One of the many highlights of visiting Mexico is partaking in the delicious cuisine. Mexican food history is rich and varied, beginning with the Mayan Indians (2000 BC to 900 AD) who ate corn tortillas, beans, fruits, fish and wild game with a touch of chili peppers, honey, vanilla and salt. Later, from 1200 AD to 1520 AD, the Aztecs created their own dishes, and several modern foods can be traced to them. Salsa, a sauce made with chopped tomatoes (which the Aztecs domesticated), avocados and chipotle, was a popular Aztec staple, as was the ubiquitous tortilla, the tamale and the enchilada, all still with us today. The Aztecs are also responsible for introducing to the Spanish one of civilization's greatest treats: chocolate.
While pre-Columbian Mexican food was certainly appetizing in its own right, Mexican food history began a tasty new chapter in 1521 when the Spanish conquered Mexico and brought with them European food staples such as dairy products, livestock (sheep, pigs and cows), various herbs, sugar, spices and rice. Soon the newcomers were combining their traditional foods with the indigenous foods, creating new Mexican recipes with exciting new flavors and eventually cooking up the wonderful Mexican food that we recognize today.
Mexico is such a large country, however, that Mexican food is diverse, and Mexican recipes vary from region to region. Thanks to differences in climate, ethnicities and the fact that the Spanish influence had varying degrees of success throughout Mexico, a Mexican recipe in one part of the country may be completely different from one in another part. For example, in the state of Jalisco, a staple is tortas ahogadas, a sandwich covered in a tasty red (hot!) sauce. In the state of Oaxaca, Mexican recipes include mole, a sauce made with peanut butter and cocoa that is served over chicken. In the state of Yucatan, Mexican recipes call for native Mayan ingredients such as turkey, chaya (similar to spinach) and eggs. In this area, Asian and Arabic influences are common as well.
The Caesar Salad was born on the Baja Peninsula, and in the state of Durango one of the favorite Mexican food dishes is barbacoa, a tasty meat concoction steamed over an open coal pit. Burritos are found throughout northern Mexico but not in southern areas of the country. Northern Mexican food also has a lot of beef and goat meat dishes while the people of southern Mexico often prefer spicy chicken dishes with vegetables. Southeastern Mexican food has a strong Caribbean influence, and regions along the coasts are best known for their appetizing fish dishes. This includes the wonderful campechana sinaloense, a mix of fresh seafood, that is popular in the state of Sinaola along the Pacific coast.
Although dishes vary from region to region, a few things are constant when it comes to Mexican recipes and Mexican food. One is the prevalence of a few distinct spices, most notably oregano, cumin and chili powder. Oregano gives Mexican recipes a rich earthy flavor, and cumin, a bit bitter, gives Mexican food a certain bite. Chili powder, which is actually a combination of oregano, cumin and ground chilis, is used for seasoning vegetables and meats and has a noticeable kick. Beans, tomatoes, onions, corn (maize), garlic, cheese and even cactus are staples in many dishes as well. And in Mexico, meals are meant to be savored and are a leisurely shared experience among family and friends.
As tempting and varied as the main meals in Mexico are, the Mexican recipes for desserts may be even more so. One of the most popular of these is the churro, sometimes described as a Spanish doughnut, a deep fried pastry that is occasionally made from potato dough and found at nearly any state fair or carnival in the U.S. Arroz con leche is a satisfying version of rice pudding with raisins and cinnamon, and popular cajeta is a thick caramelized milk often used as a topping for ice cream or as a filling for cakes.
Mexican food history is as interesting as Mexico itself, and Mexican recipes are as varied as the Mexican people are. And while the early Mexican natives steamed their food by placing it over boiling water or by frying it over an open fire, Mexican food today is easier and faster to prepare than ever before. An inexpensive Dutch oven replicates frying, a modern metal grinder takes the place of hand grinding corn for masa (dough) and a cast iron pan will make the perfect tortilla. Still, despite the modern conveniences, the flavors and textures of Mexican food, from the days of the Mayan Indians to the influences of today, endure and add a delicious richness to everyday Mexican life.