The flavors of Mexico have been integrated into the culture of the southwest border states for well over a century and in recent decades, the love for Mexican cuisine has spread from coast to coast and border to border. There are now Mexican restaurants around the country, from fast food establishments selling generic Mexican fare to fine dining on sophisticated Mexican cuisine.
When the Spanish invaded Mexico, they found the indigenous people subsisting on a staple of corn. These Indian corn cakes eventually evolved into thin flattened discs and these tortillas have been the country’s staple ever since. Tortillas are served with every meal and in the northern regions, flour tortillas (Tortillas de harina) are prevalent and are much favored by Americans.
Tacos and Burros
Tacos can be prepared with either corn or flour tortillas. ‘Gringo’ tacos are corn tortillas fried into a crunchy shell. In Mexico, the tortillas are simply heated on a griddle or grill, folded and filled with meat, chicken, pork or fish. Throughout Mexico, carne asada stands are abundant and the grilled, chopped steak tacos are garnished with pickled onions, salsas, cabbage, guacamole and are given a liberal squirt of lime juice.
Burros are made with large flour tortillas filled with meat or scrambled eggs, cheese is often added and they are rolled into a cylinder. Burros can be served plain with sides of guacamole and sour cream, prepared enchilada style, covered with a tangy red sauce or as chimichangas that are lightly fried for a crisp flakey shell.
Tamales and Enchiladas
Tamales are an ancient food that originated with the Maya and Aztec civilizations and can be traced back 7000 years. Tamales were a portable food that was used to support armies, hunters and long distance travelers. Tamales are a much loved traditional food and a mainstay of holiday celebrations and festivals. Making tamales is an art and labor intensive taking an entire day to prepare several batches. A starchy dough called masa is prepared and is filled with green chilies or red and green meat concoctions. The tamales are sheathed in corn husks and steamed.
Enchiladas are a taste treat that keeps on giving. Originally, enchiladas were simply corn tortillas that were dipped in chili sauce and eaten, but have become much more. Made with either corn or flour tortillas that are lightly fried, enchiladas are filled with meat, cheese, vegetables, seafood or a combination. They are rolled, placed in a baking dish and covered with a spicy sauce and baked.
Beans and Rice
If there was a national food symbol for Mexico it could well be beans. Beans are served as a side for breakfast, lunch and dinner, prepared various ways for snacks and are an important ingredient of many dishes. There are endless varieties of beans and each household prepares its own interpretation making for a plethora of combinations. Refried beans are cooked then mashed while being fried and end up as a delicious chunky paste that is served everywhere.
When Hernan Cortes landed his forces in Veracruz in the 1520s, he introduced the continent to rice. Rice, like beans, rice is now served with most meals and is often prepared with tomato sauce and a variety of spices.
Mexicans are great lovers of seafood (Mariscos) and along the coasts, the weekends are celebrated with entire families gathering for seafood feasts where clams, mussels, oysters, scallops and fresh fish are consumed with much gusto. Shellfish are eaten raw, steamed or marinated and the fish may be grilled on an open fire or sautéed in butter and garlic. In many areas, fish or other seafood is marinated in lime juice which ‘cooks’ it with the acid and tomato, onions, garlic, chilies and cilantro are added to make a delicious cold cocktail called ceviche.
The food of Mexico goes way beyond the traditional tortillas and beans. Fresh fruit is plentiful and street stands hawk mangos, papayas, bananas, pineapples guava and a great variety of fresh squeezed juices is available.
Mexico also produces a wide variety of cheeses, many are fresh ranch made or there are delicious aged varieties such as Chihuahua.
Chocolate was discovered in Latin America and it utilized in a variety of ways. In the beginning it was prepared as a drink by the indigenous people and is now blended into mole sauces that are spicy and tart.
The many spices of Mexican cooking include oregano, cilantro, chili powder, epazote and cinnamon and the other national symbol, the chili.
There are many varieties of chilies with some being mild and flavorful while others reach nuclear strength. Chilies are a mainstay and will be provided at every meal.