The History and Use of Common Mexican Food Ingredients

Speeding through a drive up window to grab a taco value meal doesn’t seem to be an event of much historical significance, right? Not so, my friend! Mexican food ingredients, and their evolution into the Tex-Mex most Americans are familiar with, is brimming with history that dates back to the 1500s.

The history of Mexican food ingredients as we know them dates back to 1519 and the arrival of Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes in Mexico, which later resulted in the Conquest of Mexico in 1521. The arrival of Cortes marks a collision of cultures that resulted in the combining of Spanish and Aztec flavors and ingredients that eventually led to the creation of the foods we are familiar with today. Spanish influences on Mexican food ingredients include meats, citrus fruits, garlic, cheese, milk, and wine. Mexican food ingredients that came from the Aztecs include beans, corn, and squash. Through the centuries, Mexican food has continued to evolve as a result of the influences of other countries. These changes include the emergence of Tex-Mex food, which are the blended flavors and styles of Northern Mexico and the Southwest US. Many Americans believe that all Mexican is spicy, however this is not true.

Mexican food can be sweet, savory, and spicy as well. Let’s take a closer look at the standby ingredients and spices contained in Mexican dishes.

Corn, a key Mexican food ingredient, and Aztec influence on Mexican cooking, is perhaps the most important ingredient in Mexican food. Corn was the main ingredient of the Aztec diet. Consequently, the Aztecs were very dependent on a successful corn harvest, and worshiped Cinte�¡tl, the god of corn, and Chicomenc�¡atl, the corn goddess. Today, the chief use of corn in Mexican cooking is in the making of tortillas. Tortillas are the bread of the Mexican kitchen.

Tomatillos, another basic ingredient of Mexican food, are commonly referred to as husk tomatoes. Tomatillos are often used in sauces with fruit or chiles and are thought to cool the spiciness of hot peppers. Unlike tomatoes, tomatillos are best used when they are green and not ripe. Tomatillos, pronounced (to-MAH-tee-YOS), are green, smaller than a regular tomato, and have thin husks that resemble paper. In addition to being used in sauces, tomatillos are sometimes roasted by broiling and added to soups or other dishes. When choosing tomatillos it is important that they still have their husks, and that the husk is left in tact until it is time to use them.

Frijoles, or beans, are considered a staple in Mexican kitchens. Not only are frijoles an economical choice, they are nutritious. Beans are served with almost every meal in Mexico. They can be included in soups, eaten plain, wrapped in tortillas, or served as refried beans. Contrary to popular belief, refried beans are not fried twice, but just thoroughly fried.

What’s Mexican food without a little, or hopefully a lot of, cheese, right? We can thank the Spanish for adding cheese to traditional Mexican food. Mexican cheese comes in many varieties, including Chihuahua, Asadero, Cotija, and Panela. Chihuahua cheese is sometimes referred to as Menonita cheese, because of its Mennonite origins. With a flavor described as similar to Gouda, this white colored cheese is a mild one. If you’re favorite Mexican dish calls for melted cheese, Chihuahua may be an excellent choice, as it is considered to be one that melts well. Nachos and quesadillas often contain this variety of cheese.

Cotija cheese, is sometimes referred to as queso Anejado, meaning “aged cheese”. Unlike Chihuahua, Cotija is salty and strong. Cotija is often used as a topping for salads, tacos and beans. Cojita can be made from goat’s milk, or cow’s milk. Cotija cheese is known for the zest it adds to foods like pasta or casseroles.

Asadero cheese is often referred to Oaxaca. It is a Mexican string cheese of sorts, and is sometimes used on nachos. Oaxaca cheese is named after its state of origin, Oaxaca. This cheese is known as a semi-soft cheese, and part of the production process involves dipping in brine. Oaxaca cheese also melts well.

Panela cheese is used a lot in Mexican cooking. It has a crumbly texture, and keeps its shape when it is warmed up. Panela cheese is characterized as having a flavor that is similar to milk. Can’t find Panela where you live? Try some Ricotta instead.

Time for a little heat? Bring on the chiles! Chiles are a mainstay in Mexican fare. Many varieties of chiles are grown in Mexico. A few common types of chiles are chipotles, habaneros, jalapenos, and poblanos. Chipotles are actually red jalapenos that have been dried and smoked. Chipotles are known for their sweet and smoky flavor, and are used in salad dressings, salsa and other dishes. Still not hot enough?

The habanero, the world’s hottest chile, can be green, red, or orange in color. Habaneros are believed to have originated in Cuba, as the term habanero, means “from Havana”. Habaneros are used to make extremely spicy hot sauces, and other dishes that require extreme spice. Care should be used in handling habaneros as skin or eye contact can be painful.

Poblano chiles are dark green peppers that are served in many dishes including soups. Many Mexican cooks roast poblanos by tossing them on a hot grill. Mexican food would not be complete without the common herbs and seasonings we are familiar with. Some of the most often used are cilantro, epazote, oregano, cumin, and cinnamon.

Cilantro is actually the strong smelling, parsley-like leaves of the coriander plant. The Spanish introduced cilantro to Mexico. A common name for epazote is Mexican tea. This Mexican tea can be a lethal tea as well; epazote is toxic if consumed in large amounts.

Mama-Mia! You would probably not guess that one of the same herbs used in pizza sauce is also a favorite in the Mexican kitchen. However, oregano, an herb commonly associated with Italian cooking is used often in Mexican cooking as well. Oregano can be purchased dried or fresh. Mexican oregano is in the same plant family as lemon verbena and has a stronger flavor than the Mediterranean oregano used in Italian-American dishes.

Cumin, which gives an earthy flavor to Mexican food as we know it, can be purchased and used ground or in whole seeds. Cumin originated in the Mediterranean, but is used in Mexico and in many other parts of the world.

Cinnamon, or canela in Spanish, although an herb that many Americans associate with sweet dishes like apple pie and cinnamon rolls, is a commonly added to Mexican dishes that are savory and sweet. While Mexican cinnamon is a different variety than common cinnamon used in the US, one can be substituted for the other.

Mexican food is a collision of cultures and ingredients that has evolved from generations of influence. The Mexican food ingredients discussed here are only a few of the many that make up Mexican food as we know it today. Next time you are enjoying a taco, burrito, or quesadillas, remember that each ingredient is a unique and historical contribution to Mexican cuisine.

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