Hey guys 🙂
Did you know that the delicious sapodilla fruit is called ‘chicozapote’ or ‘zapote’ in Mexico and ‘chikoo’ or ‘sapota’ in India? A bit more about this popular fruit…
Besides relishing its fruit, the ancient Maya used gum from the ‘chicozapote’ tree to clean their teeth. They called their mouth freshener ‘chicle’ (rhyming with ’tickle’) which the Spanish conquerors pronounced as ‘cheek-lay’. In the 1860s, the United States used this ‘chicle’ to develop the first modern chewing gum before chemicals took over.
Interesting, huh? Well, today I have some more interesting and yummy stuff for you and it’s about… Mexican food! So feast your eyes on this one extracted from my book on Mexican cuisine: A Guide To Mexican Cuisine
Happy Reading 🙂
Mexicans are very proud of their traditional cuisine, and they take their cooking very seriously. Traditional Mexican Cuisine is elaborate and symbol-laden and a comprehensive cultural model comprising unique farming methods, ritual practices, age-old skills, culinary techniques and ancestral community customs and manners. It’s for this reason that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared Mexican Cuisine an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010, making it one of the first world cuisines to receive such an honour.
Known for its varied flavours, wide range of native spices and ingredients, and colourful presentations, the cuisine is primarily based on pre-Colombian traditions combined with the culinary trends introduced by Spanish colonists. It is a melting pot of different cuisines, reflecting rich French, Caribbean, Asian and African influences as well as many other recent influences absorbed through foreign immigrants and in the course of foreign trade during the colonial period.
The fine blend of the cuisines of different countries, their cooking techniques and an exotic mix of native and foreign ingredients, led to the emergence of the unique Mexican cuisine with tremendous regional variations. The food reflects a strong Spanish influence in the north, while farther down south the ethnic cuisine still prevails. Despite the diversity of the rich regional cuisines, some common elements have led to the formation of a distinct national cuisine.
The staple ingredients include corn, beans and squash; beef, pork, chicken, fish and seafood; vegetables such as tomatoes, green tomatoes, sweet potatoes, jicama (a white-fleshed, potato-like root vegetable, eaten raw as a salad or boiled or baked), and nopales (prickly pear cactus); a variety of lentils; and fruits like avocado, mango, pineapple, papaya, plantains, zapote (sapodilla), mamey (a large, avocado shaped brown fruit), guanábana (soursop) and guava. Chile, tomato, onion, avocado, cocoa and vanilla and garlic are the popular flavourings. The most important and frequently used spices include chile, cumin, oregano, coriander, epazote (a native herb), achiote (a natural colorant and condiment), cinnamon, cocoa and anise seeds. Epazote is used to season a variety of Mexican dishes, and is most commonly used in bean recipes to relieve abdominal discomfort.
Cheese, sour cream, tamarind and chocolate are also widely used in Mexican cuisine.
Mexican cheeses can be categorized into fresh cheese, melting cheese and hard cheese. Fresh cheese has a mild flavour and a crumbly texture which becomes soft and creamy without losing its shape when heated. Some of the fresh cheeses include the mozzarella-like queso blanco, the crumbly queso fresco, the salty-flavoured panela and the soft ricotta-like requesón. Another popular fresh cheese is queso de cabra (goat milk cheese). Melting cheese doesn’t separate or get greasy when it is heated and include the mild queso quesadilla, the strong flavoured queso asadero, the tangy yellow-coloured queso manchego, the famous mozzarella-like string cheese queso oaxaca and the mild cheddar-like queso chihuahua. Hard cheese has a strong flavour with a hard texture and can be grated. Because of its strong flavour, it makes a perfect topping for beans, salads and even grilled meats. Hard cheeses include the parmesan-like cotija cheese and the enchilado or añejo enchilada cheese which is coated with chilli powder.
The three essential elements in traditional Mexican kitchens are mano y metate (grinding stone), molcajete (stone mortar and pestle) and the comal (cast-iron griddle). While mano y metate is used to grind corn and to prepare mole (a rich chocolate-based sauce) pastes, the molcajete is used to grind spices and to make salsas (sauces).
THE NATIVE MEXICAN DIET
The pre-Hispanic native Mexican diet mainly comprised corn, beans, squash, chile, tomatoes, amaranth, sweet potatoes, cocoa, vanilla, avocados, jicama, papaya, pineapple, lentils, plantains, coconut, peanuts, a variety of herbs, honey, mushrooms, fish and turkey. The native people were basically vegetarian but they occasionally hunted for wild turkey, rabbit, deer, and quails. Their cuisine consisted largely of corn-based dishes with chiles and herbs, complemented with beans, tomatoes and nopales.
Nopal or the prickly pear cactus is a popular ingredient in the Mexican cuisine. The peeled pads, grilled or boiled, are often used in salads, soups and as an accompaniment to various dishes. Diced nopales are used to prepare a dish called nopalitos.
Cocoa beans were important luxury products throughout pre-Colombian Mesoamerica, and were used as currency. They were used in the preparation of a frothy, bitter drink which the Aztec called xocoatl (bitter water). This luxurious drink, considered to be ‘the drink of the gods’ and fit for royal consumption only, was often flavoured with vanilla, chile, achiote and other spices. The Aztec loved their cacao which was unsweetened. In fact, the only sweeteners available in those days were honey and aguamiel (honey-water, extracted from agave plants). It was not until chocolate was sent to Europe, that sugar was added which led to the birth of modern-day chocolate. Chocolate mexicana (Mexican hot chocolate) is still a popular traditional drink. Chocolate was also added in the preparation of some of the native Mexican meals.
The first important crops grown by the ancient Mesoamerican societies were corn, beans and squash, with corn being the primary crop. The three staples which complement each other nutritionally provided carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins. Another major source of protein was spirulina, the microscopic blue-green algae that grows both in sea and fresh water. The Aztec harvested it in Lake Texcoco and sold it in the form of cakes. Today, it can be found in health food stores as a human and animal food supplement, in the form of tablets, flakes, and powder. Tropical fruits, vegetables, fish and wild game supplied the missing vitamins and minerals to form a fairly well-balanced diet. Most of the food was cooked over coals, smoked in pits, or simmered in pots with water. These stews were to be the basis for Mexico’s most famous dish, the mole, which was developed to its present form after the Spanish Conquest.
Frying was virtually non-existent as there was no fat to fry with. There were no cows from which to obtain milk to produce butter or cheese, no pigs to provide lard, and game animals were extremely lean. Sometimes oils were squeezed from plants for other purposes. These practices led to the low fat, nearly vegetarian diet.
CORN AND BEANS
Traditionally, corn has been the staple grain of Mexico and the main source of nutrition for thousands of years. It was and still is omnipresent in the daily meals by way of the traditional corn masa (dough). Masa is made by drying field corn and treating it in a solution of lime and water, also called slaked lime. This loosens the hulls from the kernels and softens the corn for grinding it to form the fresh masa. In addition, it also changes the structure of the corn, freeing the nutritionally valuable ‘niacin’ and adding calcium from the lime used as an alkali. This process called nixtamalization, used only by the native Mexicans, allows the human body to absorb essential nutrients. The fresh masa, when dried and powdered, becomes the modern-day masa harina (corn dough flour). Like masa harina, even fresh masa is sold in markets. It is important to avoid confusing masa harina with corn flour, which is not treated with lime and lacks the nutritional value. In baking and cooking, while using corn flour, the result is quite different from that obtained by using masa harina.
The most common food made from masa is the tortilla, a thin traditional daily bread which accompanies just about every meal. Tortillas are made either from corn or wheat flour. Corn tortillas are prepared by pressing (by hand or by machine) small balls of masa and heating them on a comal. These are then wrapped in a cloth and stored in a basket, or in a special plastic container to keep them warm. In many cities and towns, there are tortilla shops called tortillerias, which make and sell fresh machine pressed warm tortillas. In restaurants, if you run out of tortillas, some more are served without any charge.
These are accompanied by the delicious guacamole, the traditional Mexican appetizer of mashed ripe avocados, tomatoes, onions, lime juice, salt and fresh coriander.
Masa is also used in the preparation of tamales (‘tamal’ in singular), which are packets of masa, usually stuffed with spicy or sweet filling, wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves and then steamed. Besides crisp or soft tortillas and tamales, masa is a vital ingredient in various everyday meals. It is the key ingredient in many pre-Hispanic drinks, throughout the country.
Masa is cooked with piloncillo (jaggery), water or milk, cinnamon, anise seeds and vanilla beans to make a porridge-like hot beverage called atole. When it is made with chocolate, it becomes a chocolate-based atole called champurrado, a traditional breakfast drink.
In the state of Chiapas, corn and cocoa are used in the preparation of pozol de cacao and tascalate. Pozol is made with masa, ground cocoa, water and a pinch of salt or sugar while tascalate is a special chocolate drink made from a mixture of roasted corn, cocoa, cinnamon, pine nuts, vanilla, achiote and sugar. In the state of Oaxaca, a popular pre-Hispanic drink called tejate, is prepared by mixing together the finely ground paste of roasted corn, fermented cocoa beans, seeds of the native mamey fruit and flor de cacao (‘cocoa flower’). In the state of Jalisco, a popular cold beverage called tejuino is made from fermented corn and served with a scoop of shaved ice.
Corn is also boiled to prepare pozole, a spicy pork and hominy stew topped with fresh cabbage, radish, onion and cilantro. Elote (corn on the cob), both roasted or boiled, is a popular street food. Boiled elotes are usually coated with condiments such as butter, mayonnaise, sour cream, cheese, lemon juice, salt and hot chile sauce. Another variation is esquite, corn kernels served in a cup with the above mentioned toppings. Another corn preparation commonly available at street stalls is that of corn cooked and mixed together with chile, lemon juice and cilantro in a bit of oil.
Corn and beans were the two main ingredients of Mexican cuisine even before the arrival of the Spaniards. Beans are used in salads, soups and a wide variety of dishes including the popular ancient bean paste called frijoles refritos (refried beans, which are cooked beans mashed in lard to form a smooth, thick paste). Some of the widely used varieties of beans include black beans, pinto beans and kidney beans.
A daily Mexican meal invariably includes corn tortillas with frijoles refritos and tamales.
An important aspect of the corn-beans combination is that both contain ‘complementary amino acids.’ Neither beans nor corn alone is a complete food as it does not provide the full complement of amino acids needed for protein synthesis. Beans contain all the essential amino acids but one and that happens to be just the amino acid present in corn. Together, the corn and bean combination forms a complete protein. Apart from the corn-bean pair, only one other pair provides a complete protein amino acid combination and that is beans and rice.
CHILE AND SALSA
Chiles have been cultivated in Mexico for over 5000 years. The country has the greatest botanical wealth of chiles, with more than 140 varieties ranging in size from inch-long to those the size of large carrots, and in colours ranging from red and orange to green and black. The potency varies. The hottest is the habanero, some 25 times hotter than the widely-known spicy jalapeño, which is traditionally grown around the Gulf Coast city of Xalapa in Veracruz. Then, there is the fiery chile serrano mainly used in salsas (sauces) and the large and mild chile poblano. The latter is used in making stuffed chile dishes like chile relleno, green chile stuffed with cheese and/or minced meat, covered in batter and deep fried; and chile en nogada, green chile stuffed with minced meat and covered in a walnut-based white cream sauce called nogada and garnished with a sprinkling of red pomegranate seeds and fresh coriander. Chile en nogada is a national dish usually served during Independence Day celebrations as it represents the colours of the Mexican flag – green for the coriander, white for the sauce and red for the pomegranate seeds.
Chiles lend a distinctive flavour to Mexican cuisine, which is also enhanced with herbs such as fresh coriander and thyme, and spices like cumin, cinnamon, and cloves. They can be used fresh, whole, smoked, dried or powdered. Among the dried chiles, the popular ones include the flavourful ancho, which is dried poblano pepper and the smoky flavoured chipotle which is dried jalapeño pepper. Ground chipotle chillies are combined with other spices to make a popular meat marinade known as an adobo, a rich, smoky, dark reddish-brown sauce made from chilli, olive oil, vinegar, garlic, thyme, laurel, oregano and salt.
Salsa is the Spanish word for a sauce which is served as an accompaniment to almost every Mexican meal. The condiments most commonly found on restaurant tables in Mexico, are the red or green salsas (prepared using tomatoes and green chiles), a mix of chopped tomatoes, onions and fresh coriander, pickled shredded nopales, lemon slices and bottles of branded salsas, the most popular among them being Valentina and Tajin.
Mexican cuisine boasts of numerous types of fresh salsa preparations which come in various forms – smooth, semi-chunky, or uniformly chopped. The basic amongst them is the salsa mexicana (Mexican sauce), also called salsa fresca (fresh sauce) or pico de gallo (Spanish for ‘beak of the rooster’). This fresh uncooked salsa is made from chopped tomato, onion, chiles (usually serranos or jalapeños) and fresh coriander. When the basic salsa is cooked with other ingredients it becomes salsa ranchero (ranch-style salsa). There are many types of salsas, some made using exotic ingredients like huitlacoche (or cuitlacoche), a corn fungus popular among the Nahuatl Indians. Pumpkin seeds are used to prepare the popular salsa de pipián.
The preparation of a salsa by combining chiles, tomatoes and other ingredients like pumpkin or squash seeds and even beans has been documented way back to the Aztec culture. Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish Franciscan missionary who chronicled Aztec life following the Conquest, wrote extensively on the culinary history of the Aztec which included details on every food common to the culture. In one of his writings he described the salsas sold by food vendors in the large, well-ordered and crowded Aztec markets which included salsas of various kinds of chiles (including the chipotle, a staple in the Aztec diet) avocados, mushrooms, squash, red tomatoes, green tomatoes and different herbs and even hot salsas.
Mexican cuisine also boasts of a popular savoury salsa called chamoy which is made from pickled fruit like mango, apricot or plum with chile, vinegar, sugar, salt and water. Due to its delicious sweet, salty and spicy flavour, this fruit and chile sauce is popularly used in preparing snacks, desserts and drinks. It is poured over fruits for a delicious treat. Chamoy coated apples, chamoy-flavoured frozen desserts, popsicles, sweets, and even drinks (including beer) spiced with chamoy are extremely popular in Mexico.
PICO DE GALLO (MEXICAN SALSA)
This delicious salsa is one of the simplest of Mexican salsas. It is served as a salad or with tortilla chips, and also as a topping for tortilla-based dishes like tacos and tostadas.
1 large ripe tomato, seeded and finely chopped
1/3 of large red onion, finely chopped
2 serrano peppers or 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1/3 cup fresh coriander, finely chopped
Freshly squeezed juice of one lime
Salt to taste
Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes before serving.
Guys, I hope you enjoyed reading this post. Try out the recipe, won’t you? 😉
You can read everything about Mexico and my adventures across this beautiful ancient land, right here on my blog. Check out my three e-books on Mexico:
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