History of Mexican Cuisine



Margaret Parker

Neumann College



October 12 2006

The variety of natural environment in Mexico and the highlands of Central American has been unfair to the development of food and dietary patterns. From the dryness of the desert in the north, through the mild basins of theMargaret Parker valley to the tropical forests of the South, different climates and soils have conditioned what and how people ate. Within the large regions, hundreds of micro regions have had their own environmental and dietary characteristics, and for millennia, cultures have adapted these environments to suit their food needs. Three especially deep events that have influenced environment and diet are the appearance of agriculture, the arrival of Europeans (1519), and the technical and governmental changes that occurred in the twentieth century.

Mexican food is a style of food that is created in Mexico. Mexican Cuisine is known for its strong and mixed flavors, colorful decoration, and the variety of spices that it has. Mexican cooking, in terms of variety of pleasing taste and texture, is one of the riches in the world in proteins, vitamins and minerals, though some people describe it as very spicy.

When the Spanish conquistadors came to Mexico in the sixteenth century, they found a country with a rich native cuisine (A Thumbnail History Pages 1-3). The Spanish brought with them cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and chickens, as well as olive oil, cinnamon, parsley, coriander, oregano and black pepper (A Thumbnail History Pages 1-3). They also introduced nuts and grains, such as almonds, rice, wheat and barley, as well as fruits and vegetables, such as apples, oranges, grapes, lettuce, carrots, cauliflower and potatoes (A Thumbnail History Pages 1-3). These ingredients were incorporate into native food dishes.

The combination of cultures that mark Mexican history influenced the nature of Mexican food. Corn, which has been a basic ingredient in Mexican food for 4000 years, is the fundamental ingredient in the diet (Mexican Food Pages 1-17). Corn kernels are first soften in water and lime, then ground, and finally fashioned (most typically) into tortillas (Mexican Food Pages 1-17) Beans, rich in protein, plus a seemingly endlessly variety of chilies, provide the final ingredients in this “holy trinity of Mexican cookery” (Mexican Food Pages 1-17).

From this basic beginning, Mexican cuisine provides a broad variety of dishes. High-quality ingredients surely counts for a lot, but the Mexicans are also talented cooks and seem to know how to give a dish that extra energy that makes it special. An easy salsa Mexican is taken to new heights with a touch of cilantro and lime, while a complex mole sauce is always heavenly thanks to over thirty carefully-chosen herbs and spices which are added in and left to slowly simmer in the pot.




The ideal of tortillas being “wrapped, filled and eaten in various forms” is a custom that originated with the Aztecs (Enchiladas Pages 1-2). However, referring to this dish as an “enchilada” dates in the US from 1885 (Enchiladas Pages 1-2). The word “enchilada” means “in chili” and it is generally a snack sold on the streets of Mexico, and it consists of a “corn tortilla dipped in chili sauce” (Enchiladas Pages 1-2). This real Mexican version of the dish is totally different from the so-called enchiladas served in the US, which are “limp, stuffed tortillas,” hidden beneath a sea of red sauce and cheese (Enchiladas Pages 1-2). Here are two recipes:



Easy Enchiladas




Twelve (12) corn tortillas

One (1) 28oz can of red enchilada sauce

2 cups (16oz) mozzarella or queso blanco

11/2 cups meat (optional) shredded beef or chicken

2-3 tablespoons oil




Coat each tortilla with oil using your hands or a brush. Spread out on a cookie sheet or baking dish and bake in a500 degree oven for about 7 minutes. Take out to cool until they are warm to the touch.


The cheese can be shredded, or just cut into slices 3-4 inches long and ¼ inch thick. (Or thicker if you like them cheesy.)


Pour just enough sauce in the bottom of a 9X13 glass-baking dish to cover it. Pour the rest of the sauce into a large bowl.


Lay the tortilla in a baking dish and if you are using the meat, put in about 2-3 tablespoons. Place the cheese on top of the meat. Fold one edge over the cheese, then the other one, and then turn the whole things over, fold side down, in baking dish. Repeat for each tortilla. Sprinkle any leftover sauce and/or cheese on top of enchiladas.


Place in 400 degree oven for 15 minutes or until cheese is melted.


Chicken Enchiladas Suiza




Twelve (12) corn tortillas

2 cups shredded chicken 

6 oz. chopped, roasted and skinned green chilies (fresh is best, but you can use canned in a pinch)

3 cups of fresh spinach

½ cup chopped onion

1-cup cream or sour cream

4 oz. cotija, crumbled

5 oz. evaporated milk

15 oz. green Chile sauce

Warm oil to dip tortillas in



Heat oven to 350 degrees.


Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a pan over medium heat and cook the onions for about 1 minute. Add the spinach and cook it for about 5 minutes until leaves are wilted. Fold in the chicken and green chilies. Set aside.


In a saucepan, heat cream, evaporated milk, cotija and chili sauce over heat until sauce is smooth.


Prepare a 9x13 inch-baking dish by coating the bottom with a thin layer of sauce. Dip a tortilla into the warm oil to soften it and place it into the pan. Place about ¼ cup filling down the center of the tortilla and sprinkle with a tablespoon of Asadero or Queso Quesadilla cheese.


Roll the tortilla up and place seam side down in dish. Repeat until all tortillas are used.


Pour remaining sauce over the top, Sprinkle with the crumbled cotija. Bake dish for 15 minutes to melt the cheese.




A taco is a “tortilla with something wrapped inside” (Avernin Pages 1-5). Again, as with enchiladas, the central ingredient is the tortilla, which is made from corn and should not be mistaken for a Spanish version of the same name that is made of eggs and potato (Avernin Pages 1-5). Dating from the time of the Spanish conquest, Bernardino de Sahagun provides a list of the various types of tortillas that the Spanish encountered in Mexico. These are:


tlaxcalpacholi – a color corn flour tortilla.


ueitlaxcalli  - which translates as a very thin, large, white tortilla.


Quauhtlaxqualli – a large, white, thick, coarse tortilla made with nixtamal, and totonqui.


Tlaxcalli – which refers to the common white tortilla (Avernin Pages 1-5)?


 According to Avernin, a “taco” is “definitely not: A canary yellow tortilla with black sports” (Avernin Pages 1-5). Therefore, the hard, curled up holders typically called “tacos” in the US are nothing of the kind (Avernin). Bernal Diaz Del Castillo documented the first taco feast enjoyed by Europeans and Cortes himself arranged for the banquet in Coyoacan for these captains (Avernin Pages 1-5). However, the taco predates the European invasion as anthropologists have found evidence that the people living in the lake region of the Valley of Mexico traditionally ate tacos filled with small fish (Avernin Pages 1-5). As this suggests, the content of a taco differs with geographical region, but also, with the time of the day, as there are “early morning tacos, evening tacos and late night tacos.”




The history of the tamales is ancient. There is evidence that this is a Mexican dish that dates as early as 5000 BC, possibly 7000 BC in Pre-Columbian history. In Pre-Columbian history, women follow armies of warriors and served as cooks. The warring tribes of the “Aztec, Maya and Incan cultures” created a need for a ready portable, but sustaining, food and the tamale were born. Tamales can be ready ahead of time planned for their consumption and warmed as required. They can be “steamed, grilled, or over the fire, or put directly on top of coals to warm,” or even eaten cold. There is no record of which Mexican culture that actually invented the tamale, but the evidence suggests that one culture did and the others followed this example.

The use of tamales caught on fast in Pre- Columbian culture and there was a variety of dishes that is unknown today. There were: plain tamales, tamales with red, green, yellow and black Chile, tamales with chocolate, fish tamales, frog, tadpole, mushroom, rabbit, gopher, turkey, bee, egg, squash blossom, honey, ox, seed and nut tamales. There were white and red fruit tamales, white tamales, and yellow tamales, dried meat tamales, roasted meat, stewed meat, bean and rice tamales. There was sweet sugar, pineapple, raisin, cinnamon, berry, banana and pumpkin tamales. There were hard and soft cheese tamales, roasted quill tamales, ant, potato, goat, wild boar, lamb and tomato tamales. The wrapping for these tamales varied almost as much as the ingredients.

“Cornhusks, banana leaves, fabric, avocado leaves, soft tree bark and other not poisonous, non-toxic leaves” were used:

The most typically used wrappings were cornhusk, banana or avocado leaves. Over the centuries, the variety of tamales has decreased. Now the most common are “red and green Chile, chicken, pork, beef, sweet Chile, cheese and of late, vegetables”. Since making tamales is labor intensive; tamales have become associated with holiday fare in Mexican culture. Women work collectively and the process usually takes an entire day, as it is “virtually unheard of to make a few tamales”. Generally, when tamales are made “hundreds are made at a time” for “tamale feasts”.




      “Salsa” is the Spanish word for “sauce”. The common conception of salsa today are “salsa frescos” or salsa crude,” that is fresh sauces served as a condiment with a Mexican meal. These uncooked sauces are pureed until smooth or semi-chunky. Evidently, from the accounts of Spanish-born Bernadino de Sahagun, vegetable sauces were a stable of Mexican cuisine since the time of the Aztecs.

De Sahagun’s accounts describe the products sold by food vendors in large Aztec markets in great detail. He says that Aztec merchants sold “foods, sauces, hot sauces, fried food, olla-cooked, juices, sauces of juices, and shredded food with Chile.” These food stuffs were sold with a wide variety of condiments, which included “squash seeds, with tomatoes, with smoke Chile, with hot Chile, with yellow Chile, with mild red Chile sauce, yellow Chile sauce, sauce of smoked Chile and heated sauce. Toward the end of this long description, De Sahagun begins to describe what sounds remarkably like modern salsa. He says that food sold with the sauce of small squash, sauce of large tomatoes, sauce of ordinary tomatoes, sauce of various kinds of sour herbs, avocado sauce”.

            “Salsa as a culinary sauce takes a variety of spices and vegetables in there combination creates a plate that is attractive, tasty and unique” (Falcon, Rafael Pages 105-112). For me, the Hispanic Culture is a lot like salsa. Everything is altogether in one dish with a lot of favor.


The Most Basic of Ingredients


As this brief history of Mexican cuisine shows, at the heart of virtually all-Mexican dishes is corn, which was regarded by the native people of Mexico as “gift of the gods.” In a traditional Navajo wedding ceremony, the bride’s grandmother presents the wedding couple with a basket of cornmeal and the “couple exchange small handfuls with each other”.


Blue corn


This is simply a variety of corn that has a dark bluish to red color, which has a coarser texture and nuttier flavor than other varieties of corn. It has been a stable food of Pueblo Indians.




“Masa” is the Mexican word for “dough,” and it refers to the dough produced to make tortillas, tamales, and other traditional Mexican dishes.




This term, which is frequently encountered in Mexican cooking, refers to dried maize (corn) that has been treated with lime and partially cooked.



Corn Husks


The outside leaves that cover the corn that is still on the cob. Husks have many uses and can be used fresh or dried. Typically, dried corn husks are soaked and used to wrap foods, such as tamales.



A trip at the Mexican Restaurant


My family and I went to a Mexican restaurant. We all order a number of items from the menu an al carte and passed the plates around sampling as much as we could. We tried the Chile relleno, the tamales, a couple different kinds of enchiladas, and a taco al carbon with shredded jicama, carrots and mango on the side, the excellent carnitas (loved by all), the queso fundido (loved especially by my daughter who was much spoken about her approval of it), the nopalitos, cilantro lime rice, epazote- flavored black beans, and frijoles charros.

At the end of the meal we ordered one of each dessert and shared all around. Their special dessert, the flan, made fresh everyday, is the creamiest I’ve ever experienced. The chocolate cake is more like a soufflé, light and moist, and served with a scoop of vanilla ice creamed and strawberry slices. With the three milks, there were some varying opinions, but I gobbled up whatever others didn’t eat. My first experience with the three milks was at the restaurant where the server told me I might not like it because usually only Mexicans like it so I guess it is one of those things where you are born to like it or you are not. Overall, we had a good time and great food. I would go back to a Mexican restaurant.





    As this survey suggests, Mexican cuisine has a long and varied history and it represents a variety of foods that are varied and rich (Thumbnail History Pages 1-3). Presented with a slim variety of foods that are deemed “Mexican,” North Americans certainly come to the conclusion that Mexican food is uniform and boring, which is far from the truth of its diversity of “appealing tastes and textures,” as well as its imaginative use of ingredients. Furthermore, there is the interesting fact that the basic diet stables of Pre-Columbian Mexico, corn and beans, are incredibly practical from a survival standpoint.

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, which are essential to health and life. However, if a diet is lacking in one of these essential amino acids, the production of protein is restricted, harming health, even producing fatalities. Neither corn nor beans possess a full set of amino acids; however, put these two foods together and they represent a complete protein source, which is so crucial to optimum health. Therefore, a corn tortilla smeared with bean paste has as much protein as a chicken, beef, or any other meat. This fact of the Mexican Pre-Columbian diet enabled even the poorest peasant to be adequately nourished and, of course, is still a factor in the diet of the Mexican people.



Annotated Bibliography



Falcon, Rafael. “Salsa” A Taste of Hispanic Culture Pages 105 – 112 The author explains specific food and Beverage items. Such as Bread, Chili Peppers, Flan, Coffee, Tea, Pińa Colada, and rum.


Sahagun, Bernadino de. “History of Salsa” Different ways how to make salsas Pages 1 – 2. The author explains the making of a sauce by combining chilies, tomatoes, and other ingredients like squash seeds and even beans has been documented back to the Azlec culture.


Averin, Sophie. “History of Tortillas and Tacos” Tortilla History Pages 1 – 5 The author explains Tackling the taco and a guide to the art of taco eating.


Kennedy, Diana. “Enchiladas.” Art of Mexican Cooking Pages 1 – 2 the author explains that there are two basic methods of making enchiladas. The first method is where the tortilla is lightly fried then dipped in a warm chili sauce then filled and rolled. The second method dips the tortilla in raw sauce then lightly fried, filled and rolled.


Sosa, Elain. “MexicoThe Mexican Diet Pages 1 – 17 The author explains about the Mexican table that is filled with an assortment of foodstuffs such as sauces, soups, and stews are common and expected, while preparation range from quick-fry to slow roasting. She talks about a list of key elements in the Mexican diet.


“A Thumbnail History” Mexican Food: A Short History Pages 1-3. http://www.mexicanmercados.com/food/foodhist.htm. The article talk about a vanilla substance was resulting from the fruit pod of certain species of Mexican orchid and chocolate come from the fruit of Mexican cacao tree. The two main foods of the native country, are corn and beans. Quesadillas, which is mainstays of Mexican street side, strands. Also talks about the colonial period of the pork lion in spicy sauce. The most Mexican fervently honored dish mole poblano. In addition, a French inspired dish called stuffed Chilies in walnut sauce.


“Corn, Maize, Masa, Nixtamal, Pozole”GourmetSleuth – Corn, Maize, Masa, Nixtamal Pages 1 – 4. http://www.gourmetsleuth.com/masanixtamal.htm. Corn is the essential ingredient for making tortillas, tamales, hominy, and pozole. Each of the above terms and food will be discussed in this article.


“The History of Tamales” Eat Tamale at Tamara’s Tamales Pages 1 – 2. http://www.tamarastamales.com/his.tamale.html. The article talk about how they were recorded as early as 5000 BC possibly 7000 BC. Women were taken along on the battle to cook different kinds of Mexican Foods for the men. They talk about how they are steamed, grilled over the fire and talk about different kinds of tamales.