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From a rich choice of street food to top-end restaurants in Mexico City, indigenous and Spanish influences combine to produce one of the world’s most exciting culinary destinations.
A maize–ing history
Corn’s prominence in Mexican cooking is down to two pieces of history. First, the wheat that Spanish conquistadors brought with them would not thrive in Mexico’s humid climate, leaving maize as a local staple.
Second, maize is only nutritious once you have teased out its secrets.
Cultures elsewhere that adopted maize wholesale, such as many places in Africa, suffered from the vitamin deficiency that causes pellagra.
Dried corn has to be soaked overnight in an alkaline solution (wood ash or seashells were historical sources).
After that the skins are easily separated, producing a husk known as hominy from which the human body can absorb any nutrients. The dry hominy kernels can then be ground into a smooth flour.
How did the ancient people of this region figure that out? No one knows. (Even more mysterious is how the really complex process involved in turning cacao beans into chocolate was discovered.)
One distinctive use of hominy is as a base for pozole, a thick soup with deep pre-Hispanic origins. Pork or chicken is stewed overnight with hominy, herbs and spices.
The soup is served hot and sprinkled with fresh vegetables such as lettuce, lime, onion and chilli. It’s peasant comfort food, popular in winter and particularly during festivals or weddings.
Pozole is seen as a hangover preventative and/or cure, when a raw egg can also be added to the stew.
Modern variations include vegetarian (bean) or fish options – a long way from its origins as a centrepiece of Mayan and Aztec rituals.
Maize was sacred to the pre-Hispanic people of the region and reserved for special occasions, hence the modern connection between pozole and festivals.
The Spanish claimed that human meat was also added to the dish – with pork being substituted for its similar taste after they banned such cannibalism – but that colonial version of its history remains questionable.
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A more familiar dish outside Mexico but one with equally ancient origins is guacamole, which dates back to the Aztecs.
“Guaca” is avocado, the fruit of a tree native to Mexico that was first cultivated around 750 BCE; “mole” means sauce and the combination pretty much gives you the recipe.
It’s usually served as dip eaten with tortilla chips but also as a side when it combines well with chicken or pork.
However, guacamole is only one of the six basic sauces, recipes for which are handed down from generation to generation and that form the basis of much Mexican cuisine.
Chillies are a constant, as is a long process of blending and stirring, but variations after that are only limited by the cook’s imagination.
The most unexpected one for many visitors is mole poblano, where bitter dark cacao is blended with fiery chilli to really bring out the savoury side of a bean we normally associate with sweetness.
This chocolate mole is excellent with turkey or chicken, forming a national dish so popular that it is simply often called “mole” in the same way that you can ask for a “pint” in an Irish bar when you mean a Guinness.
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Mole poblano comes from the colonial city of Puebla, where legend has it local nuns created it from the only ingredients to hand when an Archbishop dropped in for an unexpected visit.
It’s tempting to give it an even earlier origin than this 16th century tale, but the bean was so sacred to the Aztecs that using it in cooking was probably unthinkable.
Mole sauces owe much to the blending of Spanish ideas with indigenous and imported ingredients. The Conquistadors were an all-male invasion force, so local women were pressed into service to cook for them.
That led to a fast adoption of European and North African ingredients such as wheat, olives, pork, mutton, chicken, rice, fruit and nuts into Mexico’s cuisine.
One example of the effect is tamales, which were originally a long-lasting dry food carried by the pre-Columbian on long journeys. It was the introduction of pork lard by the Conquistadors that gave us the light, moist tamal of today.
They are made from pockets of corn dough stuffed with either a savoury or sweet filling, then wrapped in banana leaves or cornhusks and steamed. Popular fillings include chicken, beef or pork but also fish, boiled egg or beans.
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That’s a wrap
Most of us, however, are more familiar with variations on the corn tortilla, a sort of pancake made from hominy corn flour (although wheat four is often used in the north of Mexico).
A tortilla can be used as a wrap for various fillings, when they are known as tacos. Minced or shredded meat is the most common filling, with vegetables also being added.
In Tex-Mex cuisine, the tortillas are deep fried for crispness but in Mexico a softer version is the norm. Frying actually had no place in traditional cuisine due to the absence of fat.
Tex-Mex menus also use commonly wheat tortillas and feature a lot of beef, which is also much rarer on the Mexican side of the border.
The most popular taco recipe is tacos al pastor (shepherd style) which uses strips of marinated, slow-cooked pork along with onions, cilantro, pineapple and coriander. It originated with immigrants from the Middle East, particularly Lebanon, in the 1920s.
Enchiladas are a form of tacos topped with a chilli sauce, hence the name. They are popular for breakfast when the chilli is a real wake-up call.
Quesadillas are a tortilla sandwich with cheese – again, the clue is in the name. Originally they were purely cheese but everything from chorizo to crickets are now added as well.
If a very large tortilla is wrapped in a parcel around a cheese-based filling, you have a burrito.
Fajitas are strips of grilled or fried meat sauteed with onions and peppers. They are served with tortillas, as most Mexican dishes are, so the name is often confusingly transferred to the resulting taco- or burrito-style wrap.
A similar confusion arises with carnitas, literally "little meats", where pork is braised until it is tender enough to shred.
Chilaquiles are tortillas soaked in a green or red salsa. The softened tortillas (it’s a good dish for using up stale leftovers) are then topped with scrambled or fried eggs, chicken, cheese and cream.
Served as a breakfast dish and eaten with a fork, it’s as good a hangover cure as it sounds, especially with the traditional side of refried beans.
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By the way, such beans are not “refried” – a mistranslation of the Spanish name frijoles refritos – but “well-fried”.
“I love beans, which we call Mexican caviar,” says Mexico’s Secretary of Tourism, Enrique de la Madrid Cordero, who says they are his favourite Mexican food.
“You can make then in many different styles, including baked or boiled. You can use them instead of bread or combine them with a tortilla. The bean is a flavour you can use three times a day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Moving on from tortilla and its endless variations, you come to dishes such as “chiles en nogada”, which embraces the national colours.
The green is from chilli pepper stuffed with pork, dried fruits and spices, which is swathed in a white walnut sauce and sprinkled with red pomegranate seeds. It’s another specialty from Puebla.
Cochinita pibil is a classic dish from Yucatan, where a whole suckling pig is marinated in citrus fruit, then slow-baked until it falls off the bone. The meat takes on a bright orange colour through the use of peppery achiote seeds.
Such heavy dishes have been lightened up by modern chefs to produce nueva cocina mexicana (new Mexican cooking).
“What makes food Mexican is the fresh produce and I see a lot of innovation around traditional ingredients,” says De la Madrid Cordero. “We are trying to do something similar to what other cuisines have done around the world.”
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Keeping it street
Many visitors will refuse to eat street food in case an upset stomach ruins their holiday, but they are missing something. Corn on the cob is a classic and the traditional way to serve it is like an ice cream.
So you can find “elote” offered to you whole on a stick, just like an ice cream cone, or as kernels in a cup, topped with liberal servings of mayonnaise and sour cream with cheese, chilli, lime and salt.
Chicharon – deep fried pork fat – is a snack we know as pork scratchings and it is similarly popular with a beer. The addition of a spicy sauce turns it into chicharon en salsa, one of Mexico's national dishes but an acquired taste for outsiders.
Finally, pambazo is a sandwich of crustless white bread filled with potato and chorizo, then dipped in red pepper sauce before being fried on both sides.
It comes out bright orange and crispy, and is served with cream and cheese. Vendors also add a little bit of shredded lettuce so you can convince yourself it’s healthy.
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