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Heritage on a plate

Article - May 22, 2012
A unique fusion of indigenous and European influences, Mexican food has even made it onto UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage
From traditional pinto beans and corn tortillas to grilled chicken served in chili-seasoned mole sauce, to the purest tequila from the eastern Jalisco highlands, Mexican cuisine is one of the most varied and flavorful in the world. Whereas each region has its own specialties and touches, the food as a whole is an integral and defining characteristic of Mexican culture, developing first from indigenous tribes, and further enriched by the Spanish influence incorporated from the 16th century.

So esteemed, in fact, is Mexican cuisine, that in 2010 UNESCO decided to include it in their list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. UNESCO describes its reasoning for including this traditional cuisine, calling it “elaborate” and “symbol-laden”. They also describe groups of women cooks throughout Mexico who work to preserve traditional cuisine: “Their knowledge and techniques express community identity, reinforce social bonds and build stronger local, regional and national identities.”

The main staple for Mexican cuisine is corn, an ingredient dating back to the Toltecs, Mayas and the Aztecs, the indigenous tribes of the territory. The Mayans had domesticated corn as well as squash and chili peppers, cleverly using crop rotation to keep their soil fertile. Similarly, the Aztecs had a corn-based diet, sometimes eaten in its original state, but more often ground up to make a meal, the base for the tortillas, tamales and corn gruel or atolli. Other prominent ingredients include tomato, avocado and, of course, cocoa.

Cocoa, native to Mesoamerica, was first consumed by the Toltecs, Mayas and the Aztecs, and fascinated the Spanish explorers upon their arrival in the New World. Originally, however, cocoa was enjoyed in liquid form, mixed with chili, honey and a variety of other spices. The seeds were considered so valuable they were sometimes used as currency throughout the Aztec Empire.

Today, cocoa has been incorporated into savory dishes such as mole sauce made with cocoa and chili peppers or as a sweet and thick breakfast drink called champurrado often served with churros.

In the 16th century, with the arrival of the Spanish conquerors and settlers, a fusion took place between the European and indigenous diets. Ingredients never before seen in Mexico such as rice and cheese were slowly integrated into the cuisine and transformed into vital components. The colonists also brought with them cattle, chickens, olive oil, spices, wine, and barley for making beer.
Although indigenous Mesoamericans did ferment corn to make an alcoholic beverage, the European-style, barley-brewed beer became a favorite in the region after being introduced by the Spanish. Mexico eventually developed its own breweries and now boasts many famous beers including Corona, Bohemia and Dos Equis.

Along with beer, Mexico is well known for its tequila. This highly alcoholic drink is produced primarily in the highlands of Jalisco, 40 miles from Guadalajara. Within Mexico, tequila is most often drunk straight, while outside the country it is usually consumed as a shot with salt and lime.

“Mexico offers innumerable riches for tourism – but beyond the beaches, archeological sites and ecotourism, there’s cuisine.”

Patricia Quintana, Mexico’s Cuisine Ambassador

Although Mexican cuisine is often talked of as a whole, each region has its own distinct flavors and specialties. Central Mexico relies heavily on meat for its dishes such as pazole, a chicken or pork stew with chili peppers, as well as menudo, made of beef stomach and often eaten with tortillas. It also is known for preparing food on the barbecue or barbacoa.

Southeastern Mexico, on the other hand, is especially famous for its spicy vegetable and chicken dishes served with corn tortillas. It also includes many dishes with black beans and plantains.

Not nearly as spicy as its southeastern counterpart, the food of the Yucatan Peninsula has a sweet quality exemplified by Poc-Chuc, pork marinated in a sour orange sauce.

Along with the traditional foods throughout Mexico, there are also some more exotic dishes. Jumiles, a six-legged insect that looks similar to a small beetle, is often ground up to be used in sauces for its sharp, acidic flavor – and is also sometimes eaten alive.  Iguana, popular in Western Mexico, is cooked in stews or served roasted with mole sauce. Other challenging ingredients include rattlesnake, ant eggs and spider monkey.

The varied cuisine throughout Mexico is one of the biggest draws for millions of tourists every year. Some visitors go on culinary tours, often arranged by the Mexican government, who subsidize tour guides and organize several routes throughout the country featuring different regions to promote their dishes.

Patricia Quintana, an acclaimed Mexican chef who has opened the first culinary institute in Mexico City and written more than 10 books on Mexican cuisine, is an official Cuisine Ambassador for her country. Ms. Quintana wants more people to come to Mexico to become acquainted with the rich flavors and spices.

“Mexico offers innumerable riches for tourism – but beyond the beaches, archeological sites and ecotourism, there’s cuisine,” says Ms. Quintana. “It should be known throughout the world for providing magnificent opportunities for visitors.”