Follow Me Foodie to Mexico!
10 Facts & Myths about Mexican Cuisine
My knowledge of Mexican cuisine was limited, but I didn’t know how limited until a recent trip to Mexico City and Oaxaca. I didn’t come back an expert, but I certainly learned a lot more about Mexican food. Thanks to the traditional and modern cooks and chefs from these cities, as well as Ricardo Bonilla, a researcher and teacher of Mexican gastronomy, I was able to bring you this. I couldn’t have written this without their wealth of knowledge and experience… and patience answering my million questions.
This post is not an exclusive “10 commandments” to Mexican cuisine, but simply to set things straight, or at least straighter. There are so many misconceptions about Mexican food and those of us north of Mexico can be exposed to such narrow ideas of it. Of course it depends on which city they are in, and the greater the Mexican population the better the Mexican food tends to be, so I am not generalizing all of the US & Canada either. However even cities where the Mexican food scene is strong, resources can be limited and menus and flavours can be modified to adapt to tastes of the clientele.
The idea of “authenticity” in food is always challenging and the US & Canada are not Mexico, so comparing their styles of Mexican food (be it Tex-Mex, Baja, West Coast etc). is not really appropriate or even necessary; but knowing the facts, history, and roots of the cuisine are always important.
The following are 10 facts and myths about Mexican cuisine, or just some culinary education and information before I start Follow Me Foodie to Mexico posts. These are not 10 things you need to know, but 10 things you should know because it might just change the way you look, try, experience and appreciate Mexican food.
10 Facts & Myths about Mexican Cuisine
Chili shopping at Zaachila Markets in Oaxaca (open air market, open on Thursdays)
1) Mexican food is all spicy.
Myth. US & Canadian styles of Mexican food are not always spicy, but authentic Mexican food has the reputation to be spicy.
Chilies are a primary ingredient in Mexican cooking and it runs in their veins, but not all Mexican food is spicy despite many recipes including chilies. While the majority of chilies are spicy, not all of them are. For example, sweet bell peppers (pimiento morrón) are sweet. When chilies or seeds get exported to other places such as Europe, their flavour profiles can change and sometimes result in a milder or sweeter chili as well. Sometimes these peppers will be imported back to Mexico, and if used, the food will taste different.
Mexican food and flavours are also regional, and in Yucatán (Southeastern Mexico), the food is not as spicy. In many cases throughout Mexico, a lot of the spiciness comes from the salsa served along side.
Mole negro at Pujol (#17 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2013) – 25 ingredients, cooked 250 days
2) There is only one type of mole – the chocolate one.
Myth. First, let’s define mole. Mole is the generic word for many sauces, just like the word curry is in Indian cuisine.
There are hundreds of different moles in Mexico and each region has their own mole sauces. In the north, and from Baja California to Tamaulipas, moles are less common and original, but in Oaxaca there are 8 regions and 7 recognized moles – hence “Land of the 7 Moles”.
The 7 moles of Oaxaca include: Negro (black/chocolate mole), Rojo (red mole), Coloradito (brown mole), Amarillo, Verde, Chichilo and Manchamantel. See more on each here. These moles are not exclusive to Oaxaca and there are a lot of variations of each even within their own context.
Mole negro, the one made with chocolate, is the one most familiar to those of us north of Mexico. This mole includes some combination of Chilhuacle (the rarest and most essential chili in an authentic Oaxacan mole negro), Ancho, Mulato, and Pasilla chiles, onions, almonds, pumpkin seeds, plantains, raisins, cloves, Mexican cinnamon, coriander, Mexican oregano, tomatoes, sesame seeds, walnuts, all spice, Mexican cocoa and more.
Many recipes use Mexican chocolate (yes, it has to be Mexican), but Mexican cocoa is what should be used. The percentage used varies according to families and personal tastes.
Also, the tortillas served with the mole are not used to make tacos. Similar to Indian food, the tortillas are used as ‘utensils’ to pick up the meat and wipe up the mole sauce with.
Tomato shopping at Zaachila Markets in Oaxaca
3) Chia, tomatoes, vanilla, and dragonfruit originated in Mexico.
Fact. All of these originated in Mexico. Surprised? I was.
I was introduced to chia seeds by an Australian farmer and I never questioned its origin, but it was cultivated for centuries by the Aztecs of Mexico and the Indians of the Southwest of America. (Chia, 2011)
Tomatoes are often considered a gift from the Italians, but no, they are a gift from Mexico.
Mexican vanilla can be hard to find even in Mexico especially if you want the real deal. Expect to pay a premium price and be very careful when purchasing it. Give this a read.
Dragonfruit is often considered an Asian fruit, but its origin is in Mexico.
Other things Mexico introduced are squash, cocoa, chilies, beans, avocado, peanuts, pineapple, cactus, Amaranth, mamey sapote (fruit), corn, papaya and many more.
Mexico is in the top 4 “megabiodiverse” countries around the world and between 60-70% of the well-known diversity of the planet is in Mexico. (Conabio 2006) With 96 terrestrial eco-regions (INEGI-Conabio-INE 2008), 10,850 endemic animals and 21,009 endemic plants and about 6000 mushroom varieties, it is a biodiversity hotspot.
Arroz con Leche (Mexican rice pudding) at Capilla Restaurant in Oaxaca
4) Desserts are very popular in Mexican cuisine.
Historically, no; but now, yes. Nowadays, Mexican desserts are common and popular and almost part of the Mexican “diet”, but sweets were introduced to Mexico by the Spanish. In many cases Mexican sweets are variations of Spanish candies and desserts like jericalla (Mexican egg custard) and chongos zamoranos (sweet milk curds cooked in syrup).
In the pre-hispanic diet, sugar was not common and only eaten on special occasions. Sugar cane came with the conquerors and overtime Mexicans developed their own desserts as to why they have no ancient desserts. Local fruit was the original “dessert”.
Guacamole from Nicos Restaurant in Mexico City
5) Authentic guacamole does not use lime or garlic.
Fact. The typical recipe for authentic guacamole is: tomato (optional), white onion, avocado, serrano chili or jalapeno, cilantro and salt. It is roughly mashed and sometimes olive oil can be added. On that note, this style of guacamole is typical in the Center Plateau Culinary area, but outside of this area some regions may use lime, but still never garlic, lemon, red onion, cumin, cayenne, pepper, chili powder or any other spices.
Chicharrón (deep fried pork rinds) at Zaachila Markets in Oaxaca – biggest ones I’ve ever seen to date.
6) Traditional Mexican food has a strong emphasis on meat.
Myth. Mexican cuisine traditionally uses a lot of flowers (eg: squash blossom, rose, hibiscus etc.) and insects (eg: grasshoppers), and it is rather high in carbohydrates (and fibre from corn and beans). While meat is more common nowadays and in the cities, it wasn’t originally and it is a low protein diet. It is common to see meaty cactus in replacement of meat, and meat dishes are more common in northern Mexico.
Salsa prepared table side at Restaurant Casa Oaxaca (#34 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2013)
7) Salsa shows up on every table.
It’s not really myth or fact because it depends on the city and region. It was often the “centrepiece” in many restaurants in Oaxaca, but not so much in Mexico City. In Mexican cuisine the finishing touch before enjoying your food is with the different salsas on the table. Some stick with one salsa, but mixing salsas is appropriate too. A purist might prefer no salsa, which is fine, but salsas aren’t seen as “masking flavours” in Mexican cuisine.
Chilaquiles (similar to nachos, but never call them “nachos” to a Mexican) from La Cantina at Live Aqua Mexico City Hotel
8) Mexican food is high in fat, rich and greasy.
Yes, a lot of Mexican food take on these characteristics, but they also have very healthy soups, salads (but they don’t call them “salads”) and vegetarian dishes. Ceviche and steamed fish doesn’t get talked about often, but along the coast of Mexico they come up often.
Restaurants catering to tourists usually put out celebratory dishes and things people know and associate with Mexico. These dishes are often high in fat, rich, heavy and greasy, but it is food enjoyed on special occasions and not every day.
That being said, obesity is still a significant problem in Mexico, even though authentic Mexican cuisine didn’t have much fat. In pre-hispanic cooking times they did not use much, but with the influence of Spanish cuisine things changed. Nowadays dishes are often cooked with lard (wonder why those beans taste so good?) and fried food is still common.
Baby steps, but the new soda tax implemented by the new Mexican government went into effect Jan. 1, 2014. “In the country that consumes more soda per capita than any in the world, where the former president had been the top executive for Coca-Cola, the national Congress struck a blow for public health by passing a one-peso-per-liter tax on soda and an 8 percent tax on junk food” – (Cohen, Larry in TheWorldPost)
Photo from Mccormick.com – I didn’t come across any in Mexico to photograph.
9) Fajitas are Mexican.
Myth… but not entirely. Fajitas are Tex-Mex… and so are chimichangas and nachos. It’s not to say they do not taste good, but they are not traditional Mexican although you can find Fajitas in Northern Mexico (closer to Texas). They are inventions of Southwestern cuisine and popular throughout the US even though they are heavily influenced by Mexican cuisine.
These dishes originate from Texas, which was Mexico until XIX century, so technically they still have Mexican roots. Some, but not many, “Tex-Mex” dishes may exist in Mexico but they are called by different names like carne “tasajeada” for beef jerky, “chivichangas” for chimichangas, and “totopos” for tortilla chips.
Visiting the Real Matlatl Mezcal production facility. Their slow roasted, naturally fermented 100% pure distillate Espadin Agave organic Mezcal is distilled and bottled on site. The piñas (plant cores of agave) are roasted in pre-hispanic ovens and crushed by horse drawn stone.
10) Tequila and Mezcal are always taken as shots in Mexico and the worm enhances the smokiness.
Myth. False. Not true at all.
Funny thing is, I couldn’t appreciate either until 2 years ago. The smell of Tequila made me want to vomit, but a Tequila dsitributor convinced me to try different varieties until I found one I liked. It worked and now it’s my philosophy for everything food-related – try it until I like it. Always be open-minded. I had Mezcal with every meal in Oaxaca.
Just like Champagne, Kobe beef, and San Marzano Tomatoes, in order to be called “Tequila” it has to be produced in the Tequila region of Mexico. They started this law to protect and govern the integrity of real Tequila, but poor quality tequila still exists. There is lots of cheap tequila ideal for shots, but there is also lots of quality sipping tequila, and the same thing goes for Mezcal.
Mezcal gets a bad reputation as “the cheaper cousin to Tequila” which is another unfortunate myth. Mezcal is a traditional Mexican agave spirit made from maguey plants. It often has a smoky characteristic. Nowadays, Mezcal can be more expensive and taste better than Tequila, but I can’t compare the two and it really depends. Tequila can be taken straight or mixed in a cocktail (mix it if it’s cheap Tequila), but good Mezcal is enjoyed straight. This is not a “rule”, but many Mexicans go by it.
As for the worm? It’s all a gimmick. The worm is a marketing tactic and it does not enhance the smokiness, but it could give it a taste.
Mexico City’s celebrity chefs Margarita Carrillo and Gerardo Vázquez Lugo with Nico’s Restaurant’s Mayora and kitchen staff at Nico’s Restaurant.
11) Every Mexican restaurant has to have a Mayora (female sous chef).
This is bonus #11. Half truth.
While many traditional Mexican restaurants will have a Mayora, they don’t necessarily all have one. Mayora is a Mexican term for “head chef” and she must be female. Traditionally, females ran the kitchen and this position is given to someone of experience who commands the kitchen verbally and physically.
Traditionally, Mexican cooking is done by women and there is no real concept of a “chef”. The women cook in groups and help their mothers and grandmothers from a young age. It is a collective effort and every female is expected to be involved and included in the process.
Nowadays, modern Mexican cities have working women who prefer not to cook or do not know how to cook, but this is evolution and common in many cultures sharing similar values and beliefs.
While it wasn’t until recently (as in ~2 or so years ago) that I visited Mexico, several things you wrote are common in other countries in Latin America. For example, the consumption of meats – in Latin America, the staple of a lot of countries is rice and beans. From a Canadian reader’s perspective, I am glad “somebody from the outside” is writing this up, as for a long time, people never took it seriously when I said it.
An outstanding gastro-tourism blog on Mexican cuisine where your academic diligence shines through with the separate links to support a point or expand a specific comment (eg) the cheaper pseudo-vanilla extract in Mexico often contains additives that are in fact dangerous.
It is true that vanilla originated in Mexico and was transported to other parts of the world by Spain & France, becoming a serious cash crop in Madagascar after hand pollination was discovered by a 12-year-old slave in the French colony of Reunion in the mid-1800’s. Qualitatively Madagascar Vanilla beats Mexican due to the curing process but I was smiling to see you point out the fact: Vanilla is Mexican.
Tahitian Vanilla is made from a distinct other strain. Long believed to be a separate species V. tahitiensis has succumbed to genetic analysis and is thought to be a cultivar from a hybrid-cross of V. planifolia and V. odorata brought in from the Philippines. So in fact the parent strain of Tahitian Vanilla has firm Mexican roots.
Again, super article!
@KimHo – omg… I think that’s the first comment you’ve left me without any criticism. I feel so… so… accomplished – especially since this is more or less your area 🙂 lol thank you!
@Yves Farges – Yves! It was a PLEASURE to finally meet you tonight! I am more than honoured that someone of your culinary knowledge would read this blog. I’m so grateful to have readers who I can learn from. Thank you for these facts. Your comments are so valued and useful for my personal development and culinary education. Talk soon!
¡Qué interesante! Me gusta Mexico y su comida por eso empezé a estudiar español. Antes solamente conocia los tacos, los burritos y los tamales, pero ahora con este articulo tan informativo sé mucho más. ¡Muchas gracias!
For non-Spanish readers, the translation of the comment above:
“How interesting! I like Mexico and their food. That’s why I started to study Spanish. Before, I only knew about tacos, burritos and tamales; but now, with this informative article, I know a lot more. Thanks a lot!”
@Sumie – I’m honoured!!! Thank you for reading, Sumie!!
@KimHo – Thank you for translating!
Very good article.
I just have one correction:
Casa Oaxaca restaurant is not on the top 50 list, Casa Oaxaca Hotel is. There is a huge difference.