The history of Mexican cuisine, the result of thousands of years of history, fusions, influences, and diverse trends


Pre-Hispanic Mexico is usually divided geographically into Mesoamerica and Arid America. The first covered from the north of El Salvador and Honduras to the north of Veracruz and from there to the west towards Zacatecas and the Pacific Ocean; in it lived sedentary indigenous people with important cultural development and mastery of agriculture, such as Mayas, Zapotecs, Nahuas, and Totonacs, just to mention a few.

Their main crops were corn, beans, chili, and squash, among others; they domesticated wild turkeys -guajolotes- and complemented their diet with other plant species and wild animals, including insects. Their culinary techniques were roasting directly on the fire or on a comal, boiling in water or steaming, in addition to the subway oven for barbecue. It is amazing that corn was domesticated in Mexico, from a wild plant -teocintle-, approximately eight thousand years ago. Pulque stood out as a fermented beverage.

In Arid America (all the north of Mexico and the south of the United States), nomadic natives lived with less cultural development, they did not practice agriculture and lived by hunting, fishing, and gathering fruits, plants, and roots; their movements were linked to the seasonality of the climate, animal migrations and the ripening of wild fruits. They ate their food raw or roasted. When they hunted an animal superior to the immediate needs of the tribe, they preserved the meat by cutting it into pieces that they crushed with stones and dried in the sun; hence the northern machaca.

After the Conquest, from the beginning of the viceroyalty, the Spaniards brought with them foods of diverse European, Asian and African origins: wheat and rice, garlic and onions, cattle, pigs, goats and sheep, chickens, sugar cane, fruits, and vegetables; with the cows came the cheese, cream, and butter, with the pigs came lard and thus came the culinary technique of frying.

They also brought vines and olive trees (even though there were legal restrictions to do so, imposed by the Spanish crown, which wanted to maintain the productive monopoly of these Mediterranean crops). Thus in Mexico, there were grapes and raisins, olive oil and olives, vinegar, and some local wines, although most of them were imported.

The encounter of these two gastronomic worlds initiated a process of culinary crossbreeding that lasted the three colonial centuries and culminated in Mexican cuisine, mestizo cuisine par excellence. The hybridization was dominated by native foods, since, in the 21st century, the corn-beans-chili trilogy continues to be the axis of the diet of most Mexicans. But Mexican cuisine is inconceivable without the other elements that came from abroad.

During the 16th century, the Old Continent received numerous gifts from Mexico for its varied cuisines, which would radiate to the entire planet: besides corn, beans, and chili, tomatoes, chocolate, avocados, and guajolotes (all Nahua words), vanilla and various fruits. Drinking chocolate was a pre-Hispanic use of the upper classes. The Hispanics welcomed it gladly and then all of Europe. In Mexico, it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that chocolate was replaced by African coffee.

During the viceroyalty, the two main sources of culinary creation were the markets and modest homes, and some nunneries. From the first two came innumerable variants of antojitos: sopes, garnachas, picadas, chalupas and a long etcetera accompanied by other simple and tasty stews. Sumptuous dishes, exquisite desserts, and appetizing drinks emanated from the convents. Baroque preparations such as mole and chiles en nogada; encacahuatados and adobos; tingas and entomatados; pipianes and almendrados, and many more, stand out.

In a characteristic mole -the climax of Mexican mestizaje- indigenous ingredients (guajolote, various chiles, chocolate, tomato, roasted corn tortilla) are combined with ingredients brought by the Spaniards (onion, garlic, wheat cracker, nuts, lard) and Asian spices that arrived by means of the Nao de China (cinnamon, pepper, cloves), without forgetting sesame seeds, of Arab origin, and sugar from the Philippines.

The Spaniards brought beer and the technique to make it from cereals, but the Mexican people remained faithful to pulque. As for distilled liquors, it was not until the sixteenth century that such processes began to be practiced in Spain, so they arrived in Mexico even later.

In the 19th century, with the Independence, the doors of the newborn country were opened to all nationalities, after having remained closed for three centuries due to Spanish xenophobia resulting from religious intolerance and monarchic authoritarianism. Gauls, Anglo-Saxons, Italians, Germans, and visitors from many other non-Iberian origins arrived in search of mining, agricultural, and other powerful economic magnets. All of them brought their cultural baggage and, in it, their food habits.

The French stood out, who around 1830 founded colonies in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and in the north of Veracruz. Later their influence was reinforced with the military intervention from 1862 to 1867, in addition to the Austrian and Belgian influences brought by Maximilian and Carlota. In the middle of the century, Italians settled in various latitudes of Veracruz.

At the end of the century, Chinese immigrants began to immigrate to Northwest Mexico. The open policy in favor of foreign immigration promoted by Porfirio Díaz, directly linked to investment and agriculture for export, stood out. Italians in Chipilo, Puebla, and in Nueva Italia, Michoacán; Americans in the north of Sinaloa and in La Laguna; Germans in Soconusco, Chiapas, are just a few examples. In 1909 alone, Mexico received 68,000 foreign immigrants... and the Porfiriato lasted 35 years.

For all these reasons, during the 19th century, to the mestizaje of Mexican cuisine were added Gallicisms such as consommé, omelet, mushroom, mayonnaise, croquettes, brochettes, crepes, soufflés, vol-au-vents and canapés; Anglicisms such as pudding, bisque, pancake, steak, roast beef, pie, pastes, punches and bars; Italianisms such as spaghetti, ravioli, macaroni and tagliatelle.

And for the sake of completeness lets say that in a restaurant (from the French restaurant: where food is served to restore the body), the dishes were selected from the menu (a word of French derivation) and also began to be served in buffet (also a term from the French language). And in some regions of Mexico there would be French bread, equivalent to bolillo.

The middle and upper classes began to adopt the new list of strange dishes, with the indispensable adaptation to the ingredients, uses, and tastes of the old style. But the great majority remained faithful to traditional Mexican cuisine, without Europeanization.

There were no restaurants during the viceroyalty. What they had were inns for travelers where sometimes food service was offered. During the 19th century, restaurants appeared, as well as ice cream parlors and, towards the end of the century, cafés.

In spite of the European airs of the Porfiriato, the privileged continued to eat Mexican cuisine at home, although in restaurants and on festive occasions, France was at the table.

The culmination of Frenchness in the gastronomic customs of the rich Mexicans can be seen in the menus of the banquets of the centenary of Independence celebrated in September 1910. They were written in French and only included French dishes, with an absolute absence of Mexican dishes. But the people's diet did not undergo major changes; it continued to revolve around corn, beans, chili, antojitos, and homemade stews.

In the 20th century, during the post-revolutionary period, the ideology of revolutionary nationalism prevailed in Mexico, leaving behind Porfirian Frenchness. Gastronomy consolidated its indigenous and Spanish mestizo character, enriched, yes, with ingredients and culinary techniques of other origins, especially European, although Chinese, Japanese and Lebanese migrations, among others, left their mark in that century.

The revaluation of Mexican cuisine by the national and international elite brought with it a recovery of regional cuisine, which had never ceased to exist with great self-esteem in the popular strata. In Mexico there are numerous regional cuisines with their own very defined characteristics, however, there is a common denominator that governs as a pattern in all of them: this is the aforementioned consumption of corn, beans, and chili. Therefore, we can properly speak of Mexican cuisine and also, with equal precision, of regional cuisines.

But regional cuisines were no strangers to influences from abroad, with curious additions. That is why we see in the main market of Merida Mayan women with their huipiles wandering and selling kipe bola of Lebanese affiliation, or in the fondas of the market of San Juan de Dios in Guadalajara we taste the same fish broth michi typical of Jalisco as Japanese misoshiro soup, or in the market of Tapachula a chop suey with a chicharrón in green sauce and a glass of lemon water with ginger. And what can we say about tacos al pastor, now nationally known, direct heirs of the Greek gyros?

In the last decades of the 20th century, the country witnessed trends that already prevailed in other latitudes, such as fusion cuisine and signature cuisine, and there was no shortage of pedants who spoke of a nouvelle cuisine mexicaine, all of the aspects of the so-called haute cuisine. However, it does not seem right to speak of haute cuisine in Mexico, as this would imply the existence of a low cuisine.

In fact, in Mexico, the traditional popular cuisine is the sustenance of the supposed haute cuisine. The latter feeds on the former. For example, the most popular festive dish is mole. Weddings, patron saint festivals and other relevant rural or urban neighborhood events are celebrated with mole. Even, when we want to qualify a very well made mole, we say that it looks like "mole de pueblo" (" a town mole"). Well, the most elegant and sophisticated Mexican cuisine restaurants in Mexico or abroad have, necessarily, mole as a specialty.

Other examples are worth mentioning. Every restaurant of the highest category in the country has in its breakfast menu typical dishes of popular cuisine, such as enchiladas and chilaquiles. The popular nourishes all Mexican cuisine. The most elegant weddings serve an international dinner in the evening, and in the early morning, after several hours of partying, a typical Mexican meal is served, based on corn and chili: this is pozole or chilaquiles.

To conclude with two reflections on matters of ancestral history. Of all the Mexican food preparations of today, the only one that has not undergone mestization and therefore remains the same as it was consumed in pre-Hispanic times, is the corn tortilla.

The custom of eating in the street comes from the pre-Hispanic tianguis and the Mexican people, already mestizo, rooted it in street corners, sidewalks, hallways, markets, and inns. Very different is the wealthy class that deprives itself of street delicacies and only goes to restaurants, which are not necessarily good because they are expensive. Yesterday and today, this has been the case.

By José N. Iturriaga, Source: Lo que se come en México panorámica de la gastronomía mexicana via Comercio exterior