Imagine a world without chillies and chocolate, and then do a Mexican wave to salute the country that gave them and so much more to our tables.
The next time you nibble delicately on a rich chocolate truffle, serve yourself a hefty scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream, roast a golden ear of corn on the grill, chop up a searing hot chilli for your favourite curry or sink your teeth into a juicy ripe red tomato, offer a word of thanks to the Aztecs who for thousands of years had cultivated the cocoa and vanilla beans, corn, chillies and tomatoes. And then say thank you too to the Spanish who brought these foods to the attention of the rest of the world.
It is difficult to conceive of meals today without the ingredients listed above that are so basic to our cooking. Add to that list avocados, papayas, guavas, pineapples, sweet potatoes, peppers (capsicums) tomatillos (Mexican green tomatoes) and turkey, and Mexico’s contribution to the culinary world becomes even more staggering.
For thousands of years before the Spanish discovered Mexico, the native Aztecs lived off the fresh produce off the land which consisted mainly of corn and breads made of corn flour, beans, varieties of cactii such as nopales (a flat cactus), root vegetables such as sweet potatoes and jicama also known as the Mexican potato, gourds or squashes such as zucchini, and scores of different chillies to spice up their meals. However, some ingredients that we now associate with Mexican food were unknown in Mexico till the sixteenth century – rice, wheat, beef, goat, lamb, chicken, olive oil, spices and herbs like cinnamon, cloves, parsley and coriander or cilantro, milk and cheese were introduced to Mexico by the Spanish whose forays into Mexico changed the character of Mexican food and indeed world cuisine forever.
Today, corn, beans and chillies, referred to by Mexican cooks as the Holy Trinity, continue to dominate traditional Mexican cuisine. Corn has been a staple food for Mexicans for thousands of years. Flour made from processed, hulled corn kernels is used to make tortillas which forms the basis for many of Mexico’s most well-known dishes: enchiladas, tacos, tortilla chips etc. Chillies and pinto beans are central to every meal.
Mexico’s meals are desayuno or light breakfast which consists of coffee or hot chocolate often flavoured with cinnamon and sweet or savoury pastries; weekend brunches (almuerzo) usually reserved for weekends or holidays comprising substantial egg or baked dishes; and comida or lunch which is the main meal of the day comprising soups (sopa), salad (ensalada), stews, tortillas, beans ( frijoles) and dessert (postre). Evening meals (cena) are light and may even be a selection of snacks (antojitos).
Some unique flavours and ingredients one is likely to encounter in traditional Mexican food are bitter chocolate or cocoa in savoury sauces; epazote (Mexican tea) a pungent herb used to flavour beans; annatto the seeds of the achiote tree, which provides an earthy flavour and orange colour to dishes; and nopales or pads of the prickly pear cactus which is cooked as a vegetable or added to stews. Mexican cheeses are unique to that country with fresh cheeses, such as queso fresco, panela and asadero being the most popular. Some cheeses are purely Mexican in origin: Oaxaca, Cotija, and Chihuahua and the Mexican version of manchengo made with cow’s milk.
A word about ‘Tex –Mex’ which is often mistaken for Mexican cuisine. Traditional Mexican dishes are given a hearty Texan character: meat is cooked with chillies and spices, the ubiquitous guacamole and salsa fresca are added to recreate a Mexican flavour, and everything is smothered in melted American Monterrey Jack or cheddar cheese. Fajitas, chilli con carne, nachos, burritos stuffed with meat, rice and cheese, chilli con queso, chimichangas, are all considered to be Tex-Mex dishes which are loosely based on Mexican originals.
So, the next time you look at your dinner plate and discover that at least one of its ingredients was originally from Mexico, raise a glass and say with heartfelt gratitude, Viva Mexico!