People all over the world love Mexican food. Tacos, burritos, nachos, quesadillas, tamales, and more are enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds. But why exactly is Mexican cuisine so popular? There are several reasons why Mexican food has become a global phenomenon.
One of the main reasons people enjoy Mexican food is because of its robust, intense flavors. Mexican cooking makes use of a variety of herbs, spices, and other ingredients that add bold, vibrant tastes. Cilantro, onion, garlic, chili peppers, lime, cumin, and oregano are just some of the staple seasonings found in Mexican dishes. The complex layers of flavors, from salty to sour to spicy, make Mexican cuisine anything but bland.
In addition to being flavorful, Mexican food is also very satisfying. Many dishes, like burritos, tacos, and tamales, feature a perfect balance of starch, protein, veggies, and sauce. This combination fills you up and satisfies your taste buds. The hearty ingredients like rice, beans, meat, cheese, and avocado mean you walk away from the table feeling happily full and nourished.
Another great aspect of Mexican food is how customizable it is. With burritos for example, you choose your tortilla, filling, toppings, and sauces to build your ideal meal. You can go simple with just beans, rice, and salsa, or load it up with grilled steak, guacamole, sour cream, and more. With tacos, it’s fun to mix and match different shells, fillings, and toppings to create your own signature combo. The versatility of Mexican cuisine is part of what makes it so enjoyable.
History and Origins
To better understand why Mexican cuisine is so beloved, it helps to learn about its history and origins. Here’s a brief overview of where this flavorful fare came from:
The native peoples of Mexico, including the Aztec, Maya, and Nahua, cultivated crops like corn, beans, avocado, tomato, and chili peppers. These indigenous ingredients would go on to become dietary staples. Cooking techniques like nixtamalization, which makes corn easier to digest, were also passed down.
When Spanish colonizers arrived in Mexico in the 16th century, they introduced livestock like pigs, cows, chickens, and sheep as well as rice, wine, herbs, and spices. This intermingling of Old World and New World ingredients formed the basis of Mexican cuisine.
Over the centuries, distinct regional cuisines developed across Mexico. Depending on the geography and local cultures, ingredients and cooking styles varied from region to region. The food of Oaxaca, for instance, is known for its moles, while the Sonoran region is famous for carne asada.
Key Elements of Mexican Cooking
At the core of traditional Mexican cuisine are some key components and preparation methods:
Corn, or maize, is a revered staple of the Mexican diet. It has been cultivated in Mexico for thousands of years and is used to make tortillas, tamales, atole (a hot corn-based beverage), and more. Corn comes in many varieties and is an essential ingredient.
Beans are another essential component and provide an important source of protein. Popular bean varieties used in Mexican cooking include pinto, black, kidney, and fava beans. They are commonly refried and served as frijoles refritos.
Chili peppers provide the spice that Mexican food is renowned for. Different types like ancho, pasilla, jalapeño, serrano, and more are used to add mild to intense heat and smoky-sweet flavors. Chilies are used fresh, dried, roasted, or incorporated into salsas.
The tomato has become integral to Mexican cuisine, even though it originated in South America. Tomatoes add a burst of flavor and color and are made into salsas, stews, sauces, and drinks like salsa roja, salsa verde, and clamato.
The tortilla is the quintessential base of Mexican cuisine. These flatbreads made from corn or wheat dough can be served soft or crispy and are used to make tacos, quesadillas, tostadas, flautas, and more.
Salsas are served as a condiment with almost every Mexican meal. They come in infinite varieties based on ingredients like fresh chilies, tomatoes, avocado, pineapple, mango, and more. Salsa adds vibrant flavor, spice, and personality.
Mole (pronounced MOH-lay) is a signature Mexican sauce made from chili peppers, herbs, spices, seeds, nuts, chocolate, and more. It often contains 20 or more ingredients. There are many types of mole, with mole poblano being one of the most popular.
Tacos are the national snack of Mexico. This ubiquitous street food features a corn or wheat tortilla filled with a variety of meats, vegetables, cheeses, salsas, and garnishes. Grilled meats like carne asada and al pastor are popular taco fillings.
Quesadillas are made from two tortillas filled with cheese and other ingredients, then cooked on a griddle until the cheeses melt. Fillings like mushrooms, spinach, chicken, and shrimp elevate this cheesy staple.
Large wheat flour tortillas stuffed with fillings and rolled up to form a convenient package. Burritos are a popular Mexican-American food that allow you to eat meals like a burrito bowl on-the-go.
Regional Mexican Cuisine
While tacos, enchiladas and other dishes are enjoyed all over Mexico, there are also distinct regional cuisines to explore:
From the state of Oaxaca, this cuisine is known for moles, tlayudas, chapulines (fried grasshoppers), and large clay cups of hot chocolate called champurrado. Their seven moles are rich, complex sauces.
Food from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula incorporates influences from Mayan culture and makes use of local ingredients like achiote and sour orange. Common dishes include cochinita pibil, sopa de lima, and relleno negro.
The coastal state of Veracruz enjoys an abundance of seafood like red snapper, shrimp, and octopus. Dishes have Spanish, Afro-Cuban, and indigenous influences. Try popular specialties like arroz a la tumbada and huachinango a la veracruzana.
Known for its moles, talavera pottery, and rich cultural history, Puebla’s cuisine reflects a blend of Spanish and indigenous cooking. Try favorites like mole poblano, chiles en nogada, cemitas, and chalupas.
This Northwestern coastal state enjoys fresh seafood and produce. Signature Sinaloan dishes include ceviche, aguachile, marlin tacos, chicken with tomato sauce, and ca-cao con rana (rice with frog legs).
Why Mexican Food Is So Popular in the U.S.
So why has Mexican food become such a phenomenon in the United States? Here are some top reasons it has become so ubiquitous:
Mexico shares a nearly 2,000 mile border with the U.S., so there has always been an exchange of people and cultures. Mexican cuisine took hold, especially in border states like California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.
Migration and Population Growth
Mexicans comprise the largest group of immigrants in the U.S., further expanding the presence and popularity of Mexican restaurants throughout the country. Over 36 million U.S. residents identify as Mexican or Mexican-American.
Fast Casual Dining
Mexican fast-casual chains like Taco Bell, Chipotle, Qdoba, and Moe’s Southwest Grill have made Mexican-style food accessible and mainstream, especially among American youth. Customizability is a big draw.
Comfort Food Factor
With its hearty portions, bold flavors, and emphasis on rice, beans, meat, and cheese, Mexican food hits the spot as ultimate comfort food. Cravings for nachos, burritos, and quesadillas are widespread.
Beyond indulgent dishes, Mexican food also offers lighter options like fajita salads, vegetable bowls, and fresh fish tacos that appeal to health-conscious diners. Ingredients like avocado and black beans are nutritious.
Mexican restaurants, with their festive decor, margaritas, and mariachi music provide a lively, celebratory atmosphere. The social experience enhances the appeal of the cuisine.
Value and Variety
From taco trucks to family diners to upscale establishments, Mexican food is tasty and affordable at all price points. The endless combinations of ingredients mean the options are limitless.
Global Spread of Mexican Cuisine
Beyond just the U.S. and Mexico, Mexican food has become a worldwide phenomenon. Here’s a look at its growing global presence:
Countries like Spain, France, and Germany have embraced Mexican cuisine, especially in bigger cities. Taquerias, taco trucks, and Mexican restaurants draw locals and tourists alike.
Nations like Argentina and Colombia have started developing their own unique Mexican/Tex-Mex fusion cuisines. Dishes like Argentinian tacos al asador (grilled steak tacos) are growing in popularity.
In Japan, Taco Rice (a hybrid of tacos and rice) has become a cult favorite. And in South Korea, chains like Vatos Urban Tacos are fusing Korean and Mexican flavors on tacos, quesadillas, and burritos.
In places like Turkey, Lebanon, and Israel, modern Mexican restaurants are introducing local diners to burritos, enchiladas, guacamole, margaritas, and more for the first time.
From Ethiopian-Mexican fusion food trucks in South Africa to upscale Mexican eateries in cities like Nairobi and Johannesburg, chefs are getting creative introducing African twists on Mexican classics.
With a thriving food truck scene and established Mexican restaurant chains like Guzman y Gomez, Australian cities like Sydney and Melbourne have seen huge growth in Mexican food spots in recent years.
|Countries Embracing Mexican Cuisine
|Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden
|Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand, Philippines
|Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Brazil
|South Africa, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria
|Australia, New Zealand
The Future of Mexican Cuisine
Based on its continued expansion and adaptation around the globe, what does the future hold for Mexican food? Here are some possible trends:
Vegan Mexican Dishes
To serve plant-based diners, chefs may incorporate more ingredients like jackfruit, mushrooms, and hearts of palm in place of meat. Expect vegan twists on dishes like al pastor, carne asada, chorizo, and carnitas.
As Mexican chefs gain global recognition, high-end restaurants focused on Mexican cuisine will elevate dishes through modernist techniques, unique plating, food science, and molecular gastronomy.
New Regional Influences
As Mexican food spreads globally, chefs will fuse local ingredients and cooking techniques into Mexican cuisine, creating exciting new regional fusions tailored to their geographies and cultures.
Ancient Ingredients Revisited
Chefs may resurrect obscure ancient Mexican ingredients like amaranth, chaya, epazote, and huitlacoche (corn fungus) and make these exotic elements trendy for adventurous foodies.
Mexican Snacks and Sweets
Look for confections like palanquetas, obleas, alegrías, and cocoliztles as well as Mexican candies like mazapán and Carlos V chocolate to make their way into mainstream candy aisles and dessert menus.
Beyond margaritas and palomas, bartenders will riff on classic Mexican flavors with new agave spirit-based drinks like horchata hibiscus margaritas, tamarind mezcal mules, strawberry-jalapeño tequila cocktails, and more.
Mexican cuisine has come a long way from its indigenous roots and local beginnings to achieve global domination. People everywhere are discovering and falling in love with the bright, intense flavors, satisfying hearty staples, and craveable hybrid creations this versatile cuisine offers. With Mexican restaurants thriving around the world and chefs continually pushing boundaries, the future looks bright for this much-beloved culinary tradition. From street food to gourmet fare, Mexican flavors will continue spreading joy one bite at a time.