Mexican Food History: A Melding of Cultures

Americans have long held great affection for Mexican food. Many American cooks enjoy recreating such Mexican recipe favorites as enchiladas, tacos, quesadillas, and other spicy, colorful dishes. Aside from the intrigue of the recipes themselves, however, Mexican food history is just as interesting and fun. Get to know the roots of an American favorite that hails from south of the border.

Case in point: when the Spanish invaded Mexico in 1521, they brought with them many new varieties of livestock including pigs, cows and sheep, the likes of which Mexico had never seen. The Spanish explorer Cortez introduced Mexico to these and other foods such as dairy products, garlic and other spices as well as dairy products like cheese. Mexican food also has strong roots in the ancient Mayan culture.

While Cortez introduced many new foods to Mexico, he was also, in turn, introduced to some new foods. Peanuts, chocolate, vanilla, beans, avocados, coconuts, tomatoes, corn, and squash were among the “new” foods that Cortez encountered. It was a well-balanced trade of regional delicacies and palate pleasing foods.

Mexican food history is an interesting mixture of cultures. Many of the Mexican foods that are so-called “traditional” are actually rooted in other cultures in addition to the Mexican culture. Take quesadillas as an example. This mainstay of Mexican families is often considered to be quintessential Mexican, but in actuality, it takes its components from other cultures. The corn tortilla, the foundation for the quesadilla, is actually a Native American creation.

The cheese, pork, beef, and lettuce that grace so many of our favorite Mexican dishes, including the quesadilla, are Spanish. The hot sauce that is made from chili pepper, though, is indigenous to Mexico. However, it is a little known Mexican food history fact that many of the spices thought to be Mexican are actually Spanish in origin. Black pepper, cinnamon, coriander and oregano are several spices that are often used in Mexican cooking but are not native to the country.

In addition to the Mayans, Native Americans and Spanish influencing Mexican food, the French also left their mark. When Mexico was briefly under French occupation in the 1860’s, popular dishes such as chiles en nogado, a dish of stuffed chilies in walnut sauce, was a result. These dishes sport a distinct French flair, but have become a standard part of Mexican culture.

While Spain and France have had strong influences in Mexican food history, perhaps one of the most popular has been the influence from the Southwest United States. Texas, to be exact. This interesting style of Mexican food, “Tex-Mex” is served in many restaurants the world over and is considered “Mexican food” although this is not necessarily the case. It is an often spicy, delicious blend of both cultures and has become widely accepted the world over.

When exploring Mexican food history, it is important to keep in mind the many, varied cultures that brought about these popular, delicious dishes. As the various countries and cultures melded to create such culinary delights, popularity has soared the world over. Moreover, it just keeps getting better and better.

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