Mexican Cuisine - Basic Elements

Basic Elements

Mexican cuisine is complex, as complex as any of the great cuisines in the world such as those of China, France and Turkey. It is created mostly with ingredients native to Mexico as well as those brought over by the Spanish conquistadors, with some new influences since then. Native ingredients include tomatoes, squashes, avocados, cocoa and vanilla, as well as ingredients not generally used in other cuisines such as various edible flowers, vegetables such as huauzontle and papaloquelite or small criollo avocados, whose skin is edible. European contributions include pork, chicken, beef, cheese, various herbs and spices and some fruits. Tropical fruits such as guava, prickly pear, sapote, mangoes, bananas, pineapple and cherimoya (custard apple) are popular, especially in the center and south of the country. It has been debated how much Mexican food is still indigenous and how much is European. However, the basis of the diet is still corn and beans with chili pepper as a seasoning as they are complimentary foods.

Despite the introduction of wheat and rice to Mexico, the basic starch remains corn in almost all areas of the country. While it is eaten fresh, most corn is dried, treated with lime and ground into a dough. This dough is used fresh and fermented to make a wide variety of dishes from drinks (atole, pozol, etc) to tamales, to sopes and much more. However, the most common way to eat corn in Mexico is in the form of a tortilla, which accompanies almost every dish in Mexico. Tortillas are made of corn in most of the country but in the north there is a wheat version as well.

The other basic ingredient in all parts of Mexico is the chili pepper. Mexican food has a reputation for being spicy but it has its seasoning can be better described as strong. Many dishes also have subtle flavors as well. In Mexico, the various chili peppers are used for their flavors and not just their heat, with Mexico using the widest variety of chili peppers. If a savory dish or snack does not contain chili pepper, hot sauce is usually added and chili pepper is often added to fresh fruit and sweets. The importance of the chili pepper goes back to the Mesoamerican period, which it was considered to be as much of a staple as corn and beans. In the 16th century, Bartolomé de las Casas wrote that without chili peppers the indigenous did not think they were eating. Even today, most Mexicans believe that their national identity would be at a loss without it. Many dishes in Mexico are defined by their sauces and the chili peppers those sauces contain, rather than the meat or vegetable that the sauce covers. These dishes include entomatada (in tomato sauce), adobo or adobados, pipians and moles. A hominy soup called pozole is defined as white, green or red depending on the chili pepper sauce used or omitted. Tamales are differentiated by the filling which is defined by the sauce (red, green, chili pepper strips or mole). Dishes without a sauce are nearly inconceivable to eat without a salsa or with fresh or pickled chili peppers. This includes street foods such as tacos, soups, sopes, tlacoyos, corditas and sincronizadas. For most dishes, it is the variety of chili used that gives it its main flavor.

The main contributions of the Spanish were meat and cheese, as the Mesoamerican diet had very little meat and dairy products were completely unknown. The main meats found in Mexico are pork, chicken, beef, goat and sheep. Native seafood remains popular especially along the coasts. Cheesemaking in Mexico has evolved its own specialties. It is an important economic activity, especially in the north, and frequently done at home. The main cheese making areas are Chihuahua, Oaxaca, Querétaro and Chiapas. Goat cheese is still made but it is not as popular and harder to find in stores.

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