History of Traditional Mexican Food:
The Evolution and History of Mexican Cuisine
The history of traditional Mexican food is far more varied than you might think. While people outside of Mexico often think of the oils and hot spices as being "signature" to the region, there's really a great variety in tastes and aromas, including regional specialties.
Here, you'll learn a ton about the evolution of Mexican food and the history of Mexican cuisine in general. But if you're looking to cook some Mexican food yourself, you'll find some great traditional Mexican recipes and ideas on my Authentic Mexican Food Recipes page.
There, you'll also find some great ideas for planning a Mexican themed dinner party-- for a Cinco de Mayo fiesta or anytime.
Ancient Aztec Influence on the History of Mexican Cuisine
Centuries ago, Aztec gardening methods had a huge effect on how the history of traditional Mexican food would evolve. Aztecs lived in a valley region that allowed for a nice diversity of edible plants. They created floating gardens on the available water sources. The food gardens of the Aztecs included almost all the major foods seen today in authentic Mexican dishes, including:
- Chiles (of course!)
Other garden items that featured heavily in Aztec and Mayan cuisine include many ingredients that you'll see used today in traditional Mexican sauces like Mole sauce, and other foods commonly seen in authentic Mexican cuisine. Some of these are:
- Achiote seed (used as a paste)
- Amaranth (used both in religious ceremonies and as a daily food)
- Avacado (this was used as both a fruit and, strangely enough, a spice)
- Cactus (it was eaten both raw and cooked)
- Chayotes (a squash-like vegetable)
- Edible Flowers
- Tomatillos (the same ones found in Mexican cuisine today, particularly in salsas)
- Yuca root (a tuber that is sort of like potato)
Cinco de Mayo Party Supplies
Mexican Food History from the 1500's
To understand how the history of traditional Mexican food developed, evolved, and was influenced by other cultures, let's look back in time to the Spanish Conquistadors entering what is now Mexico City in the 1500s.
When the Spanish came to Mexico, they found the Aztecs consuming foods that are a completely recognizable party of the history of Mexican cuisine today: they were drinking chocolate sweetened with honey. They were eating dishes made with corn, tropical fruit, wild game, fish, and beans. They were even eating tamales! And just as much of it is eaten today, that the early Mayans in Mexico cooked their food over an open flame or steamed it, as with tamales.
The Spanish Adapt Ancient Foods
The next step in the always-evolving history of traditional Mexican food is its adaptation by this new culture: The Spanish. The Spanish adapted the cooking methods and ingredients found in Mexico to their own culture, such as:
- Olives and olive oil
- Spices from the East (like cumin)
- Arab influences and cooking methods (from Spain's tied to the Arab world)
To the regional foundation the Aztecs had in place, the Spanish added various herbs, nuts, grains and food animals. From this diversity, various foods began to emerge, blending old methods and ingredients with new flavors.
Quesadillas and enchiladas are a good example of the way the Spanish affected the history of Mexican cuisine. With this dish, the Spanish took the traditional local corn tortilla and hot sauce, and blended it with Spanish meats and cheeses. The chocolate they discovered in Mexico also became of particular interest to the Spanish... and they began exporting it in the 1600s to Europe. So we have the Mexican to thank for that!
Colonial Era Mexican Food History
After the Spanish colonized Mexico, the history of traditional Mexican food continued to adapt, and some of the most famous Mexican dishes we know today were developed.
Various members of Mexican religious orders began making a variety of sweets and other fare that has slowly become traditional. Included in this bit of experimentation were:
- Cajeta candies
- Buñuelos (fritters)
- Escabeche (a tangy marinade)
- Flavored liqueurs
A Short History of Chile Peppers
Chile peppers have played a nearly indispensable role in the history of Mexican cuisine. There is evidence suggesting they've been consumed in that part of the world since 7500 BCE. By around 6000 BCE the pepper was being domesticated. Once Columbus encountered them in his travels, they became a frequently traded item that were also valued in folk remedials. .
The 1800s for Mexican Food: Enter the French
After Mexico won independence from Spain in the 1820s, there was a lot of anti-Spanish feeling in Mexico-- something which would certainly go on to influence the history of traditional Mexican food, as some Mexicans cooks of the period preferred to highlight other (non-Spanish) elements of their cuisine.
The first emperor of Mexico, Maximillian, was born in Europe and convinced the take the throne by the French, who were attempting to have influence over Mexico at this time. His and the French occupation's chief contribution to the history of traditional Mexican food was the introduction of a French food influence.
Some of those influences continue to be seen in traditional Mexican foods and cooking methods such as:
- Baño Maria (from the French bain marie)
- Bolillos and other sweet breads
Many traditional French foods and sauces were also made using Mexican ingredients at the time, giving Mexico some of the creamy sauces and flavorful soups eaten there today.
Mexican Regional Influences on the Food
Of course, Mexico is a large country, and each region has something different to offer... and so the history of traditional Mexican food will depend on where in Mexico one lived, the climate, the ethnic blending regionally, and what was readily available in that region.
For example, the history of Mexican cuisine in Northern Mexico ended up stressing meat dishes, whereas southern Mexican cuisine favored spicy dishes. The seaside regions of Mexico, however, have always looked to fish as a culinary mainstay.
Class-Oriented Food in Mexico
Besides the influx of various peoples and the available ingredients in various regions, another strong influence on the history of traditional Mexican food is... finances and social class.
Mexico is a region of the world that has almost always had wide divides between the very wealthy and the very poor. Obviously, for those that didn't have a lot of money to spend, exotic food was never really an option. Corn and beans, on the otherhand, would remain --and do remain-- staples for the poor. Some historians believe that part of the reason for strong spices in the Mexican diet was to offset the rather bland food available to lower classes, where as the rich had access to more "French-ified" cooking methods and ingredients.
Fortunately, the food that was historically for the lower classes has also evolved, and it remains popular today... and it's some of the best food Mexico has to offer. A few of the rustic, "low class" Mexican dishes we scramble over today are:
The Modern History of Mexican Cuisine
As a Mexican middle class evolved, the foods they ate evolved along with them. There was more use of processed foods and commercial brands, and different traditional foods, such as tacos, became popular street fare. In the USA, Tex-Mex cuisine also evolved in the 1940s and surfaced as a serious trend in the 1970s as a fusion between the foods of Texas (and the American Southwest) and Mexico.
The history of traditional Mexican food is a long and complex one, and every bit of the complexity is reflected in the sheer variety of flavors in Mexican cuisine. It took a long time getting there, but Mexican cuisine has evolved into something truly extraordinary.
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