Today’s Mexican cuisine is a delicious blend of European foods and those indigenous to Mexico. Staples such as corn, rice, and chilis are combined into beloved dishes such as tamales and gorditas, loved throughout the world. UNESCO even recognized Mexican food as one of the world’s intangible cultural heritages, vowing to protect this style of cooking and food preparation.
Cheese & Chocolate
Cheese & Chocolate Image: Christian Frausto Bernal (flickr), CC BY-SA 2.0
Dairy products, including cheese, were introduced to Mexican cuisine when conquistadors brought cows, goats, and sheep from Spain. Over time, Mexico has developed its own methods of making cheese, resulting in a variety of Mexican cheeses. The most popular of these are the semi-hard queso Oaxaca, crumbly panela, versatile queso blanco, and mild queso fresco. Another popular dairy product found in today’s Mexican cuisine is chocolate, the name itself derived from the Nahualtl word xocolati. Chocolate was used throughout Mayan and Aztec civilizations as currency, religious symbols, and even a frothy beverage. You may only notice if on guided tours of Mayan ruins and Aztec sites, but there are depictions of cocoa beans and forms of chocolate incorporated into carvings. Today, chocolate is a common food in Mexico, incorporated into various desserts as well as many unexpected savory recipes.
Tortillas Image: LWY (flickr)
Perhaps one of the staples most commonly associated with Mexican cuisine is the tortilla. Meaning “little torta” or cake, tortillas have been served for many thousands of years. Mayans and Aztecs ground maize into the cornmeal used to make masa and cooked it to form a flat round disc called a tortilla. These flat breads are used with meat to make dishes, such as tacos and burritos, or they are fried to form tostadas and tortilla chips. Today, you will find both flour and corn tortillas.
Food in Mexico is as diverse as the regions that make up the country. Northern Mexico, up to the Texas border and Tijuana, is known for its carne asada, a dish made of thin strips of marinated arrachera, or flank steak. Southeastern Mexico, including Veracruz and Cancun, combines spicy flavors with a heavy Caribbean influence. Achiote paste is a common seasoning in the Yucatán, giving the area’s cuisine more of a sweet flavor. The western mountainous regions specialize in a tomato-based goat dish, while tamales, moles, and tlayudas are celebrated in the Oaxaca region. Seafood dishes, including Mexican ceviche, are popular in coastal regions. Dishes unique to central Mexico include menudo, pozole, and carnitas. Inhabitants of pueblos and villages still prepare food in Mexico in the traditional Aztec and Mayan ways, including ant eggs, spider monkey, and deer.
Desserts Image: adactio (flickr)
One of Mexico’s most beloved desserts actually originated in Nicaragua. Tres Leches Cake, meaning three milks, is a sponge cake soaked in evaporated milk, condensed milk, and heavy cream. The original recipe results in a light, airy dessert, though some recipes call for butter, giving the cake a heavier consistency. Another variation, called Drunken Cake, uses rum. Perhaps the most recognizable Mexican dessert is flan, a sweet custard dish baked in a mould. Another popular Mexican dessert is churros, batter fried into long sticks. These crunchy desserts are often sprinkled with cinnamon or sugar and served with hot dipping chocolate or café con leche. Both flans and churros originated in Europe but have become commonly associated with Mexico over the decades.
Perhaps the most widely identified Mexican alcoholic beverage is tequila, made from blue agave cactus. Protected by law, this beverage can only be made in very specific areas of the country, though the purest form of tequila comes only from the state of Jalisco. If you are visiting in the Guadalajara area, you can take advantage of a number of tours to tequila distilleries. Beer is also popular in Mexico. While Mesoamerican cultures were familiar with fermented drinks, it was the European influence that spawned the breweries and wineries throughout Mexico today. Today, two major corporations, Grupo Modelo and FEMSA, control 90 percent of all beer and wine exports throughout Mexico.