Yes, beans are a staple ingredient in authentic Mexican cuisine. Varieties like pinto, black, and kidney beans are used in many traditional dishes.
Beans are one of the most iconic ingredients associated with Mexican food. Dishes like frijoles refritos (refried beans), chili con carne, and tortillas with beans are popular examples of Mexican cuisine that prominently feature beans. However, with Mexican food growing in popularity around the world, some people wonder if beans are truly authentic to the cuisine or if their prevalence is a misconception. In this 5000 word article, we’ll explore the history of beans in Mexican cooking, look at traditional bean dishes, and determine whether beans can be considered an authentic part of Mexican cuisine.
The history of beans in Mexico
Beans have been a dietary staple in Mexico for thousands of years, dating back to pre-Columbian times. Archaeologists have found evidence that beans were domesticated in ancient Mexico as early as 7000 BCE. The most commonly grown varieties were Phaseolus beans from the legume family, including pinto, black, and kidney beans.
Beans provided an important source of protein for the ancient civilizations of Mexico. Without domesticated animals as a protein source, beans became invaluable. Ancient Mesoamerican people like the Mayans, Aztecs, and others depended on beans as a staple crop. Records show they cultivated beans alongside staple grains like corn and squash.
When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the 16th century, they discovered that beans were one of the most important crops in the region. The Spanish adopted many food traditions from the indigenous people, including the consumption of beans. This cemented beans as a fundamental component of Mexican cuisine.
Pre-Columbian evidence of beans
Archaeologists have found extensive evidence of bean cultivation across ancient Mexican civilizations:
– Remains of different bean varieties at Mayan sites indicate they were grown as early as 1000 BCE. Pinto, kidney, and black beans appear to have been the most common.
– Writings from Aztec and Mayan cultures reference beans and bean dishes frequently. This suggests they played an essential dietary role.
– Artwork, pottery, and tools connected to bean planting, harvesting, cooking, and consumption underscore their dietary significance.
– Tepary beans and runner beans also originated in Mexico and were grown alongside the more common pinto, black, and kidney beans.
The Spanish adopt bean cuisine
When Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico in the early 1500s and encountered beans, they quickly integrated them into their own cuisine. Reasons for this include:
– The indigenous people’s heavy dependence on beans showed the Spanish that beans could thrive and provide sustenance in Mexico.
– As Catholics, Spaniards were accustomed to a meatless diet on Fridays and during Lent. Beans provided an excellent meat substitute.
– Spain itself had a history of bean dishes, so Mexicans’ creative bean cuisine was familiar.
– Soldiers and explorers valued beans as a portable, nutrient-rich food on long campaigns away from their ships and settlements.
So while the Spanish conquerors influenced Mexican cuisine in many ways, they also adopted key elements like beans into their own food culture. This helped solidify beans as a staple ingredient.
Traditional bean dishes in Mexican cuisine
Beans show up in many classic Mexican dishes, often acting as the main protein source. Here are some examples of popular ways beans are used:
Frijoles refritos, or refried beans, are a traditional Mexican side dish. Beans are boiled, then mashed and fried with lard or oil to create a thick, creamy texture. Additional seasonings like onion, garlic, epazote, or chipotle peppers add flavor. Pinto beans are most common, but black beans are also used. Frijoles refritos are served as an accompaniment to any meal.
In frijoles charros, beans are cooked with pork, chorizo sausage, bacon, onions, garlic, cilantro, chiles, and tomatoes for a hearty bean stew. It’s a popular breakfast dish, but also works for lunch or dinner. Pinto beans are traditionally used.
Enfrijoladas are soft corn tortillas dipped in a purée of sautéed onions, garlic, and chili peppers simmered with beans. The tortillas are then smothered with more bean purée, cream, cheese, and chopped onions. Shredded chicken is also commonly added. Various types of beans can be used.
Chilaquiles are made by frying corn tortilla chips with salsa until soft, then mixing with shredded chicken and topped with cheese, Mexican crema, and onions. Black beans are also often added for extra protein.
Chiles rellenos feature roasted and peeled green chili peppers stuffed with cheese, dipped in an egg batter, and fried. The stuffed chiles are often served atop tomato or meat sauces, rice, beans, and garnishes. Using black or pinto beans in the sauce or as a side is traditional.
Tacos de frijoles
In tacos de frijoles, beans play the starring role. Frijoles refritos or whole boiled beans are served warm in corn tortillas and topped with cheese, onions, cilantro, and salsa. A vegetarian taco option, but still full of protein.
Tamales consist of masa dough stuffed with savory fillings, wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves, and steamed. Classic fillings incorporate beans, like chili con carne with beans or frijoles refritos. Sweet tamales can also be made with bean purée mixed into the masa.
Tortas ahogadas are a popular sandwich in the Jalisco region. Beans play an important role in creating the sauce. Pork carnitas or chicken are placed in a birote-style roll, then dipped in a sauce made from chili peppers, tomatoes, onion, garlic, and pinto or black beans blended together.
The prevalence of beans on Mexican menus and in recipes
A survey of popular Mexican cookbooks and restaurant menus demonstrates beans are widely used across regions. Here are some findings on the prevalence of beans in Mexican food:
– Rick Bayless’ Mexican Kitchen features recipes using pinto, black, and garbanzo beans, like Pinto Bean Soup and Black Bean Chilaquiles.
– Marilyn Tausend’s Cocina de la Familia has pinto and black bean recipes for dishes like Frijoles Borrachos con Chorizo and Frijoles Negros con Crema.
– Traditional Pueblan cooking relies on beans according to The Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy, with recipes for Lenten Rice with Beans and Mole Poblano with Beans.
– Beans act as the protein source for vegetarian recipes in Deborah Schneider’s Vegetarian Mexican, with options like Yucatecan Black Beans and Bean Tostadas.
– Major Mexican fast food chains like Taco Bell, Del Taco, and Chipotle all offer bean options like black or pinto beans as fillings.
– Upscale Mexican restaurants in the U.S. like Rosa Mexicano have dedicated bean sides and bean-based entrees on their menus.
– Smaller family-owned Mexican restaurants consistently offer frijoles refritos, chili con carne, enchiladas with beans, and other bean dishes.
– Reviews of restaurants in Mexico note that beans feature prominently in appetizers, sides, soups, and main dishes.
So cookbooks and restaurants that aim to authentically represent regional Mexican cuisine make ample use of beans, suggesting they are an integral ingredient.
Nutritional value of beans
Beyond tradition and flavor, another reason beans came to dominate Mexican cuisine is their excellent nutritional value. Beans offer many health benefits:
Beans provide a substantial amount of protein, making them a vegetarian alternative to meat. A 1 cup serving of cooked beans contains around 15 grams of protein. As a plant-based protein, beans are cholesterol-free and low in saturated fat compared to animal proteins.
Beans are very high in dietary fiber, containing both soluble and insoluble forms. The recommended daily fiber intake is 25-30 grams, and just 1 cup of beans provides 25-50% of that.
Low glycemic index
The glycemic index (GI) measures how much a food raises blood sugar. Beans are low GI, meaning they are absorbed more slowly to prevent spikes and crashes in blood sugar. This steady energy helped fuel ancient agrarian and hunting cultures.
Iron, potassium, magnesium
Beans supply iron needed for healthy blood and energy levels, potassium for fluid balance, and magnesium for bone development. These minerals were limited in ancient Mexican diets, so beans helped fill nutritional gaps.
The fiber, vitamins, minerals, and plant compounds in beans support cardiovascular health by lowering cholesterol and blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends beans as part of a heart-healthy diet.
The protein, fiber, and low GI benefit those with diabetes by stabilizing blood sugar. Beans also help with insulin resistance for those at risk of developing diabetes.
So beans deliver major nutritional value. Getting protein, fiber, minerals, and other benefits from plant sources like beans was especially valuable in ancient Mexican civilizations, so their nutritional profile helped fuel their popularity.
The role of beans in Mexican culture
Beyond cuisine, beans play an important role in Mexican culture:
Cultivating and selling beans became an essential economic activity in Mexico starting in the colonial era. Beans brought income and allowed rural farmers to pay taxes and purchase other goods. Pinto beans remain an important cash crop in Mexico today.
Various cultural events and traditions in Mexico incorporate beans, from the Feast of Candelaria where black bean tamales are eaten, to Las Posadas where pots of beans feature in reenactments, to Day of the Dead ofrendas decorated with beans.
Beans are depicted in Mexican folk art for their cultural significance. They appear in pottery, weavings, sculptures, paintings, and more as standalone subject matter or as parts of larger scenes of daily life.
Annual bean festivals occur in different towns in Mexico to celebrate local bean agriculture. Contests, fairs, music, and of course beans are central attractions.
Beans’ ability to grow easily makes them a symbol of sustenance and life in Mexican culture. Images of beans represent vitality. Spilling beans brings bad luck because they represent loss of resources.
So beyond being a dietary staple, beans have become intertwined with Mexico’s economic livelihood, traditions, artistic expressions, and symbolic imagery.
Geographic differences in bean cuisine
While beans are ubiquitous in Mexican cuisine overall, the type used and preparation methods varies by region:
– Uses more pinto, black, and garbanzo beans.
– Prefers refried beans with cheese and sauce to whole bean stews and soups.
– Features wheat-based dishes with beans like burritos.
– Relies heavily on pinto beans and black beans.
– Beans cooked whole in complex moles and simmered dishes.
– Incorporates beans into tamales.
– Black beans dominate over pinto.
– Beans flavored strongly with garlic and onions.
– Favors bean-thickened sauces and bean paste fillings.
– Lightly seasoned bean preparations to accent seafood.
– Tropical varieties like cocoa beans used in some areas.
– Beans bolster tacos, tostadas, sandwiches.
– Small red beans and black beans most popular.
– Hibiscus, allspice, and achiote season beans.
– Beans served whole or as spreads on tortillas.
So while all regions embrace beans, customized preparation styles developed based on environment, influences from other cultures, and local tastes.
Arguments against beans as traditional
Despite the long history and cultural importance of beans in Mexican cuisine, some arguments have been made against their role:
Misconception from Tex-Mex cuisine
It’s been suggested that the emphasis on beans in Tex-Mex cooking diminishes their importance in authentic Mexican food. However, research shows that Mexican cuisine featured beans before Tex-Mex adaptations.
Some characterize Mexican food as heavily meat-based, marginalizing plant foods like beans. But the cuisine balances meat and beans as complements. Beans have not been “shoehorned” in but rather have always played a central part.
Regional complexity obscured
Painting Mexican food with a broad brush can overlook regional differences in how beans are used. But this complexity doesn’t negate their overall importance, just shows diversity in their implementation.
Imposition by Spanish colonists
A myth suggests conquistadors imposed foreign beans on native Mexicans. In reality, beans were already a dietary pillar and Spanish adoptees of local bean cuisine helped it thrive.
In the end, these arguments only reinforce beans’ entrenched status in Mexican gastronomy rather than delegitimize it.
Given the evidence, beans can definitively be considered an authentic and integral part of traditional Mexican cuisine. As an ancient Mesoamerican crop, they provided sustenance for millennia and became ingrained in culture. When the Spanish arrived, they recognized beans’ versatility and value. While preparation techniques evolved over time and varied across regions, beans consistently remained a staple in Mexican cooking. Beyond their prevalence in recipes and nutritional significance, beans took on greater cultural meaning. While no food history is without nuance, beans’ long legacy in Mexico confirms their traditional importance. They are far more than a stereotype or misconception, but rather a cornerstone of Mexican culinary heritage.