Mexican cuisine, which is famous for its bold spices and colorful combinations, is a product of varying indigenous and foreign cultures: pre-Columbian Mexico, Spain, the Southwestern United States, etc. Most of its principal ingredients, notably corn, chili peppers, and cocoa, are native to the country’s original crop production, and many of its most pervasive culinary themes are present in the majority of its dishes. On top of that, the popularity of Mexican or “Mexican-inspired” cuisine cannot be denied. Traditional Mexican cuisine is growing in popularity, and Taco Bell, a franchised fast-food establishment offering an intensely Americanized “Tex-Mex” menu, did $3.8 billion in sales during 2006. Still, “Mexican” cuisine has not always been widely recognized as a distinct form of culinary creation. In fact, it was not until November 2010 that the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized “Mexican cuisine” as a piece of “intangible cultural heritage.” This is due, in part, to the manner in which Mexican cuisine has developed, which is by way of significant influence and fusion.
Corn and rice are the most common grains utilized in Mexican cuisine. Corn is converted into “masa,” which serves as a dough base for tortillas and tamales. Rice, which was not introduced to Mexican society until the 1520s, acts as a conduit for a vast array of Mexican herbs and spices. That list of herbs and spices is long and complex, spanning from sweet to savory and spicy to mild. However, chiles, oregano, cilantro, and cocoa largely dominate Mexico’s list of spices, while honey acts a major player in many traditional desserts, such as “rosca de miel.” In the same vein, the alcoholic beverages of Mexico are predominantly comprised of tequila, especially given the contemporaneous popularity of international tequila brands. That being said, only the states of Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacan, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas are allowed to produce “Mexican tequila,” and the most authentic tequila supposedly comes from the highlands of Jalisco. At the same time, Mexico is also known for “mescal” and “pulque” liquors, and beer has its own history in Mexican culture.
As mentioned previously, Mexican cuisine is the product of various cultures, both indigenous and foreign. Corn, or “maize,” is thought to have originated in Mexico. When the Spanish conquistadores arrived in Mexico in the early 16th century, corn and beans, as well as a large palate of spices, were already present in Mexican food. At the same time, the Spanish introduced many culinary “crops” to the native environment, such as cattle, chickens, pigs, wheat, barley, rice, olive oil, and wine. Apart from their use as meat, the European influx of livestock also brought cheese and cheese-making to the Mexican culinary landscape. Prior to the European influence, dairy products were nonexistent in the Mexican diet. Nowadays, there are between 20 and 40 different varieties of cheese in Mexico, which are produced by both small households and large dairy production companies. All of these European influxes would find a home in the developing Mexican cuisine, and many of them are now indistinguishable from the wholly indigenous ingredients of the Mexican kitchen.
Due to Mexico’s large size, changing geography, and diverse climate, its cuisine varies considerably from region to region. For example, while Northern Mexico is famous for its beef, in particularly a grilled meat dish called “carne asada,” Southeastern Mexico favors chicken-based dishes. While the spice palate of the Yucatan region is characterized by a marked sweetness, the flavors of the Oaxacan region include mostly spicy and savory dishes, especially tamales. While the Yucatan region is home to “Cochinita pibil,” a slow-roasted pork dish, nearly all regions bordering the ocean or Gulf of Mexico incorporate seafood and Caribbean influences into their unique cuisine. In contrast, however, there is Central Mexico, which exhibits influence from all corners of the country.
Outside of Mexico, Mexican cuisine exerts a heavy degree of influence. In particular in the cuisines of the Southwestern United States, the present of Mexican-inspired food is glaringly obvious. However, it is generally observed that the farther one gets away from the cuisine’s country of origin, the less authentic and traditional are the ingredients and cooking methods of the kitchen. For example, the Mexican cuisine largely adopted by the Southwestern United States is full of Americanized concepts, substituted ingredients, and wholly invented dishes, resulting in what is known as “Tex-Mex” or “West-Mex” cuisine. This style of cooking, though greatly influenced by Mexican cuisine, is a far cry from that of native Mexicans or even the traditional cuisine of the Southwestern United States. Instead, it is a fusion of United States ingredients and Mexican-American dishes—a product of immigration and invention. For instance, “Nachos,” while widely popular in the United States, have no place in traditional Mexican cuisine, apart from their loose relation to Totopos. What’s more, American-style cheese is often substituted for Mexican panela cheese, making “authentic” Mexican food a difficult find in the United States.
Adam M. Kowalski