FOOD AND CULTURE IN MEXICO
To millions of Mexicans and tourists alike, Mexico usually means Mexico City. That thriving metropolis carries her more than 600 years with dignity, charm, and a great deal of sophistication as she cradles more than 8,300,000 people on her plateau situated about 7,300 feet above sea level.
Mexico had a highly intelligent and predominantly agricultural civilization thousands of years ago when the rest of the world was in its infancy It is believed that the original Indian tribes – Olmecs, Toltecs, Mayans, and Aztecs – who made up her population originally came from Asia across the Bering Strait to settle in the land and develop the crops from which the world now derives almost half of its food supply. These include corn, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate, eggplants, avocados, many varieties of squash, vanilla, and chilies.
In 1523 Hernando Cortes came to Mexico from Spain; and, because Montezuma believed him to be a former god returned to life, Cortes was able to conquer the land with little resistance. In return for all the Mexican foods which the Spaniards subsequently introduced to Europe, they left behind in Mexico much of their influence. Spanish architecture, the Spanish language, the Roman Catholic religion as well as Spanish foods: rice and wheat, oil and wine, olives, cinnamon, cloves, peaches and apricots, and the breeding of cattle, which added beef, butter, and cheese to the Indian cuisine. All were widely accepted and embedded themselves deeply into Mexican culture.
The brief rule of the Viennese Maximilian, and his wife, Carlotta, spread a wave of European manners and customs as well as the influence of French, Austrian, and Italian cookery (sopa seca, which is similar to a southern Italian pasta dish, is an example). But with the reinstatement of the Indian, Benito Juarez, as leader in 1910, Spanish and other influences were somewhat mitigated and once again Indian culture came to the fore. To this day it is the ancient Indian culture that has predominant influence, although the language is still Spanish – the Mexican Spanish varying somewhat from the classic Castilian Spanish – and the predominant religion is still Roman Catholic.
Contrary to popular belief, all Mexican food is not spicy hot. This is not to say that Mexicans don’t take good-natured delight in watching a tourista attempt to eat some of their fiery dishes. What could be funnier than the involuntary tears shed by a novice sampling a piquante dish?
While Mexicans pride themselves on their supposed immunity to the many varieties of fiery chilies, the range of their dishes and the subtle seasonings commonly used are very wide indeed and go back several thousand years. Specialties can be found in every province and region of Mexico, and the techniques are handed down from mother to daughter with pride and meticulous attention to detail. Here are a few:
Mole Poblano – from Puebla (a spicy sauce made with unsweetened chocolate)
Tamales – from Oaxaca (meat filling steamed in corn husks)
Bunuelos – from Oaxaca (crispy fritters soaked in syrup)
Banana Dishes and Stewed Turtle – from Tabasco
Barbacoa – from Mexico province (meat packed in the fleshy maguey leaves and buried in a pit with hot coals)
Ceviche Acapulco – from Guerrero (raw fish marinated in lime juice, well seasoned and served cold)
Beef and Beef Dishes – from Sonora.
But time is the best cooking pot, and although Mexican cuisine and food habits are a blend of Indian, Spanish, and other European influences, it is the native Mexican ingredients adapted over thousands of years that have given Mexican food immense variety and a unique quality all its own.