Mexican food originated in Mexico. It is a cuisine that combines indigenous Mesoamerican cooking traditions with those brought by the Spanish colonizers in the 16th century. Over the centuries, it has evolved into a diverse and rich culinary tradition that makes extensive use of corn, beans, and chili peppers, as well as unique spices and cooking techniques. Some of the most well-known Mexican dishes include tacos, quesadillas, burritos, enchiladas, tamales, mole sauces, and salsas. While Mexican cuisine varies by region, its core elements can be found throughout Mexico and in Mexican restaurants worldwide.
Origins of Mexican Cuisine
The origins of Mexican cuisine can be traced back over 9,000 years to the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica, including the Maya, Aztec, Olmec, and Toltec civilizations. These civilizations domesticated crops like corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, and chili peppers and developed complex cooking techniques like nixtamalization, which makes corn easier to grind into masa for tortillas and tamales. Here is a brief overview of the major influences on Mexican cuisine over the centuries:
Indigenous Ingredients and Cooking
The native peoples of Mexico cultivated and cooked with corn, beans, squash, avocados, tomatoes, chilies, vanilla, and many other plants native to the region. Corn was especially important and considered sacred. Nixtamalization was invented which uses limewater to soften corn for grinding into masa dough for tamales, tortillas, and other staples. Native cooking techniques included pit barbecuing, roasting, and steaming in earth ovens.
The Spanish colonized Mexico starting in the early 1500s, bringing European livestock, rice, wheat, and new cooking techniques. The Spanish introduced beef, pork, chicken, wine, garlic, onions, herbs, nuts, and dairy into Mexican cooking. Grilling, frying, and simmering in pots and pans became common. Mexican cuisine absorbed Old World ingredients but relied on native ingredients like corn as the staple food.
The Spanish also brought African slaves to Mexico starting in the 16th century. African cooking influenced Caribbean and coastal cuisines, introducing plantains, yams, sesame seeds, and peanut sauces. Pibil dishes that marinate meat in achiote sauce have African origins.
From 1864 to 1867, Mexico was ruled by the French Emperor Maximilian I. During this brief period, French cuisine became popular, influencing haute cuisine in Mexico City. The Mexicans adopted dishes like onion soup, coffee, and baked goods but put a local spin on them.
Development of Regional Cuisines
Over the centuries, distinct regional cuisines evolved across Mexico based on local climates, geography, cultures, and ingredients. Here is an overview of some of the major regional cuisines:
The foods of northern Mexico are strongly influenced by Native and Spanish culinary traditions. Corn, beans, meat, and chilies are common. Iconic dishes include burritos, arracheras (skirt steak), and cabrito (young goat). The states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango, and Sonora are known for grilled meats.
Central Mexican cuisine includes well-known dishes like mole sauces, pozole, menudo, and carnitas from states like Puebla, Hidalgo, and Michoacán. The highlands rely on corn, beans, pork, and seasonal veggies. Mexico City is influenced by all the regional cuisines.
The cuisine of Oaxaca and the Yucatán Peninsula is renowned for complex moles, tamales, and regional ingredients like chili peppers, banana leaves, and bitter oranges. Seafood is abundant on the coastlines. Staples include tortillas, black beans, and rice.
The Gulf coast states like Tamaulipas, Tabasco, and Veracruz have cuisines strongly tied to the sea. You’ll find shrimp, snapper, grouper, and many types of shellfish. Salsa Huichol using local chilies is popular here.
Baja California cuisine highlights fresh seafood like tuna, lobster, clams, and abalone from the Pacific Ocean. Grilled meats are also popular, enhanced by local wines. Some dishes have an Italian influence.
Classic Elements of Mexican Cuisine
While each region of Mexico has distinctive culinary traditions, certain ingredients, dishes, and cooking methods are common threads throughout Mexican cuisine:
– Corn – The base for tortillas, tamales, gorditas, and more
– Beans – Black, pinto, kidney; refried or whole
– Chili peppers – Jalapeño, poblano, ancho, pasilla, habanero
– Tomatillo – Green tomato-like fruit used for salsa verde
– Avocado – Used as a topping or in guacamole
– Cheese – Queso fresco, cotija, queso Oaxaca
– Herbs – Cilantro, epazote
– Meat – Chicken, beef, pork; often grilled or shredded
Dishes and Items
– Tamales – Stuffed corn dough steamed in banana leaves
– Tortillas – Grilled or steamed; corn or flour
– Tacos – Folded tortillas with fillings like meat, beans, cheese
– Quesadillas – Grilled tortilla with melted cheese
– Enchiladas – Rolled tortillas with sauce and cheese
– Sopes – Thick corn cake with toppings
– Gorditas – Stuffed and fried corn dough pockets
– Mole – Rich sauce with chili peppers, chocolate, nuts, spices
– Salsa – Tomato-based, tomatillo-based, or chili-based
– Guacamole – Mash of avocado with lime, onion, chili
– Carnitas – Braised, fried pork chunks
– Pozole – Hominy and pork stew
– Menudo – Spicy tripe soup
– Nixtamalization – Soaking corn in limewater
– Pit barbacoa – Slowly grilling meat or whole animals in a pit
– Mole making – Toasting and grinding spices, chilies, nuts for complex sauce
– Marinating – Achiote, citrus juices, or adobo spice pastes
– Refrying – Cooking beans in lard to make refritos
– Assembling – Building tacos, tostadas, burritos with various fresh fillings
The Spread of Mexican Cuisine
Over the past 150 years, Mexican food has spread well beyond Mexico and become one of the most popular international cuisines. Here is an overview:
A distinct Tex-Mex cuisine originated in Texas and the American Southwest in the late 1800s. It combines traditional northern Mexican cooking with some American ingredients like yellow cheese, beef, wheat flour tortillas, cumin, and chili powder. Iconic Tex-Mex dishes include fajitas, chili con carne, nachos, and frozen margaritas.
Authentic Mexican restaurants started appearing in the U.S. in the early 1900s as more Mexican immigrants arrived looking for work. In cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston, neighborhood taquerias, cafes, and restaurants introduced regional Mexican dishes to Americans beyond the border regions.
Americans were introduced to Mexican-inspired fast food in the mid-20th century. Taco Bell opened in 1962, while the first Chipotle launched in 1993. Quesadillas, burritos, nachos, and tacos became common late-night comfort foods.
In the 1980s and 90s, high-end restaurants started opening across the U.S. featuring “modern Mexican” cuisine led by celebrity chefs like Diana Kennedy, Rick Bayless, and Patricia Quintana. Their focus on authentic ingredients and traditions brought greater appreciation for real Mexican cooking.
As Mexican groceries and ingredients like corn tortillas, canned chipotle peppers, and fresh cilantro have become easily available in mainstream American supermarkets, more home cooks are able to prepare authentic Mexican dishes at home. YouTube videos and social media have further spread recipes.
Mexican cuisine has ancient indigenous roots that were blended with Spanish, African, and French influences over the centuries to create a diverse culinary tradition. Core ingredients like corn, beans, chili peppers, and tortillas are used in various ways across Mexico’s regional cuisines, in iconic dishes like mole, tamales, tacos, and salsa. While firmly grounded in tradition, Mexican food continues to evolve both in its homeland and abroad, with restaurants and home cooks alike constantly putting new spins on classic recipes. The richness, vibrancy, and complexity of authentic Mexican cooking makes it one of the most cherished international cuisines today. Though it has spread far beyond Mexico, its roots can still be tasted in every bite.