Photo by Pablo de Aguinaco

Mexican cuisine is one of the best known and loved the world over, and for a reason, its flavors, sometimes robust and varied and sometimes mild and subtle, always have a haunting, mysterious quality that hints at the range of spices, herbs and condiments that it uses. Mexican food can be delightfully different from the stereotypes of the greasy and excessively spicy versions that are often served in less than authentic restaurants around the globe. In terms of diversity of tastes and textures, Mexican cuisine is one of the richest in the world. It is essentially a ‘hybrid food’ that developed over five centuries of blending of the Prehispanic cooking traditions with ingredients and techniques borrowed from Europe, mostly Spain and France.

Prehispanic Cooking

The Spanish conquistadores (led by Hernan Cortes) arrived in the Aztec capital (the area where current Mexico City is situated) in 1521. They observed that the local populations subsisted largely on corn-based dishes such as tamales and tortillas, beans, and squash which they flavored with herbs and a large variety of chiles. Historical research suggests that even though the Aztecs ate a variety of different stews and roasted meats, their diet relied extensively on plant life. The cornerstone of such a diet was provided by maize, squash, beans, chile, and agave, which together formed the culinary base of Prehispanic cuisine. Over the years, ingredients such as chayote, amaranto, avocados, sweet potatoes, and other aromatic plants and herbs were added to the everyday diet. However, maize continued to be the dominant food in Prehispanic culture, and it was (and is) prepared and consumed in solid, powdered, and liquid forms. The Aztecs consumed the entire corn plant using a variety of cooking and preparation techniques. Young and tender ears of corn were consumed fresh without any cooking. The more mature corn was boiled, steamed, or roasted and used in stews. The most exotic maize product the Aztecs used was huitlacoche, which is a purple colored corn fungus. This was (and is) typically combined with squash blossoms and served in stews or stuffed into tortillas. The corn silk was boiled into a tea, and corn worms were eaten in stews or in tortillas. Masa – dough made of ground corn – was used to prepare tamales and tortillas. Prehispanic tamales were filled with meats, fruits, beans, corn, corn tassel, frogs, fish, and worms. The tamales varied in shape from elongated to square. For special occasions, the surface of the tamale was decorated with drawings made with beans. There are historical accounts of a three-foot long tamale that the Mayas prepared in honor of their beloved departed. Before the conquest, tortillas also served as a symbol of status: the tortillas eaten on a daily basis by the members of the upper class were white, warm, folded, and served covered with a white cloth. The working classes ate tortillas that were white, thick, large, and coarse. Tortillas known as tortillas decoradas or tortillas ceremoniales were prepared for special occasions, and ranged from purple, bright yellow, blue and red in color.

In addition to corn, Prehispanic cuisine utilized an enormous variety of plants, vegetables, fruits, condiments and aromatic herbs that were used to flavor, garnish, and decorate. The avocado garnished different kinds of foods and served as filling in tacos. The avocado leaves were used as a flavoring for different varieties of beans. Another important plant in the culinary base of Prehispanic cooking was the tomato; the Aztecs used both the green (tomatillos) and the red. Tomatoes were an important ingredient in all manner of stews, sauces, and beans, and garnished other foods, like tacos and avocados. Chile added the zing to many kinds of foods. There were many different kinds of chiles: green, yellow, red, dried, and smoked, and their sizes ranged from the small to large. Over one hundred varieties of chiles were sold in the marketplaces. The vegetables, fruits, chile sauces, and cooking techniques that were the result of the merger of Spanish and Prehispanic traditions continue to influence modern Mexican cuisine. The result of this gastronomic marriage is the development of a Mestizo cuisine which is the everyday food of most modern day Mexicans.

Conquest and Introduction of Spanish Ingredients

The original diet of the conquistadores consisted of rice, beef, pork, chicken, wine, garlic, and onions which they brought with them from Spain. Over the years, they expanded their repertoire to include ingredients of pre-Columbian Mexico – most notably chocolate maize, tomato, vanilla, avocado, papaya, pineapple, chile pepper, beans, squash, sweet potato, peanuts, and turkey. Additionally, the Spaniards imported into Mexico animals such as horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens. Among the condiments that they introduced were olive oil, cinnamon, parsley, cilantro, oregano, saffron, cloves and black pepper as also nuts and grains such as almonds, rice, wheat, and barley; and fruit and vegetables such as apples, oranges, grapes, lettuce, carrots, cauliflowers, potatoes and sugarcane.

During colonial times, the more prolific Spanish women and members of Spanish religious orders invented much of today’s more sophisticated fare. Nuns pioneered such delights as the candy called cajeta, the fritter like buñuelos, and the egg-based liqueur called rompope. Dishes such as Lomo en adobo (pork loin in a spicy sauce), chiles rellenos (chilies stuffed with cheese, beef or pork), guacamole (avocado, tomato, onion, chili and cilantro), and escabeche (marinades) were also widely used during the colonial period. Alongside the nuns, the priests planted trees and vegetables and raised cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and other animals. Apart from the meat, milk was also produced, and this led to the production of cream and cheese. The priests introduced a calendar of festive events that related to the religious life cycle, and, over the years, typical foods and dishes became strongly associated with these.

Between 1864 and 1867, Mexico was ruled by the former Austrian archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, and during this period French-inspired Mexican dishes such as chiles en nogado (stuffed chilies in a walnut sauce), and conejo en mostaza (rabbit in mustard sauce) were introduced.

Modern Day Mexican Cuisine

Modern day Mexican cuisine is a blend of the Prehispanic and Spanish traditions and, being a hybrid cuisine, contains a very rich variety of vegetable, and meat and seafood dishes. There is also a very rich tradition of baking and bread making, with a special focus on sweet breads (Pan de dulce). The Caribbean influence in Mexican cuisine can be felt particularly in some regional dishes from the states of Veracruz and Yucatan. Mexican food varies by region because of local climate, geography and ethnic differences among the indigenous inhabitants, and also because the different populations were influenced by the Spaniards in varying degrees. The north of Mexico is known for its beef production and meat dishes; southeastern Mexico, on the other hand, is known for its spicy vegtable and chicken-based dishes. Veracruz-style is a common method of preparing seafood. Mexican cuisine has also been combined with the cuisine of the southwest United States to form TexMex cuisine.

During much of its recent history Mexican society has been divided into fairly distinct upper and lower strata, and these two strata eat different foods. The upper classes benefited disproportionately from all the various influences and additions to the local fare over centuries. The lower classes and particularly the indigenous peoples still live on a diet that consists mainly of beans and corn tortillas, with a smattering of other foods, acquired locally. One could thus conclude that we do have amongst us even today people whose diet differs little from what their ancestors ate almost 600 years ago.

Chocolate and Vanilla?

In 1519, when the first Spanish conquistadors entered the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, they found that the Aztec emperor Montezuma was extremely fond of a drink made from vanilla and chocolate, which was sweetened with honey. This was a native Mexican-Indian food that was probably introduced by the Maya and later relished throughout Mesoamerica. Vanilla planifolia – whose fruit-pod is popularly known as a vanilla bean – comes from a species of the Mexican orchid. Chocolate comes from the fruit of the Mexican Theobroma cacao tree .The plant was regarded by the Aztecs as being of divine origin. They used the tree’s beans as currency – 100 beans would buy a slave, 12 beans the services of a courtesan and 10 beans a rabbit.

Nutritionally Mexican

Corn and beans were the two main foods of indigenous Mexicans, and much of modern day Mexican cuisine is based on these two ingredients. The extraordinary thing about this is the fact that corn and beans have “complimentary amino acids.” Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, which the body absolutely needs. If any one of several amino-acids is missing from a person’s diet, then the production of protein is restricted, and the body ceases functioning, or performs at a diminished level. On their own, neither corn nor beans supply the full complement of amino acids needed for protein synthesis. However, put together, they supply the full complement of amino acids needed. Interestingly, other combinations, such as rice and corn, wheat and rice, corn and potatoes, or potatoes and beans, do not provide the full complement of amino acids.

-November 2006