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Mexican Food and Cooking: Introduction & History of Mexican Cuisine


by Diana Serbe-Viola 

Mexican cuisine reflects the country.  Deep in Mexico's core lies the spirit of its pre-Hispanic peoples.  Earthy and indomitable, they shaped the culture of the country.  When the Spanish came, saw, and conquered, they cast their own culture,their way of cooking like a gloss over the indigenous. Never quite assimilated, the Spanish elements still have sheen, but the power of Mexico remains in its pre-Hispanic heart.

Reflecting the larger culture, the underpinning of Mexican cuisine lies in the indigenous. The native peoples developed highly sophisticated cooking techniques to utilize a dazzling array of native food. 

Too busy to cook? Are kids, work and gas prices enough to keep up with?  Try  (link) Coyote Trail Enchilada Sauce, voted best "Red Chile in New Mexico" and enliven your food with the award-winning  (link) "Coyote Trail Salsa," a salsa that goes beyond chopped tomato with fire-roasted chiles.  Both have been created with an eye to gourmet tastes and budget pocketbooks.

The Spanish did not alter Mexican food, they brought new ingredients which expanded its potential, and added luster to what existed.  The Mexican cuisine that developed through this fusion is subtle, complex, nutritious, and ranks as one of the great cuisines of the world.

Yet, the glories of Mexican cooking lay hidden from the eyes of its northern neighbor. The border towns seized the most obvious elements of Mexican food to create dishes that are beloved today, but the possibilities of the cuisine were largely ignored until well into the 20th century when two separate authorities appeared, each proclaiming the delights of Mexican cuisine to those living in North America.

The earliest and more ostentatious of these influences was that culinary haven called Taco Bell, a fast-food stand that first appeared in 1962, offering hungry diners something called tacos.  Here was the essence of Mexican food - fried tortillas, bent into a uniform shape, so rigid that they seemed to have been shellacked.

These prefab tacos became the icon of a large, diverse nation. Mexican cuisine was defined as a rigid shell carelessly stuffed with shredded lettuce, grated cheese, crumbled beef and a red sauce of varying degrees of heat.  We loved those shells and all they contained, found them the best fast food ever, but no one knew of the subtleties and distinction of real Mexican cooking, the variety of Mexican food being made in the interior of the country.

Fortunately for all those with unimpaired taste buds, in 1972 the second influence arrived.  This was the daring and estimable Diana Kennedy whose love for Mexico and for Mexican food knew no bounds. It was she who spared Mexico from the ignominy of being represented by a shellacked taco shell, it was she who told us that in the very large mass of land below the border was real food. Not only real food, Mexican cooking was regional, diverse, and above all subtle.

Once awakened to Mexican cooking, our tastes buds began to sophisticate and we were not content to accept those shells as the star of Mexican food. Tell us more, we asked Mrs. Kennedy and Elizabeth Lambert-Ortiz, the other great cook who followed.

They carried the torch and served to inspire today's great Mexican cooks who fan out across the country to share their knowledge:   MIguel Ravago in Austin, Zarela Martinez in New York, Rick Bayless in Chicago. (read about Miguel Ravago)


History of Mexican Food and Cooking: The pre-Columbian to the Conquistadors

Led by Hernan Cortes, the Spanish explorers lusted for the treasures of Mexico's gold. They conquered the country and stuffed their pockets.  When they set sail to return home, their ships were laden not only with gold, but also with the foodstuffs of the New World.  What happened to their gold we do not know, but the foods they brought back to the Old World have become staples, feeding people around the globe.

We know a great deal about the foods that the explorers encountered, and give thanks to Bernal Díaz del Castillo who accompanied Cortes, recording everything he saw and experienced.  Amid pages relating the battles and hardships experienced by the explorers, he sets out the history of the Spanish conquest of Aztec Mexico, then under the rule of Montezuma. Buried in the history of their landing in Veracruz and the march inland to the kingdom of the Aztecs and Moctezuma, Díaz takes time to describe the abundance of Montezuma's food stores, found in what is now Mexico City:

"Montezuma had ordered his stewards to provide us with everything we needed for our way of living: maize, grindstones, women to make our bread, fowls, fruit, and plenty of fodder for the horses."

Among the edible foods they discovered in Mexico was that of human flesh which had been offered in sacrifice to the gods. Horrified by ritual cannibalism, Cortes prevailed upon Moctezuma to abandon the practice. (Please read our article on maize for a full account.)

Though some of Cortes' men met with an unfortunate fate before Montezuma mended his ways, Díaz describes a diet so rich that it might have been easy to abandon even ritual sacrifice:  "...every day they cooked fowls, turkeys, pheasants, local partridges, quail, tame and wild duck, venison, wild boar, marsh birds, pigeons, hares and rabbits."   There was chocolate, "all frothed up" and in great quantity. There were cakes, as Díaz calls them, made of maize and "were brought in on plates covered with clean napkins." He describes the maize-cakes as kneaded with eggs and other nourishing ingredients. 

Maize, or corn, was everywhere and throughout Díaz' account of the conquest of "New Spain" he speaks of "plantations" of maize. Maize was used to make a dough called masa, and from masa came what we call the tamale and the mother of so many foods - the tortilla, with its infinite possibilities. Maize was even popped and used as ornamentation in various ceremonies, adorning young women with blossoms from "parched" corn that resembled white flowers.  These were worn for ceremonies, some of which involved human sacrifice. Maize was the focal point of the religious rituals of these various indigenous peoples. Diaz recognized that this was the foundation of Mexican food and cooking, though he would not have deemed it Mexican cuisine.

Though the conquistadors encountered the Aztec civilizations living in Mexico, the diet was primarily established during the brilliant Mayan culture. The Mayans worshipped corn and their human sacrifices were related to this worship.   They also developed agricultural methods to grow corn and discovered highly sophisticated techniques to prepare it. 

The Mayans were farmers of great skill and domesticated the most important of their foods: maize, squash, beans, tomatoes, numerous varieties of chiles, amaranth. Fruits and avocados (providing leaf and fruit) grew in wild abundance, as did the plants raised for seasoning and flavoring. There were a large variety of chiles, vanilla, allspice, oregano, cilantro, all familiar to us today. Díaz mentions prickly pear.  One major source of protein was spirulina, an algae that grows on the water and can be found in health food stores today. The Maguey plant provided a lightly alcoholic drink called pulque.

Beans were also of major importance to the Maya and to the indigenous cultures that followed them. They often planted bean and corn in the same hole together, so the bean could vine around the corn stalk.  The scarlet runner bean has been cultivated in the central highlands of Mexico and Guatemala, both areas of Mayan civilizations.  Today, black beans are favored in the Yucatan and in Veracruz, while pink beans are favored further north.

The tiny amaranth seed  was another valuable crop. The Aztecs raised them in floating gardens.  (The Floating Gardens of Xochimilco are samples of this.) The Spaniards did not look favorably on amaranth, possibly why it is not widely used today, as it was part of a cannibalistic ritual of the Aztecs.  Dough was made from both maize and amaranth, and dedicated to the god.  Many people ate pieces of the dough, among them the humans who were to be sacrificed to the gods.

Tomatoes had snaked their way up from South America, crawling through jungles as only a determined vine will crawl (please read about tomatoes). Chiles abounded in Mexico, different varieties growing in different regions.  Chiles were and are all-important to Mexican cooking, used to sweeten a dish as well as enliven it.  

Turkeys were wild in Mexico, and Cortes reports seeing them in the well-ordered markets of Mexico City.  Bones from the oscillated turkey have been found in Mayan excavations in the Yucatan and in Guatemala. The ocellated turkey is found no further north than the north of Mexico.  It is smaller than its northern cousins and has spots similar to a peacock.  The Spanish gave it the name pavo which means pea hen.

Native ingredients provided the Indian cultures of Mexico with dietary staples, but it was the cooking techniques discovered by the extraordinary Mayans that gave them a solidly nutritious diet. The Mayans had learned to cook corn with lime, to steep it and remove the kernel. The lime released various nutrients in the corn that would otherwise not be usable by the human body. The Mayans knew nothing about vitamins (nor did the Spanish conquerors as vitamins were not discovered until 1910), but their methods of cooking gave them a nutrient-rich diet.

Mexican Chocolate - integral to Mexican Cuisine


And God created cacao.  With the intervention of the human mind, cacao would be developed into chocolate, but he Aztecs had the native bean and they were indispensable.  The beans themselves were used in tribute to Moctezuma who had warehouses of them.   Not a candy bar wrapped in foil, cacao was a drink, and it was as beloved as a candy bar, if not more so.  Cacao was an early morning eye opener, a pick-me-up, the finish to a meal. The Aztecs loved their cacao which was not sweetened and didn't appeal to the explorers until they added sugar.   Cacao was always a drink and was always frothed. "Sometimes they brought him (Montezuma) in cups off pure gold a drink made from the cocoa-plant, which they said he took before visiting his wives. We did not take much notice of this at the time, though I saw them bring in a good fifty large jugs of this chocolate, all frothed up, of which he would drink a little. They always served it with great reverence."   When Montezuma had finished, more chocolate was brought in for the general populace - "more than two thousand jugs of chocolate frothed up in the Mexican style." 

It is significant that Montezuma drank his chocolate before visiting his wives, and we have taken note of the use of the plural.  Even the most virile of kings might need some help with a plurality of wives.

Some of the dishes made from cacao were soup-like and used as sauces, perhaps the forerunners to the great moles of today. It is arguable that the great moles, infused with several types of chiles, of course, are the crowning achievement of Mexican cooking, and one that was enhanced considerable with he meats brought by the explorers.

An Abandoned Mexican Dish

Despite the sophistication of the Mexican Indians, these were a primitive people, superstitious about weather which they could not control, about the output of their crops which required intense labor but gave no guarantees. We deal with this extensively in our section on maize, as the relationship to the corn god is important, however, Díaz reports seeing human sacrifice.  He tells us that the victim (sacrificial honoree?) was laid upon a stone and the heart cut out with a flintstone.  The still-beating heart, dripping with blood, was offered to the gods while butchers severed the limbs which would be cooked and eaten.  The remaining part of the body was tossed into cages where wild beasts had been imprisoned. A few of Cortes men met with this fate.

Daily Foods of the Indigenous Mexican People

Despite the abundance of foodstuffs, the holy trinity of pre-Columbian foods were maize, beans and chiles.  Breakfast would generally be a gruel made from masa, not dissimilar from our cereals, but this was spiced with chiles.  They might have that wake-up chocolate which would also have the livening of chiles. 

Later, for the main mid-day meal, they would have thick vegetable stews made from the abundance of native plants and spiced with chiles.  Accompany the stew would be tortillas, often wrapped around beans.  This is a highly nutritious vegetarian meal.

Meats were of lesser importance and might include domesticated dogs along with deer, birds, iguana, anything that could be hunted.  Not only hunted, but scratched from the ground in the form of worms and grubs.

History of the Spanish Foods Brought to Mexico


"We then ate a sumptuous dinner which they had prepared for us in their native style."
(Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain)

The Spanish explorers radically affected the prevailing Indian diet by the introduction of Old World foods.  Nothing replaced maize, but the diet was enriched and the Mexican cooking we know today has its roots in the marriage of old and new ingredients.  

Domesticated animals were perhaps the most important introduction, replacing dogs and various grubs.  The most prevalent was the pig, self-fattening, easy to transport, not in need of attention.  Pigs provided meat for protein, but what may be more important is that they gave lard which was the most radical alteration to the the Indian diet.  Until the introduction of pork, the Mexicans did not fry food. They did not know what butter was.  

Chicken, goats and sheep were also easily assimilated and cattle followed, being grazed primarily in the central and north-central areas of Mexico.  Dishes that are traditional to the Mexican diet today began to appear only after the conquistadors introduced these foods. 

The Spanish introduced new grains, the first of which was wheat which grew quite well in the northern areas and gave rise to wheat tortillas. Sugar was introduced in the form of sugarcane brought in from the Caribbean, and Cortes himself devoted large areas of land to growing sugarcane.

The Spanish came through the route of the Caribbean which also influenced Mexican cooking.  As the Spanish tastes began to be assimilated into the indian diet the foods we know today began to emerge.  This was the comida novohispana. The great mole sauces, made for meat, developed.  Frijoles, refritos and quesadillas appeared. We know from history that this occurred in the colonial period when the Spanish dominated Mexican cooking.  The foods did not change after Mexican Independence was won. Mexican food and cooking was in place and the great regional cuisines developed within this context.

Mexican Cooking Survives  Colonization

The Spanish arrived as explorers, but they became the conquistadors by overthrowing the Aztec rulers.  A civilization built on the brilliance of early peoples was henceforward to be dominated by Europeans.  How did the native foods survive? There is no single answer, no lone chef working to save what he or she thought to be valuable.  The answer, perhaps, lies in extreme poverty. 

Where poverty is extreme, starvation and malnutrition usually follow.  Mexico was rich in foodstuffs that provided sound nutrition.  Though the Spaniards never practiced outright slavery, a caste system built rapidly in Mexico.  At the bottom were the indigenous peoples, at the top the pure Spanish.  Within that structure, food represented the tastes of each caste.  Bread made of wheat was the Spanish preference, but the climate of most of Mexico was not suited to raising wheat.  Corn remained as the staple, though the northern areas were able to grow wheat. The wheat tortilla developed there and influenced border cooking.

Mexicans were people of the street.  Many who had come to the capital slept in the street.  These people had to eat and they found the native foodstuffs, prepared as they had been for centuries, for sale in the street.  Women wandered the streets with baskets or set up small fires on street corners to sell food.  There were grilling stands on every corner.  These were hardly the haute cuisine of the day that the elite wanted.  This was Mexican cooking and Mexican food at its primitive best, but primitive Mexican food is finer than elsewhere.  Would Mexican food survive to become Mexican cuisine?

Within the upper classes, common foods were considered acceptable when eating with family, but not in public.  The unwritten message was that these foods were too good to lose, but must only be eaten when no one was looking.  Obviously those people who might be looking were also eating the native dishes on the sly.

When cookbooks were first being published in Mexico, the choice of recipes showed disdain for native foods.  Though these books might indicate that no one was eating native Mexican food, the audience for those books were the  fine Doñas - the ladies at home.  All of them had native cooks.  The native cooks were generally illiterate and their repertoires were based on recipes inherited from previous generations.  The cookbooks were for the lady of the house, the Doña who might have been pleased with her own literacy to the point of self-satisfaction.  Though the cookbook disdained tamales as food for the lower order, the lady's native cook was making tamales. And if that lady grew hungry in the street, why, what could a ravenous Doña do but indulge in her secret love for the indigenous foods. Mexican food survived faddish modes of each cuisine imposed on her.  Mexican cooking survived.

The Spanish colonization lasted through many viceroys and through the French reign of Maximillian and Carlotta, established by Napoleon.  With the revolution of 1910, Mexico burst forward proclaiming its indigenous inheritance.  The food that had developed from abundance and from the genius of ancient peoples became Mexico's pride. We can call it Mexican food, or lift it to say Mexican cooking, but in truth Mexico deserves the word cuisine.  Mexican cuisine is subtle and nuanced and deserves its place among the word's great cuisines.

General Bibliography for Mexican Articles

Davidson, Alan, ed. with Helen Saberi, The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy: 20 Years of the Best Writing from the Journal Petits Propos Culinaires. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2002.

DeWitt, Dave, The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1999.

Diaz, Bernal, translated by J. M. Cohen, The Conquest of New Spain. London: Penguin Books, 1963.

Cambridge World History of Food, V.D.1 "Mexico and Highland America."

Frazer, Sir James George, The Golden Bough. New York: Collier Books, 1922

Fussell, Betty, The Story of Corn. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Gilliland, Tom and Miguel Ravago, Fonda San Miguel: Thirty Years of Food and Art. Fredericksburg: Shearer Publishing, 2005.

McGee, Harold, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen New York: Scribner, 2004.

Morley, Sylvanus G., revised by George W. Brainerd, The Ancient Maya. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1968.

Tannahill, Reay, Food in History. New York: Stein and Day, 1973; rev. ed, Three Rivers Press, 1988).

Taube, Karl, The Classic Maya Maize God: A Reappraisal.  Originally published in Fifth Palenque Round Table, 1983, Volume VII, edited by Virginia M. Fields. Electronic version. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, Monterey, California



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