Mexican Food: A Delicious Medley of Flavors & Influences

Authentic Mexican food has a rich culinary history that makes any meal more than just something you eat but something you experience.

If you’re visiting Mexico, many traditional dishes originating from Puebla offer a real taste of its cuisine.

The history of Mexican food is long and diverse. It’s believed to be derived from the Mayans. After the Aztec empire took over, Spain invaded them in 1521. Hence, the Spanish influence on Mexican food. Mexican cuisine mainly consists of corn, beans, sweet potato, pepper, tomatoes, squash, and herbs. 

This post will explore Mexican foods and the vibrant, rich heritage that ties to the heart of Mexican culture and values.

We will also connect to the Aztec empire’s pre-Hispanic world and how it has influenced contemporary Mexican cuisines.

History of Mexican Food 

Before the Europeans’ arrival, native Mexican people ate a vegetarian diet and hunted for a living. Before introducing livestock, wild turkey, deer, rabbit, and quail made part of their daily protein intake. 

Mayan Influence 

Mayans, who were hunters and gatherers, made up the agricultural community in Mexico. They grew corn, which became a staple, and would eat it with a bean paste.

The wide range of natural environment and annual rainfall exceeds 200 inches in the tropical zones of the coastal areas created favorable weather for the domestication of maize in the region.

European Influence 

When Europeans conquered the Maya in the 16th century, animals such as sheep, goats, chicken, and cattle were domesticated. Also, rice and dairy products like milk and cheese became part of their diet. 

Aztec Influence

The Aztec empire also played a considerable role by introducing chili, pepper, honey, salt, and chocolate, which you can still find in today’s Mexican meals.

Edible flowers and insects like grasshoppers and maguey worms originated with the Aztec people is always a delicacy in modern Mexican cuisines.

Other Global Influences

Asian and African influences fused into the indigenous cuisine during African slavery in New Spain and the surrounding areas.

Many tropical fruits are native to Mexico, such as guava, mangoes, banana, prickly pear, cherimoya, sapote, and pineapples. 

Traditional Mexican dishes also saw the assimilation of other cuisines from the Caribbean, Portuguese, and South America.

The proximity of the US-Mexican border also left a mark on the people, the culture, and the cuisine. Therefore, today’s Mexican food is diverse and varies from one region to another.

Despite introducing various ingredients from different parts of the continent, corn remains the main ingredient in many local recipes such as corn tortillas, tamale, Menudo, atole, and pozole. Corn is eaten when fresh or dried, nixtamalized, and ground into a dough.  

In Mexico, corn makes tortilla, an ingredient common in most meals. Nixtamalized ground dough makes various other dishes and drinks such as tamale, atole, and pozole.

Next to corn, rice is the next popular grain in Mexico, making an excellent side dish to an assortment of meals.

Preparing the Food 

Traditional Mexican dishes are complicated and ancient, with techniques and skills that date for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Since native Mexicans didn’t have ovens, they cooked food over an open fire using ceramic ware. Grilling, broiling, frying, and steaming were other popular methods for preparing meals. 

Some foods also involved complex and lengthy preparation processes where women spent several hours boiling dried corn and grinding to make the dough. They also used other traditional methods like underground cooking.

They also used a simple mortar and pestle-like tool metate y mano to grind ingredients or a bowl-shaped container made of stone for grinding. Today, people utilize some preparation methods to create meals, including some sauces and salsas.

For instance, tortilla, a Mexican staple, is prepared the same way the natives cooked it hundreds of years ago. Also, people still prepare maize and lime in a stone slab to preserve the flavors.

Traditional Mexican Food for Celebrations and Religious Festivals

Mexican Mole Sauce
Traditional Mexican Mole Sauce

Mexican cuisine is an integral part of various festivals held in Mexico to date. Meals tied to symbolism and culture are elaborate due to the social structure and traditional heritage.

For instance, food preparation plays a huge role in the family and social events as a symbol of creating healthier relationships.

Additionally, the tastiest dishes prepared for certain occasions consist of an ideal flavor. Diners feel a sense of commitment from good cooks who are gifted and experienced. 

The most dominant food for special occasions is a mole, which people eat on Christmas, baptism, funerals, birthdays, and other special events.

Another staple food for festivals and celebrations is tamale, a cornmeal dumpling steamed is a banana leaf wrapping that dates back to pre-Colombian times. Mole includes a complicated preparation method and is an excellent meal for serving large groups of people.

The meal is associated with Candlemas celebrations, which binds communities and families together. Other foods that have become acceptable options for occasions include barbacoa, mixiotes, carnitas and of course, Mexican hot sauces.  

There are various food festivals and celebrations in Mexico tied to tradition and culture. To bring a real Mexican food experience into your kitchen, here are five foods you can prepare at home. 

1. Mexican Pork Tamales

Mexican Pork Tamales Dish
Mexican Pork Tamales

Dia De Los Muertos Festival 

In the Day of the Dead festival, Dia de Los Muertos, families remember their dead by visiting and decorating the graves.

Tamales and Pan de Muertos are the main dishes that people place on alters with a general belief that dead relatives come to eat the food’s essence.

Tamales include steamed corn husks with various fillings like shredded pork, chicken, or turkey with mole.

The meal was an Aztec staple eaten before the warriors fought to give them strength and nourishment. 

Tamales include pockets of corn dough wrapped in banana leaves or corn husks steamed for a long time.

However, the wrappings are removed before eating and served alongside guacamole and rice. The fillings can also vary from meats, cheese, steak, fruits to vegetables. Learn how you can you’re your tamales at home with this step-by-step guide using pork fillings.

Preparation time: 2 hours 

Cook time: 35 minutes 

Serves: 3 people

Making tamale is a simple process that includes two main elements; the dough or Masa and the filling. To make tamale, you will need the following ingredients:

The Masa (dough):

  • 4 and half cups of corn flour; preferably masa 
  • ¾ tablespoons salt 
  • ¾ tablespoon pepper 
  • 1¾ tablespoons cumin 
  • ¾ tablespoon paprika 
  • 1¾ tablespoons garlic powder 
  • ¾tablespoon chili powder
  • 4 and a half cups of broth 
  • 1¾ tablespoons baking powder
  • ¾cup of corn oil

Filling:

  • 3.3 pounds of pork shoulder
  • 1 tbsp pepper 
  • 1 tbsp cumin
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder 
  • 1 tbsp recado paste 
  • Around 20 cups of water to cover meat for the broth 

Mole:

  • 3 medium onions
  • 1 tablespoon cumin 
  • 2 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 10 soaked and diced chipotle chillies 
  • 1 tin of chopped tomatoes 

Other items needed:

  • Fifty corn husks – The corn husks should be dried. You can find them in Mexican grocery stores. Look for tamale husks that are wide enough to wrap around the entire tamale filling. You will also need to strip a few husks to make long skinny pieces for tying the tamales when cooking.
  • 20 cm steamer to hold 25 tamales

Instructions:

  1.  Cut the meat into large chunks and place them in a large stockpot and cover with about 20 cups of room temperature water. Add salt and seasonings and bring to boil. 
  2. Simmer the meat for two hours until it’s easy to shred. When it’s ready, drain the broth and set the meat aside to cool. Keep the broth.
  3. Meanwhile, prepare the masa flour. In a bowl, add the flour, garlic powder, pepper, baking powder, salt, and cumin powder. Stir to mix the ingredients thoroughly.
  4. Add one cup of oil into the mixture and beat the masa dough for at least ten minutes to add in the dough and make it fluffy.
  5. Cover the dough and leave it for an hour to cool and rise.
  6. Next, prepare the mole by frying onions in a saucepan until brown. 
  7. Add tomatoes, seasoning, and pepper into the broth you had set aside.
  8. Bring the broth to boil, then simmer. Add a cup of masa flour then stir till the mole becomes thick. Let it cool.
  9. Prep the filling by tearing or cutting the pork into shreds with your fingers and add the mole. Ensure the mixture is moist not runny.
  10. To make the tamales, place the husks on a leveled surface and spread a tablespoon of masa dough.
  11. Roll the husk with the masa dough and turn up the pointed ends to create a packet.
  12. Tie the husk with a small strip of husk and place in a steamer for 90 minutes until when it’s ready.
  13. Once cooked, serve alongside a good slosh of salsa or a crisp salad. Remove the husk when eating. 

Note: You can vacuum seal tamales and store them in a freezer for up to six months. To reheat them, steam them for around 10 minutes or microwave for two minutes until the piping is hot. 

2. Rosca de Reyes (Three Kings Sweet Bread) 

Rosca de Reyes Mexican Bread
Rosca de Reyes Mexican Sweet Bread

Dia de Los Tres Reyes Festival

Another religious festival is the Dia de Los Tres Reyes or Three Kings Day, where people bake a special sweet bread, Rosca de Reyes, for the celebrations.

The bread includes treats with a small figurine of baby Jesus.

When the Spanish ruled over Mexico, most indigenous people converted to Christianity and adopted Christian holidays and celebrations, including Christmas Eve and Navida (Christmas).

Meat is not consumed, especially in the week leading to Easter.  

During the Dia de Los Tres Reyes festival, friends and neighbors move from one house to another to sing selected songs and recite lines asking for lodging eight days before Christmas. 

Other acceptable meals include sugary candy skulls, thin fried pastries, and ponche (fruit punch) during this festivity. Here is how you can prepare the Three Kings sweet bread:

Preparation time: 3 hours 

Cook time: 35 minutes 

Serves: 10-12 people

Dough:

  • 1 envelope of dried yeast
  • ½ cup water at around 105 – 115°F (warm)
  • 1 ¼ cups of sugar 
  • 1/3 cup milk at around 105 – 115°F (warm)
  • 1 teaspoon of cinnamon 
  • 1 ¾ cups of room temperature butter
  • 8 ½ cups of flour 
  • 8 eggs

Paste:

  • 1 cup confectioner’s sugar 
  • 1 cup of butter
  • 1 ¾ cup flour 
  • Candied fruits such as pineapple, lemons, figs, oranges, mango, or cherries
  • 1 egg

Instructions:

  1. To make the dough, in a bowl of warm water, sprinkle in the yeast. Add one teaspoon of sugar, cinnamon and let it stand for 10 minutes until frothy. Add ¾ cup of butter into the warm milk and stir until it’s melted. Set the ingredients aside. 
  2. In a large bowl, pour the ingredients and add eggs. Mix thoroughly.
  3. Slowly add the flour little by little and beat the dough on low speed until it’s smooth and stretchy. The dough shouldn’t feel dry but smooth and a bit sticky. 
  4. Shape the dough into rings and press the ends together to make a full circle.
  5. Place dough on a floured working surface and work it a few times before forming into a ball. Butter the dough and cover it with an oiled plastic wrap. Keep the bowl in a warm place and allow it to rise for two hours until it doubles in size. Punch down to remove air
  6. Preheat the oven 350°F before baking.
  7. Beat the egg that’s remaining until thoroughly blended and brush the dough ring with the beaten egg, roll out pieces of confectioners’ sugar mix into the dough strips. Arrange them decoratively with candied fruits as you want.
  8. Bake for 20-35 minutes and allow to cool on a wire rack completely.

3. Chiles En Nogada 

Mexican Chiles en Nogada
Chiles en Nogada

Independence Day Celebrations

Chiles en nogada is a seasonal dish you will find when traveling in Mexico.

The meal is prepared and eaten in August and September when pomegranates and walnuts, the key ingredients, are in season. 

The meal boasts the three colors of the Mexican flag, red, white, and green, making it a patriotic dish celebrated.

The Poblano chilies are filled with Picadillo, a mixture of chopped meat, dried fruits, and spices.

The fillings can vary from beef, pork, biznaga, or any candied fruit, which adds a delicate sweetness.

The dish also includes a garnish of pomegranate seeds, parsley, and covered with walnut sauce. Chiles en nogada is said to have originated around the time of Mexican independence in Puebla. Today, many restaurants serve the meal in the summer and fall seasons.

Many families celebrating Saint Augustine’s Day, which falls on the 28th of August, prepare this meal. Preparing this dish is not complicated as a seasoned family chef will make it with ease. Here’s how you can make traditional chiles en nogada at home. 

Preparation time: 1 hour

Cook time: 1 hour 30 minutes 

Serves: 6-8 people

For the picadillo:

  • 1 ground pork
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium-sized chopped onion
  • 1 sweet-tart apple, peeled, cored, and chopped
  • ½ sweet pear, peeled, cored, and chopped
  • 1 green plantain, peeled and chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves finely chopped 
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • ½ tablespoon ground cinnamon 
  • ¼ tablespoon ground clove
  • ¼ cup dry sherry 
  • 1 can of diced fire-roasted tomatoes
  • 1 peach peeled, pitted, and chopped
  • ½ cup raisins 
  • 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped 
  • ¼ cup raw whole almonds, chopped 
  • ½ teaspoon finely grated zest 
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup pitted Spanish green olives 

For the poblanos:

  • 8 large poblano chiles 
  • 4 cups vegetable oil, for frying

For the walnut sauce and garnish:

  • 2 cups raw whole walnuts 
  • 4 ounces crème Fraiche
  • ¼ cup whole almonds
  • 4 ounces queso fresco, crumbled
  • 1 cup pomegranate
  • ½ cup small parsley leaves 

Instructions:

  1. To make the picadillo, heat olive oil in a large skillet. 
  2. Cook the pork until lightly browned for about three minutes.
  3. Break any browned bits of the meat from the bottom of the pan.
  4. Remove the pork from fire and set aside.
  5. Reduce the heat to medium and add onion, garlic, plantain, pear, and salt. Stir the ingredients occasionally until tender for about 10 minutes.
  6. Add cinnamon, clove, oregano, and one teaspoon of pepper. Stir frequently for about two minutes. 
  7. Add sherry and continue occasionally stirring until the liquid has evaporated, and there’s no smell of alcohol for two minutes.
  8. Add the tomatoes and the juices, raisins, almonds, and peach. Stir the ingredients and cook for another two minutes until most of the liquid evaporates. 
  9. Add the ready pork, lemon zest, olives, and one cup of water. Cook for 10-15 minutes as you stir occasionally and add the species.  
  10. Season the meat with salt and pepper and set aside until when ready to use.
  11. Fry the poblanos in a large saucepan on high heat, turning them once until the skin is opaque. Cook them for one to two minutes on each side. 
  12. When the poblanos are ready, transfer them into a heatproof bowl and wrap tightly with plastic. Allow to cool and peel the skin, and they should be firm and bright green. Carefully remove the seeds and ribs. 
  13. Place the poblanos facing up on a rimmed baking sheet.  
  14. Make the sauce by mixing almonds, walnut puree, queso fresco, and crème Fraiche with one ¼ cup water and ¾ teaspoon salt. Blend the ingredients until creamy. You can season with more salt and add more water if necessary.  
  15. Serve the dish and top up with nogada sauce, parsley leaves, and pomegranate seeds. 

Note: Double-check the ingredients list beforehand to make sure that you have everything before you start cooking. Also, there are many recipe variants for this dish, as you include different types of meat and fruits.

4. Pozole Rojo

Pozole Rojo Mexican Food
Pozole Rojo

Pozole is a soup that dates back to pre-historic Hispanic.

It made part of ritual sacrifices and included hominy with meat, which was typically pork, and sometimes chicken seasoned and garnished with an assortment of vegetables like cabbage, garlic, avocado, and red chiles. 

Today, families serve the soup on Christmas eve, and most Thursdays and Saturdays.

You can prepare the soup using different elements, but the critical ingredient includes a hominy based in broth.

Vegans can substitute meat with beans. The three common types of pozole include: 

  • Rojo – meaning red 
  • Verde – meaning green
  • Blanco – meaning white 

Red pozole is prepared by adding a red sauce from chiles, while the green soup includes green ingredients like epazote, cilantro among other vegetables. On the other hand, you can prepare white pozole without a red or green sauce.  

The soup is relatively thin, although you quickly build it up with a garnish of your choice. It’s simple to make, earthy, rich, and satisfying. However, it’s laborious, this is how to prepare this traditional soup at home.

Preparation time: 1 hour

Cook time: 2 hours 50 minutes

Serves: 6 people

Serving temperature: Hot

Ingredients:

  • 1 ½ lb pork shoulder, preferably with a bone cut into 1-inch cubes. You can also use pork shanks.
  • 1 large (108 ounces) white hominy, drained and rinsed
  • 2 garlic cloves peeled, four whole cloves, 
  • 1 large onion chopped.
  • 1 tablespoon cumin powder
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 tablespoons dried oregano
  • 3 bay leaves 

For garnishes:

  • A small half cabbage, thinly sliced 
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chopped
  • 2 chunky avocadoes, cut into small cubes
  • 4 limes, quartered
  • Red radishes, thinly sliced
  • 1 dozen of tostada shells

Instructions:

You need to cook the pork, the hominy, and the chile base (garnish) on three separate pots. 

  1. In a large stockpot, add five quarts of water, pork and lightly salt the meat. 
  2. Add ½ chopped onions, two cloves garlic, oregano and pepper, and cumin into the pork and bring to boil over medium heat as you proceed with the other steps.  
  3. In a separate pot, roast the chiles, remove the seeds, stems, and veins from the pods. Meanwhile, boil three cups of water and add the chiles. Allow them to soak in hot water for 10 minutes. Once they soften, set aside.
  4. Once the pork is ready, please remove it from the broth and reserve both.
  5. Heat and cover the bottom of the saucepan with two tablespoons of olive oil.
  6. Sprinkle a little salt on dry pork.
  7. Brown the meat on all sides, ensuring that you don’t crowd the meat in the pan.
  8. Add four chopped garlic cloves in the saucepan and let them cook together with the meat for a minute.
  9. Add the browned pork and spices in a large stockpot of boiling water. Scrape any pieces of the meat from the bottom of the pan and add them into the stockpot.
  10. Add the rinsed hominy, bay leaves, and cumin. Squeeze the oregano in your fingers to break it as you add in the soup. Add salt to taste, reduce the heat, and bring to simmer for 15 minutes.
  11. Meanwhile, prepare the garnish.
  12. Puree the chilies in a blender with two cups of the water you soaked them with and added a teaspoon of salt. Add four cloves of garlic and water, blend thoroughly.
  13. Strain the red sauce with a sieve and discard the hard bits.
  14. Add the red chili sauce to the stockpot containing the pork and hominy, add salt to taste, and simmer on low heat.
  15. Cook the meat for three hours until very tender. Add more water and salt to taste if necessary.
  16. The soup will be slightly thin, but you will add garnishes. Remove it when ready.
  17. To serve, put the soup in bowls and arrange the garnishes on plates and serve alongside tostada shells or tortilla chips.

5. Pico de Gallo (Mexican Salsa)

Mexican Food Pico de Gallo
Pico de Gallo

Pico de gallo is a traditional pre-Hispanic dish that means beak of the rooster.

It’s believed that people ate the meal by pinching it between the thumb and the index finger making the shape of a rooster’s finger.

However, the meal has nothing to do with roosters but includes tomatoes, peppers, and other bold ingredients known to prevent colds and strengthen the immune system.

The dish has a wide variety of ingredients with mouthwatering flavors. 

Family, friends, and co-workers enjoy pico de gallo as a delicious treat over the weekend and on many other occasions.

Here is how you can make the salsa and enjoy it with Tostitos or tortillas chips.

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Serves: 6 people

Ingredients:

  • 1 chunky avocado 
  • 6 large tomatoes, chopped
  • ½ cup white onion, chopped
  • 1/3 cup cilantro 
  • ¼ cup chilies, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice 
  • Salt to taste

Instructions:

  1. Slice the avocado vertically going around the pit.
  2. Separate the two into half and use one half.
  3. In a medium bowl, cut the avocado into small cubes and use the spoon to scoop the meat out.
  4. Add the tomatoes, chilies, onions, lime juice, and cilantro.
  5. Mix all the ingredients by stirring them gently.
  6. Add salt to taste.
  7. Allow the salsa to sit for ten minutes so that all the ingredients can blend.
  8. Serve with fajitas or tortilla chips.

Conclusion 

Mexican foods have a vibrant, rich heritage that ties to the heart of Mexican culture and values. The traditional dishes saw the assimilation of other cuisines from Europe, the Mayan Empire, Aztec, Caribbean, Portuguese, and South America. 

If you’re traveling to Mexico, make sure that you taste these meals according to the peoples’ culture and tradition.

Any of these delicious foods along with Mexico’s famous aguas frescas is a perfect combination.

You can also make the dishes right at home with the help of the ingredients we have discussed in this post.

No one can argue how delicious Mexican food is, but is it healthy for you? Read, Is All Mexican Food Hot, Spicy and Fattening? and find out!

And if you’ve heard of Elote and want to learn more, check out Elote: Mexico’s Famous Street Corn.

Sources 

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