Traditional Mexican cuisine is chiefly a combination of native Mesoamerican food products and coocking methods and those introduced to the region by the Spanish during the colonial era. Examples of pre-Columbian foods that are still heavily eaten in today’s Mexico are corn, beans, squash, chili peppers, cocoa, tomato, vanilla, avocado, guava, chayote, zapote, and several different bean varieties.
The Spanish did not only bring with them traditional Spanish elements – since they were global traders they also introduced foods from many other parts of the world to Mexico. There was for instance the Manila Galleons, Spanish trading ships that made annual round-trip sailing voyages from the port of Acapulco to Manila in the Philippines from 1565 to 1815, and brought a lot of Asian foods to Mexico, especially to those areas that were within easy reach from Acapulco.
African slavery in New Spain has also had an impact on Mexican food culture. An estimated 200,000 Africans were brough to Mexico as slaves before slavery was abolished here in 1829. Even tough peanuts are native to the Americas, there is little evidence of them being in widespread use in Mexico during pre-Columbian times. The Spaniards introduced the peanuts to Africa, where they soon became popular among local populations that utilized them in stews, sauces and many other dishes. Slaves that were later brought to the Americas from Africa brought with them the knowledge of how to prepare these dishes. In today’s Mexico, this heritage is evident in dishes such as salsa macha, encacahuatado, mole poblano, and the alcoholic drink called torito. Another important African influence in Mexican cuisine is the use of plantain, a type of banan introduced to Mexico via the Canary Islands. Today, plantains are used in breads, mole, barbacoa, empanadas, and more.
Mexico is a huge country with varying climates, and it is not surprising that local cuisine vary from one place to another, even though modern logistics has made it much easier than before to obtain certain food products outside their production range even if you happen to be living far away from the nearest seaport. Below you can find some information about the cuisine in three different Mexican regions – northern Mexico, Oaxaca and the Yucatán peninsula – as an example of how local conditions and traditions still impact local food culture.
In 2010, Mexican cuisine was added to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanit.
Most of northern Mexico is arid land and this has of course had a large impact on the food culture. The indigenous peoples here were hunter-gatherers with limited agriculture, and the settlements were small compared to the pre-Columbian cities found in other parts of Mexico.
Even after European colonization of northern Mexico, agriculture didn’t become the norm here. Instead, the arid land was used for livestock, especially cattle, sheep and goats. Men tending to livestock would often grill meat outdoors, and grilled dishes are still very popular in the area.
Raising cattle, sheep and goats means that you can obtain a lot of milk, and northern Mexico is famous for its wide range of cheeses. You can find everything from fresh farmer’s cheese and cottage cheese to 50+ varieties of smoked cheese produced locally in this part of the nation. One example of a well-known cheese from northern Mexico is Chihuahua’s queso menonita, a creamy and semi-soft cheese originally produced by Mennonite communities in this area. It is available in available in braids, balls or rounds.
When agriculture finally began to take root in northern Mexico, it was wheat from Europe – and not the native corn – that became the dominant staple. Even in our time, wheat tortillas are much more common than corn tortillas in this part of Mexico.
Examples of o popular dishes in northern Mexico are cabrito, machaca and arrachera. The cabrito was introduced by Spanish families with Jewish origin that settled in Nuevo León during the Spanish colonial period.
Several mountain chains come together in the state of Oaxaca in south-western Mexico and the state also has a significant coastline on the Pacific Ocean. Oaxaca is known for its rugged terrain, with tall mountains steeping abruptly into the sea. Between the mountains we find valleys, canyons and ravines. The cuisine of Oaxaca has traditionally varied a lot from one location to another within the state, since the living conditions are so dissimilar and populations become isolated from each other by the rugged landscape. There are over fifteen officially recognized indigenous peoples in Oaxaca, including the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs.
Just as in many other parts of Mesoamerica, corn and beans are staples in Oaxaca, and chili pepper is an important spice. Vegetables are chiefly grown in the central valley, while populations living along the coast have a large amount of seafood in their local cuisine. Spanish colonization of Oaxaca did not result in large-scale interruption of food production, and many precolumbian dishes were preserved. There is for instance still a strong preference for chapulines in Oaxaca. Chapulines are a type of grasshopper that has always been an important source of protein for Oaxacans not living near the coast. The chapulines are considered semi-cultivated, since they are encouraged to live on fields of corn and alfalfa where the abundance of food makes them live longer and reproduce more successfully than they would without this human intervention.
Oaxacan cuisine includes several different varieties of mole sauce. (Mole is an archaic word for mix, and the sauce has nothing to do with the animal mole.) The most famous ones are Negro, Verde, Amarillo, Rojo, Coloradito, Chichilo, and Mancha Manteles. Mole is an important ingredients in tamales in Oaxacan. In this part of Mexico, tamales are usually wrapped in banana leaves rather than corn husks.
Oaxaca is an important exporter of cacao and cacao is also widely consumed here. Traditionally, cacao has been used as food, drink, medicine and for religious purposes, and cacao beans has even functioned as a form of currency here. A famous Oaxaca drink is tejate, made from cacao, fermented corn, and mamey fruit seeds, and consumed without heating it first. Hot cacao drinks in Oaxaca are commonly flavored with almonds and cinnamon.
Separating the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea, the Yucatán peninsula enjoys a warm and moist climate, with rain-forest to as the predominant natural vegetation type. A lot of tropical fruits grows naturally here and the climate is also conductive to growing tropical plants introduced from other parts of the world. This has of course made a large impact on the cuisine, with avocado, mamey, tamarind, coconut and various citrus fruits being just a few examples of what that you can expect to find in many Yucatán dishes, drinks and snacks. Yucatán also has a long pre-Columbian tradition of keeping bees and utilizing honey.
Located between the Gulf of Mexico and the Carribean Sea, the people of Yucatán has access to a lot of different seafoods, from various fishes to shrimps, conch and lagoon snails. Conch fillet is usually served raw after being marinated in lime juice. Yucatán’s strategic location also means that it has been strongly influenced by seafarers for half a millennium. This is evident in the cuisine, which is an interesting blend of native Mayan dishes and flavors from the Caribbean, Europe and Asia minor.
The most famous Yucatán main dish is arguably cochinita pibil, where pork is slow-roasted inside a banana leaf filled with citrus juice and achiote seeds (annatoo). The pork was introduced to the area from Europe, while bananas and achiote trees are native to the region. The citrus genus is not native to the Yucatán peninsula, but citrus plants grows very well here in the warm climate.
Chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius) is a fast-growing perennial shrub believed to have originated in the Yucatán peninsula. It can grow up to six meters tall and is consumed just like spinach. Today, it is a popular leaf vegetable throughout Central America. If you want to eat more than five leaves in a day, you should boil them to neutralize the toxic hydrocyanic acid.