Mexican cuisine is one of the most ancient and developed on earth but is little known outside its borders, and too many restaurants are more “Tex” than “Mex”. Maeve O’Meara into their kitchens to explain some of the recipes and tips.
Author and chef Rafael Nazario explains some of the top ingredients needed for the Mexican kitchen—from chillies both dried and fresh; tomatillos, which look like green tomatoes but are members of the Chinese gooseberry family; sauces and pastes and much more.
We see tortillas made by a machine and by hand at home and then fried for use in a very easy soup made by expatriate home-cook Gina Castaneda. The art of making refried beans is demonstrated by cook Emilio Gomez, and a fresh delicious guacamole is whipped by his daughter Guadalupe Feint, who then quickly turns her hand to a fast pico di gallo salsa.
Chef Rafael then uses those ingredients to demonstrate the intricacies of a burrito, taco and quesadilla. Tortilla maker and importer of Mexican products Marycarmen Aguilera makes a very simple marinated chicken for the barbeque, then Maeve joins a gang of women who could have stepped out of the movie Like Water for Chocolate who have got together to make tamales, made with corn masa and steamed in corn husks.
We couldn’t have a Mexican episode without mole—and young social worker Kimberly Chiswell demonstrates a very simple mole verde (green mole) using pork. And we finish the episode with a smooth velvety cup of spiced Mexican hot chocolate.
Click here for the recipes featured in this episode.
The United Mexican States, commonly known as Mexico, is a federal constitutional republic in North America comprising thirty-one states and a Federal District, the capital city. Mexico is the 5th largest country in the Americas by total area and the 13th largest independent nation in the world.
In Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, many cultures matured into advanced civilizations such as those in Mexico—the Olmec, the Toltec, the Teotihuacan, the Zapotec, the Maya and the Aztec—long before the first contact with Europeans.
In 1521, Spain conquered and colonized the territory from its base in México-Tenochtitlan, which was administered as the Viceroyalty of New Spain. This territory would eventually become Mexico as the colony independence was recognized in 1821. The post-independence period was characterized by economic instability, the Mexican-American War and territorial cession to the US, a civil war, two empires and a domestic dictatorship. The latter led to the Mexican Revolution in 1910, which culminated with the promulgation of the 1917 Constitution and the emergence of the country's current political system. Elections held in July 2000 marked the first time that an opposition party won the presidency from the Institutional Revolutionary Party.
Today, Mexico is both one of the world's largest economies and a regional power, and since 1994 the first Latin American member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and a firmly established upper-middle income country. Mexico is considered a newly industrialized country and an emerging power. It has the 13th largest nominal GDP and the 11th largest by purchasing power parity. The economy is strongly linked to those of its North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) partners, especially the United States.
The recently-conducted 2010 Census showed a population of over 112 million, making Mexico the 11th most populous country and the most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world. Mexico is ethnically diverse, the various indigenous peoples and European immigrants are united under a single national identity. The core part of Mexican national identity is formed on the basis of a synthesis of European culture with Indigenous cultures in a process known as mestizaje, alluding to the mixed biological origins of the majority of Mexicans. Mexican politicians and reformers such as Jose Vasconcelos and Manuel Gamio were instrumental in building a Mexican national identity on the concept of mestizaje.
A study presented by the American Society of Human Genetics has shown (based on genes) that, on average, Mestizo Mexicans are (genetically) 58.96% European, 35.05% "Asian" (Amerindian), and 05.03% African. Sonora shows the highest European contribution (70.63%) and Guerrero the lowest (51.98%) where we also observe the highest Asian contribution (37.17%). African contribution ranges from 7.8% in Sonora to 11.13% in Veracruz.
Mexico is home to the largest number of U.S. citizens abroad (estimated at one million as of 1999). The Argentine community is considered to be the second largest foreign community in the country (estimated somewhere between 30,000 and 150,000). Mexico also has a large Lebanese community, now numbering around 400,000. Small numbers of illegal immigrants come from Guatemala, Ecuador, Cuba, China, South Africa, and Pakistan.
The 2010 census by the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía gave Roman Catholicism as the main religion, with 82.7% of the population, while 9.7% (10.9 million) belong to other Christian denominations, including Evangelicals (5.2%); Pentecostals (1.6%); other Protestant or Reformed (0.7%); Jehovah's Witnesses (1.4%); Seventh-day Adventists (0.6%); The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (0.3%); 172,891 (or less than 0.2% of the total) belonged to other, non-Christian religions; 4.7% declared having no religion; and 2.7% were unspecified. The 92.9 million Catholics of Mexico constitute in absolute terms the second largest Catholic community in the world, after Brazil's; 47% of them attend church services weekly. According to the 2010 census, there are 67,476 Jews in Mexico.
Mexico has changed rapidly during the 20th century. Mexican culture reflects the complexity of the country's history through the blending of indigenous cultures and the culture of Spain, imparted during Spain's 300-year colonization of Mexico. Exogenous cultural elements mainly from the United States have been incorporated into Mexican culture. In many ways, contemporary life in its cities has become similar to that in neighboring United States and Europe. Most Mexican villagers follow the older way of life more than the city people do. More than 45% of the people of Mexico live in cities of over 50,000 inhabitants. Large metropolitan areas include Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey, and Puebla-Tlaxcala.
Tourism in Mexico is a very large industry. Mexico ranks fifth in the world and first in the Americas by number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites with 31, and in 2007 was the 10th most visited country in the world with 21.4 million international arrivals. The vast majority of tourists come to Mexico from the United States and Canada. Many other visitors come from Europe and Asia. A small number of tourists also come from other Latin American countries. The most notable attractions are the Meso-American ruins, colonial cities, and especially the beach resorts.
Mexico City is most popular with tourists as an ancient Meso-American city and the site of many popular tourist attractions such as the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. The city is also home to the Plaza de toros México and to the Mexican National Palace, built on the site of Montezuma's palace, and the huge Metropolitan Cathedral, the largest in the Western Hemisphere, built over the even greater Temple of Teocalli.
Guadalajara, Jalisco, the second-largest city by population in the Republic, is home of some of Mexico's best known traditions, such as tequila, mariachi music and charros, or Mexican cowboys. Its similitude with western European countries mixed with modern architecture and infrastructure makes Guadalajara very attractive to tourists. Along with Mexico City and beach destinations (Cancun, Acapulco, etc.), Guadalajara is one of the most visited cities in Mexico. Cultural tourism is the main attraction, the city being home to a large number of museums, art galleries and theatres.
Mexican cuisine (not to be confused with Tex-Mex cuisine) is known for its varied flavors, colorful decoration, and variety of spices and ingredients, many of which are native to the country. The cuisine of Mexico has evolved through the centuries through a blending of indigenous and European elements since the 16th century. On November 2010, Mexican cuisine was added by UNESCO to its lists of the world's "intangible cultural heritage".
When conquistadores arrived in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), they found that the people's diet consisted largely of corn-based dishes with chiles and herbs, usually complemented with beans and tomatoes or nopales. The diet of the indigenous peoples of pre-Columbian Mexico also included chocolate, vanilla, tomatillos, avocado, guava, papaya, sapote, mamey, pineapple, soursop, jicama, squash, sweet potato, peanuts, achiote, huitlacoche, turkey and fish. In the 1520s, while Spanish conquistadors were invading Mexico, they introduced a variety of animals, including cattle, chickens, goats, sheep, and pigs. Rice, wheat, and barley were also introduced as were olive oil, wine, almonds, parsley, and many spices. The imported Spanish cuisine was eventually incorporated into the indigenous cuisine.
Immigration of Middle Easterns, Africans, Asians, and Europeans in Mexico has also influenced Mexican culture and its cuisine. For example, Spanish rice, dates, Tacos Árabes and Dolma have their origins in Arab cuisine. Moreover, recently other cuisines of the world have acquired popularity in Mexico, thus adopting a Mexican fusion. For example, sushi in Mexico is often made with a variety of sauces based on mango or tamarind, and very often served with serrano-chili-blended soy sauce, or complimented with habanero and chipotle peppers.
The staples of Mexican cuisine are typically corn and beans. Corn, traditionally Mexico's staple grain, is eaten fresh, on the cob, and as a component of a number of dishes. Most corn, however, is used to make masa, a dough for tamales, tortillas, gorditas, and many other corn-based foods. Squash and peppers also play important roles in Mexican cuisine.
Next to corn, rice is the most common grain in Mexican cuisine. The initial introduction of rice to Spain from North Africa in the 4th century led to the Spanish introduction of rice into Mexico at the port of Veracruz in the 1520s. This created one of the earliest instances of the world's greatest fusion cuisines.
The most important and frequently used herbs and spices in Mexican cuisine are chile powder, oregano, cilantro, epazote, cinnamon, and cocoa. Chipotle, a smoke-dried jalapeño chili, is also common in Mexican cuisine. Many Mexican dishes also contain garlic and onions.
Chocolate played an important part in the history of Mexican cuisine. The word "chocolate" originates in Mexico's Aztec cuisine. Chocolate was first drunk rather than eaten. The drink, called xocoatl, was often flavored with vanilla, chili pepper, and achiote (also known as annatto). Chocolate was also an important luxury good throughout pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, and cacao beans were often used as currency. Today chocolate is used in a wide array of Mexican foods, from savory dishes such as mole to traditional Mexican style hot chocolate and champurrados, both of which are prepared with a molinillo (a turned wood whisk).
Honey is an important ingredient in many Mexican dishes, such as the rosca de miel, a bundt-like cake, and in beverages such as balché. Mexico's candy and bakery sweets industry, centered in Michoacan and Mexico City, produces a wide array of products, including ice cream.
Mexican food varies by region, because of local climate and geography and ethnic differences among the indigenous inhabitants and because these different populations were influenced by the Spaniards in varying degrees. The six regions of Mexico differ greatly in their cuisines.
In the Yucatán, for instance, a unique, natural sweetness (instead of spiciness) exists in the widely used local produce along with an unusual love for achiote seasoning. In contrast, the Oaxacan region is known for its savory tamales, celebratory moles and simple tlayudas, while the mountainous regions of the West (Jalisco, etc.) are known for goat birria (goat in a spicy tomato-based sauce).
Northern Mexico is known for its beef, goat and ostrich production and meat dishes, in particular the well-known arrachera cut. Central Mexico's cuisine is largely influenced by the rest of the country, but has unique dishes such as barbacoa, pozole, menudo and carnitas. Southeastern Mexico, on the other hand, is known for its spicy vegetable and chicken-based dishes. The cuisine of Southeastern Mexico has a considerable Caribbean influence due to its location. Seafood is commonly prepared in states that border the Pacific Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, the latter having a famous reputation for its fish dishes, à la veracruzana.
In Pueblos or villages, there are also more exotic dishes, cooked in the Aztec or Mayan style (known as comida prehispánica) with ingredients ranging from iguana to rattlesnake, deer, spider monkey, chapulines, ant eggs, and other kinds of insects.
Mexican wine and wine making began with the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, when they brought vines from Europe to modern day Mexico, the oldest wine-growing region in the Americas. Today, the Baja California area produces 90% of Mexico’s wine. However, Mexico is not traditionally a wine-drinking country, but rather prefers beer, tequila and mezcal. Nonetheless, interest in Mexican wine, especially in the major cities and tourists areas has grown along with Mexican wines’ reputation throughout the world. Many Mexican companies have received numerous awards. Various wine producers from Mexico have won international awards for their products.
While Mesoamerican cultures already drank corn beer long before the Spanish conquest, European style beer brewed with barley was introduced with the Spanish soon after Hernán Cortés’ arrival. However, it was the arrival of German immigrants and the short-lived empire of Austrian Maximilian I in the 19th century that provided the impetus for the opening of many breweries in various parts of the country. Today, only two corporations, Grupo Modelo and FEMSA control 90% of the Mexican beer market, with over 63% of the population buying one brand or another. Beer is also a major export for the country, with most going to the United States, but is available in over 150 countries in the world.
Mexican beer is distinctive for its lager-like properties, being generally light-bodied with a mild taste and is meant to be drunk cold. While it is common to serve light Mexican beers in North America and Europe with a wedge of lime on the bottle and/or squeezed down the neck, the practice is less common in Mexico, outside the tourist areas. However, beer is commonly drunk with lime juice in Mexico.
Tequila is a blue agave–based spirit made primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila and in the highlands (Los Altos) of the western Mexican state of Jalisco. Tequila is most often made at a 38–40% alcohol content (76–80 proof), but can be produced between 35–55% alcohol content (70–110 proof). In Mexico, the most traditional way to drink tequila is with salt and lime. It is popular in some regions to drink fine tequila with a side of sangrita—a sweet, sour and spicy drink typically made from orange juice, grenadine (or tomato juice), and hot chillies. Equal-sized shots of tequila and sangrita are sipped alternately, without salt or lime. Another popular drink in Mexico is the "bandera" (flag, in Spanish), named after the Flag of Mexico. It consists of three shot glasses, filled with lime juice (for the green), white tequila, and sangrita (for the red). They can be sipped or drunk straight.
Mezcal, or mescal, is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from the maguey plant (a form of agave) native to Mexico. Despite the similar name, Mezcal does not contain mescaline or other psychedelic substances. In Mexico, mezcal is generally drunk straight and has a strong smoky flavor. Though not as popular as tequila, Mexico does export the product, mostly to Japan and the United States, and exports are growing. While mezcal is generally not mixed with any other liquids, some add salt, or eat lime or orange slices with it. The most traditional Oaxaca way to drink mezcal is as a shot, with a side plate of fried larvae ground with chili peppers and salt, and cut limes. One takes a pinch of the larvae mixture and places it on the tongue, then immediately begins to drink the shot, but slowly. It is an acquired taste.