The Food of Mexico

Glorious Mexico is one of our closest neighbors, but ironically, most Americans haven't discovered the true riches of Mexican food. Sure, salsa has surpassed ketchup as our most popular condiment, and there are fast food burrito franchises in every city. But the foods of Mexico are much, much more than just chips and tacos.

Mexico has distinctly different regional cuisines, and coastal areas that serve seafood like no place else. It’s also home to large numbers of immigrants from all over the world, many concentrated into cities that take on the flavor of their immigrant people.

To really understand what Mexican food is all about, we need to look back to before Columbus. The primary foods were corn and beans, and wild game, since there were no cows or pigs until Europeans brought them. No cows meant no dairy, not even sheep’s milk. Turkeys originated in Mexico, long before they became a fixture of our Thanksgiving table. Of course the ancient Mayans had foods that would change the rest of the world, with their tomatoes, chocolate, vanilla, chiles, peppers, squashes and beans.  The flavors of cumin, chipotle and oregano were Mayan, and still make Mexican food distinct.  Tropical fruits and avocadoes were abundant, and corn tortillas and myriad other cornmeal creations were the bread of a culture without wheat.

When Spanish influence arrived, along came livestock, wheat, rice, and all of the flavors of Spain.  This was the beginning of a great melding of foods into the Mexican culture. Now rice, wheat flour and cheese are infused into many Mexican cuisines. Overall, across Mexico you can expect lots of corn, chiles and salsa. Northern Mexican cooking uses more flour tortillas in dishes like burritos, but the rest of the country leans more toward the traditional corn. The Yucatan area, especially Oaxaca, is famous for its complex mole sauce. Veracruz and the coastal areas are famed for their seafood dishes.

To add some authentic Mexican flavor to my dishes, I use the classic flavor combinations of lime and chiles, with oregano or cilantro. In rice, meats, or seafood, those flavors just sing "Mexico." Chipotle may be a new ingredient here, but it goes back to Mayan culture. I like to add a bit of smoky chipotle spice to my beans and soups with a chopped chipotle chile in adobo. Mole is a popular Mexican sauce I love for quick and easy transformations—it's available in jars, in either red or green style. The chocolate, sesame and chiles in the red or black mole add great complexity and spice to slow-roasted meats or chili-style bean stews. Green mole, based on pumpkinseeds and green chiles, is a great addition to a quick rice dish, or a marinade for chicken or fish.

Yes, there’s more to Mexico than tacos and burritos—if you haven't discovered the world of flavors south of the border, it may just be time to get better acquainted with the riches of one of our closest neighbors.

Here are some Mexcian recipes to try.