Mexican and Middle Eastern cuisines share some key similarities despite arising from different cultures half a world apart. Geography, trade, and history have blended their culinary traditions over centuries, yielding dishes that highlight parallel ingredients, cooking methods, and flavor profiles. Understanding the convergence of these two renowned cuisines reveals the global connectivity of food.
Mexican and Middle Eastern cooking draw from a shared pantry of ingredients that imbue their dishes with comparable textures and tastes. These ingredients entered each cuisine through ancient trade routes that spanned continents.
Beans and legumes are staple ingredients in both cuisines. Varieties like pinto beans, black beans, chickpeas, and lentils pop up in countless dishes across Mexico and the Middle East. These hearty plants can sustain harsh growing conditions, making them accessible protein sources in regions with arid climates and rugged terrain. Simmering beans in complex spiced broths creates flavors that anchor many signature plates in each cuisine.
Wheat connects the bread-loving culinary cultures of Mexico and the Middle East. Tortillas and pita bread are two of the most ubiquitous carb sources in their respective cuisines. These flatbreads trace their origins back to the Fertile Crescent, where wheat cultivation originated over 10,000 years ago. Trade subsequently spread wheat agriculture across North Africa and Europe, eventually carrying it to the New World. The nutty, comforting taste of wheat flatbreads pairs perfectly with lively Mexican and Middle Eastern dishes.
Rice cuisine also draws these regions together. Paella-style dishes, seasoned rices, stuffed vegetables, and rice-based stuffed wraps and rolls appear in both cuisines. As a staple crop that grows well in hot climates, rice has been cultivated in Mexico and the Middle East for millennia. Trading empires like the Romans and Moors later spread rice agriculture between the regions. The grain’s versatility enables it to absorb surrounding flavors, making it the perfect blank canvas for culinary creativity.
Bright, acidic citrus fruits add sunshine and tartness to Mexican and Middle Eastern cooking. Lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruits grow bountifully in the humid, coastal areas of both regions. They balance and cut through the strong spices prevalent in each cuisine. Citrus vinaigrettes, salsas, relishes, marinades and juices enliven grilled meats, stews, tagines, rice dishes and more with bursts of fresh flavor. These fruits likely spread via ancient trade networks that wove the Mediterranean world together.
Shared Cooking Techniques
Beyond ingredients, Mexican and Middle Eastern cuisines mirror each other in cooking techniques that blend cultures and amplify flavor. Generations of cooks have crafted distinctive ways of applying heat and spice to food.
Masters of grilled and charred meats and vegetables, accomplished Mexican and Middle Eastern cooks know how to use dry heat and smoke to add complex layers of taste. Both cuisines inherited this love of grilling from their indigenous predecessors cooking over open flames. Walking through a Middle Eastern or Mexican market offers tantalizing sights and smells of skewers and cuts like shawarma, kebabs, al pastor and carne asada hissing and sizzling on grills. Charred bits and smoky undertones make them shine.
Gently simmering food for hours in seasoned broth allows Mexican and Middle Eastern cooks to coax the deepest flavors out of tough but flavorful meats. Iconic dishes like mole, birria, machboos and harees all rely on the alchemy of time, spice and stock to soften meat and meld aromas. Modern cooks use slow cookers to conveniently replicate the melded flavors these traditional dishes derive from hours of tending a pot.
Hollowed and stuffed veggies star in both cuisines, where they transform vegetables from side dishes to hearty main meals. Mexicans stuff chiles with cheese, meat, beans and more to make dishes like chiles rellenos and chiles en nogada. Likewise, Middle Eastern cooks fill whole vegetables like tomatoes, squash, eggplants, onions and peppers with rice, ground meats, herbs and spices to yield stuffed grape leaves, vegetables yalanji and countless other dishes.
Shared Flavor Profiles
Underneath the regional variations lies a vocabulary of tastes that connects Mexican and Middle Eastern food. These cuisines strike similar balances between complementary flavors like hot and cool, rich and bright.
Chilies and peppers are the engines that drive Mexican food’s fiery personality. Dried and fresh chilies like ancho, chipotle, jalapeño, habanero, poblano and more fire up salsas, moles, adobos and vinegars. Middle Eastern heat derives from spices like cumin, cinnamon, cloves, cayenne and Aleppo pepper. They lend warming heat to dishes ranging from curries to schug sauce. Both regions harness spices that make you break a sweat.
An array of fresh herbs temper Mexican and Middle Eastern heat while contributing grassy, floral notes. Cilantro, parsley, mint and oregano see heavy use across both cuisines. Their refreshing qualities balance out salt, acid and chili pepper warmth. Chopped fresh herbs get stirred into everything from grains and salads to marinades, dressings and dipping sauces.
Layering dishes with savory flavors like garlic, onions and tomatoes builds depth and complexity. Middle Eastern mirepoix has onions, tomatoes and sometimes garlic in the base of curries, soups and stews. Sofrito plays the same foundational role in Mexican cooking, with onion, garlic and tomatoes slow cooked to develop richness. Smoky paprika and ground seeds like cumin and coriander also deepen flavors in both cuisines.
Honey, dates, raisins and other dried fruits make appearances across Mexican and Middle Eastern cooking, where their sweetness balances out spicy, roasted flavors. They add pleasant pops of sugar and chewiness in tagines, curries, rice dishes, moles and salsas. Sugar’s role in caramelizing onions also contributes sweet depth to dishes in both cuisines.
A final squeeze of lime or splash of vinegar pulls Mexican and Middle Eastern dishes together through bright, tangy contrast. Hot chilies, savory spices and rich meats cry out for the freshness of lime juice. Vinegars made from wine, dates or fruits echo these notes, and preserved lemons and limes lend the same lip-smacking acidity. A touch of sourness makes flavors pop.
Many iconic plates from Mexican and Middle Eastern culinary canons demonstrate these shared ingredients, techniques and balancing acts. Though diverse on the surface, core parallels tie them together.
|Middle Eastern Dishes
|Rich stews featuring bold spices, slow cooked meats, fruits and nuts
|Spiced ground meat mixtures wrapped and steamed in corn husks or bulgur shells
|Fried snacks featuring beans, herbs, spices and wheat-based wrappers
|Bright, herbaceous salads with lime juice or vinegar dressing
|Seared, thinly sliced marinated meats served wrapped in flatbread
These parallels between Mexican and Middle Eastern cuisine reflect how cultures, empires, agriculture and economics have intertwined for millennia. Overlaps in climate, geography and key crops allowed ancient civilizations in North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Americas to develop similar foodways. Trade subsequently spread ingredients and techniques within and between these regions.
In more modern times, waves of immigration and cultural diffusion have remixed cuisines across the globe. Mexican and Middle Eastern food continue to influence each other as people move across borders while flavors get reinterpreted for new palates and possibilities.
Indigenous Mexican and early Middle Eastern civilizations domesticated complementary crops like beans, squash, chili peppers, onions and tomatoes between 5,000 to 3,000 BCE. Staple grains like corn, wheat and rice linked regions through trade. Early empires also cultivated citrus fruits and spices. These shared ingredients influenced each region’s cuisine and agriculture.
Open fire cooking techniques united primitive communities worldwide. Early Mexicans and Middle Easterners inherited grilling methods that imbued food with rich charred flavors.
Trade and Empire
Goods and crops circulated around the Mediterranean and Middle East for millennia through networks like the Incense Route. Empires like the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans extended trade and agriculture. Rice traveled from Asia through the Middle East to Europe and North Africa. Wheat made the reverse journey from the Fertile Crescent to South Asia.
The Columbian Exchange opened interaction between the Americas, Europe and Africa. New World crops like maize, beans, chilies and tomatoes flowed around the world while wheat traveled to the Americas.
Waves of Middle Eastern immigrants have influenced Mexican cuisine over the last century. Migration expanded during the Mexican Revolution as Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian Arabs settled in Mexico. Middle Eastern entrepreneurs helped popularize shawarma, falafel, tabbouleh and other dishes in their new communities through restaurants and street food stands.
Latin American immigrants have likewise impacted Middle Eastern food culture. Cuban and South American communities in the Middle East blend culinary influences to create hybrid dishes like shakshuka with jalapeños and cumin.
Though oceans apart, Mexican and Middle Eastern cuisine share deep bonds, from pantry staples to flavor philosophies. Their convergence shows food’s ability to transcend borders. Global culinary traditions continuously blend and reinvent themselves while holding onto their essence. Looking beyond surface differences reveals the fundamental connections at the heart of cuisine worldwide.