Traditional Mexican dishes, which are among the world’s most vintage cuisines, have earned UNESCO's recognition as an intangible cultural heritage. It’s with great conviction that the world body had in 2010 inscribed in its prestigious list the cooking methods of people from the times of the Mayan civilisation with an antiquity of almost 9,000 years in what is now North America’s lower regions on the map.
The foodways found further enrichment and embellishment following waves of close to a dozen successive Mesoamerican lifestyles that flourished around Mexico. It’s a conglomeration of them that eventually came to be called traditional Mexican food and cuisine.
That maize used to be dehusked and used in cooking during a period as ancient as the Mayan civilisation shows the advancement the Mexican cuisine had made since time immemorial. It’s another matter that the dishes have seldom been a one category or a few; in fact, they revel in regional variety.
Mexicans had been into widespread farming of maize from as back as in 1200 BC. They believed that this cereal was the gift of god Quetzalcoatl, a deity whose name comes from the central Mexican Aztec language and the word means feathered serpent. One of the traditional maize dishes from the region is tortilla. If that is made of corn, there were dishes made of flowers, too. On the other extreme, Mexican cuisine is famed for its few non-vegetarian dishes too: made of sprightly grasshoppers, hard-shelled beetles, the herbivorous Iguana lizards and wild turkey besides eggs of weaver ants and tortoises.
The multi-ethnic Aztec peoples who flourished in central Mexico for two centuries from 1300 AD were experts in preparing food out of sweet potatoes, cactuses, chili pepper, spirulina, agave, cocoa, butter fruit, vanilla, tomatoes, beans, squash, amaranth grains and chia seeds besides, of course, maize. Aztec emperor Moctezuma II used to routinely take a drink comprising chocolate, vanilla and honey, according to the Spanish who had visited the region during his times between 1466 and 1520.
Streams of taste
Into the 16th century, the Spanish conquered the Aztec empire. The influx of a new people from Europe effected revolutionary changes in the cuisine of Mexico. The invaders had initially sought to impose their Western food habits on the local population, but indigenous people countered such moves with thorough opposition. All the same, the Mexican cuisine began adopting hitherto-untried stuff in the kitchen. They included beef, chicken, pork, mutton and the flesh of sheep. The subcontinent was also gifted with milk, related dairy items and vinegar besides the major cereal: wheat.
Spain in those days had trade with Arabia, which meant import of spices to Mexico. Such consignments also brought in goods like olive oil, saffron, ginger, oregano, coriander, cinnamon, clove and other herbal spices along with vegetables such as onions and cereals like paddy.
As slaves from the Caribbean Islands were being brought into the coastal Veracruz area, eastern Mexico got a mix of food cultures that blended local food with tastes that were African and Spanish. Then, the 19th century saw waves of immigration by the French, Lebanese, Chinese and Italian people. Into the first leg of the 20th century, the region gained the influence of American fast food as well. That was how hotdog, hamburger and pista began to become popular in the Mexican region, where most food items are spicy and have a chocolate flavour. With oceans on its both sides, sea food is also integral to the Mexican cuisine.
Food is prepared from the fresh and fermented versions of the masa, which is the dough prepared from pound and dried corn. The flat and rounded tortilla, which is a common Mexican dish, is made from maize. It’s also made out of wheat powder and fruit mix.
Traditional Mexican dish employs items like zucchini, cauliflower, potatoes, spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes, besides local varieties of chili pepper, cactus leaves, corn fungus, guava, mangoes, pineapple, custard apple and zapota fruit. The most common ingredients are maize and beans, besides chili pepper, which is used not just to taste the item hot but add flavour to its through a variety of the spicy item originally from Mexico. Chili pepper is used along with even sweets and fresh fruits.
In fact, chili pepper is itself an item that categorises Mexican dishes. It’s not just for food that chili pepper is used; it comes in medicines and traditional rituals.
Mexican dishes share a close relation with the region’s festivities. For instance, on the occasion of observing the Day of the Dead, the local people offer mole poblano and tamale dishes at the altar of the churches. Mole poblano, which is a special kind of sauce, can even be called the national dish of Mexico. To get its taste right, it requires a meticulous mix of items such as onions, garlic, spices, herbs, almond, pumkin seeds, sesame, chili pepper and dark chocolate. The sauce is inevitable on occasions such as birthday, wedding and baptism besides post-death ceremony.
Tamale is a traditional Mesoamerican dish made of masa that is steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf and eaten after discarding the wrapping. It has filled meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables and chillies among others. There are dishes that are less expensive and easier to make: carnitas, mixiotes and barbecues. These have become particularly popular since the 1980s.
Among the most famous of Mexican street foods is taco, which consists of corn or wheat tortilla folded around a filling. One can say rolled tortilla is taco. The stuff inside can be a range of eatables: meat, vegetables, cheese, chili pepper, fresh salsa sauce, sea food, etc.
The toda bread rolls form another variety. Though an American influence has gifted Mexico with hotdog, the taste of the cooked sausage in partly sliced bun here is different from that of its original variety.
Then there is the non-alcoholic beverage called aguas frescas made from fruits, cereals, flowers or seeds and flavoured with tamarind, hibiscus or horchata. Cafe dova, which is a kind of coffee that chips in cinnamon and sugar, is hugely popular.
A Mexican drink from powdered corn is atole. A masa-based beverage of Mesoamerican origin, it also pools in fruits and chocolates besides even rice. Another speciality is hibiscus-iced tea.
If you are looking for a place that serves whole of the region’s ethnic dishes, the best choice would be Mexico City.