When people think Mexican food it is often the same old things that are brought to mind: tacos, burritos, enchiladas..ect. Yet Mexican food is so much more than these things and has a rich history dating back thousands of years to when pre-Colombian peoples ruled large-scale empires in what is now Mexico and Central America, it is older in fact than most European cuisines. Much of Mexico’s cuisine is indeed directly influenced from the imperial conquerors of Spain and later immigrants from France, Germany, England, China and Lebanon. Yet much of the food, especially in central and southern Mexico remains embedded in millennia old traditions of very complicated and labor intensive dishes that always use fresh seasonal ingredients. It is for these reasons that traditional Mexican cuisine is one of only 4 UNESCO designated cuisines with the others being French, Japanese and Malawi cuisine.
When it comes to Mexican food, it seems that the only country in the world that truly understands it, that lives and breathes authenticity is Mexico. Nowhere else in the world can you find food like in Mexico, in my experience every country besides Mexico gets Mexican food wrong. Authentic Mexican food is often only found in the home where traditionally it is mothers and grandmothers passing down the ancient ways of preparation as they time-consumingly slave in the kitchen to perfect the art of a good dish. So let’s go on a magical trip through some of Mexico’s traditional food.
- Mole is a type of sauce that originates in the mesoamerican cultures of Oaxaca and Puebla, Mexico. There are countless variation, each using a variety of different ingredients to create sauces that vary in color, texture, flavor, consistency and spiciness. One of the most famous, indeed some consider it the national dish of Mexico, is mole poblano which mixes a variety of different chilies with Mexican dark chocolate and savory ingredients such as garlic, sesame and cinnamon. The entire process of making one of these sauces from scratch can take several days but the result is a sauce with a perfect balance of salty, sweet and spicy. Typically it is served over chicken or turkey and eaten along with rice and tortillas.
- Pozole, a sort of soup or stew made from hominy corn due to the abundance and variety of Mexican corn also traces its roots to pre-Colombian times when it was part of ritual sacrifices. Nowadays it is eaten primarily for special occasions such as weddings, baptisms and Christmas celebrations. The combination of hominy along with spicy but flavorful dried guajillo and pasillo chilies are a hearty mixture enhanced by the addition of pork, chicken or beef and toppings such as cabbage, radish, oregano and extra chilies.
- Tamales are one of my favorite foods, holding a special place in my heart due to them traditionally eaten for special celebrations, especially Christmas. Different variations exist in different countries but were developed by the Aztecs and Mayans with trade resulting in the spread of the tamal to the Inca Empire and beyond. A tamal consists of corn flour mixed with some type of fat that is spread over a dried corn leaf and filled with anything from beans to fish, chicken to vegetables and cheese to fruits. The leafs are closely bound and each tamal is steamed in a special large pot in order to cook the corn masa (dough). The result is something like a dumpling with a slight taste of cornmeal and a delicious, often spicy filling.
- Chiles en nogada and its counterpart chiles rellenos are made from large poblano chilies that are about the size of a bell pepper. For chiles en nogada, the chili is filled with meat, fruit and spices and walnuts. It is topped with a walnut cream sauce and sprinkled with pomegranates. The green chili, white sauce and red pomegranate seeds stand for the tricolor flag of Mexico since the dish traces its origins to independence. Chiles rellenos in contrast is filled with cheese, battered in eggs and pan-fried after which a spicy sauce made from the chipotle pepper is generously spread on-top.
- Cochinita pibil traces its origins to the time of the Mayas when deer or wild boar were used in the place of pork. Following the arrival of pigs along with Europeans, the dish was the meat was adopted quickly. The dish consists of the meat marinated in achiote, enveloped in a plantain leaf and cooked in an earthen oven. It is garnished with orange juice, onion and habanero chilies. Naturally tortillas are a used to scoop up the meat for eating.
- Birria is a stew made traditionally with lamb or goat marianted in parika and garlic in a sauce of tomatoes and chilies thereby giving it a bit of a strong taste. It is said that birria is a good hangover cure though it is often eaten at special occasions, in particular for weddings, baptisms and sometimes Christmas. It can be garnished with lemon, onions and chili.
- Barbacoa is a Taino way of cooking meat where the word barbecue originates from. Lamb or beef is slow roasted over an open fire or in a hole in the ground covered with maguey leaves until tender. It has a strong, fatty flavor which is helped by the addition of onions and cilantro.
- Gorditas (chubby ones) are another food that is well-known and well-liked due to its relative ease, fillingness and portability. It is a common street food consisting of corn masa filled with a type of meat, beans or with cheese but there are many variations on it. On top of the gordita there is the possibility to add many different toppings such as cream, nopales (cactus), salsa, onions, beans and/or cheese.
- Huaraches, which are also the name of a type of leather sandal, are large flat oblong disks of fried dough with much the same toppings that you’d have with gorditas.
- Chapulines ( grasshoppers) are one of the most ancient foods still eaten in Mexico, especially in areas like Oaxaca where it is often sold as a sports game snack. Due in part to its lack of a taste in itself, chapulines can be infused with virtually any spice from chilies to garlic. After being roasted or lightly toasted they have a crunchy texture which mimics that of tortilla chips but with more protein and nutrients.
- Gusanos de maguey (maguey worms) are caterpillars that burrow into the agave plant. They are a highly nutritious and protein-rich snack that is often fried or roasted and served with some lime and salt.
- Escamol are ant larvae that often burrow under the roots of the agave plant that have been consumed since Aztec times. Their flavor is a mixture between buttery and nutty while the texture is similar to cottage cheese. Escamol is particularly popular in the center and south of the country where it can be prepared as an additive to scrambled eggs, mole or simply fried in butter.
Mexico’s culinary history is very extensive and these dishes in themselves only represent a small portion of the food diversity in the country. On the coasts and in the north of the country the style and ingredients of usage are inherently much different and have their own unique taste to them but we’ll talk about that later.
As for the rest of the world, Mexico’s foods have had a lasting effect on international cuisines. Chocolate (xocolatl in the Aztec language) originated in Mexico, once known as the drink of the gods and drank only by the imperial class of the Aztecs was served hot along with chilies; following the first Spanish conquests in the new World, the drink would quickly make its way to Europe where it would take on the shape that it has today. Chili peppers, now a staple of dishes from Korea to China, India and the Middle East were spread from the New World by the Spanish and Portuguese as were the native crops of Mexico. Tomatoes, corn, potatoes, beans and vanilla are only some of the examples of ingredients that have spread the world over. Despite how little foreigners know of Mexican food, despite the fact that many people only see it in terms of tacos, in almost every cuisine in the world there is always a small taste of Mexico.