Full of flavour and character, Mexican food is a complex fusion of indigenous Mesoamerican cooking with Spanish influences evolved over hundreds of years. Moreover this cuisine is still evolving, with chefs such as Martha Ortiz winning plaudits for colourful creations that would surprise fans of more traditional Mexican food at Mexico City’s Dulce Patria restaurant.
One of the greatest influences on making Mexican food more widely understood and popular outside Mexico, is Briton Diana Kennedy (born 3 March 1923), famous for her nine books, including The Cuisines of Mexico, which are based on fifty years of travelling, interviewing and learning from cooks from all across Mexico. British Mexican Society members have twice enjoyed talks by her in London.
Mexican Food in the UK
The UK’s Mexican food scene has never been more vibrant, with new restaurants including El Pastor, Breddos, Corazon, Santo Remedio and Martha Ortiz’s London base, Ella Canta at the InterContinental Hotel, joining longer established ones including Mestizo, Wahaca and Lupita.
Mexican food and drink suppliers are also doing their bit – bringing the real taste of Mexico into the country for home cooks.
The following introduction is taken from the Wikipedia page on Mexico’s cuisine – follow the link at the end to find out more.
The staples of Mexican food are corn, beans, avocados, tomatoes, chili peppers, cocoa and vanilla along with rice, which was brought to Mexico by the Spanish. Also, tropical fruits indigenous to Mexico and the Americas include guava, prickly pear, sapote, mangoes, bananas, pineapple and chirimoya (custard apple).
Corn (note this refers to what British people would call maize)
Despite the introduction of wheat and rice to Mexico, the staple remains corn (maize) in almost all areas of the country and is the base of many recipes (e.g. corn tortillas, atole, pozole, menudo, tamales). While it is sometimes eaten fresh, most corn is dried, treated with lime and ground into a dough called masa. This dough is used both fresh and fermented to make a wide variety of dishes from drinks (atole, pozole, etc.) to tamales, sopes, and much more.
However, the most common way to eat corn in Mexico is in the form of a tortilla, which accompanies almost every dish. Tortillas are made of corn in most of the country but other versions exist, such as wheat in the north or plantain, yuca and wild greens in Oaxaca.
Another basic ingredient in all parts of Mexico is the chili pepper. Many dishes in Mexico are defined by their sauces and the chilis those sauces contain, rather than the meat or vegetable that the sauce covers. These dishes include entomatada (in tomato sauce), adobo or adobados, pipians and moles.
A thick broth called pozole is defined as white, green or red depending on the chili sauce used or omitted. Tamales are differentiated by the filling which is again defined by the sauce (red or green chili pepper strips or mole). For most dishes, it is the type of chili used that gives it its main flavour.
An important food for festivals and other special occasions is mole, especially mole poblano in the centre of the country. Mole is served at Christmas, Easter, Day of the Dead and at birthdays, baptisms, weddings and funerals, and tends to be eaten only for special occasions because it is such a complex and time-consuming dish although it is now widely available in restaurants. It contains several different types of chili and frequently some chocolate as well.
Another important festive food is the tamale, which is a filled cornmeal dumpling, steamed in a wrapping (usually a corn husk or banana leaf) and one of the basic staples in most regions of Mexico. Like mole, it is complicated to prepare and best done in large amounts. Tamales are associated with certain celebrations such as Candlemas (2 February).
Mexican Street food
Tacos al pastor in Mérida, Yucatán
Mexican street food is one of the most varied parts of the cuisine. It can include tacos; quesadillas (a tortilla filled with cheese and then grilled); pambazos (made with special white bread dipped in a red guajillo pepper sauce and filled with papas con chorizo (potatoes with chorizo); tamales; huaraches (an oblong, fried masa base, with a variety of toppings including green or red salsa, onions, potato, coriander and protein such as ground beef or tongue, and then finished with fresh cheese); alambres (consisting of grilled beef topped with chopped bacon, bell peppers, onions, cheese, salsa and avocado). All this is usually served with freshly-made maize or wheat tortillas.
The best known of Mexico’s street foods is the taco, whose origin is based on the pre-Hispanic custom of picking up other foods with tortillas as utensils were not used.
Tacos are not eaten as the main meal; they are generally eaten before midday or late in the evening. Just about any other foodstuff can be wrapped in a tortilla, and in Mexico it varies from rice to meat (plain or in sauce), to cream, to vegetables, to cheese, or simply with plain chili peppers or fresh salsa. Preferred fillings vary from region to region with pork generally found more often in the centre and south, beef in the north, seafood along the coasts and chicken and lamb in most of the country.
Another popular street food, especially in Mexico City and the surrounding area, is the torta. It consists of a roll of some type, stuffed with several ingredients. This has its origins in the 19th century, when the French introduced a number of new kinds of bread. The torta began with a split roll with added beans. Today, refried beans can still be found on many kinds of torta. In Mexico City, the most common roll used for tortas is called telera, a relatively flat roll with two splits on the upper surface. In Puebla, the preferred bread is called a cemita, as is the sandwich. In both areas, the bread is stuffed with various fillings, especially if it is a hot sandwich, with beans, cream and some kind of hot chili pepper.
Guacamole – (Nahuatl āhuacamolli)
A thick avocado-based sauce that began in pre-Hispanic Mexico mixed with sea salt with a molcajete (mortar and pestle). Some recipes call for tomato, onion, garlic, lemon or lime juice, chili or cayenne pepper, coriander or basil, jalapeño, and/or additional seasonings.
Source: Mexican Cuisine Wikipedia.
The history of chocolate begins in Mesoamerica. Fermented beverages made from chocolate date back to 1900 BC. The Aztecs believed that cacao seeds were the gift of Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom, and the seeds once had so much value that they were used as a form of currency. Originally prepared only as a drink, chocolate was served as a bitter, frothy liquid, mixed with spices or corn puree. It was believed to have aphrodisiac powers and to give the drinker strength. Today, such drinks are also known as “Chilate” and are made by locals in the South of Mexico.
Take a look at how people in the Zapoteca region create their traditional chocolate drink.
Mezcal & Tequila
Mezcal can be distilled from any agave plants native to Mexico, but tequila is regionally specific and can only be distilled from the blue agave plant, primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, 65 km (40 mi) northwest of Guadalajara, and in the highlands (Los Altos) of the central western Mexican state of Jalisco.
Aside from differences in region of origin, tequila is a type of mezcal (and the regions of production of the two drinks are overlapping). Tequila is commonly served neat in Mexico and as a shot with salt and lime across the rest of the world.
The agave grows in many parts of Mexico, though most mezcal is made in Oaxaca. It can also be made in Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacan and the recently approved Puebla.
View the interesting trailer below for ‘Maguey’ a documentary film by Francesco Taboada Tabone, with investigation by Aldo Tabone and Fernanda Robinson. It takes a look at the significace of the plant known as the “tree of wonders” in indigenous society. They believe that the agave plant has had a major influence on Mexican art and politics. Once an identity symbol, today the maguey has been declared endangered by FAO. Currently Otomi and Nahua communities are striving to preserve the Maguey.