional dishes and taking it home for their families and friends to enjoy.
Nowadays, Mexican food or rather Tex-Mex can be found all over the U.S. and all over the world.
AUTHENTIC MEXICAN DISHES
Now that we’ve discussed about the history of Mexican cuisine and its basics let me take you to a short run through some authentic Mexican food.
Tamales have an interesting story to tell. Made of masa (corn dough), the dough is apportioned into single servings stuffed with either savory or sweet fillings, wrapped in corn husks and steamed. These portable tamales were invented as a way for Mexican warriors to have nutritious meals while they were away waging war.
First nixtamalization and then tamales, these Aztecs definitely know what they’re doing.
Used either as a topping or a side dish, this is one of the most popular Mexican dishes. The flavors seem so complex and so gourmet you would be surprised to know that this dish dates all the way back to the Aztecs – again, what is it with these guys and ingenuity? Guacamole is basically mashed avocado mixed with onions, lime juice, tomatoes, chili peppers and some herbs. These are sometimes eaten with tortillas, kind of like as a dip.
Enchiladas are a relatively newer addition to Mexican cuisine. A dish that is traditionally served with cheese, only the wealthy natives of Spanish decent were able to afford this cheesy and meaty dish. A filling of meat, poultry or fish is seasoned with traditional Mexican spices and placed in the middle of softened tortillas. Softening the tortillas, especially nowadays when they are no longer made fresh every day, is crucial because dry tortillas tend to break when folded. On top of the protein filling you can add beans, tomatoes and cheese. You then roll the tortilla and place it flap side down onto a baking tray. Cover it with sauce, sprinkle with some more cheese and bake.