Understanding Mexico: Pre-Columbian Roots to "Mestizo" Culture
To understand Mexico, it is important to go back in time. Mexico has deep pre-Columbian roots that provide the basis for its rich cultural diversity. The country has given birth to some of the world's most important and historically significant cultures—Olmec, Maya, Mexica, Mixtec, Zapotec, Totonac, and Toltec—that established advanced calendrical systems, strong city-states, and vast trading networks. For thousands of years, these civilizations made incredible advances domesticating crops like corn, vanilla, and cacao. With the conquest came "mestizo culture"—the mixing of indigenous and foreign blood, traditions, and religion…all of which today embody Mexico's rich cultural identity.
Mexico's Gastronomic Legacy
Mexico has some of the most varied culinary traditions in the world, with regional subtleties in every state that speak to the country's complexity and diversity. With 32 states and long stretches of Pacific, Gulf, and Caribbean waters, the country's geography is as rich and varied as its ethnic populations. Mexico possesses an endless offering of climates and landscapes, including arid deserts, fertile agricultural belts, active volcanoes, and tropical jungles and cloud forests.
The country's culinary legacy extends well beyond tacos and burritos. Some of the world's most important foods are native to Mexico; just imagine the global culinary map without foods like corn, squash, beans, Mexican chiles, tomatillos, vanilla, or cacao. Building around fresh, quality ingredients lies at the heart of Mexico's interior cuisines—quite the opposite of some of the greasy, processed foods that are mistakenly labeled as "Mexican" in the United States.
Mexico's Regional Cuisines
Mexico's varied landscape, geography, and ethnic groups define the country's interior cuisines. Ingredients and foods consumed in the north, central, coastal, and southern regions are often a complete contrast. Ingredients like hoja santa, an anise-flavored herb from the south; or huitlacoche, a corn fungus eaten in central and southern Mexico, are relatively unknown in the north, while flour tortillas are practically foreign in parts of southern Mexico. Regardless of the region, Mexico's culinary traditions are diverse and do not fit neatly into one chapter on Mexican cuisine.
Northern Mexico consists of an enormous area spanning dry and semi-arid regions from the Pacific coast to the Gulf of Mexico and expanding southwards toward central Mexico. Flour tortillas, meats, seafood, cheese, and pinto beans characterize Mexico's northern cuisines. From aguachile de camarón from the popular beach resort of Mazatlán to lobster tacos wrapped in thin, oversized flour tortillas from Ensenada, Baja California, northern Mexico isn't just known for its meats. That said, some of Mexico's most iconic northern foods are meat based, like cabrito, spit-roasted kid goat; machaca, a sun-dried beef that is pounded and finely shredded; and countless preparations of thin grilled carne asada. Other ingredients like cheese, flour tortillas, and beans play an important part in the cuisines of northern Mexico. These include melting white cheeses like queso asadero and chihuahua that are used for making queso fundido; a wide range of flour tortillas varying in size and thickness; pinto beans, called frijoles bayos, that are served in frijoles puercos, frijoles charros, and refried beans; and last but not least, burritos and chimichangas.
El Bajío refers to a culinary and geographical region located near central Mexico that encompasses parts of Querétaro, Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, Jalisco, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas and Michoacán. The Bajío is a fertile breadbasket, producing the bulk of the country's strawberries, avocados, and agave azul, which is used for making tequila. Within this relatively small area, the regional cuisines of each state are unique: Michoacán's succulent rendered pork carnitas, iconic small fish known as charales, and triangular-shaped tamales called corundas; Jalisco's pozole rojo made with white hominy, drowned tortas ahogadas, and slow-cooked sheep birria; Guanajuato's tradition of burnt goat's milk cajeta; and San Luis Potosí's red enchiladas potosinas and zacahuil, an oversized tamal cooked in underground pits.
The Valley of Mexico in Central Mexico is a special place where age-old traditions thrive in the shadows of Mexico City, the country's cosmopolitan metropolis and capital city. Unique ingredients and preparation techniques are commonplace in this part of Mexico. From edible insects, maguey-wrapped barbacoa, masa-based tlacoyos, and tacos al pastor to pepita seed-based pipianes and pork and chorizo tinga, Central Mexico is home to an impressive array of iconic Mexican dishes. In fact, Puebla is the birthplace of two of Mexico's most famous dishes—mole poblano and the patriotically colored red, white, and green chiles en nogada.
Mexico's Pacific Coast
Mexico's long Pacific coast is characterized by cold, rough water and dramatic topography. Tourist destinations like Ixtapa, Acapulco, and Huatulco offer menus heavy in local seafood. From Acapulco-style ceviche laced with manzanilla olives and fresh-caught fish, pozole verde, and adobo-seasoned pescado a la talla to masa-based chilapas and pescado costeño made with a pineapple-infused adobo, the Pacific coast offers an endless variety of seafood specialties.
Apart from its fish- and seafood-laden cuisines from the coast, Oaxaca and Chiapas each have unique and diverse culinary traditions stemming from indigenous and mestizo roots. For example, the Mixtec and Zapotec peoples of Oaxaca are known for their elaborate moles, frothy chocolate, and prized corn varieties, while the largely Mayan, Zoque, and Lacandon communities of Chiapas have strong tamal-making traditions ranging from the simple cau to the complex jacuane tamales, made by combining black beans, pepita seeds, and dried shrimp.
Yucatán and the Gulf of Mexico States: Tabasco, Veracruz, and Tamaulipas
The enormous Yucatán Peninsula is made up of the states of Quintana Roo, Yucatán, and Campeche—spanning the Caribbean and lower Gulf of Mexico. This flat karst landscape was once home to great Maya city-states from the Pre-Classic to the Post-Classic periods. Iconic ingredients like achiote, habanero chiles, pickled red onion, and seasoning pastes known as recados form the seasoning base of the local cuisine. Native game like turkey and venison feature almost as prominently as the mestizo pork—a favorite ingredient for the underground "pib" style of cooking—and cochinita pibil, a pork dish seasoned with achiote and sour orange juice that is wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in the local pib fashion.
The cuisine of Tabasco is characterized by exotic ingredients like the pejelagarto, a pre-Columbian freshwater catfish; and tropical ingredients like cacao and bananas. Foods wrapped and cooked in banana leaves like the moné de robalo are typical, while seasonings and preparation techniques are a composite of traditions from the neighboring states of Veracruz, Yucatán, Chiapas, and Oaxaca.
The country's coast on the Gulf of Mexico stretches from the Yucatán Peninsula to the border with the United States. Mexico's coastal states of Tamaulipas and Veracruz have rich culinary traditions that reflect a crossroads of ingredients, as both states represent important commercial trading hubs. Iconic Veracruz ingredients include olives, capers, black beans, plantains, rice, and chile seco. Signature dishes include huachinango a la Veracruzana, a red snapper cooked with ripe tomatoes, green olives, and capers; soupy, seafood-laced arroz a la tumbada; fresh corn chilpacholes; and sweet, dark mole de Xico. Both Veracruz and Tamaulipas have communities that make zacahuiles, enormous tamales cooked in underground pits and clay pots. In Tamaulipas, seafood traditions are also built upon the bounty of the Gulf—ingredients like crab, shrimp, oysters, and fish. Popular dishes include jaibas rellenas, a stuffed crab; shredded crab salad called salpicón de jaiba; pickled oysters called ostiones en escabeche; and a green soup thickened with masa called huatape de camarones. In addition to seafood, Tampiqueña cuisine has rich meat traditions. Spit-roasted cabrito and thin carne asada a la Tampiqueña are symbols of the state's strong meat dishes.