03 Oct Mexican Food 101
We’ve met people from all over the world these past months. Somehow, at one point or another, we always end up talking about food. This is followed by me loudly expressing how much I miss Mexican food and that it’s really hard for me to be away from it when traveling. Some people, in turn, look at me skeptically.
“What?” I ask. “You know it’s one of the best cuisines in the world, right? After all it’s, along with the French and Mediterranean cuisines, on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.”
Then, I get an earful of how they can’t believe how nachos and burritos could possibly be on that prestigious list. This makes me want to spit out whatever I’m drinking. Nachos and burritos? Do people really think this is Mexican Food?!
I always end up giving a small class on how, no, nachos and burritos are most definitely NOT Mexican, followed by a rundown of my favorite foods and their preparation, whether they’re interested or not.
Sorry not sorry. As a Mexican traveler, and a proud lover of my country’s food, I feel like it’s my duty to at least let people know that what is generally considered Mexican food around the globe is actually Tex-Mex, and it originated in the border states of the US.
So, the next time you eat a bowl of nachos oozing with melted cheddar cheese and jalapeños, do please, enjoy them, but remember that you are eating American food.
“Mexican” food has gained so much popularity and Tex-Mex’s been so widely commercialized that I don’t blame anyone who associates these dishes with Mexican food. But the truth is that authentic Mexican cuisine is culturally rich, diverse, complex yet simple, so irresistibly delicious, and in my opinion puts any Tex-Mex dish to shame.
When we moved to Washington DC, I remember having terrible cravings for Mexican food, so we went to an “authentic” place. I ordered enchiladas. My “authentic” enchiladas were smothered in yellow cheese (not Mexican), with a thick chilli sauce (no, never), and it had a strong cumin taste (oh, God, Why?) That was the first of many rants I’ve had in my life on how in Mexican food we don’t use cumin. Like ever. Before that moment, it was a flavor I associated with Indian food. Ask my sister, who absolutely hates cumin, how she can’t eat in a “Mexican” place outside Mexico.
Like Meredith from Serious Eats wrote on her blog: “The Tex-Mex that most of us think of, full of Velveeta cheese and pre-made taco shells, was shaped by the development of convenience foods in the 1950s. That time period left Tex-Mex, and even Mexican food in general, with a reputation as “just a cheap cuisine, full of sour cream and processed cheese, and that everything is greasy”.
And that’s not Mexican food at all.These preconceptions are probably what makes people roll their eyes at me when I talk, rather passionately I’ll admit, of what I think is the best cuisine in the world.
Although one of the greatest values of Mexican Cuisine is its impressive array of ingredients, textures, and even colors, (just look at a plate of chiles en nogada), there are three basic elements from which almost every dish begins: chile, beans, and corn- ingredients present in Mexican food even from prehispanic times.
Corn, although we also use it fresh in dishes like esquites, is mostly dried and ground into a dough called masa. This masa is used for pretty much every antojito Mexicano: tortillas, sopes, tlacoyos, tlayudas, tostadas, tamales, and even drinks like my personal favorite, atole.
Beans, which I’ve learned I can’t live without (two months in Thailand and I’m having serious withdrawal syndrome) can be eaten cooked or refried, alone, or spread in whatever type of masa I mentioned above.
Oh, chile, what can I say? The hotter it is, the better.
If the world had one thing right is that we do like our spicy. If a dish is prepared without chile, then we’ll add salsa ourselves. That’s the way it works. We like it on soups, salads, and even desserts: mango with chile anyone? But chile, most of the time, is used because of its rich flavor and aroma, not only because it’s picante. In fact, many dishes can be defined by the type of chile used: chile de árbol, habanero, poblano, serrano, manzano, pasilla, guajillo…you get the point.
Most of my favorite Mexican dishes are considered “street food” but can also be served at home, and they invariably make me think of family, friends, school, and home.
If there is one thing that always reminds me of home is sopes. I even hold the record in my family for eating the most sopes in one seating: 11 (of the big ones). They’re made of masa roughly the size of a fist topped with refried beans, lettuce, onions, and salsa. You can also add other ingredients like queso fresco or varied types of meat.
An oval-shaped masa filled with beans or cheese. It’s usually topped with cream and salsa.
This one is hard to comprehend but once you try it, everything makes sense. It’s just a tamal torta. As simple as that. You choose your tamal (green, red, rajas…), and you place it inside a bread called bolillo. It’s a far cry from healthy, but who cares when it tastes like that?
The thing with enchiladas is that they always taste better at home. Filled with beans, chicken, or cheese and swimming in salsa verde made with tomatillos. Oh, the pleasures in life.
Lightly fried tortillas filled with your desired ingredients and covered in a bean sauce, often served with salsa, crema and queso fresco.
Rajas con elote
I still remember the smell of poblano peppers being roasted on the comal at home. It’s a smell (and a taste) that just takes me back, and it’s one of the first things I ask for when I go back to Mexico City. It’s a rich dish made of roasted poblano peppers, corn and crema.
*Wipes off the drool from keyboard
Before I prefered not to eat meat I was also a huge fan of taquizas. There’s just something exciting about making a line to fill your plate (and your tortillas) with wonderful delicacies. The possibilities are endless and the dishes, called guisados, are just amazing. Mole, papas con chorizo (potatoes with spicy pork sausage), chicharron en salsa verde, chilorio (pork fried in chile sauce), mixiotes de pollo (steamed spicy chicken wrapped in a parchment-like membrane obtained from maguey leaves), tinga de pollo (shredded chicken in a sauce made with chipotle), nopales guisados (cooked cactus), rice, beans…and these are just a few.
And now that I can’t have them everyday, I’ll throw in quesadillas. The simplest thing can taste so good!
And I’m not, by any means, an expert. Every region has its own ingredients, its own dishes, and its own sazón. You could go on an entire trip through Mexico just for culinary purposes and you’d never get bored. Cochinita pibil in Yucatán, tortas ahogadas in Guadalajara, huachinango a la Veracruzana in Veracruz, carnitas in Michoacán, mole Poblano in Puebla…The possibilities are endless.
And now I’m going to dinner, and I will eat my Pad Thai, but I’ll be totally unfaithful while I secretly think of sopes con salsa verde and a side of atole de arroz. It’ll be our little secret.
Thanks to @paogber and @drooged for all the pics that made me miss Mexican food even more. This post wouldn’t exist without you two.