“Mexican food is so full of color, life, and music. It seems like a piñata exploding in your mouth” – Kate McLennan
What better way to describe this flavorful cuisine? Mexican food is the perfect fusion of deep, savory flavors and lightness that comes from the generous use of fresh vegetables, herbs, and citrus fruits. It is colorful, vibrant, delicious, fresh, and utterly fun. There’s so much more than tacos and burritos to Mexican food and we’re taking you on a trip that will reveal it all!
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The History of Mexican Food
The history of Mexican food is long and diverse. Just like other ancient cuisines, Mexican cuisine is comprised of cooking techniques developed over thousands of years. It is a blend of native cooking with Spanish influences that entered after the conquests in the 16th century.
Mexican Food Before the Conquest
Authentic Mexican food is believed to originate from Mayan cooking. It is believed that Mayans, who were nomadic hunters and gatherers, ate corn tortillas with bean paste in addition to tropic fruits (avocado), wild game, and fish.
With the prosperity of the Aztec Empire in the 14th century, the Mayan, new ingredients were added to the cuisine including chili peppers, chocolate, honey, and salt. In addition, some wild animals like ducks and turkeys were domesticated.
The natives of Mexico used to cook food over an open fire, using cast iron and ceramic ware. They also used banana & cactus leaves for steaming. Pieces of meat were placed on the leaves and placed over boiling.
They had various grinding tools like ‘metate y mano’ made of stone or lava rock or ‘molcaiete’, a small bowl and pestle made of stone, marble, or wood.
Besides the three main Mexican food staples – corn, beans, turkey, and chili peppers – Mexican natives also consumed the following staples:
– wild game, seafood, and fish;
– a wide variety of fruits like avocado, squash, guava, mango, banana, pineapple, sapote (Mexican apple), prickly pear, and cherimoya (custard apple);
– vegetables like tomatoes, zucchini, spinach, potatoes, cauliflower, mushrooms, jicama;
– pulses, seeds, and herbs;
– vanilla and cocoa;
– edible flowers, especially those of squash, banana & cactus leaves, and insects.
Before corn was cultivated, agave hearts were the main source of calories for the native people. Since 1200 BC, when corn was domesticated, it has been the basic starch in Mexican cuisine. This didn’t change even after the introduction of wheat and rice.
Corn finds its way in all regional cuisines and almost every authentic Mexican food recipe. Corn can be eaten fresh, dried, or ground into a masa dough. The dough has two varieties, fresh and fermented, and is used to make dishes like pozole and tamales.
However, the most popular way to eat corn is as a tortilla which is served with almost every dish. No wonder the native people considered corn to be a gift of the gods!
In the past, meat was more difficult to obtain and beans were the main source of protein. Other widely-used protein sources were turkey and amaranth, as well as less appealing alternatives like insects (grasshoppers and ants), turtle eggs, and iguanas.
Besides beans and corn, chili peppers are the third staple in Mexican cuisine. It is believed that these peppers have been used since 5000 BC! Records state that the natives wouldn’t even start a meal if without chiles. They were first introduced to Europe by Columbus in the late 15th century and further spread by the Portuguese. In the past, chiles were used not only as cooking ingredient, but also a ritual food and medicine.
Chili peppers give Mexican food its signature spiciness, heat, and flavor. Even today, Mexican people consider chiles a part of the national tradition and use a great variety of these peppers. They add it to every single dish, especially salsas and sauces, even to sweets and fruits. If there’s no chile at hand, it is usually replaced with hot sauce.
Mexican Food After the Conquest
After the Spaniards invaded Mexico in the 1520s, the Spanish tried to impose their own eating habits to the natives but (luckily) they failed and the two cuisines began to combine.
The most important ingredients brought by the Spanish were meat and dairy, which raised the consumption of proteins. Before that, the native Mesoamericans ate very little meat (mostly turkey) and no dairy at all. Nowadays, cheese is the most popular dairy product in Mexico. It is considered a national specialty prepared in many households and sold nationwide.
As far as cooking techniques are concerned, Europeans introduced frying foods in pork fat.
Here is a full list of ingredients introduced by the invaders:
– livestock (pigs, cows, chickens, goats, and sheep);
– dairy (especially cheese);
– onions and garlic;
– wheat and rice;
– olive oil;
– sugar cane;
– new types of herbs and spices like oregano, coriander, cinnamon, and cloves.
Besides Spanish influences, Mexican cuisine was also impacted by other cuisines, like Caribbean, Chinese, Lebanese, West African, French, Italian, German, and Portuguese especially during the 19th century, when a great number of immigrants settles in the country. These influence made Mexican food what it is today – rich and delicious, with a large number of regional varieties.
The Importance of Mexican Food
Authentic Mexican food is an important aspect of the country’s culture and tradition, so much so it was added to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO!
Traditionally, cooking in Mexico, especially in rural areas, is considered a women’s work and it is seen as a most important talent a woman can have! The ability to cook well is called ‘sazón’, which translates as seasoning. Food preparation for the family and for special occasions is considered a mean to building and nurturing social relationships and is an inevitable part of all festivities.
Fun fact: most Mexican homes don’t own or use ovens!
Breakfast is quite hearty compared to western countries. It usually consists of leftovers from the day before which can include meat, eggs, soup, enchiladas, and tacos, along with fruit juice and coffee.
The main meal of the day is called “comida” and refers to dinner. It usually consists of chicken soup combined with pasta or, alternatively, ‘dry soup’ (flavored rice or pasta), followed by a meat-based dish served with salsa or sauce on the side and complemented with tortillas or baked beans. Beer or fruit juices are commonly consumed during comida.
Mexican Street Food
Mexican street food is extremely rich and versatile. It includes tacos, quesadillas, tamales, pambazos, alambres, huaraches, al pastor, carnitas, roasted chicken and many more!
Tacos are definitely the most popular street food. Their origins go back to the pre-conquest period, when natives used them as utensils, i.e. for picking up other foods. Tacos are usually not eaten during the ‘comida’ but rather as a midday or late night snack. They consist of a tortilla stuffed with almost anything that comes to mind – meat, rice, corn, beans, cream, sauce, and of course, chili peppers or salsa!
Torta is another popular Mexican street food, especially in the capital. This food originates from the 19th century, when it was largely under the influence of the French immigrants. It consists of a roll stuffed with several ingredients. Early versions of torta were made with beans but today they also contain cream and hot chili peppers.
Besides food, street vendors also offer drinks like aguas frescas and tepache, as well as treats like tostilocos and bionicos.
Popular Mexican Beverages
Besides being the main staple food, corn is also used to make beverages. One of them is atole, a hot drink flavored with chocolate, fruit, and rice. Pozol and tejuino are cold drink made of fermented corn.
Agua fresca is a drink made with water, sugar, and fruit. Mexican people also love horchata, drinks based on hibiscus iced tea.
Alcoholic beverages from Mexico include tequila (the base of the most popular cocktail margarita), aguardiente, pulque, charanda, and mescal. Rum and brandy are also widely consumed but beer tops the list as the most consumed beverage with food.
Coffee is also very popular, especially café de olla, coffee brewed with sugar and cinnamon.
Favorite Mexican Food Recipes
Mole, especially mole poblano in Central Mexico, is considered the most important food for special occasions and festivals. It is served at birthdays, weddings, and funerals, as well as at Christmas, Easter, and the Day of the Dead. Since this dish is quite complicated to make, other foods like carnitas and barbacoa have taken become predominant festive foods in the last decades.
Salsa means ‘sauce’ in Spanish. It has been around since Aztec times when it was sold on markets. Salsa is uncooked, sometimes chunky, sometimes pureed smooth. Some of the main ingredients for salsa include tomatoes, chipotle, and avocado.
The word enchilada means ‘in chile’. The origins of this food which uses tortillas as wraps for other foods goes back to Aztec times, whereas in the US, the first recorded enchilada recipes date from the 1880s.
Can you imagine the world without chocolate? Aztecs were the ones that discovered chocolate and used to drink it rather than eat it in the form of a foamy, bitter drink, flavored with chili peppers and vanilla. The Spaniards brought it to Europe in the 17th century and made it sweet.
Tamales are filled cornmeal dumplings steamed in corn husks or banana leaves. They originate from the pre-conquest era. In fact, they were one of the first food served to Spaniards by the Aztecs in the 1550s. Like mole, tamales are also served during festive occasions.
Tomatillo uses can be traced back to 800 BC when the Aztecs domesticated this fruit. The tart tomatillo has never become as popular as regular tomatoes, except in Italy where it is often used in green sauces.
Mexican Food Near Me – Mexican Food in the US
Authentic Mexican food is very hard to find outside Mexico. In the States, Mexican food is mostly Tex-Mex (or Cal-Mex), which means the dishes are mostly based on the northern Mexican cuisine with influences from the Southwestern parts of the States. The most popular Tex-Mex inventions are burritos, salsa, nachos, fajitas, corn chips, quesadillas, chimichangas, and chili con carne.
Even authentic Mexican foods like tacos, enchiladas, and tamales are cooked and served differently in the United States. The difference in the American versions is in the use different spices and herbs, especially in the extensive use of chili to make the food very hot, regardless of personal taste.
American varieties of Mexican foods also use large amount of cheese, melted or shredded, which is rarely seen in authentic Mexican recipes. Same can be said for sauces; Americans tend to use lots of different sauces with all Mexican dishes.
Even the simple and easy guacamole is done differently in the States. The original recipe consists of onions, chili, spices, lime juice, and most importantly, slices of avocado. Diced tomatoes are optional and added in small amounts. The Americans usually mash the avocado into a paste and add too much cilantro or tomatoes.
In the States, the portions are quite larger. It is safe to say that they’re overcrowded, with different foods mixing with each other in the same plate. Unlike in Mexico, where corn tortillas are used instead of bread and are considered a side dish, in the US they are fried and served with almost every Mexican food.
Mexican street food has also been largely influenced by American fast food since the 20th century, resulting in delicious fusions such as Sonoran hot dogs which are made of a hot dog wrapped in bacon and served in a bun along with tomatoes, onions, and jalapeño peppers.
Mexican Food Restaurants Near Me
You can always use our amazing recipes to recreate the tastiest Mexican dishes, but if you’re still wondering “Where to find the best Mexican food near me?”, we’ve got you covered. Here is a list of 15 amazing Mexican food restaurants in the US (that are not Taco Bel or Hacienda) provided by our friends at Food Place Near Me!
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Empellon Cocina – New York, New York
Nopalito – San Francisco, California
Rocio’s Mole de los Dioses, Los Angeles, California
Fonda San Miguel, Austin, Texas
Nuestra Cocina – Portland, Oregon
El Sarape, Boston, Massachusetts
Distrito, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
El Charro Cafe, Tuscon, Arizona
Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana, Memphis
La Super-Rica Taquería, Santa Barbara
Topolobampo – Chicago, Illinois
Barrio Cafe, Phoenix, Arizona
Taquería del Sol, Atlanta, Georgia
Bonito Michoacan, Las Vegas, Nevada
Jacala, San Antonio, Texas