Most us know about tacos and burritos, but here’s some fun facts about Mexican food you might not know!
If you are unfamiliar with Mexican cuisine, you may only know a few dishes, including tacos and burritos. However, Mexican food has a long and complex history with countless ingredients and regional dishes. With roots in different varieties of Mesoamerican cuisine, today’s Mexican food also has influences from Spain, Asia, and Africa.
Read on to learn some fun facts about Mexican food.
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1. Modern Mexican Cuisine Has Roots in 7000 BCE Mesoamerica
Mayan cuisine was a group of different Mesoamerican cuisines that preceded Mexican cuisine. Cooking methods and ingredient choices varied somewhat between various Mesoamerican groups. Some groups contributing to cuisine at this time include Olmec, Teotihuacanos, Otomi, Mixtec, Nahua, and Mexica.
Over time, the Aztec Empire brought together many ethnic cuisines to create new dishes. Mexican cuisine developed more as Spanish colonists arrived.
2. Mexican Cuisines Differ Across Different Regions
Those who find Mexican food in countries other than Mexico may think of this cuisine as a monolith. However, varieties of Mexican cuisine differ based on region and ingredient availability.
Some of these other types of Mexican cuisines include Oaxanan, Baja Mediterranean, Chiapas, and Veracruz.
3. Several Common Ingredients Are Native to South America
Mexican cuisine uses many ingredients native to South America. Several of those ingredients were brought overseas and used as integral components in other culinary traditions. For example, the tomato, often associated with Italian cuisine, originates in South America.
Other ingredients with South American origins include beans, squash, maize, avocados, agave, spirulina, cactus, and chilis. Another popular ingredient originally from South America is cocoa. Mexican cuisine is responsible for the invention of hot chocolate.
4. Colonists and Immigrants Introduced Ingredients
While Mexican food was already very diverse for thousands of years before colonists arrived, the introduction of the Spanish led to the introduction of many new ingredients.
For example, dairy products, meat from domesticated animals, sugar, and olive oil all became integrated into Mexican dishes. The Spanish also introduced new cooking methods, such as frying.
Other immigrant cultures introduced ingredients. The French impacted pastries, such as conchas, while the Germans introduced beer brewing in the 19th century. Being geographically close, it is unsurprising that the United States and Mexico have a running food relationship. Tex-Mex food includes a greater emphasis on wheat flour.
Today you can recognize these influences in Mexican dishes. For example, the cheese in a quesadilla is of Spanish influence, while the masa of the tortilla and ingredients such as chilis or nopales show the traditional Mexican influence.
5. Mole Is Mexico’s National Dish
Mole is a delicious sauce and marinade with mysterious origins. Both the Oaxaca and Puebla states of Mexico claim their place of origin. Wherever it came from, it likely originated during the early colonial period. It holds a special place in Mexican cuisine since it is a symbol of the mixture of cultures in Mexico thanks to its mixture of South American and European ingredients.
There are many versions of mole, including mole chichilo, mole colorado, mole negro, and mole almendrado. These sauces have slightly different ingredients, but most include chili peppers, fruits, nuts, and spices. Chocolate is a common addition.
6. Each Holiday Has Some Special Associated Foods
Like most cultures, Mexican culture serves certain foods primarily on special occasions. Some of the biggest holidays in Mexican culture include Christmas, Mexican Independence Day, Three Kings Day, Cinco de Mayo, Candlemas, and Dio de Los Muertos. Often the preparation of the meal is just as central to a celebration as the eating of the food.
Some traditional Christmas dishes include fish-based bacalao, shrimp-based romeritos, and pozole rojo. Dio de Los Muertos is known for its sugar skulls, pan de muertos, and mole negro. Tamales are an important part of Candlemas on February second.
7. Nixtamalization Is Key
Nixtamalization increases the nutritional value, taste, safety, and functionality of grains, including corn. Mesoamericans invented this process sometime around 1500 BCE. The exact history of the process is unknown.
The process can differ slightly. However, it usually involves grain being soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, washed, and removed from its hull. Treated corn gets ground up and used to make masa, which can become tortillas, tamales, and more.
8. Tamales Are Over 8,000 Years Old
A tamale is a dish that includes a corn-based dough wrapped around a filling and steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf. Fillings can include everything from peppers, cheese, meat, or a combination of multiple ingredients. Making a large batch of these requires plenty of time and energy. They are also associated with celebrations and festivals and are one of the best foods in Mexico.
This dish has not changed much since its origins in Mesoamerica, sometime between 8000 and 5000 BCE. It is thought that tamales were popular thanks to their portability, making them ideal for hunting trips or other forms of travel.
9. Tortillas Are a Vital Part of Mexican Cuisine
Corn tortillas have likely been around since at least 500 BCE. They are thin, unleavened discs consisting of flour and water. Many Mexican dishes use tortillas, including tacos, burritos, fajitas, and enchiladas. Tortillas are a common addition to a Mexican meal in general.
While they were originally made out of corn before colonization, they now can include wheat flour. You can find corn tortillas made from yellow, blue, or red corn.
10. Mayan Food Focused on Vegetables Rather Than Meat
While Mayans consumed some meat, they did not domesticate animals. Meat usually came from hunting trips for animals, such as white-tailed deer. So, many meals revolved around vegetables.
Common vegetables in Mexican cuisine include corn, beans, squash, peppers, chilis, amaranth, and potatoes. These vegetables often combine with sauces or soups to make delicious and nutritious dishes.
11. Insects Are Another Common Source of Protein
In addition to plant-based protein such as beans, Mexican cuisine includes animal-based meat sources, including turkey, deer, and bugs. Caterpillars, grasshoppers, worms, and larvae play roles in traditional Mexican food. These days it is easier to find bug-based dishes in rural parts of Mexico as the ingredient is less popular in urban areas.
12. Mexican Cuisine Holds a Special Cultural Position
Mexican food is on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This designation comes from the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The list includes components of culture, including cuisines, arts, languages, and celebrations from around the world. The list added Mexican cuisine in 2010.
13. Nachos Are a Relatively Recent Creation
While some modern dishes have ancient roots, there are several Mexican food items with more recent origin stories. Some of the most beloved Mexican dishes in the 21st century only originated in the mid-20th century.
For example, Nachos were invented by Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya in 1940 at the Victory Club in Piedras Negras, Coahuila. He created them when some regulars were looking for something new to try. The original dish included cheese and pickled jalapenos, meaning this dish is not significantly different today. This title is one of those Mexican food names from the creator.
14. The First Mexican Restaurant Opened in the US in 1900
Thanks to the rising Mexican food popularity, restaurants with this cuisine started popping up around the turn of the century. In 1900 Original Mexican Restaurant in San Antonio became the first Mexican restaurant in the United States. Otis Farnsworth, originally from Chicago, created a restaurant centered around combination plates of different Mexican dishes.
The restaurant closed in 1960. There is currently a restaurant by the same name just across the river from the original restaurant. The name of that new spot came with the blessing of the Farnsworths when it opened in the 1980s.
15. The United States Banned Mexican Avocados
The United States government banned Mexican avocados from entering the US in 1914 over fears of seed weevils. During the ban, most avocados consumed in the United States came from California.
The ban lasted for 83 years before it ended in 1997. Initially, imports of Mexican avocados were only allowed at certain times of the year and in some parts of the country. It was another five years before the avocados were allowed back into all states. This process took a while, partially because avocado growers in the US were worried about competition. However, the demand for fatty green fruit grew instead.
16. There Are Several Key Tools Used in Mexican Cuisine
If you are trying to recreate delicious Mexican dishes at home, you should know some tools can help you. Grind spices and herbs in a molcajete, stew beans in an olla de barro frijolero, cook many dishes in cazuela pans, and press tortillas in a tortilladora.
Final Thoughts – Fun Facts About Mexican Food
Now you know some interesting facts about Mexican food. Next time you order a taco from your favorite Mexican restaurant, take a moment to consider all of the history and culture behind that first bite. Mexican cuisine is as fascinating as it is tasty. Aspects of the dishes connect back thousands of years, while some ingredients and techniques relate to colonialism and other cultures.