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An 1836 lithograph after a painting by Carl Nebel of Mexican women making tortillas.

Mexican cuisine is a style of food that originates in Mexico. Mexican cuisine is known for its varied flavors, colorful decoration, and variety of spices and ingredients, many of which are native to the country.

Contents

Elements

The staples of Mexican cuisine are typically corn and beans. Corn, traditionally Mexico's staple grain, is eaten fresh, on the cob, and as a component of a number of dishes. Most corn, however, is used to make masa, a dough for tamales, tortillas, gorditas, and many other corn-based foods. Squash and peppers also play important roles in Mexican cuisine.

The most important and frequently used spices in Mexican cuisine are chili powder, cumin, oregano, cilantro, epazote, cinnamon, and cocoa. Chipotle, a smoke-dried jalapeño chili, is also common in Mexican cuisine. Many Mexican dishes also contain garlic and onions.

Next to corn, rice is the most common grain in Mexican cuisine. According to food writer Karen Hursh Graber, the initial introduction of rice to Spain from North Africa in the 4th Century led to the Spanish introduction of rice into Mexico at the port of Veracruz in the 1520s. This, Graber says, created one of the earliest instances of the world's greatest fusion cuisines.[1]

History

The word "chocolate" originates in Mexico's Aztec cuisine, derived from the Nahuatl word xocolatl. Chocolate was first drunk rather than eaten.

When conquistadores arrived in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), they found that the people's diet consisted largely of corn-based dishes with chiles and herbs, usually complemented with beans and tomatoes or nopales.[2] The diet of the indigenous peoples of Pre-Columbian Mexico also included chocolate, tomatillos, huitlacoche, vanilla, avocado, guava, papaya, sapote, mamey, pineapple, soursop, jicama, squash, sweet potato, peanuts, achiote, turkey and fish. In the 1520s, while Spanish conquistadors were invading Mexico, they introduced a variety of animals, including cattle, chickens, goats, sheep, and pigs. Rice, wheat, and barley were also introduced as were olive oil, almonds, wine, parsley, and many spices. The imported Spanish cuisine was eventually incorporated into the indigenous cuisine.

Chocolate

Chocolate played an important part in the history of Mexican cuisine. In the past, the Maya civilization grew cacao trees[3] and used the cacao seeds it produced to make a frothy, bitter drink.[4] The drink, called xocoatl, and was often flavored with vanilla, chili pepper, and achiote (also known as annatto).[5] Chocolate was also an important luxury good throughout pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, and cacao beans were often used as currency.[6] For example, the Aztecs used a system in which one turkey cost one hundred cacao beans and one fresh avocado was worth three beans;[7] and all of the areas that were conquered by the Aztecs that grew cacao beans were ordered to pay them as a tax, or as the Aztecs called it, a "tribute".[8] Today chocolate is used in a wide array of Mexican foods, from savory dishes such as chicken mole to traditional Mexican style hot chocolate and champurrados, both of which are prepared with a molinillo.[9]

Regional cuisine

Two large jars of aguas frescas. On the left is a jar of Jamaica and on the right is a jar of horchata.

Mexican food varies by region, because of local climate and geography and ethnic differences among the indigenous inhabitants and because these different populations were influenced by the Spaniards in varying degrees. The north of Mexico is known for its beef, goat and ostrich production and meat dishes, in particular the well-known Arrachera cut.

The six regions of Mexico differ greatly in their cuisines. In the Yucatan, for instance, a unique, natural sweetness (instead of spiciness) exists in the widely used local produce along with an unusual love for achiote seasoning. In contrast, the Oaxacan region is known for its savory tamales and celebratory moles, while the mountainous regions of the West (Jalisco, etc) are known for goat birria (goat in a spicy tomato-based sauce).

Central Mexico's cuisine is largely influenced by the rest of the country, but has unique dishes such as barbacoa, pozole, menudo and carnitas.

Chapulines, or roasted grasshoppers, for sale in a Oaxacan market.

Southeastern Mexico, on the other hand, is known for its spicy vegetable and chicken-based dishes. The cuisine of Southeastern Mexico has a considerable Caribbean influence due to its location. Seafood is commonly prepared in states that border the Pacific Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, the latter having a famous reputation for its fish dishes, à la veracruzana.

In the Yucatán, the Mayan people have practiced beekeeping for thousands of years. Honey is an important ingredient in many Mexican dishes, such as the rosca de miel, a bundt-like cake, and in beverages such as balché.

In Pueblos or villages, there are also more exotic dishes, cooked in the Aztec or Mayan style (known as comida prehispánica) with ingredients ranging from iguana to rattlesnake, deer, spider monkey, chapulines, ant eggs, and other kinds of insects.

Recently other cuisines of the world have acquired popularity in Mexico, thus adopting a Mexican fusion. For example, sushi in Mexico is often made with a variety of sauces based on mango or tamarind, and very often served with serrano-chili-blended soy sauce, or complimented with habanero and chipotle peppers.

Mexican cuisine outside of Mexico

Nachos are most popular outside of Mexico.

Mexican food is widely available north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Cultural influences left from Spanish colonization of the Southwest and California remain not only in the names of places but also in the ingredients in cooking; these influences are strongly reinforced today by their proximity to northern Mexican states like Sonora, Baja California, and Chihuahuha. Prickly pears are as popular a food North of the border as they are South (often made into jams.) Ingredients common to both sides include chili peppers (the genus 'capsicum' reaches its Northern limit in Nevada[citation needed],) maize, beans, tomatoes, tortillas, tequila, and beef (both areas have a strong tradition of cattle ranching.) However, there is definite Americanization and hybridization the farther one is away from Mexico, resulting in Tex-Mex cuisine. Nachos for example are rarely eaten in Mexico, whereas they are wildly popular in the rest of North America.

The Chimichanga, a deep-fried burrito with origins in Arizona, is a Mexican-inspired dish popular in the United States and in other countries outside of Mexico.

In some regions of Mexico, it is very unusual to put cheese in tacos or tostadas (unless it is the typically Mexican panela cheese). However, in southern Mexico, it is common to use cheese in both tacos and tostadas and in other Mexican dishes such as picadas and enchiladas.

While Mexican restaurants can be found in almost any town throughout North America, and in many cities around the world, restaurants outside the American Southwest often feature nontraditional ingredients, such as grated American-style cheese, "nacho" cheese or tomato-based sauce substitutes for Mexican chile-based sauces or mole. States bordering Mexico (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California), and states such as Colorado and Utah have large expatriate Mexican populations, which in effect has produced a variety of authentic Mexican restaurants. In other areas of the United States and Canada, Mexican dishes and restaurants vary as much as Chinese restaurants and dishes do between China and many locations in the western Hemisphere.

See also

References








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