Mexican cuisine is known for its vibrant flavors, diverse ingredients and varied cooking techniques. Dishes like tacos, burritos, enchiladas, mole, pozole and tamales are popular Mexican staples found on menus around the world. But with such variety, it can be difficult to determine what truly makes a dish “Mexican.”
Certain core ingredients, cooking methods and flavor profiles help identify foods that originate from Mexico. Looking at the history and culinary traditions of different regions within Mexico sheds light on key elements that classify a food as authentically Mexican. Examining how Mexican cuisine has evolved and spread also distinguishes it from Tex-Mex and other adapted styles of cooking.
Defining Features of Mexican Cuisine
There are certain characteristics that help define Mexican food:
Many ingredients integral to Mexican cooking were first cultivated in Mexico by pre-Columbian civilizations like the Aztecs and Mayans. These core ingredients include:
– Corn – Used to make tortillas, tamales, atole (corn gruel) and more. Corn is a staple grain.
– Beans – Several varieties used, like pinto, black, kidney and fava beans. They are often slow-cooked and refried.
– Chiles – Fresh and dried chiles add spice and distinctive flavors. Popular types are ancho, jalapeño, habanero, chipotle, pasilla.
– Tomatoes – A base ingredient for salsas and sauces like salsa ranchera. Tomatoes were introduced after Spanish colonization.
– Avocados – A key ingredient in guacamole, with their rich, buttery flavor.
– Squash – Varieties like zucchini, pumpkin and butternut squash are common.
– Herbs – Cilantro, epazote (wormseed), hoja santa (Mexican pepperleaf).
Authentic Mexican cooking relies on some traditional cooking methods:
– Slow-simmering – Beans, stews, moles and other dishes are slowly simmered to blend complex flavors.
– Grilling – Meat, fish, veggies and fruits are grilled over wood or charcoal for smoky flavor.
– Roasting – Chile peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic are fire-roasted before use in salsas.
– Steaming – Tamales are a popular steamed dish made with masa (corn dough).
Mexican cuisine varies by region based on local climate, geography and history:
– Central Mexico – Known for complex moles (sauces) and street food like tacos al pastor.
– Northern Mexico – Grilled meats are common, with flour tortillas.
– Southern Mexico – Characterized by ancho chiles, bananas, coastal seafood.
– Gulf Coast – Features seafood like Veracruz-style snapper along with indigenous vegetables.
– Oaxaca – Known for moles like mole negro and chapulines (fried grasshoppers).
Mexican food has some signature flavor combinations:
– Adobo – A blend of garlic, oregano, cumin, chiles, vinegar and salt used to marinate meats.
– Citrus – Lime juice and zest is widely used to add bright flavor.
– Heat – Chiles provide spice, ranging from mild to very hot on the Scoville scale.
– Herbs – In addition to cilantro, Mexican oregano is commonly used.
– Chocolate – Used in mole sauces and certain stews and beverages.
– Salty-Sweet – There is often a balance of salty ingredients like cotija cheese and sweet ones like mango or pineapple.
History of Mexican Cuisine
Looking at the origins and evolution of Mexican food sheds light on what classifies dishes today:
– Indigenous civilizations like the Aztecs and Mayas domesticated staples like corn, beans, squash, chiles and avocados.
– The molcajete, a stone tool used with a tejolote to grind spices, was an important cooking implement.
– The Aztecs used basic preparation methods like boiling and grilling. Tamales date back to this time period.
– The Spanish introduced livestock meats like pork, beef, chicken, dairy products and rice.
– Onions, garlic, cilantro, black pepper and other spices arrived along with grapes and wheat for bread.
– Cooking techniques like sautéing, roasting and the use of olive oil evolved under Spanish influence.
– After Mexico won independence in 1821, French influence emerged under Emperor Maximilian. French technique influenced haute cuisine.
– Regional distinctions expanded with varied local ingredients. Mole recipes diversified.
– Railroad expansion in the late 1800s allowed ingredients to spread and cuisine became more unified.
20th Century and Beyond
– Mexican cuisine became codified and recognized as a national cuisine. Dishes like enchiladas, tacos and tostadas became popular nationwide.
– Tex-Mex style Mexican food and fast food tacos emerged in the U.S., diverging from authentic Mexican cuisine.
– Celebrity chefs like Rick Bayless championed authentic Mexican cooking using regional recipes and techniques.
Characteristics that Classify Mexican Food
There are some key characteristics that identify a dish as authentically Mexican:
– Uses core ingredients like corn, beans, tomatoes, chiles, avocado, squash, queso fresco.
– Emphasizes fresh, local ingredients like cactus, huitlacoche (corn smut), herbs.
– Minimally processes ingredients rather than using canned or frozen produce.
– Incorporates techniques like simmering complex moles, grilling meats, making hand-pressed tortillas.
– Uses traditional tools like molcajetes to make salsas from scratch.
– Blends pre-Columbian cooking methods with Spanish influences.
– Achieves balance of flavors like spicy chiles, citrus, sweet fruits, salty cheese, savory meats.
– Layers chili purees, adobo seasoning, fresh herbs rather than just hot sauce.
– Develops depth from prolonged braising, simmering, marinating.
– Showcases signature dishes from different Mexican regions.
– Uses local ingredients like Oaxacan cheese, Baja fish, Yucatan habanero chiles.
– Reflects regional history in additions like plantains in Veracruz coastal cuisine.
– Serves dishes in traditional preparations like tacos on corn tortillas or tamales wrapped in banana leaves.
– Plates ingredients separately rather than mixing prematurely.
– Garnishes dishes with elements like cilantro, lime wedges, shredded cabbage.
What Does NOT Classify a Dish as Mexican
There are also characteristics that indicate a dish should NOT be classified as authentically Mexican:
– Uses cheese like cheddar or Monterey Jack instead of queso fresco.
– Contains heavy cream, sour cream, butter or other dairy not common in Mexican cooking.
– Includes olives, rice or pasta as primary ingredients. These arrived post-colonization.
– Emphasizes baking, broiling or grilling instead of traditional techniques.
– Omits distinctive steps like hand-pressing tortillas or scratch-making salsa.
– Swaps molcajete salsa for commercially made brands and jarred sauces.
– Focuses just on heat from chiles rather than balanced flavors.
– Lacks complexity from layered mole sauces, marinades or adobos.
– Uses ready-made seasoning packets instead of traditional herb blends.
– Tops dishes with cheese, sour cream or olives. These are Tex-Mex additions.
– Mixes cuisines like adding soy sauce, sesame seeds or general Asian flavors.
– Garnishes with lettuce, shredded yellow cheese or crispy tortilla strips.
– Displays dishes like overstuffed burritos, chimichangas or enchiladas with sour cream sauce.
– Stacks or over-stuffs taco shells rather than using soft corn tortillas.
– Makes sloppy dishes like wet burritos smothered cheese sauce.
Key Differences Between Mexican and Tex-Mex Cuisine
Understanding how Tex-Mex cuisine diverged from authentic Mexican food also clarifies what classifies dishes:
– Tex-Mex originated Texas and the American Southwest, blending Mexican and American tastes.
– It developed in the late 1800s among Tejanos, both Mexican immigrants in Texas and native Texans of Mexican descent.
– Tex-Mex introduces American staples like beef, yellow cheese, iceberg lettuce, sour cream.
– It uses processed ingredients like canned beans, shredded cheese, jarred salsa.
– Corn tortillas are often replaced with flour tortillas.
– Tex-Mex created hybrid dishes like nachos, fajitas, chili con carne and breakfast tacos.
– Foods are Americanized like crispy taco shells, cheese enchiladas and chimichangas.
– Brands like Taco Bell commercialized Americanized Tex-Mex.
– More emphasis is placed on bold flavors with just salt, acid and heat.
– Nuanced flavors of traditional mole sauces and marinades are less common.
– Cumin, chili powder and garlic powder seasonings are used more liberally.
– Fast cooking techniques suit Tex-Mex assembly line style production.
– Premixed spices, jarred salsas and processed ingredients speed cooking.
– Hand-crafted tortillas, moles and salsas from scratch are rare.
How Mexican Food Spread Beyond Mexico
Tracing how Mexican cuisine expanded beyond Mexico helps determine what remains traditional:
As mentioned, Tex-Mex cuisine arose along the US-Mexico border in the late 1800s, popularizing dishes like nachos, fajitas and burritos.
California-style Mexican food evolved in the 1970s and 80s using produce like avocado. It remains closer to traditional Mexican than Tex-Mex.
Taco Bell and Fast Food Chains
Taco Bell brought Americanized Mexican fast food to the mainstream in the 1960s with hard shell tacos, burritos and nachos.
Modern fusion restaurants incorporate Vietnamese, Korean and other global flavors into Mexican dishes, diverging from traditional preparations.
Authentic Mexican Restaurants
Many modern chefs champion authentic flavors by using traditional recipes and ingredients like heirloom masa for tortillas.
Core ingredients, regional diversity, culinary history and preparation techniques all influence what classifies food as authentically Mexican. Key elements include staples like corn, chiles, beans, herbs, avocados and tomatoes plus cooking methods like simmering complex moles and making hand-crafted tortillas. Tex-Mex and adapted versions of recipes stray from these traditions, lacking complexity and regional distinction. To be classified as truly Mexican, dishes need to balance bright acidity, moderate heat, and robust earthy flavors while showcasing regional diversity and heritage cooking methods.