Enchiladas are one of the most popular “Mexican” foods around the world. This baked dish consisting of corn tortillas rolled around a filling and covered with a chili pepper sauce is a staple at Mexican restaurants across the globe. But are enchiladas really an authentic Mexican dish with a long history in Mexico? Or are they more of a Tex-Mex creation that became popularized in the United States? Let’s take a deep dive into the origins and evolution of enchiladas.
What are Enchiladas?
Enchiladas are made by dipping corn tortillas in a chili pepper sauce, then filling them with ingredients like cheese, meat, beans, potatoes, seafood or vegetables. They are then rolled up and baked with more sauce, cheese and other toppings. The enchilada sauce can be a red sauce made from dried chilies, a green sauce made from tomatillos or a mole sauce featuring chocolate and spices. Common fillings include cheese, ground beef, shredded chicken and refried beans. Garnishes like sour cream, chopped onions, cilantro and fried eggs are also popular. There are countless variations of enchiladas throughout Mexico and the American Southwest.
Quick Answer: Are Enchiladas Mexican or Tex-Mex?
Enchiladas originated in Mexico, but the Tex-Mex versions popularized in the United States often differ from traditional Mexican recipes. So enchiladas are considered both a Mexican and Tex-Mex food. However, the specific ingredients and preparation methods can determine how authentically Mexican a particular enchilada recipe is.
Origins of Enchiladas in Mexico
Enchiladas have their roots in Mexico, where they have been eaten for over a hundred years. The word “enchilada” literally means “in chili” in Spanish, referring to the signature chili sauce smothered on the tortillas.
Some historians trace enchiladas back to Mayan culture in the ancient city of Cholula. Indigenous people in this region are said to have eaten corn tortillas dipped in chili peppers long before the Spanish arrived. The Aztecs who conquered Cholula also coated flat breads like tlaxcalli in chili sauces.
Enchiladas in Early Mexican Cookbooks
Enchiladas began appearing in Mexican cookbooks dating back to the late 19th century. The first known enchilada recipe was published in a Sonoran cookbook in 1831. This early recipe was for a corn tortilla filled with cheese and onions, then dipped in chili sauce and fried in lard.
In the late 1800s, enchiladas were described as the food of working class Mexican miners. The miners’ wives would make the dish using whatever ingredients they had on hand in their remote mining towns. This is how the variations of enchiladas with potatoes, beans, meat and more originated.
Enchilada Popularity Grows in Mexico
In the early 20th century, enchiladas grew in popularity across Mexico. They were sold by food vendors in plazas and markets of major cities. Enchiladas were a cheap, filling food that became a Mexican street food staple.
Different regions of Mexico developed their own signature styles of enchiladas based on local cuisine. In the north, wheat flour tortillas became popular for enchiladas. Oaxaca developed black mole enchiladas, while Guerrero became known for green enchiladas.
By the 1930s-1940s, enchiladas were well established in Mexico and could be ordered in cafes and restaurants across the country. They were an everyday comfort food and also a dish served for special events like holidays and birthdays.
Enchiladas Come to the American Southwest
Northern Mexico borders the American Southwest, which is how enchiladas first crossed the border into the United States. This region was still part of Mexico until the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. After the war, former Mexican territories like California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas became part of the U.S.
The local Mexican people who now found themselves in America continued cooking the foods of their homeland, including enchiladas. This allowed enchiladas to spread across the Southwest by the early 1900s. American cookbooks from this era, like Fabiola Cabeza de Baca’s Historic Cookery in 1931, include New Mexican-style enchilada recipes.
Railroads Bring Enchiladas Across the U.S.
The growing rail system helped transport enchiladas outside the Southwest. As railroad workers traveled between Chicago and San Francisco in the early 1900s, they tried regional dishes like enchiladas along the way. When they returned home, they brought a craving for enchiladas with them.
Fred Harvey’s chain of restaurants along the railway fueled this enchilada craze. To serve railroad passengers, Harvey hired cooks from local southwestern towns who brought authentic recipes like enchiladas to the restaurants. Soon, Fred Harvey’s eateries all across the country featured enchiladas on the menu.
Enchiladas at Early Mexican Restaurants
In the 1920s-1940s, Mexican restaurants began popping up in cities and towns across America thanks to Mexican immigrants bringing their native cuisine. These small cafes and food stands introduced enchiladas, tacos, tamales and other Mexican fare to their local communities.
Some Mexican restaurants that opened in this era and still exist today include El Charro Cafe in Tucson (1922) and Casa Gallardo in St. Louis (1932). Their original menus featured classic Mexican enchilada recipes that Americans had likely never tasted before.
Enchilada Canned Foods
In the 1950s, companies started canning enchilada sauce so busy home cooks could quickly prepare enchiladas at home. The first commercial enchilada sauce was produced by Mountain Pass in California in 1954. This brand, along with Old El Paso and others, made enchiladas more convenient for the mass market.
Canned beans, taco seasoning and other pre-made ingredients also allowed american home cooks to assemble simple enchiladas without tracking down specialty Mexican ingredients.
The Tex-Mex Enchilada
In the American Southwest, Mexican communities interacted with Anglo settlers, resulting in a fusion cuisine called Tex-Mex. This blended the culinary traditions of Tejanos with American tastes. Tex-Mex enchiladas evolved from simpler traditional Mexican recipes to incorporate more meat, cheese, beans and spices to suit local tastes.
First Tex-Mex Cookbooks
The first Tex-Mex cookbooks emerged in the late 1940s. Authors like Bertha Haffner-Ginger saw the need to document the unique cooking style of the Texas-Mexico borderlands.
Haffner-Ginger’s popular 1941 cookbook The California Mexican-Spanish Cookbook includes an enchilada recipe that adds cheddar cheese, chili powder and other American touches. This established the quintessential Tex-Mex profile of cheese enchiladas smothered in chili gravy.
Tex-Mex Enchiladas Go Mainstream
Tex-Mex cuisine went mainstream in the 1970s-1980s with restaurants like Taco Bell, Chi-Chi’s and Chevy’s Fresh Mex taking enchiladas national. Their Americanized cheesy beef enchiladas lack the regional nuance of authentic enchiladas. But they introduced basic enchiladas to millions of Americans.
Modern Tex-Mex enchiladas are now firmly rooted across the U.S. Today, Americans expect enchiladas to be blanketed in melted cheese, garnished with sour cream and served with refried beans and rice. This hearty, indulgent version suits American appetites more than simpler traditional recipes.
Common Types of Tex-Mex Enchiladas
Cheese enchiladas – Filled with melted cheese like cheddar, Monterrey jack or queso fresco. Often just called “enchiladas” on Tex-Mex menus.
Ground beef enchiladas – Filled with seasoned ground beef and onions.
Chicken enchiladas – Shredded chicken mixed with green enchilada sauce is a popular filling.
Bean enchiladas – Usually filled with refried beans and cheese. May mix in vegetables.
Breakfast enchiladas – Eggs scrambled with bacon, potatoes or other breakfast foods inside.
Authentic Mexican vs. Tex-Mex Enchiladas
There are some distinct differences between traditional Mexican enchiladas vs. American Tex-Mex versions:
Mexican – Use fresh handmade corn tortillas. These have a sweet, grainy corn flavor.
Tex-Mex – Use store-bought corn or flour tortillas. Flour tortillas have a neutral flavor.
Mexican – Fillings focus on vegetables, eggs, seafood, chicken, cheese. Use complex moles or chili sauces.
Tex-Mex – Fillings are heavier on ground beef, beans, rice. Chili sauces are simpler with cumin and chili powder.
Mexican – Toppings like lettuce, tomatoes, onions, radish give freshness. Emphasize salsa and garnishes.
Tex-Mex – Toppings are cheese, sour cream and more cheese! Extra cheese is standard.
Mexican – Paired with rice, beans, salad, vegetables. Emphasize lighter sides.
Tex-Mex – Automatically served with refried beans, rice, chips and salsa. Heartier sides.
Mexican – Quick-fried then baked to soften tortilla. Do not overstuff tortillas.
Tex-Mex – Fillings are overflowing. Often deep fried resulting in a crispy, indulgent dish.
Mexican – Layer flavors from different chili varieties. Brothy, vegetable-based sauces.
Tex-Mex – Rely on cumin, oregano, chili powder for bolder Tex-Mex taste. Thicker, heartier sauces.
Regional Varieties of Authentic Mexican Enchiladas
There are unlimited regional variations of enchiladas across Mexico. Here are some of the most popular types:
Enchiladas Potosinas – From San Luis Potosi. Red guajillo chili sauce with cheese filling. Garnished with shredded lettuce, cream and queso fresco.
Enmoladas – From Oaxaca and Central Mexico. Tortillas dipped in a rich black mole sauce. Can have chicken, cheese, vegetable or egg fillings.
Enchiladas Poblanas – From Puebla. Filled with roasted poblano peppers mixed with onions, cream and cheese. Topped with mole poblano sauce.
Enchiladas Suizas – From Mexico City. Filled with chicken and spinach or cheese. Baked with a green tomatillo sauce and cream.
Enchiladas Divorciadas – Half the enchiladas have a red chili sauce, half have a green tomatillo sauce to create a “divorced” effect.
Enchiladas de Camarones – Filled with shrimp or other seafood. Popular in coastal regions.
Enchiladas Mineras – Hearty enchiladas from mining regions. Stuffed with vegetables, potatoes, meat and beans.
Enchiladas Verdes – Classic version with green tomatillo sauce. Can have various fillings like chicken, cheese or beans.
Enfrijoladas – Tortillas dipped in a puree of beans and seasoned with cheese, onion, cream and salsa.
Key Takeaways on the History and Origins of Enchiladas
– Enchiladas originated hundreds of years ago in Mexico, where they developed as a tasty way to eat corn tortillas with chili sauces.
– 19th century Mexican cookbooks contain some of the first enchilada recipes on record. They were popular across Mexico by the early 1900s.
– Enchiladas spread to the American Southwest when this region belonged to Mexico. Immigrants later brought them to cities across the U.S.
– Tex-Mex versions of enchiladas evolved in Texas and California, adding cheese, ground beef and other American touches.
– While enchiladas are found all over Mexico, recipes vary greatly by region based on local cuisines.
– Authentic Mexican enchiladas differ from Tex-Mex versions in ingredients, sauces, cooking methods and overall flavor profiles.
– Today, Americans recognize both the original Mexican dish and its Tex-Mex interpretations as “enchiladas.”
Are Enchiladas Considered an Authentic Part of Mexican Cuisine?
Enchiladas are absolutely considered authentic Mexican food within Mexico and most of the world. Even though the Tex-Mex style became very popular in the U.S., true traditional enchiladas are still an important part of regional Mexican cuisines.
Some key points about the authenticity of real Mexican enchiladas:
– Enchiladas have been made in Mexico since the 19th century and possibly long before that. They’re included in the earliest Mexican cookbooks.
– Mexico has countless regional varieties of enchiladas that are deeply rooted in local culinary traditions. Just like tacos or tamales, they have many diverse recipes.
– Home cooks and restaurants across Mexico still make and serve traditional enchiladas today using original techniques. They are not just an Americanized food.
– Mexican chefs and food scholars consider enchiladas an authentic national dish as they originated and developed in Mexico. They represent the diversity of Mexican cuisine.
– Many Mexican restaurants in the U.S. offer authentic enchilada options alongside Tex-Mex versions to showcase real Mexican ingredients and flavors.
– Enchiladas were introduced to millions of Americans through Tex-Mex versions, but that does not make them any less authentic to Mexican culinary heritage.
Enchiladas originated in Mexico over a century ago and have since spread across North America in many forms. But at their core, enchiladas are an authentic and integral part of Mexican regional cuisines. The countless varieties of enchiladas all across Mexico represent the diversity of Mexican food culture.
In the U.S., the popular cheese-laden Tex-Mex enchiladas trace back to early Mexican immigrants adapting traditional recipes. So while the classic American-style enchilada loaded with beef and cheese was transformed here, it still owes its roots and name to those original Mexican enchiladas.
No matter how you fill, fold or top them, enchiladas are a delicious symbol of Mexican culinary history. From the ancient indigenous peoples coating bread in chilis to the modern street vendors serving up quick appetizing enchiladas, this dish holds an important place in Mexico’s food heritage.