Previous Article WWWiz Home Next Article


A Voyage of Discovery: Culinary Traditions of Mexican Food

by Tarla Fallgatter

Ah, the festivities of Cinco de Mayo! Where shall we celebrate this year? How about at home, making our own tamales, mole and guacamole, or savoring them with margaritas at El Torito Grill?


Around the time of the 1521 fall of Tenochtitlán, now known as Mexico City, the people who made up the Meso-American empires had orchards full of avocados, coconuts, papayas, pineapples, prickly pears and a long list of others whose names don't ring familiar in our ears. Their farms grew the predecessor of our red tomato, as well as a little green-husked "tomato." There were chilies, sweet potatoes, four kinds of squash, peanuts and at least five major strains of beans. Epazote was the herb of preference (as it is today), and there were huge quantities of amaranth and chia seeds to make into porridge and unleavened cakes.

The Aztecs' domination was felt far and wide in this part of America. They had subjugated all the competition from Yucatán to barren Northern Mexico, but it was a top-heavy domination that sucked all but the guts out of many of the neighboring societies. Everyday people were on a subsistence diet of sweet or chilled atole (porridge), some beans and the necessary allotment of tortillas; meat was scarce, and fruit only a little less so. When shortages came, the people's recent emergence from the less civilized life of nomadic gatherers showed in the system's lack of fundamental stability.

But in the face of all this uncertainty, the lordly houses had tables set with such brilliant flavors and ingeniously constructed dishes that their presence is still felt in the best Mexican kitchens. Beyond the simple boiled or pit-cooked domestic turkeys, Muscovy ducks, venison and little dogs, these households commanded all manner of wild quail, pigeons, and a remarkable variety of fish and shellfish from the coasts and local waters.

Conquistador Hernán Cortés described the dishes at Emperor Montezuma's table as belonging to four classes: meat, fish, herbs and fruit. Historian Friar Sahagun was more detailed in his astoundingly thorough rendering of that early Aztec society. He detailed two basic sorts of sauces for the stewed dish that simmered in the traditional earthenware cazuelas. One was thickened with ground pumpkin seeds, and flavored with red chilies and tomatoes. This was called pipian in the mid-1500s when Sahagun wrote, and is still known by that name today. The second was a kind of chili sauce or tomato sauce, depending on your perspective and the proportions of ingredients.

Most royal houses served this kind of highly flavored food with tortillas of all sorts. Some were smooth, others made from roughly ground corn. The cooks prepared tlacoyos and gorditas like the ones popular today, and Aztecs apparently loved tamales and turnovers as much as their modern ancestors do.

The greatest concentration of royal households was in the capital, Tenochtitlán, and there is little doubt that the streets of this beautiful city were some of the most active in the world of that time. The market was massive enough to hold 60,000 souls buying and selling, estimated Cortés. It was filled with incalculable variety and varieties of variety, according to Sahagun: beans, fish, chilies, meat -- even prepared stews and sauces, roasted meats and guacamole. The whole must have been spectacular; in spite of the passing of four centuries and disparate rulers, it sounds not unlike the aggressively sensual offerings in and around the colossal Merced market at the center of present-day Mexico City.

The first city was cultured -- albeit from a different source than our culture -- and, perhaps for the first time, the Spaniards encountered a sect that thought them rather barbaric. Of course, the opposite was true in other respects, but it's clear from what was written down by Cortés and his soldier Bernal Diaz del Castillo that the refinements of the Aztec ruling class were impressive. They both described the banquets with myriad dishes, as well as the ceremonial handwashing of the beautiful red-and-black dishes, and gilded chocolate cups filled with that foaming, exotically flavored drink of nobles.

Within a decade after the 1521 fall of Tenochtitlán the Mexican natives had adopted a new set of flavors into their existing large assortment. Spice traders brought cinnamon, black pepper and cloves; everyone wanted the common European thyme, marjoram and bay leaves. As early as the second voyage of Columbus, the first load of wheat, chickpeas, melons, onions, radishes, salad greens, grapes, sugarcane and fruit stones had made their way to America.

Though the Indians knew well the ways of agriculture, they had domesticated only a small selection of animals. So when the Spaniards came with horses, hogs, cattle and chickens, they were welcomed immediately. By the end of Cortés' life, meat was plentiful, wheat bread was cheap, and rice was growing where wheat and corn could not. In fact, most fruits, vegetables and other new, important food crops like sesame seeds, almonds and citrus were being cultivated.

For several centuries that strain of Spanish blood stayed as pure as any Spaniard could have hoped in a land as alluring as Mexico. But all the while, of course, the Indian blood was becoming more mestizo -- hybridized, stronger and less content with the pure-white ruling crust. The War of Independence in 1821 was the first blow to the Crown, and a tremendous threat to the whites' control. It was not until the revolution of 1910 that the world saw the emergence of a new Mexico, a more honestly mestizo Mexico.

The food that the people of this newly emerged country put on their tables had seen a slow, four-century evolution -- a flowing together of royal Aztec court traditional, Old World Spanish fare, and bits and pieces left from French, North Americana and other people's involvement. Perhaps it had seen its first independent life in the kitchens of the ubiquitous convents, where the Spanish nuns had to work hand in hand with Indian girls who knew the country's produce. Or it may have been the everyday cooks whose inventiveness led them to pepper their well-proven cooking with all things new. Whatever it was, the roots of today's Mexican food are buried deep in the first native tastes and traditional ways. Like all things that reveal Indian heritage, mestizo Mexican cooking has been a long time in coming out of the back rooms, market fondas and street stalls into respectable spots where it can be enjoyed at its delicious best.

The Mexican Kitchen

A few techniques still give a distinctive Mexican flavor to foodstuffs as defined by Mexican food historian and chef Rick Bayless. The first he calls the asar technique, from the verb asar, which means to broil, brown, roast, sear or toast. The large, greenchilies are flame-roasted, then peeled; dried ones are toasted on a griddle to deepen their flavor and release their aroma into the room. Garlic is turned in its skin on a hot, dry surface beside the tomatoes and tomatillos; they blacken and blister while their flavor concentrates and mellows. Meat is seared on the open fire, and the corn dough called masa, in all its forms -- from tortillas to boat-shaped sopes -- is cooked on the dry iron or clay surfaces. The flavors intensify, deepening and taking on a savory earthiness.

The second technique that gives Mexican distinction to many cooked dishes is the initial searing of the pureed sauce ingredients, the "frying of the sauce." Heat a little bit of fat in a hot pan, then add the chili or tomato puree; it sizzles vigorously and fries and concentrates into a thick mass. In essence, it takes on a seared quality that makes a Mexican tomato sauce seem quite unrelated to the slow-simmered Italian spaghetti sauces.

The last of the techniques that set Mexican cooking apart is grinding. It began thousands of years ago with corn crushed on a rock slab (metate) to make the dough for the tortillas. The slab proved good for grinding rehydrated chilies, nuts, seeds, cocoa beans and even the tender curds of fresh cheese. A bowl-shaped rock mortar (molcajete) worked for spices and contained the juices of tomatoes and tomatillos. Until recently, it was those hand-powered grinders that blended the nutritious flavorings into the often-used, thick, tasty purees. Now it is the electric blender or spice grinder, with fast-running blades, but of course the effect isn't the same. The blender whirs and chops it all into small pieces, where the old metate and molcajete crushed the foodstuffs and smoothed them into a paste.

Regional Mexico

Although the land mass of Mexico itself is only one third the size of the United States, it rises and falls with more varieties of plant life and human life, more formations, colors, textures, smells and tastes than any country on Earth. Each of Mexico's six regions mixes a distinct aroma into the persistent scent that gives Mexico its Mexican unit; each region displays a different facet of the Mexican cook's resourcefulness, tradition and imagination.

Central Mexico illustrates the duality of the Spaniard and the Aztec, the modern and the earth-bound primitive. The famous sparkling candy shops of Puebla line up a few blocks from the old market where the classic, centuries-old mole poblano gurgles in huge cazuelas, fragrant with dried chilies, herbs and spices. Just miles from Mexico City's most elegant restaurants are the Tolucan Indian produce vendors with their dozens of herbs and their colorful array of wild mushrooms.

Southern Mexico, particularly Oaxaca, exhibits a vital Indian heritage. The black-braided Indian cooks mix a remarkable variety of dried peppers into Mexico's most varied sauces and stews. It is savory, well-spiced fare redolent with sweet spices like cloves and cinnamon; it is complex and distinctive, flavored with the sure hand of tradition.

West-central Mexico is thoroughly mestizo. It is the essence of national flavors drizzled on crispy fried pork carnitas or sprinkled in a bowl of pozole . It is the home of mariachis and tequila , of fried tacos and red-chili enchiladas. It is, perhaps, Mexico's most prominent profile, the one least obviously chiseled from ancient Indian ways.

The gulf states are warm tropical states that rise up from the well-stocked coastal waters to cool mountains known for growing coffee. This is the land of simple, well-seasoned cooking -- fish with tomatoes, herbs and olives, spicy crab soup, turnovers and butter-fried plantains. There is something of a European character to the spicing and garnishing and there is a Caribbean lilt to the songs that are sung.

The Yucatán, though half on the Gulf and half on Caribbean water, owes little to either. The Yucatán is Mayan, and its original settlers were a progressive, independent lot. In fact, the Yucatán has remained so independent that the national Mexican scent is faintest there, overwhelmed almost entirely at times by the beloved achiote seasoning. The regional specialties are among Mexico's most unusual, from the pork in banana leaves to the egg-stuffed, pumpkin seed-sauced papadzules, from the wild turkey with masa-thickened white sauce to chicken with vinegar and spices. When you taste the delicate balance of Yucatán seasoning, the complex red-chili sauces traditional in the rest of Mexico seem countries away.

Northern Mexico's culinary element which ties it together is fire. Smoky, hot embers give character to fish on the West coast, kid around Monterey and steaks nearly everywhere. They add char to the rustic taste of beef jerky, and chewiness to chorizo sausage. Northern flavors are forthright, frontier flavors -- just the kind to wrap in warm flour tortillas.


The foods listed below were being grown or used on Mexican soil when the Spanish arrived. They are important either to the cooking of the Americas generally or to particular regions of Mexico.

Achiote (annatto seeds) is really the small, dark-red seeds of the annatto tree, used as a yellow-orange coloring and flavoring agent. In Mexican cooking it is usually encountered only in certain mixtures of seasonings and spices.

Avocado is known in Mexico as the "butter of the poor." It's best-known use is in the making of guacamole. Avocados are generally available in all parts of the United States, the Hass (a small, dark variety) being the best.

Beans of the New World were one of the chief sources of protein for the Indian peoples and were swiftly brought by the Spanish and Portuguese to Europe, Africa and Asia. Dozens of varieties are popular in Mexico, named often for their color (red, white, black, pinto) or for the supposed place of origin. All these small beans, when eaten dried, are collectively called frijoles.

Chili is the soul of Mexico cooking as corn is the backbone. "Without [chile], Mexicans don't believe they're eating," observed Fray Bartolome de las Casas in the sixteenth century. Regardless of class, economic position or anything else, all Mexicans eat chili at all times.

Chocolate was an Aztec beverage, though they apparently drank it cold and sometimes sweetened (with one of the native honeys). To make different versions they pounded the beans with an array of spices and seasonings, from chili to vanilla, and sometimes thickened the mixture with ground corn. The most important use of chocolate in modern Mexico is still as a beverage, although the Mexicans do prepare some confections and desserts with it. The chocolate usually sold for this purpose is in grainy, spicy tablets of ground almonds, cocoa, sugar and cinnamon that possibly hark back to the early European versions.

Corn was considered a gift from the gods and it seemed to flourish everywhere under all conditions. Corn mutates rapidly, so it swiftly produced strains that could be grown in the hottest or coldest parts of Mexico, in all types of soils, and with heavy or scarce rainfall. Because it could easily be grown in the same field as beans, and cooked along with them, the Meso-American civilizations had what was probably the world's best supply of vegetable protein. The Aztecs and Mayans had learned to treat nearly all the corn they ate with alkali from ashes, limestone or oyster shells, so they were better able to assimilate its nutrients, and they remained healthy on what the Spaniards thought was a very small amount of food. The alkalized corn was eaten whole as pozole (hominy) or ground to a paste used for porridge, beverages, sweets, the Mexican bread (tortillas) and the principal Mexican festive foods (tamales).

Corn husks are the best-known type of wrapper. One of the important elements in Mexican cuisine is the great range of leaves and husks used as wrappers in which to cook foods. Corn husks are usually used to make masa-filled tamales, but can be used to wrap different vegetables and fish.

Epazote is an aromatic perennial herb with an assertive, somewhat bitter taste. It grows wild in many parts of the United States -- even Central Park in New York City -- and has various English names, one of which is "stinkweed." It is especially used in cooking huitlacoche (see below), squash blossoms, beans, and various stews and soups.

Huitlacoche is corn smut, a type of fungus that invades the growing ears of corn, causing the kernels to swell into gray or blue-black masses. Farmers take vigilant measures against it in the United States, and home gardeners throw away "smutty" ears in disgust. Mexican cooks consider huitlacoche their truffle.

Jicama is a tuber of a plant indigenous to Mexico and Central America. It has a crisp texture, somewhere between that of an apple and a raw potato, and a mild, nutty flavor. Low in calories, it is always eaten uncooked or barely cooked.

Nopal is a general name for several kinds of cactus with edible paddles and fruits. Various species grow wild in different regions, especially central Mexico. There are also cultivated nopales. The mild-flavored cactus paddles are commonly used as a vegetable. They are covered with thorns, sometimes hard to see, which must be cut out with a knife. Before cooking they are usually cut into strips and simmered briefly in water. Once cooked, they should be rinsed, first in hot water, then in cold, to remove any still-oozing juice. They can then be used as a salad, in a stew, with scrambled eggs or with a sauce. Whole unblanched nopales can also be grilled on a griddle.

Pumpkin seeds are among the favorite snacks of the Mexican people. Vendors sell them hot or cold on almost every street corner, either shelled, fried until puffed up, and salted, or simply toasted in the shells, plain or salted. Pumpkin seeds are a key ingredient in many Mexican dishes, especially toasted or fried, and finely ground for certain sauces, where they help to thicken the texture and add flavor.

Tomatillo is known in Mexico as tomate verde (green tomato) or tomate de cascara (husk tomato), but it is not a tomato at all. It is related to the Cape gooseberry and American ground cherry. In all three of these the fruit is encased in a thin, translucent papery outer skin that must be removed before cooking. The flavor of tomatillos is tart and refreshing. They can be made into much the same kind of relishes, pickles and raw or cooked sauces as tomatoes, except that their water content is less and the result will be thicker.

Tomato needs no introduction, except to say that the quality of Mexican tomatoes is very good and some of what is found in U.S. markets won't do. Roasting tomatoes deepens their flavor. To roast a tomato, place it on a heated griddle or cast-iron skillet over high heat and turn so that the skin blisters and blackens all over. Peel off the blackened skin before using.

Vanilla is one of Mexico's greatest contributions to the world. The "vanilla bean" is actually the fruit of a Central American orchid, which is harvested unripe and subjected to a long fermenting and drying process that brings out its delicious fragrance. Today it is grown as far from its home as Madagascar, Reunion, Tahiti and Sri Lanka. But as Elizabeth David says in Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, "The best beans still come from Mexico."

Tarla Fallgatter is a well-known Orange County caterer, chef, teacher, restaurant consultant and kitchen tool manufacturer. She trained at Paris' Cordon Bleu, La Varenne, and Ecole Lenotre cooking schools, and was the first foreign woman to cook in the kitchens of Maxim's. She has traveled to over 60 countries throughout the world, "sampling" the local cuisine. She markets her "Tarla" all-copper rolling pin in fine cookware shops.

Green Mole With Toasted Pumpkin Seeds

1/2C raw pumpkin seeds

1 tsp. cumin seeds

1/2 tsp. cracked black pepper

1/2 tsp. dried Mexican oregano

10 tomatillos, husked, washed and quartered

1 jalapeño chili

2 garlic cloves, peeled

2 romaine lettuce leaves

1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 bunch cilantro, stems and leaves

2 radish tops

1 small onion, quartered

1-1/2 tsp. salt

1 Tbsp. olive oil

2C chicken stock

5 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves

1 bunch radishes, thinly sliced (garnish)

cilantro sprigs (garnish)

3C cooked rice (if desired)

Place a dry cast-iron pan over low heat. Toast the pumpkin seeds, cumin seeds, pepper and oregano, shaking the pan occasionally, until their aromas are released, about 5 minutes -- do not brown. Set aside to cool, then grind in a blender to a powder. Reserve.

Combine the tomatillos, jalapeño chili, garlic, lettuce, cinnamon, cilantro, radish tops, onion and salt in a blender and puree until smooth.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Heat the olive oil in a large pan over high heat. Standing back to avoid splatters, pour in the pureed tomatillo mixture and sizzle for 30 seconds. Stir in the stock, reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Turn the heat up to high and bring to a boil. Stir in the ground nut mixture and remove from the heat. Puree the mixture in a blender in batches if necessary. Bring the sauce to a simmer and pour sauce into a 13x10" flameproof baking dish.

Press the chicken breasts into the sauce, cover with foil and place in the oven. Bake 10 minutes, remove from the oven and turn the chicken breasts over, pressing them back in to the sauce. Re-cover with foil and bake 10 minutes more. Slice the chicken and serve with the sauce over a bed of rice (if desired), and sprinkle the radish slices over the top. Garnish with cilantro sprigs.

Makes: 6-8 servings


Copyright (C) 1998 WWWiz Corporation - All Rights Reserved
Phone: 714.848.9600 FAX: 714.375.2493
WWWiz Web site developed and maintained by
GRAFX Digital Studio

Previous Article Next Article
WWWiz Home