Mexican food – authentic ones, and not those watered-down fast-food tacos and breakfast burritos either – have enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years. Mexico has a rich history influenced by different cultures and this has brought about a unique taste that cannot be mistaken for anything else.
What opened people’s eyes to the wonderful Mexican traditions revolving around food was the best-selling novel, Like Water for Chocolate. Native food has such an enduring effect that even today, many farmers refer to themselves as “el hombre del maiz.” The honor of being called men of corn was great because their ancient ancestors, the Mayans, Aztecs, and Toltecs valued corn because of all its uses. Other crops too held great significance in Mexican culture: peanuts, beans, avocados, tomatoes, squash, and coconuts were all traded hundreds of years ago. But none can equal the high regard that native Mexicans place on chocolate – “ the food of the Gods.”
When the Spanish, led by Cortez, occupied Mexico in 1521, the two cultures exchanged foods. The Spanish got a taste of the Aztec’s food and, in turn, they brought in livestock like cows, pigs, and sheep, along with milk and cheese, garlic and other spices, and vegetables like lettuce. Spices were also brought in by the Spanish so cinnamon, oregano, black pepper, and coriander are now staples of Mexican cooking. These ingredients have been so ingrained in Mexican cooking that dishes like cheese quesadillas or grilled beef fajitas are no longer seen as having any foreign influences.
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.
The French also had a role to play. For a brief period, Mexico had been under French rule, so there is a little hint of Gallic flavor to Mexican food. Chilies en nogado comes to mind, a dish made of stuffed chilies 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.
There is one food that is unmistakably Mexican. Chili peppers have as many varieties as spellings – “chili,” “chile” or “chilies” – they are some of the most potent flavorings around. Whether, they are used in sauces or stuffed like poblano peppers, or used to give dishes a kick like jalapenos and habaneros, chilies are one food that is definitely Mexican.