Food has always been a large part of Mexico’s identity, dating back the the early Mayan and Aztec civilizations. Mayan and Aztec civilizations were advanced societies in a number of fields such as mathematics, astrology, science, and arguably the most important: agriculture. As a result of agricultural advances and systems, these civilizations had highly developed cuisines, from the foods that they were able to grow (Mellgren). Though Mexican cuisine has both evolved and spread since these early civilizations, they remain the roots that has allowed Mexican cuisine to thrive and expand for thousands of years. Consequently, Mexico has had a significant impact on the world’s table.
In early Mayan and Aztec civilizations, kings and nobles were known for their sophisticated, epicurean taste. The early Aztec staples of the wealthy included “beans, squash, cocoa, chillies, tomatoes, guava, wild turkeys and avocados” (Key Moments in Mexican Food History). They ate fish and game, perfectly spiced at lavish banquets. This required food to be prepared in a careful, meticulous manner, as to appease their taste buds (Key Moments in Mexican Food History). For instance, spices were hand ground and tortillas were hand patted. The creation of a dish received individualized attention. On the other hand, commoners could not afford such extravagant meals, so their diets included corn, beans, squash and chiles. These staples provided a steady base for the growth of Mexican cuisine, though there was no food of greater importance to the Mexicans than corn (Pilcher).
Corn is one of the earth’s oldest foods, that grew in prehistoric times and heavily cultivated by the Aztecs. In 1200 B.C., agricultural advances allowed the Aztecs to understand that corn could not be eaten immediately, and needed to go through a processing technique (Mellgren). The Aztecs called this technique nixtamalization and it involved soaking the corn in ash or a lime solution so that the skin of the grain could be broken down and easily removed. This was “a process that softened corn kernels and released their nutrients” (Key Moments in Mexican Food History). Nixtamalization allowed for corn to be used versatilely. In Mexican cuisine, corn is found in three different forms. These forms include fine masa, which is used to make tortillas, a thicker masa which is used to make tamale or in the form of whole kernels which is used with meats and soups (Melgren). Throughout the history of Mexican cuisine, Masa has remained the most important form, allowing tortillas to form the base for “hundreds of snacks, soups and main dishes” (Melgren). Corn has remained at the heart of Mexican cuisine, for thousands of years.
Though corn was the most important staple of early Mexican civilizations, chile was the most common flavoring. Chiles were mistakenly named peppers, by the spanish, who only had the common black pepper as a reference (Mellgren). In early Mexico, chiles were not only used as a flavor, but they were also treated as a vegetable. Chiles had the flexibility of being chopped, pickled, battered or roasted, allowing diverse usage. Chilies could be used either dried or fresh (Mellgren). In early Mexican civilizations, chiles were most commonly used in salsas or were stuffed with meats and cheeses. Furthermore, the Aztecs used “the smoke from roasting chiles to punish their ill-behaved children” (Key Moments in Mexican Food History). The wide array of uses proved chiles to be extremely versatile in both the Aztec population and throughout the history of Mexican food.
When the Spanish conquistadors came into Mexico, they brought over a variety of unfamiliar new foods, that originally did not sit well with the natives. Wheat, garlic, onions, chickens, pigs and rice were foreign to Mexico, which forced many adaptations to be made. Cultivating wheat in Mexico was high priority, but “before Spaniards established sufficient mills and bakeries, native women prepared the grain in the only manner they knew-as tortillas” (Pilcher). Eventually, both the Spanish and Mexicans learned how to mix ingredients, creating a unique culinary perspective (Mellgren). Traditional staples were now being combined with new flavors and European fusions. For instance, native turkeys were put into Spanish recipes that required chickens, and beans were used instead of Iberian chickpeas (Pilcher). Though at first there was a sense of shock, this blending of cuisine resulted in the praise and appreciation of many, in both Mexico and Europe. Today, each Mexican state is known for certain types of flavors and dishes.
Northern Mexico which includes Baja, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas, thoroughly reflects a ranch culture. Many of the dishes that this region is known for are hearty and containing beef or goat which is known as cabrita (Richards). Specifically, the distinctive cooking skill from Northern Mexico is the ability to perfect grilled beef. This beef is then used in dishes such as fajitas, and machaca, which is a dried and then rehydrated meat (Richards). Additionally, Northern Mexico is known for cheese production. Queso fresco, ranchero, sweet cuajada, requeson which is similar to ricotta, and smoked asadero cheese are vital members of Mexican dishes (Spotlight on Mexican Cuisine). Sonora which is located directly south originally made the burrito. They were able to do this as the north is known for producing more than forty types of flour tortillas. Finally, the Baja California is the Mexico’s leading producer of wine (Richards).
The Bajio which includes Michoacán, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi and Queretaro is a plateau bordered by mountains. This region’s main contributions to Mexican cuisine are rice, pork and spices (Richards). Specifically, one of the most known dishes is called Morisqueta. This dish is sausage and rice based. Deep fried pork, is said to traditionally be from Michoacán, though it can be found across the country (Spotlight on Mexican Cuisine). Furthermore, this region is known for its sweets and desserts. These desserts include cajeta which is goat’s milk caramel, chongos which is curds in syrup, arroz con leche which is rice pudding and bunuelos which are fritters. Finally, the town of Cotija de la Paz is located in the state of Michoacán, and has the cotija cheese named after it (Richards). Cotija cheese is crumbly and primarily made from cow’s milk in the mountains.
Next, the south pacific coast which includes Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas is known for a variety of different flavors. In Oaxaca the “specialty is fusion cuisine between the natives and conquistadors” (Spotlight on Mexican Cuisine). The indigenous cooking staples are chicken and pork along with Oaxaca cheese which is similar to mozzarella. Tamales are a traditional appetizer in Oaxaca. The fusion of cuisine allowed for there to be “six types of tamales in the Oaxacan valley alone, and five along the coast” (Spotlight on Mexican Cuisine). The southern state of Oaxaca is also known today as “the land of seven moles” (Pilcher). These varieties include Negro which is black, Amarillo which is yellow, Coloradito which is little red, Mancha Manteles which is the tablecloth stainer, Chichilo which is the smoky stew, Rojo which is red, and Verde which is green (Richards). Regional chile peppers provide moles with their spice and contribute to giving food its unique flavor.
The South, which includes Campeche, Yucatan & Quintana Roo is known for its food that is distinguishable from the rest of Mexico. This results from Mayan influences along with influences from the Caribbean Islands and Cuba (Richards). A primary spice is called the achiote, which provides a peppery smell and a red tint. Many of the local dishes utilize this spice and recado paste which is made from achiote. This paste is used on meats and the cochinita pibil, which is a traditional Mexican slow-roasted pork dish originated from the Yucatan Peninsula (Spotlight on Mexican Cuisine). The work pibil means buried in Mayan and refers to the cooking method where meats are wrapped and then cooked in a pit oven. A distinct touch of Yucatán cuisine is the use of tropical fruits (Richards).
The Gulf which includes, Tabasco and Veracruz, is known for a mix of Afro-Cuban and Spanish influence. The most important indigenous contribution of this region is vanilla and herbs such as parsley, thyme, cilantro and marjoram (Richards). Much of the regions cooking encompasses these flavors. African influences can be seen in the use of peanuts, specifically in a dish called pollo encacahuatado, which is chicken in peanut sauce (Richards). Other African influences are plantains, yucca and sweet potatoes. The gulf of Tabasco is known for seafood, with unique species of crab and crayfish, and ceviche is often served (Spotlight on Mexican Cuisine).
The last region, Central Mexico, includes Puebla, Morelos, Tlaxcala, Hidalgo and Mexico City. This region is distinctively known for street cuisine (Spotlight on Mexican Cuisine). Taco stands, little shops and counters can be found on every street. Mexico City takes foods from every other region of Mexico and transforms it into easily eaten meals. Popular dishes in Mexico City include cabritas, carnita and, moles (Richards). Additionally, in Mexico City, a speciality is tortas, which are large, sub-like sandwiches. Finally, this area serves a number of ancient dishes such as those with insects and grasshoppers (Spotlight on Mexican Cuisine). Grasshoppers originated as a plague, that was a nuisance to farmers, but soon became appreciated and sold fried, in bulk to farmers. In Mexico City, grasshoppers are viewed as a nutritional source of protein and utilized in dishes such as ground grasshopper balls or grasshopper truffles (Spotlight on Mexican Cuisine).
Mexican cuisine has rapidly spread both around the world and into the United States. Though Mexican cuisine originally spread into the southwest region of the United States, Mexican fare can be found across the country. Just like with most of our cuisine, Mexican food has also been turned into fast food. A taqueria “is an establishment that sells fast food, fast in the sense of a bite to eat on the run” (Thorn). Chains such as as Taco Bell, Chipotle, Qdoba, Moes and Chevys have sprung up across can be found within miles of one another, across the United States. Today, “tortillas are now a multibillion-dollar industry in the U.S” (Arellano) and thanks to the Aztecs, today corn is the third most important crop behind wheat and rice (Mellgren).
Though a lot of our food has been turned into fast-food, there are many non fast food restaurants in the United States, that have placed their own twists on traditional Mexican cuisine, in order to familiarize it. There are regional American differences in Mexican food, to make the food more palatable. California-Mexican cuisine tends to focus on brightly flavored foods such as fish tacos and, whereas Tex-Mex focuses more on homey dishes such as Frito pies (Thorn). In New England where seafood and cream is enjoyed, the chef-owner of Ole Mexican Grill in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had to adjust his dishes to the New England palate, so he “serves a sea bass with buttery polenta and tops it with a sauce of spicy chipotle pepper and mild red bell pepper, emulsified with olive oil and sweetened with honey” (Thorn). Additionally, Arizona “claims to be the state in which burritos were first deep-fried, creating the chimichanga” (Thorn). Consequently, some dishes that are believed to be traditional Mexican, may have in fact originated in the United States (Thorn).
The Mexican population specifically in New York City is growing at an increasingly rapid pace. According to a 2007 report by the Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, “the number of Mexican people living in New York City has increased 57.7% from 2000 to 2007 and projections from this growth are that by 2024, Mexicans will be the biggest Latino group in the city” (Rangil). Accordingly there has been an increase in both Mexican style restaurants, Mexican dishes and Mexican supermarkets. The globalization of Mexican food to the United States, specifically New York, has come with the cost of balancing authenticity with creativity. While “tradition and authenticity seem to correlate directly with the need to preserve cultural identity, innovation and hybridity are strategies that allow transnational subjects to accommodate and influence the city’s gastronomical tableau in real and material ways” (Rangil). While many believe that Mexican food should be traditional and purposed to preserve cultural identity, others believe that Mexican food should suit the need of the American consumers.
Looking at a number of Mexican restaurants in New York City, this diverging viewpoint is evident. Many restaurants that offer Mexican food are a mixing pot of different cuisines, with a Mexican twist. For instance, the Itzocan Bistro in New York City is a blend of French and Mexican food. Dishes on this menu include “pumpkin gnocchi with purple kale, rajas poblanas and corn, ancho chile rubbed chicken with apple mashed potato and tomatillo sauce [and] mixed baby greens salad with jicama chile vinaigrette” (Rangil). It is evident that this menu is not true to traditional Mexican fare. Throughout New York City, there are a number of restaurants that attempt to incorporate Mexican flavors into their dishes. The hybridity of ingredients and dishes weighs both its positives and negatives. While true Mexicans disapprove of the changes to their cuisine, restaurants that blend cuisines are highly attractive to the trendy, consumer population of New York City (Rangil).
Less common in New York City and the United States are true, authentic Mexican restaurants. These restaurants attempt to “showcase the geographical and culinary diversity that exists in Mexican cuisine in a clear attempt to debunk the narrow preconceived notions of tacos and guacamole as the essence of Mexican food” (Rangil). Restaurant Mexicano El Paso: Auténtica Cocina Mexicana in New York City is a prime example of this. This restaurant was opened to “let people know and savor traditional Mexican fare” (Rangil). In general, restaurants similar to Restaurant Mexicano El Paso: Auténtica Cocina Mexicana fail to attract the non-Latino population. Often times people are not comfortable with stepping outside of what they normally eat.
True Mexican ingredients and dishes may sound strange to someone who is unfamiliar with the culture or cuisine. Americans traditionally are not accustomed to heavy spices and strong flavors. Since the spread of Mexican cuisine across the world, to the United States and to New York City, there are opposing forces at play. On one hand, “the claim to a defined cultural identity, and on the other, the need to function in a highly cosmopolitan and multiethnic environment, a globalized and transnational metropolitan center” (Rangil). It has been substantially difficult for chefs and restaurant owners to maintain a proper balance between these two clashing viewpoints.
Though the primary role of food is to provide energy and sustain our bodies, food provides us with pleasure and so much more. People and food are “inextricably linked because food is part of everyday life, and…because it constitutes and represents a visible way of claiming an individual as well as a collective identity/culture” (Rangil). This is clearly demonstrated throughout the history of Mexican cuisine. Consequently, it is extremely difficult to generalize about Mexican cuisine and food, because there is so much variety. Various regions produce a wide array of flavors and cuisines for different occasions, purposes and traditions. This can be credited to both foreign influences and native, Mexican traditions. Though spread of Mexican food into the United States has changed many traditions, many of the flavors and ingredients are still rooted back to early civilizations in Mexico that existed years before America was even discovered.