If you are not a Mexican native, it will probably hard for you to make sense of all the different Mexican or Mexican-influenced type of food.
In the UK, Indian Burrito brand Wrapchic has even made the line blurrier by blending flavours of the Indian sub-continent with traditional elements of Mexican cuisine.
Tex-Mex is not either to be considered as traditional Mexican gastronomy has it is essentially the Americanised version of Mexican food, using many ingredients non-native to Mexico’s regions such as grated cheese. Even wheat flour tortillas favoured North of the border but also used in the Northen part of Mexico, could be argued not to be traditional as it wheat was imported by the Spanish colons.
Mexican cuisine, rooted in the Meso-American traditions has been around for more than 9,000 years. The Mayan and Aztecs diets, before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, is argued by some, to be the real true traditional Mexican cuisine.
Amongst the 32 states of Mexico, the Southern regions of the country are considered to be the one which held to the traditional ways the most. Spanish involvement and colonisation effort were not lesser in this part of the country, and the distance with the US-Mexico border has somehow managed to keep thousand of years old traditions alive.
Some staple food is typical to the entire country and can be traced back to the establishment of the Aztec empire by the Mexica (people of the valley of Mexico). Such ingredients include corn, beans, squash, amaranth, chia, avocados, tomatoes, tomatillos, cacao, vanilla, agave, turkey, spirulina, sweet potato, cactus, and chilli pepper.
However, Mexico’s regionalism and the multitude of different Indian indigenous groups inhabiting the country was the source of the vast array of dishes and condiments that constitute what most people consider to be traditional Mexican food.
Mexico counts hundreds of corn varieties. They all vary in size, shape and colours, making for an extremely varied cuisine. (by Global Crop Diversity Trust)
Mexican cuisine would just not be what it is today without one single ingredient: corn. The earliest evidence of domestication of the tall stalky plant has been found in the Balsas River Valley of South Central Mexico. Historians estimated that the native started cultivated it around 9,000 years ago.
From Mexico, maize was then spread throughout South America. Through a careful selection process, Mayas and Aztecs transformed the wild plant, usually only producing a single one-inch cob per plant, into the tall, bulky cob producing plants we know today.
Today corn is the single largest grain produced on the planet with more than 1 billion tons produced in 2017.
More importantly in our case, it is the main ingredients of many Mexican dishes. For example, tortillas, also called blandas, which are made of maize flour, are part of every meal in Mexico.
Many other dishes such as corn torta, tamales, atole, tostadas, gorditas, quesadillas, chilaquiles, enchiladas, chalupas, tacos, basket tacos, tortilla chips are all made with maize.
Corn is not only revered and eaten in Mexico, but it is also consumed in the form of a drink called atole. This traditional beverage dates to the Meso-American period of Mexico and is made using hot corn, masa (corn flour that has been treated through nixtamalization), cane sugar cinnamon, vanilla and chocolate or fruits.
This hot drink is particularly popular during the Christmas holiday season, and it is often consumed during breakfast.
The importance of corn for native Americans dates back to the Mayan who believed that the gods created man using maize. Even though most Mexican describe themselves as Catholics (~83%), many traditional religious beliefs and practices are still prevalent in pueblos (villages), and Mexican celebrate the Day of Maize every year.
No one knows when guacamole was first invented. What is certain is that Spaniards landing in Central America in the early 1500’s were served a dish made of avocados, tomatoes and chillis, all native ingredients found in the region.
Today, most guacamole recipes also use cilantro (coriander) and lime, two other native ingredients even though the avocados used to prepare the world’s favourite dip is a different species than the one used by the Aztecs.
Thanks to Guacamole, avocado sales in the US skyrocketed in recent years. For the last Super Bowl only, more than 5.5 millions kilos of avocados were processed into guacamole.
The name of this typical Mexican dish means merely avocado (“guaca”) sauce (“mole”).
To keep them longer, Mexican dry their chillis which can then be reduced into powder commonly used in Mexican cooking.
Speaking of mole, this term also describes a range of traditional sauces handed from generation to generation. There is a wide variety of Mexican mole, and they all constitute the base of many regional cuisines.
Two different state fight for the bragging rights of mole’s inventions: Puebla and Oaxaca, both in the Southern part of Mexico.
Mole Poblano is probably one of the most famous moles around and is often hailed as the most typical dish of Mexican cuisine. Originating from Puebla, this mole is made of at 20 ingredients or so, but the two most important ones are chilli peppers and chocolate.
Chocolate is used to soften the spiciness of the chilis, and even though it does not dominate the overall taste of the sauce, it gives it its characteristic dark colour. Mole Poblano is usually served with meat cuts at special occasions such as weddings, birthdays, baptism and over the Christmas period. It is also one of the special treats consumed during Cinco de Mayo, an important celebration in Puebla.
Oaxaca, the other state claiming ownership of mole, is also called “the land of seven moles”: mole negro, Colorado, Amarillo, Verde, chichilo, coloradito, and mancha manteles.
Mole Negro is the favourite Oaxaca mole, and it is even darker than the one made in Puebla. Using similar ingredients than mole Poblano, Mole Negro is made unique by using hoja santa, an aromatic herb native to the region.
It is often described by cooks as the most complex and difficult moles to make.
As it was made of corn, Pozole was reserved for special occasions by Aztecs and Mesoamerican natives. It is even though that this soup made of hominy (processed dried corn kernel) was reserved for human sacrifice rituals.
Nothing so grim today, as this soup is mostly served during festive occasions such as Mexico Independence Day or New Year’s Day.
Three variations of the soup are traditionally made:
Pozole is usually served with a series of condiments (chopped onion, shredded lettuce, sliced radish, cabbage, avocado, limes, oregano, tostadas, chicharrónes, or chiles) which everyone can add or not, to taste.
Mexican Street Corn Salad is a very popular snack to eat on the go. (by Martha W McQuade)
The most vital part of traditional Mexican food is the role it plays into the Mexican society, from home-cooked family dinner usually prepared by the women, to the street food culture and the many festivals taking place throughout the year.
Beans, tortillas, soup, broths, and saucy meat dishes make the heart of any traditional home-cooked meal.
Many unique dishes are only served and eaten during festivals.
For example, Rosca de Reyes (meaning king’s ring) are sold during the Three King Festival (the Hispanic name for the Epiphany holiday). Being a Christian celebration, this tradition was not observed by the native Mesoamericans.
However, most Mexican being fervent Catholics, the tradition is very popular and calls for whoever found the baby Jesus figure hidden in the fruitcake to host a party on Candlemas Day, feeding the guests with tamales and atole.
But the most celebrated Mexican holiday is no doubt Dia de Muertos (Day of the dead). The celebration was already observed before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. Aztecs celebrated their dead at the end of summer for a full month and offerings, and prayers were addressed to the Lady of the Dead.
When Christian missionaries introduced the natives to Catholicism, this sacred day was moved on the 2nd of November to follow All Saints’ Day. The resulting holiday is a syncretic celebration incorporating elements of both pre-Colombian heritage and Christian beliefs.
This day is also the occasion to gorge on some of the best traditional Mexican food but also to socialise. Women often gather per neighbourhood or village and cook a huge amount of tamales. Meaning “wrapped”, this dish consists of corn dough (or masa) and some lard of shortening wrapped into a corn husk or, in some parts of Mexico, in banana leaves.
Aztecs used to fill tamales with flamingo, frog or rabbit but these days Mexican prefer less exotic meats such as pork, chicken, salsa or mole. During the festival of the dead, tamales are both used as an offering and comfort food.
Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead) is a sweet roll, decorated with bone-shape pieces supposing to remind us of our departed loved ones. Usually topped with sugar, in some regions of Mexico these buns can be eaten for weeks or even month, before the actual Dia de Muertos.
It is the sum of all these culinary traditions intertwined with both pre-Columbian cultures that have been observed for millennia by native central and South American and the different customs and cooking techniques imported by the Europeans that granted traditional Mexican cuisine the status of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the UNESCO.