Long before the arrival of Europeans, Mexico was home to the great Maya, Aztec and Zapotec civilizations. These peoples had well developed agriculture with staples that have become familiar the world over, including corn, peppers, beans, avocados, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, jicama, and a wide variety of squashes.
Mexican Cuisine: A Background
The primary sources of meat in pre-Columbian Mexico were pork and wild turkey. Dishes were typically, baked, roasted, boiled or stewed. Curiously, the indigenous population never developed the use of oils or fats as a cooking medium. Chocolate was first drunk in Mexico, unsweetened, as a beverage of nobles.
With the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, Spanish culinary traditions and ingredients were introduced. Beef, cheese, cream and bread entered into the mix of Mexican cooking, and there began a slow fusion of the two cuisines.
Today's Mexican cooking maintains deep roots in the Aztec and Maya past while making use of the vast array of new ingredients and cooking styles available since colonization.
Masa, a dough made of lime-processed cornmeal is an indispensable item in the Mexican kitchen. Masa is formed into tortillas, empanadas and tamales. Its fresh corn flavor is typically Mexican.
The chile pepper is another ubiquitous ingredient in Mexico. Common types are jalapeño, cascabel, ancho, chipotle and pasilla. A wide variety — both fresh, smoked and dried — lends a unique flavor to many, if not most, dishes.
And finally, an infinite variety of beans forms a final leg in the foundation of Mexican cookery. Each region has its own special favorite, from pintos in the north, to the black bean of the Yucatán peninsula.
The cheeses most commonly used by Mexican cooks are: queso fresco, a young farmer-style cheese; asadero, a string cheese very similar to mozzarella; and cotija or queso añejo, aged cheeses that are grated and used like Parmesan.
Mexican Dining Habits
A typical Mexican day begins with a simple breakfast of coffee and bread. Lunch is the biggest meal. Soup, rice, tortillas, beans and a main dish, or platillo fuerte, are typically served. Not surprisingly, a filling Mexican lunch is often followed by a welcome Mexican siesta. The evening meal is generally comprised of lighter fare.
In addition to the three main meals, Mexicans are masters of snacking and snack foods. All of the items which Americans think of as typically Mexican — tacos, burritos, quesadillas — are considered snack food south of the border, most often served out of carts or stalls by street vendors.
For beverages, Mexicans are big fans of fruit juices and aguas frescas. Tequila cocktails or a light beer, brewed in the north of the country, also make an excellent accompaniment to a fine Mexican meal.
Mexico is a large country with a variety of regional cooking traditions. Some of the basic culinary regions are:
The north of Mexico is hot, dry country. Cattle grazing is a primary occupation, and this shows itself in the popularity of beef. Carne seca, beef traditionally dried in the hot sun, is a typical dish. Frijoles borrachos are a popular side dish for meals, as are chiles con queso. The North is the one area of Mexico where flour tortillas can be found.
The Pacific Coast
The two great culinary centers near the Pacific coast are Guadalajara and Oaxaca. Guadalajara is known for its pozole. Oaxaca is a center of coffee production and the origin of cafe de la olla.
The Gulf Coast
Along the steamy Gulf Coast and in Veracruz, fish and seafood dishes, tropical fruits, coconuts and vegetables dominate. Escabeche and tamales steamed in banana leaves are common foods. Tomatoes, bananas and mangoes find there way into many dishes.
Bajío and Central Mexico
This area of Mexico shows the heaviest Spanish influence due to the large settlement of Europeans in the Distrito Federal. Here you will find beef stews, salads of nopales (prickly pear pads), pork dishes and the famous mole Poblano. Pulque, a fermented agave beverage, has been drunk by Mexicans in this region since ancient times.
Descendants of the great Mayan civilization reside in the peninsula of Yucatán, and many traditional Maya dishes live on. The Yucatécan diet is heavy in corn, fish, shellfish, eggs and black beans. Yucatécans always add a sprig of epazote, a pungent herb, to their beans as they cook. Recados, pastes of spices and vinegar or citrus juice, are a distinctive feature of Yucatécan cuisine. They flavor meats, fish, seafood and tamales.
Typical Mexican Dishes