By Nicola Kniseley
Mexican food is popular all around the world. From tacos to enchiladas and nachos, Mexican influences in cooking can be found anywhere. Those native to Mexico pride themselves in using natural, from the earth, local ingredients that generations before them grew up using. The ingredients that they could easily access were the main staples in their cuisine.
Mexican food cuisine dates back almost 9000 years. Staples for the Mayans included a variety of different types of squash and sweet potatoes, local animals and insects, and any types of fruits or vegetables that were wild and could be harvested. 16 th century Mayans ingested only 1200 calories a day, comparable to the average American today, which eats around 2700 calories. In order to get their proper nutrition from their diet, they would include any types of protein they could find. This included maize and beans, as well as ants and other insects, which are good sources of protein (WordPress, 2009). Insects are still common in some of the more exotic locations of the world. Cooked over a fire or fried in a pan, they offer an easy to eat meal packed with nutrients at no cost, if you can catch them.
Corn was the main staple of the pre-Colombian Mexican people. Locally grown and plentiful, they could take the corn and produce many food staples from it. It could be boiled and mashed and formed into tortillas or tamales, or used to produce flour for other foods such as breads (MexConnect, 2007). Almost all Mexican food dishes include some form of tortilla or tamale product, much like many American foods would contain a hoagie roll or sandwich bread. Usually, these tortillas would be filled with ingredients such as meat, rice, beans, or vegetables, or any combination of those.
Indigenous animals to the area were hunted and used in the meat dishes, although meat was a scarcity amongst the Mexican people, who relied mainly on a non-meat diet (WordPress, 2009). Animals such as deer, rabbits, armadillos, raccoons, turkeys, pigeons, and quails are commonly found in Mexican dishes. More uncommon animals would include turtles, snakes, and frogs. (MexConnect, 2007). The Mexican people are also known for using chilies in their cooking. They would combine this with other herbs to add more flavor and spice to their dishes, a method that is very common still today.
Agriculture in the pre-Colombian period was done using the mixed-crop method. This method involves planting a variety of different crops in one area, and harvesting them at once. This allows the soil to remain nutrient rich, as each crop uses a different variety of nutrients, rather than having large areas dominated by one crop, which decimates the area of a vital nutrient. Crops such as corn, chilies, beans, and squash would all be planted together, giving those harvesting a variety of food for their dishes. A very accurate calendar was used to for planting and harvesting cycles, providing them a fairly dependable yearly crop (WordPress, 2009).
After the Conquest of Mexico, the Mexican food culture became greatly influenced by trade with India and Spain. The Conquest brought trade with other countries, which introduced Mexico to rice, olives, wines, spices from India, beef, and different kinds of fruit (MexConnect, 2007). Some of the animals seen in Mexico today seem commonplace, but at that time Mexicans had never seen them. They included pigs, horses, cows, sheep, goats, and chickens. The Spaniards also brought many condiments including black pepper, olive oil, cinnamon, cilantro, and oregano (LoveToKnow, 2006). This blend of old Mexican cuisine with new Indian spices and Spanish ingredients created the traditional food culture in Mexico we see today.
Popular, authentic Mexican dishes exist in America fairly commonly. Guacamole is a common dip-style food in America today. It is made using avocado and tomato, and meant to be eaten with tortilla chips. Another dish is enchiladas, which are tortillas filled with a variety of different meats, cheeses, and/or vegetables, covered in a sauce (usually tomato-based) and baked. A common breakfast or dessert food item of Mexico is the empanada. Empenadas are pastries that are filled commonly with fruits, and less commonly with meats. They are made by folding pastry dough over filling, and are very common worldwide. Authentic dishes are somewhat difficult to come by, as almost any dish anywhere in the world is influenced by other cultures.
In today’s world, most of what we perceive as authentic Mexican food is actually a blend of Mexican food that has been Americanized, usually starting around the southern border of Texas and Mexico. Refried beans are an example of “Tex-Mex” cuisine. The original Mexican dish is frijoles refritos, meaning “well-fried beans”, which is different than our version of the dish. Other “Tex-Mex” dishes include nachos, chimichangas, fajitas, and chili con carne. Most of these dishes were unseen in Mexico at all, and were products of restaurants around the border of Mexico producing new foods (LoveToKnow, 2006).
The Mexican people consider food one of the most important parts of their culture. It’s said that to learn one’s culture, you must first learn how they cook. Looking at the cuisine and food culture of Mexico, it is obvious that the people who inhabit it are resourceful people who take nothing for granted. They take what they can easily get and produce delicious, nutritious meals. Never bland and always interesting, Mexican food is a favorite amongst Americans and the world over.