Nachos are a popular appetizer or snack food consisting of tortilla chips topped with melted cheese, meat, beans, salsa, guacamole, and other toppings. They originated in Mexico, but have become popular all over the world. Given their origins, some people consider nachos to be Mexican food, while others view them as Tex-Mex or Americanized Mexican food. So are nachos really Mexican? There’s no straightforward yes or no answer, but looking at the history and evolution of nachos provides some insight.
History of Nachos
The earliest version of nachos was created in 1943 in Piedras Negras, Mexico by Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya. According to legend, Anaya was working as a chef at the Victory Club when a group of American military wives came in looking for a snack. With limited ingredients available, Anaya improvised by taking tortillas, cutting them into triangles, frying them, topping them with melted cheddar cheese and sliced jalapeño peppers, and heating them. When asked what the dish was called, he named them “Nacho’s especiales” or “Nacho’s specials” after himself.
This original version of nachos consisted of just tortilla chips, cheese, and jalapeños. It was born out of necessity with limited ingredients rather than being a traditional Mexican recipe. The dish became popular with American tourists who frequented border towns in Mexico. Nachos then migrated north across the border, appearing on Tex-Mex restaurant menus.
Evolution of Nachos in the US
In the 1950s, a variation of nachos made with canned chili and cheese started appearing on menus in Texas restaurants. This Tex-Mex style version later incorporated additional toppings like ground beef, refried beans, salsa, and guacamole. The recipes continued to expand over the decades as restaurants experimented with different ingredients.
Nachos increased in popularity through the 1960s and 1970s, becoming a staple appetizer and snack in Tex-Mex eateries and sports stadiums. Their convenience, customizable toppings, and kid-friendly nature made them a hit. Chain restaurants like Taco Bell and ballparks started mass producing and selling nachos, introducing them to more of the American public.
In 1976, a recipe for nachos with a cheese sauce instead of just melted cheese was included in the cookbook A Taste of Texas. This queso style nacho dip opened the door for additional cheese sauces. The 1990s brought more gourmet versions of nachos served at higher end restaurants rather than just cheap appetizers. Today, nachos are ubiquitous – served at movie theaters, parties, backyard barbecues, and anywhere else people want quick, easy snacks.
Are Nachos Considered Mexican Food?
Given how much nachos have changed and expanded since their original creation, there is debate around whether they can still be considered authentic Mexican food. Here are some perspectives on both sides:
Arguments that nachos are Mexican:
– Nachos originated in Mexico and were part of Mexican culinary tradition first
– The base is still tortilla chips, a staple Mexican ingredient
– Many versions still include typical Mexican toppings like beans, salsa, guacamole
– Nachos are served in Mexico, especially in the northern border regions
Arguments that nachos are not Mexican:
– The original version was improvised based on available ingredients, not a traditional recipe
– Nachos have been extensively Americanized with Tex-Mex style toppings
– Mass produced nacho cheese dips are more Tex-Mex or American than Mexican
– Not served commonly in central and southern Mexico
There are good points on both sides of the debate. Ultimately, nachos occupy something of a gray area. While nachos started in Mexico, the popular versions most people think of are arguably more Tex-Mex than authentically Mexican. However, their Mexican roots and influences can’t be ignored. Perhaps the fairest assessment is that classic nachos have become a Mexican-American hybrid food.
The Evolution of Nacho Toppings and Styles
To better understand how nachos have changed over time, let’s look at how the toppings and preparation styles have evolved:
– Tortilla chips
– Melted cheddar cheese
– Jalapeño pepper slices
This is Ignacio Anaya’s original improvised version using what he had on hand at the Victory Club in Piedras Negras, Mexico in 1943. The melted cheese and jalapeños provided a simple but tasty flavor combination with the crispy tortilla chips.
– Tortilla chips
– Ground beef
– Refried beans
– Shredded cheddar cheese
– Chili con carne
– Sliced jalapeños
– Sour cream
Tex-Mex restaurants in Texas began serving nachos topped with chili con carne in the 1950s. Additional typical Tex-Mex toppings like ground beef, refried beans, and sour cream appeared over the subsequent decades. This gave nachos a hearty protein and flavor boost compared to the original version.
Modern American Nachos
– Tortilla chips
– Ground beef
– Shredded cheese blend
– Nacho cheese sauce
– Black olives
– Sour cream
Moving into the 1970s and beyond, restaurant chains and stadiums introduced nachos topped with nacho cheese sauce instead of just shredded cheese. More vegetable toppings like tomatoes, black olives, and salsa appeared. Guacamole also became popular. These nachos aimed for greater mass appeal by incorporating typical American toppings.
– Artisanal tortilla chips
– Queso blanco cheese sauce
– Grilled skirt steak
– Sauteed peppers and onions
– Black beans
– Pico de gallo
– Avocado slices
In the 1990s and 2000s, gourmet versions of nachos gained popularity in higher end Mexican restaurants and sports arenas. These feature less traditional but higher quality ingredients like grilled steak, artisanal tortilla chips, and more authentic salsas and toppings. The presentation also tends to be more upscale.
Unique Nacho Toppings
More avant garde versions of nachos may include less expected ingredients like:
– Pulled pork
– BBQ sauce
– Lobster or shrimp
– Goat cheese
While not traditionally Mexican, these types of nacho toppings have appeared in creative recipes to provide new flavor combinations for more adventurous nacho lovers. Nachos lend themselves well to innovation due to their customizable, build-your-own nature.
The Role of Nachos in Mexican Cuisine vs. Tex-Mex vs. American
Looking at how nachos fit into broader Mexican, Tex-Mex, and American cuisine provides more context around the debate of their origin.
Role in Mexican Cuisine
Nachos actually play a relatively minor role in traditional Mexican cuisine. They originated from just one improvised recipe along the Texas border and are not common in central and southern Mexican food. Mexicans do enjoy nachos, but mainly in casual settings. More authentic Mexican appetizers and snacks include:
– Guacamole and chips
– Queso fundido
So while nachos have Mexican roots, they are not a pillar of mainstream Mexican culinary culture.
Role in Tex-Mex Cuisine
Tex-Mex cuisine is centered in Texas and areas of the American southwest. It blends traditional Mexican and American flavors and ingredients. Nachos actually feature quite prominently in Tex-Mex food and are a signature menu item along with:
– Chili con carne
The Tex-Mex version of loaded nachos with chili, beef, beans, and other toppings helped increase the dish’s popularity across the U.S.
Role in American Cuisine
In broader American cuisine and appetizer culture, nachos have become a ubiquitous favorite thanks to their hearty portions, customizable toppings, and ability to be mass produced. They can be found at ballparks, theaters, parties, and anywhere snack foods are sold across the U.S. Along with nachos, other top American appetizers include:
– Buffalo wings
– Onion rings
– French fries
– Potato skins
– Mozzarella sticks
– Chili cheese fries
– Chips and salsa/guacamole
So while nachos are not traditionally all-American, they have certainly become a staple of American casual dining and snacking over the past 50+ years.
The Question of Authenticity
The evolution of nachos from their original version to today’s popular interpretations raises the question of authenticity. When a dish changes so much through cultural exchange and adaptation over decades, can it still be considered an authentic example of the original cuisine?
Arguments That Nachos Are Still Authentic Mexican Food
– Nachos retain several core Mexican ingredients: tortilla chips, beans, salsa, jalapeños.
– They originated in Mexico and were part of Mexican culinary tradition first.
– Mexicans still eat nachos, especially in northern Mexico.
– The concept of crunchy tortilla chips with toppings is inherent to Mexican cuisine.
– Some nacho versions today still stay relatively simple and close to the original recipe.
Arguments That Nachos Are No Longer Authentic
– Nachos were improvised based on available ingredients, not a pre-existing Mexican recipe.
– The original nacho creator was making the dish for American tourists.
– Nachos have been extensively Americanized with non-traditional Tex-Mex-style toppings.
– The use of nacho cheese sauce is more Tex-Mex than Mexican.
– They are not commonly eaten in central/southern Mexico.
– Mass produced versions served at ballparks and chains have diverged greatly from the original.
There are reasonable points to support both perspectives here. One could argue nachos occupy a grey area where they have strong Mexican roots and influences but have also been adapted considerably for American tastes. At the end of the day, their classification is subjective.
The Globalization of Nachos
While nachos originated along the Mexico-U.S. border, they have since spread across the world and taken on global influences. Here is a summary of nachos’ growing international presence:
Nachos in Europe
In Europe, nachos are most popular in the United Kingdom and the Nordic countries. Brits have enthusiastically embraced American food culture, so movie theaters and pubs in the U.K. often serve nachos loaded with cheese, chili, and jalapeños. In Nordic countries, the focus is more on creative, gourmet nacho toppings incorporating local ingredients like smoked salmon.
Nachos in Asia
Asian nachos tend to play with adding local flavors. In Japan, you can find nachos topped with wasabi, ginger, seaweed, teriyaki chicken, and more. Korean nachos include kimchi, bulgogi beef, and spicy gochujang sauce. Thais add typical ingredients like massaman curry, peanuts, and lime.
Nachos in the Middle East
The Middle East has put its own spin on nachos too. Toppings like hummus, baba ghanoush, falafel, lamb, and tahini sauce can be found on Levantine nachos. Turkish or Greek versions might include feta, olives, tomatoes, and oregano.
Nachos in Latin America
In Latin America outside Mexico, nachos have been tailored to local tastes. In Argentina, chimichurri sauce and steak are popular nacho toppings. Brazilians favor adding creamy Catupiry cheese, minced meat, and black beans. And Colombia combines nachos with ingredients from bandeja paisa like chorizo.
Nachos in Australia
Down under, Aussies have come up with inventive nacho creations using native meats like kangaroo, emu, and crocodile. Other exotic additions are vegemite and pineapple. Beetroot, a quintessential Australian burger topping, also makes frequent appearances on Antipodean nachos.
Global Nacho Ingredients
Some creative international nacho ingredients from around the world include:
– Smoked salmon (Nordic countries)
– Wasabi (Japan)
– Kimchi (Korea)
– Massaman curry (Thailand)
– Baba ghanoush (Middle East)
– Chimichurri (Argentina)
– Beetroot (Australia)
– Kangaroo, emu, crocodile (Australia)
This sampling demonstrates how nachos have been adapted in each region to incorporate local cuisines and ingredients while retaining their classic chip and melted cheese base.
In summary, are nachos considered Mexican food? There is no straightforward answer, as nachos occupy a unique space between Mexican, Tex-Mex, and American cuisine. While invented in Mexico based on Mexican ingredients, they were created by modifying a traditional dish to appeal to American tourists. Their rapid spread and evolution in the U.S. via Tex-Mex restaurants and stadiums led to much of their recipe Americanization. However, their Mexican roots remain evident in their base ingredients.
Perhaps the fairest assessment is that nachos have become a beloved Mexican-American hybrid food, taking the best of both culinary traditions. Their flexibility has also allowed for many international cultural interpretations while retaining their inherently cheese-laden, crispy appeal. So while not fully Mexican nor American, nachos have successfully bridged these food cultures and beyond. Their identity as a global comfort food now transcends any specific national cuisine.