Mexican Food Culture and History

The land of Mexico is vast and covers more than 761,600 square miles. As such a large country, it is inevitable that there would be several different kinds of climate and landforms, as well as incredible

Mexican woman serving soup

Mexican woman serving soup

cultural diversity. Varying climates and weather patterns greatly influence the types of crops that are able to grow and thrive. In addition, financial well-being (or lack thereof) also impacts the ingredients which Mexican families are able to purchase on a regular basis. As a result, wealthier areas of Mexico are generally much healthier than those areas which are poor.

Mexico is known as a country with a rich history that goes back thousands of years. It is the third largest country in Latin America and has the largest population. It’s made up of 31 states and one federal district. Mexico is famous for its tequila, rich folk art traditions, and huge parties in which the hosts go all out. There is some sort of festival or celebration which takes place pretty much every day of the year somewhere in Mexico.

Early History

Mexican history spans more than two millennia and its land was first populated over 13,000 years ago. The Olmecs settled on the Gulf Coast near what is now Veracruz, creating Mexico’s first known society. However, Ancient Mexico is best known for the Mayan and Aztec civilizations, whose cultural reach and influence spread through Mexico and beyond. Survivors of a Spanish shipwreck in 1511 were the first Europeans to arrive in what is now modern day Mexico. In March 1519, Hernán (also called Hernando and Fernando, all of which are equally correct) Cortés formally claimed the land of Veracruz for the Spanish crown, marking the beginning of 300 years of Spanish reign over the region.

On September 16, 1810, local priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla issued “The Cry of Dolores”. The day is celebrated as Independence Day and started the Mexican War of Independence, an armed conflict between the people of Mexico and the Spanish colonial authorities. And on August 24, 1821, representatives of the Spanish crown and Iturbide signed the Treaty of Córdoba, recognizing Mexico’s independence. Mexico’s culture, including dietary habits, throughout history has been greatly influenced by the Native American civilizations, Spanish conquistadors, and other European immigrants alike.

Deliciously Indigenous Ingredients

Mexican cuisine is known for its wide range of flavors, as well as a variety of ingredients and spices, many

Mexican Street Food

Mexican Street Food

of which are native to the country. It is considered to be one of the most varied cuisines in the world, after Indian and Chinese cuisines. Early settlers of Mexico were hunters and gatherers who eventually began cultivating crops in order to more easily feed the growing number of people. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges for farmers was the lack of usable land and poor soil quality throughout the land of Mexico. Several methods have been used to lessen these problems, but no matter how careful a farmer is, nutrients are often difficult to retain in the jungle environment found within several areas of the country.

The most popular crop in Mexico was (and still is) maize, or corn. It’s one of the world’s major grain crops and is thought to have originated in Mexico. It is easy to grow, can be stored for long periods of time, and can be ground into flour as well. Masa, dough made by soaking dried corn kernels overnight in a water solution with lime, is an important food item in the Mexican diet. Squash was domesticated and cultivated even before maize. Several different types of squash are popular in Mexican dishes. The most important is probably the pumpkin, which has seeds full of protein, and its relatives. The bottle gourd was also a very important member of the squash family, but not for the same reasons. While it was not valuable as a food source, the gourd created a useful container for transporting water. Beans, or frijoles, are another major food source in Mexico. Maize, squash, and beans form a triad commonly referred to as the ‘Three Sisters’, which provide complementing nutrients and vitamins that humans need to survive. And when planted together, these three crops help to retain nutrients in the soil.

Other popular crops included tomatillos, guava, agave, tomatoes, prickly pear, avocado, peanuts, jicama, sweet potato, vanilla, and various kinds of peppers. Chili peppers were used by Natives for flavoring long before the Spanish arrived. Some of the best known peppers that are grown in Mexico are the jalapeno, poblano, Serrano, and habanero. These peppers are used fresh, dried, toasted, and smoked in all kinds of Mexican dishes. Cacao beans were also culturally important; they were a luxury throughout the country and originally used as currency. Later, cacao beans were used to create chocolate which the Spaniards brought back to Europe in 1657. Today, chocolate is an ingredient found in a wide variety of Mexican dishes, including savory mole to traditional Mexican hot chocolate.

Spanish & Other European Influences

During the 1520s, as the Spanish conquistadors were invading, they introduced a variety of foods to those i

Mexican peppers

Mexican peppers

n Mexico. They brought animals, including cattle, pigs, chickens, sheep, and goats, providing domesticated meat options. Rice is a very common grain in Mexican cuisine. It was introduced by the Spanish at the port of Veracruz in the 1520s. They also brought barley and wheat. While fermented alcoholic beverages, including a beer made from corn, were being made long before the Spanish conquest, the Spanish introduced European-style beer brewed with barley.

Before the Europeans made their way to Mexico, dairy products were not a part of Mexican cuisine. The Spanish brought dairy animals, as well as cheese-making techniques, which forever changed Mexican dietary habits. Today, dishes made with cheese from cows’ milk are quite popular, while goats’ milk cheese can also be found from time to time. The Europeans also introduced olive oil, garlic, almonds, wine, parsley, and other spices.

Regional Cuisine

Mexican food varies greatly by region due to Mexico’s large size, the climate and geography of different areas, and varying degrees of Spanish and European influences. Local diet is largely dependent upon the food sources that are readily available within each region. Coastal areas specialize in a variety of seafood dishes, while different kinds of meat are more popular in ranching regions. The colonial cities of central Mexico are most known for Spanish dishes and ingredients, and traditional foods of the pre-Spanish period are a major part of the diets of Native Americans. International specialties can be found in Mexico City, one of the largest cities in the world. Most Mexican food dishes are a fusion of Native American and Spanish cooking styles and ingredients.

The Central Plateau can be divided into two smaller regions, the northern half and southern half. In the northern half of the plateau, grasses support large ranches. Cattle, goats, sheep, and ostrich are abundant, and meat is eaten at almost every meal. This region is best known for carne asada, which means ‘grilled meat’, made from thin beef steak. Another dish that made this region famous is barbacoa. Barbacoa is made using the meat from a cow’s head, the cheeks especially. The meat is seasoned and wrapped in the leaves of the maguey cactus and is placed on a kettle filled with water that sits on top of a pit filled with rocks, coals, and mesquite branches. The meat is cooked slowly from the steam coming out of the kettle, while the mesquite wood gives it a smoky flavor.

The southern half of the Central Plateau receives much more rain than the northern half and is Mexico’s most densely populated area. It is nicknamed the ‘Breadbasket of Mexico’ because wheat, barley, and rye grains are grown here. Dairy farms provide fresh milk, which is used to make butter and cheese. In this region Spanish foods and cooking styles are the strongest. The Spanish introduced pigs which quickly became a favorite meat among the native population. They are also raised for their lard, which is used to fry foods and flavor pastries. This southern region is well known for one of Mexico’s favorite dishes, birra. Birra is a meat stew made from lamb, pork, or beef, combined with roasted chili peppers and spices.

People who live along the coasts of Mexico depend on the sea for much of their food supply. Tons of shrimp and large quantities of fish including grouper, dorado, and red snapper are caught regularly. The wives of fisherman normally fry the fish for meals, while shrimp are prepared by boiling, grilling, frying, or marinating in lemon juice. Other seafood options include prawns, octopus, clams, and conch. Some form of seafood is eaten most days of the week by coastal residents. Fish tacos became internationally famous after their origins in Cabo San Lucas, on the Sea of Cortes (also called the Gulf of California).

Two of Mexico’s largest states, Oaxaca and Chiapas, can be found in the southern region of Mexico. These states are home to the largest number of Native Americans. Chicken is the major meat, while the traditional foods of corn, beans, squash, and chili peppers are prominent in various dishes throughout the area. Southeastern Mexico is known for many spicy vegetable and chicken-based dishes. Oaxaca is most famous for its mole, the national dish of Mexico. Mole is a rich sauce that contains twenty to thirty ingredients and is simmered for hours, or even days, before being poured over meat (generally turkey or chicken). It generally contains chocolate, sun-dried chilies, and other spices and herbs. Another regional specialty is pipian sauce, which is made from pumpkin seeds. Fried grasshoppers, called chapulines, and corn fungus, known as huitlacoche, are unusual foods that are eaten in the region. Plantains, similar to bananas, are a common dessert and are often fried with a sugar sauce.

The Yucatán Peninsula has been home to many Mayan people for centuries, and more than 1.5 Mayan still live there today. The traditional crops of corn, squash and beans are raised in the area. And the men still hunt in the jungle for deer and wild turkey. The Gulf of Mexico is located along the northern coast and the Caribbean Sea borders the eastern edge of the peninsula, which provides plenty of seafood options. Lobster, shrimp, fish, octopus, and squid are all popular there, as is cazón, a dish that uses baby shark meat. One of Yucatán’s most popular dishes, cochinita pibil, is made from pork marinated in sour orange juice and achiote paste. The pork is wrapped in banana leaves and cooked slowly in a covered pit, much like barbacoa. The Maya kept bees and harvested honey, which was a major item of trade for them throughout history. They still harvest honey today and it is often used as a sweetener in cooking. The Yucatán Peninsula is known for naturally sweet dishes, rather than those that are spicy.

Best Known Dishes

There are many traditional dishes that Mexico is well-known for. Tortillas, flat bread made from corn or wheat, are the bread of Mexico and are eaten daily. The most popular appetizer in Mexico is guacamole, a

Mexican food bar

Mexican food bar

tangy dip made with avocado. The skin and pit are removed from the avocado and the flesh is mashed and mixed with chopped tomatoes, onions, chilies, and sprinkled with lime juice. Salsa, the Spanish word for sauce, was sold in Aztec marketplaces of old. Red salsas contain tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and chilies, and are generally milder than green salsas, which are generally made from tomatillos, hot peppers, garlic, and cilantro. Mexicans spoon salsa over many different dishes and waiters often deliver a bowl of salsa along with a basket of chips in Mexican restaurants.

Street vendors in Mexico are very popular. One of the most common street foods is Mexican corn on the cob, called elote. Elotes are ears of corn that are roasted, covered with mayonnaise, and sprinkled with chili powder and lime juice. Another favorite is a pastry called a churro. Churros are made from wheat flour dough and squeezed through a thin metal tube. Then the dough is cooked quickly in a deep fryer and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.

A Cause for Celebration

Enthusiasm and vitality are represented throughout the country of Mexico. Their rich history has resulted in a culture of mixed influences. Mexicans love to fully enjoy life. They love to sing and dance and are a fun-loving group of people who enjoy a great party. More than 85 percent of Mexico’s popular is Roman Catholic, and many of their festivals are related to religion. But they simply need an occasion to celebrate, whether the celebration is a religious holiday, public holiday, city fair, food festival, or special family event such as a wedding or birthday.

Each city and village across Mexico has a patron saint, and a celebration takes place on the birthday of

Mexican icecream

Mexican icecream

that patron saint. There is a city or village fair that occurs somewhere in Mexico each and every day. During these fairs, there are booths that sell pretty much every kind of food imaginable. La Quinceañera is the most important day in a young girl’s life. It is the celebration of her fifteenth birthday and a symbol of entering womanhood. During La Quinceañera, the girl’s parents throw a huge party with a grand reception filled with traditional Mexican dishes. Food fairs and fiestas are also common throughout Mexico. Food is not simply eaten, but is celebrated as well; it is the backbone of Mexican culture.

Church holidays and the celebrations surrounding them are an important part of Mexican family life. Schools across the country close for two weeks during the Christmas and Easter seasons. Las Posadas, which symbolizes Mary and Joseph’s search for an inn for the birth of their son, Jesus, kicks off the Christmas season on December 16. For nine days children form a candlelit procession through the streets of their neighborhood, asking for a place to stay. When the finally reach a house where they are invited to stay, a celebration begins. Traditional foods eaten during Las Posadas include tamales, hot chocolate, warm fruit punch, and bunuelos. Bunuelos are fried pastries that are covered with syrup or powdered sugar. A huge feast is enjoyed on Christmas Eve after a mass at church. A dish that is commonly served is dried codfish with potatoes, tomatoes, capers, onions, and bright red peppers. Another popular dish that is enjoyed on Christmas Eve is turkey with mole sauce.

January 6 is Three Kings Day, a celebration that honors the day that the three Wise Men brought gifts to baby Jesus. Gifts are exchanged on this day rather than on Christmas Day. Pan dulce is symbolically served on this day. This wreath-shaped sweet bread covered with candy and fruit contains a small plastic baby Jesus statue that is baked inside the bread. Whoever gets the slice of bread that contains the baby Jesus is required to host a party, Candlemas Day, on February 2. On Candlemas Day a delicious meal of hot chocolate and tamales is served.

Easter generally takes place in March or April. The celebration of Carnaval takes place five days before Lent, a religious season that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends the Saturday before Easter. During Carnaval, everyone is in major party mode. Most of the activities take place on city streets and street vendors sell many popular foods including tacos, pan dulce, tamales, churros, cotton candy, and elotes. Following Carnaval is Lent, which lasts for forty days. Lent is a very serious religious event during which many Mexicans give up eating meat. One food commonly eaten during Lent is empanadas de vigila, made from a flour pastry shell stuffed with vegetables or seafood. A dessert that is traditionally associated with Lent in Mexico is capirotada, a bread pudding.

The most important religious holiday in Mexico is Holy Week, called Semana Santa. On Thursday many families prepare dishes they believe were served during the Last Supper, the meal Christians believe was served to Jesus and his disciples the night before his crucifixion and death. Bread, wine, roast lamb or fish, boiled eggs, and greens are all commonly served. On Good Friday, a silent parade of men carrying an image of Jesus takes place. Since this procession takes place during the heat of the day, street vendors are very popular. They provide refreshing iced fruit drinks, snow cones, and ice cream to hot and thirsty spectators. After mass on Easter Sunday, church plazas are filled with vendors selling a wide array of foods including tacos, tamales, cold drinks, and an assortment of candy and pastries.

Day of the Dead (called Dia de Los Muertos) and All Saints’ Day, celebrations that mix beliefs of Native American culture with Catholic Spanish customs, are observed during the first two days of November. It is believed that the souls of the dead return to Earth on these days. Cemeteries are cleaned and painted, and altars are built in homes and at grave sites. Various personal belongings, candles, flowers, bread, and a feast filled with the loved one’s favorite foods are placed on the altar. For the children who have died, fruits, candies, and toys are placed on the altars. Families often spend both days and the night at the grave of a loved one, bringing food for the entire family to eat. Death is not feared, but is celebrated instead. Chocolate skulls and skeletons are sold all across the country. Pan de muerto is special bread that is made for the Day of the Dead and All Saints’ Day. It is pan dulce that has an oval or round shape and has dough shaped like skulls and crossbones on top. The bread is baked with a sugar glaze on top.

September 16 is Mexican Independence Day, during which many traditional foods are eaten. One popular dish served during this time is posole, a rich broth soup made with pork, red chilies, and various other ingredients. Another special dish is chiles en nogada, a classic recipe made from poblano chiles stuffed with pork picadillo, covered in a walnut-based cream sauce, and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. It displays red, green, and white colors, the colors of the Mexican flag.


Most families in Mexico eat four meals each day, which are enjoyed at fairly regular hours. But as more people move into the cities, eating three meals a day is becoming much more common. Breakfast, called desayuno, is generally a light meal that is often eaten quickly before leaving for school or work. Wealthier families often eat cold cereals with milk, while those who cannot afford such luxury often opt for a pastry or plate of fruit. Strong coffee is enjoyed by many adults along with breakfast foods. Brunch, known as almuerzo, is a small meal eaten to curb the appetite until the large meal in the midafternoon. Tacos, tamales, sandwiches, energy bars, and pastries are commonly eaten during this time.

The largest meal of the day, called comida, is generally eaten between 2 and 4pm. Family members try to return home to enjoy this meal together if at all possible. The meal often starts with soup, followed by a dish of pasta or rice. The main dish varies from region to region, but can often include grilled meats or seafood, or even a hearty stew. A bean dish generally follows the main course, and then the entire meal is topped off with a light dessert such as fruit or flan. A short nap, or siesta, is often taken before returning to work after comida. Between 8 and 10pm, supper (cena) is eaten. This meal is light and often consists of leftovers, a simple salad, plate of fruit, or a snack instead of a heavy meal.

Modern Cuisine & Tex-Mex

One of the best known influences on Mexican food comes from Texas. This cultural combination of northern Mexico and southwestern Texas is known as Tex-Mex. The term Tex-Mex originally began as a nickname for the Texas Mexican Railway, but later became an accurate representation of the cultural fusion and culinary creations of Mexican-Americans in the area surrounding the country’s border. Much of the food found in Mexican restaurants today is inspired by Tex-Mex dishes, rather than authentic Mexican food. Some ingredients used in Tex-Mex dishes are almost unheard of in traditional Mexican cuisine. The ingredients that are generally placed in hard-shelled tacos have much more in common with Mexican tostadas than they do with traditional tacos found in Mexico.

Chili con carne, chimichangas, nachos, and fajitas are just a few examples of Tex-Mex inventions that people often mistake for Mexican fare. It is unusual to put cheese in authentic Mexican tacos or tostadas (aside from panela cheese), and cheddar cheese is not used in Mexican cuisine. But in the United States, cheddar is considered a part of the ‘Mexican cheese blend’ and tops many dishes found in Mexican restaurants. The ingredients that are generally placed in hard-shelled tacos have much more in common with Mexican tostadas than they do with traditional tacos found in Mexico. A variety of cultural adaptations makes Mexico, and the land surrounding, a melting pot of culinary experiences.

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