The History of Mexican Food

The History of Mexican Food

You can’t learn to speak Spanish without learning a bit about Mexican food. Mexican food has gained a great deal of popularity around the globe but there is a lot of confusion about what constitutes “real Mexican food”. Real Mexican food is food that has traditionally been consumed in Mexico and is currently being consumed in Mexico; thus, pre-Hispanic food, post-colonial food, as well as current modern trends in Mexican food – and drink – will be discussed.  Most of the so-called Mexican food consumed outside of Mexico is a version of what’s known as “Tex-Mex”, mostly dishes from northern Mexico adapted to U.S. tastes and commercial appeal.  That said, and given the high concentration of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. and elsewhere, authentic Mexican food can be found, but typically not in the variety nor the level of authenticity as found in Mexico.

Pre-Hispanic Mexican Food

Mexican cuisine is as complex and varied as other cuisines from ancient civilizations, such as Chinese, Italian, and Indian, and equally varied as it was developed over thousands of years and across the many historic and cultural regions of Mexico.  Today’s traditional Mexican food is a fusion of the indigenous “Mesoamerican” cooking with European, mostly Spanish, elements added after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire in the 16th century.  And even more modern restaurants springing up all over Mexico are fusing the traditional cooking with flavors from all over the world, including Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

But a lot of Mexican food consumed today throughout Mexico is still based on ingredients and traditional recipes that the Mayas and Aztecs developed prior to the Spanish conquest.  Indigenous staples included corn, beans, avocados, tomatoes, and chile peppers.  In fact, the chile pepper has been a staple ingredient in Mexican recipes for thousands of years and continues to be considered not only a staple, but an important part of the Mexican identity.  Many Mexicans feel that food without chile, whether included in the dish or on the side as a condiment, they really don’t consider it food!  In addition to the staples such as corn and chile peppers, other native ingredients included squashes, cocoa, and vanilla, as well as rare ingredients like edible flowers, and vegetables unique to Mexico like huauzontle and papaloquelite, or small avacados whose skin is edible.

Corn was traditionally prepared by drying, treating with lie, and then grinding into a dough called “masa”, a process that dates back to more than 1000 BC.  While there are many ways to consume the masa, the most common then and now is in the form of the “tortilla”, which accompanies every dish.  The tortilla is essentially an edible spoon, ripped up and used like “nan” in India to scoop up the food.  Or, when the food is properly placed in the tortilla and the tortilla is kept intact, you have the ubiquitous taco!

When the Spanish arrived, the Aztecs had sophisticated agricultural techniques that allowed them to expand an empire throughout the central part of Mexico. Their diet was still rather low in protein, however, due to the scarcity of meat.  Beans were an important source of protein, as were domesticated turkey’s, insets such as grasshoppers and ant larvae (still a delicacy in local restaurants!), iguanas and turtle eggs on the coastlines.


The Spanish introduced a variety of staples and cooking techniques, themselves influenced by eight centuries of Arab rule.  They brought olive oil, rice, onions, garlic, oregano, coriander, cinnamon, cloves and many other herbs and spices.  But more importantly, they brought domesticated animals such as pigs, cows, chickens, goats and sheep for both meat and milk, raising the protein consumption of the locals.  And cheese became the most important dairy product, while the most important cooking technique the Spanish introduced was frying.

The modern Mexican food began to develop with this fusion of indigenous and Spanish ingredients and cooking techniques.  Mexican food maintained its based of corn, beans, and chile peppers, but many different combinations of meats and sauces became prevalent.  Immigration and regionalization continued to play a role in the development of regional dishes and specialties during the 18th and 19th centuries.   Immigrants in the 19th century included French, Lebanese, German, Chinese, and Italian, all of whom had some influence on the food.  French food became popular with the upper classes, as did European style breads and sweets, which can be found in Mexican bakeries today.  The Germans brought beer brewing techniques and the Chinese opened restaurants in certain areas of the country.  Mexican food became less dependent on cooking techniques than on regionalization and popular traditions.

Regionalization of Cuisines

In modern Mexico, foods from the many diverse regions can be found in the major cities and tourist destinations, especially in Mexico City.  But regional specialties and traditions are still very prevalent, based on historical and cultural development as well as on geography.  Mexican cuisine is an important aspect of the culture, social structure and popular traditions all over Mexico.  For this reason and others, traditional Mexican cuisine was inscribed in 2010 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

The cuisine of the gulf state of Veracruz is a mix of indigenous, Spanish, and Afro-Mexican, due to the slave trading routes in the Caribbean and the importance of the port of Veracruz over several centuries.   With its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico and over 40 rivers running through the state, Veracruz has an ample and varied supply of fish and seafood, which is combines with Spanish herbs and chile peppers to create dishes such as “Huachinango a la Veracruzana”, the most popular red snapper dish.  The African influence can be seen in the use of peanuts and other ingredients such as plantains, yucca, and sweet potatoes, and rice is more prevalent in Veracruz than is corn.  There is also an abundance of tropical fruits that are incorporated into the food and drink.

In the southwestern state of Oaxaca, the indigenous foods remained intact although Spanish cooking was also adapted by the local people.  The state has a wide variety of ecosystems with vegetables grown in the central valley, seafood abundant on the coast, and a great deal of tropical fruits from the areas close to Veracruz.  One of the major features of Oaxacan cuisine are the seven different varieties of “mole”, the complex sauce with often over 30 ingredients, including both chocolate and chile peppers.  Corn remains a staple in the region, not only for tortillas but also to make empanadas and multiple varieties of tamales.  And black bean soup is another favorite.  Add to this list the many varieties of chile peppers cultivated and you will find one of the best gastronomical experiences in Mexico in Oaxaca.

Northern Mexico, namely the states of Sonora and Chihuahua, was less populated due to the arid climate, but the Europeans discovered the region to be well suited to raising cattle, goats, and sheep.  Beef is especially popular and the favorite cooking of the ranch culture that developed is grilling (typically by men).  Flour was also more prevalent than corn, hence the popularity of the flour tortillas both in northern Mexico and in the southwestern U.S.  This gave rise to the “burro” or “burrito”, a large flour tortilla filled with meat, rice, beans, guacamole, and chile peppers (don’t ask for a burrito in Mexico City!).  The ranch culture also prompted cheese production.  But in general, the cuisine in the North is not nearly as varied as in the South, due to the arid environment that relied on more food preservation techniques than in the South.

The cuisine found in the Yucatan Peninsula is different from the rest of the country as it’s based primarily on Mayan food with influences from the Caribbean, Central Mexican, European, especially French, and Middle Eastern cuisine.  It is still based on corn as a staple, but with different spices, such as Annatto seed, called “achiote” in Spanish.  The food is flavored with pastes from achiote or a mixture of habanero chile and charcoal, both used on chicken and pork.  The best-known dish from the region is based on a red paste and is called “cochinita pibil”.  “Cochinita” is pork and “pibil” is the cooking method in which foods are wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a pit oven.

Yucatan cooking also relies heavily on tropical fruits, such as tamarind, plums, mamey, avacados and bitter oranges, the later used in the region’s salsas.  And from the coastal areas come several seafood dishes, based on local fish that is fried and served with spicy salsas.  Conch filet, usually served raw and marinated in lime juice, is common, as are coconut flavored shrimp and lagoon snails.

Another important region for cuisine is Western Mexico, especially the states of Michoacan, Jalisco, and Colima.   The cuisine of Michoacan is heavily influenced by the native “Purepecha” culture, which is still prevalent in the region.  There are many lakes and rivers, thus they eat a great deal of fresh fish.  Corn is still a staple but in various forms, including many varieties of exotic tamales.  The Spanish brought rice, pork and spices, which contributed to the creation of a hugely popular dish called “carnitas”, or fried pork that is now found throughout Mexico and beyond.

The cuisine from Jalisco and Colima includes many popular Mexican dishes such as birria, a spicy dish made from goat or mutton, chilaya, menudo, and many pork dishes.  An important street food is the “torta”, which is a Mexican sandwich (“torta” in other Spanish speaking countries means a desert cake!).  The “torta ahogada”, literally “drowned” torta, is soaked in a red chile sauce.  Pozole, a famous hominy stew, comes from the town of Tonala, close to the gastronomic and cultural center of Guadalajara.  Mexico’s second largest city and the state of Jalisco are known for many things Mexican, such as mariachis, charros, or Mexican cowboys, and perhaps the most famous on a global scale, Tequila!

Tequila, Mezcal, Beer, and Wine

Tequila is produced mainly in the state of Jalisco and made only from the blue agave plant, primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, about 40 miles from Guadalajara, as well as in the area in Jalisco known as “Los Altos”.   Tequila is technically a type of mezcal with the difference being in the production in that tequila must use only the blue agave plant while other mezcals can be made from any kind of agave.   Tequila is typically sipped in Mexico and served neat with salt and lime or with “la bandera” (Mexican flag), which consists of shot glasses of lime juice, a spicy tomato juice called “sangrita”, and salt (green, red, and white, the colors of the Mexican flag).  Over 300 million blue agave plants are harvested near the town of Tequila each year, and tequila is exported all over the world, with the U.S. being the largest importer.

Tequila was first produced in the 16th century, with mass-production beginning around 1600 at the first factory in what is now the state of Jalisco.  Spain’s King Carlos IV granted the Cuervo family the first license to commercially make tequila, and Don Cenobio Sauza, founder of Sauza Tequila, was the first to export tequila to the United States in the late 1800’s.

Mexican laws state that tequila can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and limited municipalities in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.  Tequila is recognized as a Mexican designation of origin product in more than 40 countries and is protected through NAFTA in Canada and the United States, as well through bilateral agreements with individual countries such as Japan and Israel.  And Tequila has been a protected designation of origin product in the constituent countries of the European Union since 1997.

For decades, Mezcal had the distinction of being the bottle with the worm in it and little more.  Those days are over and people are flocking to the state of Oaxaca to try the many varieties and strike deals with the producers to import, primarily into the United States.  Demand for mezcal is growing and it is now Mexico’s third-largest alcoholic export, behind beer and tequila.

Unlike tequila, that is made from only one strain of agave, mezcal can be made from any variety, of which there are 52 in the state of Oaxaca alone.  This allows the producers to create artisanal mezcals that vary greatly in flavor – and price – with some bottles fetching over $200 in the U.S. market.

The center of the mezcal production is in Oaxaca’s central valley, where small, traditional producers distill the spirit alongside their crops and farm animals.  Mezcal is prepared in distilleries called “palenques”, barn-like structures where the agave plant’s thick, tall leaves are shaved with machetes and crushed. The sweet extract juices are then distilled into the smoky, clear alcohol.

With two-thirds of Mexico’s mezcal exports going to the U.S., Mexican authorities and producers are regularly traveling north to hunt for capital.  Not only has there been an influx of capital, but many Oaxacans who were working north of the border are now returning to Oaxaca to work in the Mezcal business, which is creating a “boom” in Oaxaca.

The pre-hispanic population of Mexico knew of fermented alcoholic beverages long before the arrival of the Spanish.  In fact, they produced a corn beer (this is ironic because one of Mexico’s most popular beer exports, Corona, is made with corn!).  The Spanish brought European style beer but production was limited during the colonial period due to the lack of materials and taxes and restrictions placed on the product by Spanish authorities.  After the Mexican War of Independence, these restrictions disappeared, and with the arrival of German immigrants in the 19th century, many breweries were opened in various parts of the country.  By 1918, there were 36 beer companies, but over the 20th century, the industry consolidated until today, only two corporations, Grupo Modelo and FEMSA control 90% of the Mexican beer market.   Beer is a major export for the country, with most going to the United States, but some brands are available all over the world.  A few recommended beers to sample while in Mexico include Victoria, Corona, Dos Equis Amber, Negra Modelo, and Bohemia.

Mexican Wine Production

It may be surprising, but Mexico has developed a thriving wine industry for both local consumption as well as export, although they produce only 20 million liters of wine per year, compared to the US, which produces three billion liters.  And interestingly the newest wine frontier is also Americas’ oldest, dating back to 1524 and the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, when Hernan Cortez received orders to plant grapevines for the crown of Spain, several decades before the planting of grapes in Chile and Argentina.  Mexico has over 100,000 acres of vineyards, but most of these are devoted to brandy production. Mexico is the third largest producer of brandy in the world.

The Guadalupe Valley in Baja California, between Ensenada and Tecate, is the center of Mexico’s fine wine production and today the region boasts over 50 wineries.  Wine production here was actually started by the Catholic missions, first the Jesuits and then the Dominicans, from the early 1700’s through late into the next century.  In the late 19th century, the Molokans, who were Christian Russian refugees, arrived in the Guadalupe Valley and began growing wine grapes.   They were farmers escaping persecution from the Czar and brought with them modern farming and winemaking practices.

Today Baja California produces 90% of the wine in Mexico, with the quality greatly improving over the past 40 years.  The combination of high altitude vineyards and the cooling effects of winds and fogs from the Pacific have allowed grapes to thrive.  Baja wines tend to be deeply colored and full bodied.  These wines are big, powerful, and heavily extracted with a substantial weight and mouth feel and a propensity to taste jammy.  Grapes here tend to be thicker skinned than normal, creating more intense flavors and aromas.

Mexico’s growing reputation as a wine producer has been attracting international wine companies. In addition to Freixenet and Pedro Domecq, new foreign investors include Chuck Wagner of Napa’s Caymus Vineyards and Henri Lurton of Bordeaux’s Chateau Brane-Cantenac. The Chalone Group and Wente Vineyards are also becoming more involved in the Mexican wine industry.  Along with this international attention has come an increase in tourism from the North, not only to sample the wines, but also to stay in some of the new boutique hotels that have been built, many in the middle of vineyards.  Another attraction are the restaurants that have sprung up in the region, many serving farm to table and with what is known as Baja-Mediterranean flavors, a cuisine that has emerged from the region and is now influencing the gastronomic scene of Tijuana and even San Diego.


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