(Author’s note: The following is excerpted from Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, by this columnist and co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl.)
To understand Mexican cuisine is, in a way, to come to know the very core and espíritu of what it means to be Mexican. A living mirror of the history of a people emerges in the food stories, the fiesta menus especially, and even in the recipes themselves.
Modern Mexico is very much a nation that was born out of another, the result of European culture and religion superimposed on that of the Aztecs, Mayans, and the many other indigenous peoples of the area that is now Mexico. Try to imagine the United States not as a new nation of pilgrims and immigrants bringing their religions, cuisine and customs very much unchanged from Europe; instead imagine all of these fusing with those of the Native Americans. In Mexico, this fusion is described by the word metizaje (mixture), set into motion when the Spanish explorer, Hernan Cortés, landed in Mexico in 1519. What we know today as Mexican food is a metizaje of pre-Columbian foodways fused with those of the invading Europeans of the Colonial period and further influenced by subsequent immigrants such as the Mennonites, who brought their famous cheese-making, the Lebanese, whose al pastor has become a signature Mexican dish, and the French, whose occupation of Mexico made a permanent culinary imprint.
With the conquest of Mexico by Spain came an influx of ingredients that would forever alter what would become known as Mexican cuisine. Prior to the arrivals of the Europeans there was no meat from domesticated animals (beef, pork, chicken, goat, and sheep) and therefore no lard or fried foods. Tamales became fluffier with the introduction of lard. Neither were there dairy products: no butter, milk, or cheese. Sugar was not known either; subsequently blended with cacao, chocolate as we know it was born in Mexico. Atole, a signature Mexican beverage, blends new ingredients with old: dairy and sugar with corn. Food pathways of the Spanish had their history as well, as various herbs and spices introduced to Mexico by the Spanish had their origins with the Moors. The candied fruit of the Rosca de Reyes, an integral part of Three Kings Day or Dia de los Reyes Magos on January 6, and spices used in Calabaza en Tacha and Ponche are just some examples of this meeting of food pathways.
With the empire of Maximilian (1862-1867) came what is now known in Mexico as La Comida Afrancescada. Some of the important cooking methods and ingredients of this fusion were caldos (broths), baño a la Maria (the method of using vapor to cook, as in a double-boiler or placing a baking pan in a casserole of water in the oven, which is how flan is made and Chiles en Nogada (stuffed chiles in walnut sauce), the signature dish of Mexico’s Independence Day with its bright red, white and green colors, representing the Mexican flag.
So next time you think of Mexican, think of a complex cuisine, as rich in immigrant traditions as it is in flavors. Follow the links (above) for recipes for most of the dishes listed, and even some great wine pairings. And buen provecho!