Who doesn’t love Mexican food? It is rich, spicy, colorful, and incredibly unique in its use of flavors. Learn about the history of Mexican food and how this kind of food has made its place in the world of fine cuisine.
To read about a country’s cuisine isn’t simply to go looking for ‘good things’; it is also to better know by means of the recipes – the customs and the richness or poverty of a place, and the spirit of those who inhabit it. It is, above all, to participate in the symbolic celebration of the shared repast. ~ Ginette Olivesi-Lorenzias
Mexican food is one of the most popular cuisines of the world, with its famous tacos, nachos or the enchiladas. Mexican gastronomical delights have titillated the taste buds of food-lovers all over the world. Popular Mexican dishes are now available in multi-cuisine restaurants across the globe. However, Mexican cuisine is much more than the popular spicy salsa and the refreshing guacamole. Here is an attempt to fathom the various culinary influences that have led to the emergence of this rich and colorful cuisine.
Influences on Mexican Cuisine
Mexican cuisine has a wide variety of influences owing to the colonization in the earlier period, and later to the trade functions between people from various countries and colonies. Mexican cuisine is thus a resultant of several diverse culinary influences. It is a concoction of diverse cooking styles and ingredients in various cultures.
Mayan Influence on Mexican Cuisine: Comida Prehispánica
One of the earliest influences on Mexican food was the culinary influence of the Mayan Indians who were traditionally nomadic hunters and gatherers. The Mayan Indians lived in the Yucatan area in Southeast Mexico. Owing to the fact that the Mayan Indians were hunters, their food basically included animals like raccoons, deer, rabbits, armadillos, rattle snakes, iguanas, spider monkeys, pigeons, turtles, frogs, turkeys, and even several insects. Other accompaniments included tropical fruits, beans and corn. Although some of those influences are still retained, this kind of food is now known as pre-Hispanic cuisine or comida prehispánica, which is considered to be a rather exotic cuisine in Mexico.
Mexican Cuisine in the Pre-Columbian Era
Yo soy como el chile verde, picante pero sabroso. ~ La Llorona (I am like the green chili, hot but tasty.)
These are the lines borrowed from a famous folk song of Mexico. These lines very accurately describe Mexican cuisine of the Pre-Columbian period. Before the influence of Europe, Mexican diet was quite simple and was limited to the locally grown agricultural products, especially corn, chilies and beans. Corn was the most popular and most widely used ingredient in the pre-Columbian period. Some of the popular cooking methods for consumption of corn were corn tortillas and tamales, which involved the inclusion of corn into various flour preparations. In addition to this, the corn products were often complemented with ingredients like tomatoes and chilies. Early Mexican cuisine also included a wide variety of herbs and mushrooms.
With the Spanish invasion in 1521, there was a prominent Spanish influence on Mexican food, be it in terms of the ingredients used or the cooking methods. When the Spanish soldiers arrived in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, they found that people’s diet consisted largely of corn-based dishes with chilies and herbs, which was usually accompanied by beans and tomatoes. The soldiers eventually combined their imported diet of rice, beef, pork, chicken, wine, garlic and onions with the native foods of pre-Columbian Mexico, which included tomatoes, beans, chocolate, corn, vanilla, avocado, papaya, pineapple, chili peppers, squash, sweet potato, peanuts, fish and turkey. Spanish influences led to the emergence of dishes such as lomo en adobo (pork loin in a spicy sauce), chile rellenos (large, mild-flavored chilies stuffed with cheese, beef or pork), and the quesadillas or the very popular guacamole, which have been a part of the traditional Mexican food ever since.
French Influence: La Comida Afrancescada
When the French occupied Mexico, they introduced a wide variety of baked foods into the region. Mexican sweet breads and bolillo are some of the examples of French influences on their food. It is believed that the French cooking techniques along with the Mexican ingredients made an excellent gastronomic combination. Native Mexican ingredients like squash blossoms and avocados were just perfect for the French style mousse, crepes and soups. The empire of Maximilian and the presidency of Porfirio Díaz were influential in promoting the French style of cooking in Mexican cuisine. An interesting find about the French influence on Mexican cooking is a menu dated March 29, 1865, which is written in French. It includes a five course meal including two soups, five fish and shellfish dishes, five meat dishes and side dishes, desserts, champagne, and French, Hungarian and even Rhenish wines.
Other Minor Influences on the Mexican Cuisine
In due course of time, Mexican cuisine experienced a wide range of culinary influences, ranging from Caribbean, South American, West African, to the Portuguese, that led to the emergence of a highly diverse cooking style, which also varied from region to region. Mexican cuisine also has a minor Filipino influence owing to the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade from 1565 to 1815.
Popularity of Mexican Cuisine in America: Tex-Mex
The popularity of Mexican cuisine has led to the emergence of several variations of this cuisine in other countries. The Tex-Mex cuisine evolved in Texas-Mexico in Southwest America, and is a modification of traditional cuisine with an unusual American touch to it. One of the best examples of the Tex-Mex cuisine is the ‘refried beans’, which is a term that has actually been coined in Texas, and is the translation of the Mexican term ‘Frijoles refritos’. The Tex-Mex cuisine is however quite different from original Mexican cuisine, even though it might include the same ingredients to a certain extent. Similarly, there also exists a ‘New Mexican Cuisine’, a type of regional cuisine originating from the state of New Mexico in USA and in southern Colorado, and is a subset of Mexican-American cuisine.
Mexican Cuisine Today
Mexican cuisine is a blend of all the above-mentioned influences. However, there still exists diversity in the cuisine according to the regional differences in Mexico. Mexican food varies by region, and is influenced by the local climate, geography, and ethnic differences among the inhabitants. Northern Mexico is famous for its beef production and meat dishes, whereas southeastern Mexico is known for its spicy vegetable and chicken-based preparations. On the other hand, seafood is commonly prepared in the states of Mexico which border the Pacific Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. Here are the common dishes that comprise Mexican food.
- Frijoles negros (Black beans)
- Ensalada de fruta (Fruit salad)
- Arroz Verde (Green rice)
- Arroz Español (Spanish rice)
- Arroz con lima (Lemon rice)
- Arroz Amarillo (Yellow rice)
- Arroz con pollo (Chicken rice)
- Arroz con camarones (Rice with shrimp)
We can see that Mexican cuisine gets its variety in taste and color as a result of a varied cultural influence. Another good reason to gorge on this cuisine is the richness in proteins that the food offers. Go ahead and allure your taste buds. Bon appetit!