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Contrary to popular belief outside of Mexico, the cuisine of this sunny country is rich in history, flavour, contrast, texture and colour. Mexicans, particularly the well-to-do ones eat a varied diet of fresh meats, fish, shellfish, fowl, vegetables and fruits.
Most foods are field fresh due to necessity, and never older than two days. They taste as nature intended. Pesticide and herbicide use is minimal due to cost considerations, and both fruits and vegetables are picked ripe or very close to ripeness. Of course, Mexicans eat only seasonal fruits and vegetables, never dreaming to look for anything out of season, or imported from thousands of kilometres away. Almost everything is consumed locally, expect in Mexico City where producers ship the goods that are unlikely to sell locally.
In pre-Hispanic times, Montezuma II, the emperor of Mexico – Tenochtitlan chose each day from an array of three hundred dishes: abundant fowl, tropical fruits, ice creams made using snow from a volcano, and fresh fish carried by runners from the Gulf of Mexico. For the Mexicans (Aztecs), corn was the nucleus of both ritual and daily life. With it they made “atole”- a beverage laced with cheese or vanilla, and “tamales” stuffed with fish or meat. Corn was also used to make tortillas – so named by Spaniards – often used to mop up sauces and bits of vegetables clinging to the plate. The majority of Aztec dishes were complimented by pepper sauces, laced with green and red tomatoes, and accented with wild herbs. Beverages were equally important: the most of popular of which came from the Tabasco state. It was called chocolate and reserved for the privileged. The general population drunk pulque – a juice extracted from the meguey plant, a k a blue agave.
Spaniards has to incorporate indigenous ingredients into their own recipes, and Aztecs adopted a few, namely pork, beef, chicken, grapes, olives and a variety of spices(cumin, pepper, sugar, almonds, anise, garlic, sesame, cilantro, cinnamon, cloves, which were introduced by the conquistadors. Gradually a mestizo or baroque cuisine evolved which one could call fusion cuisine.
Mexico has a number of regional cuisines, as the country is large and enjoys a number of climates and soils for a range of vegetables and fruits.
The North (Coahuila and Nueva Sonora):
Northeastern Mexicans raise the best cattle and favour beef over other meats. The preferred method of cooking is grilling. Meat was also dried to preserve it as the original inhabitants were nomads. Dried, salted, shredded beef, and aged chilli-rubbed cheese are still popular today. Dishes are accompanied with beans mixed with green chilli, chopped tomatoes and sausage. Shrimp and other shellfish, game, and smoked marlin are popular among fishermen, hunters and wealthy families. Wheat flour tortillas are consumed during the meal. Quince paste, fruit preserves and candy creams are served to conclude a meal.
The coastal waters of this peninsula teem with over 650 different species of marine life. Mexican style clambake infused with aromatic herbs is a delight to smell and eat. While clams are being cooked, guests nibble on tacos stuffed with steaks. Shellfish-stuffed chilli peppers are passed around and wine from the vineyards of the peninsula flows freely.
Central Plains: (Aguas Calientes, Jalisco, Guanajate, Michoacan, Zacatecas, San Louis Potosi, Hidalgo).
Altiplanos dishes combine indigenous flavours, “imported” foodstuffs and the ingenuity of local cooks. The 12 states that make up the Altiplano are famous for their antojo (snacks), which look somewhat like Spanish tapas, but are more elaborate and satisfying. Salsa serves as a sauce to fish or can be mixed with cheese, beans and onions for enchiladas, soft tacos, and used as a tortilla stuffing for tostadas (toasted tacos). Salsa is ubiquitous and versatile; in fact it has become more popular than ketchup in the USA. Here, the population and tourists favour Jamaica punch, tamarind water and hurchata (melon seeds or rice frappe with cinnamon) as thirst quenchers.
A step apart from mainstream Mexican gastronomic evolution. This cuisine was created in the 19th century by stuffing peppers with ground meat, almonds, raisins (on occasion other dried fruits were also employed), and pine nuts. Stuffed vegetables are sprinkled with chopped parsley, covered with creamed nuts and baked; a dish contrasting sweet and salty, piquant and sour, reflecting Aztec, Hispanic, Arabic and Oriental cooking philosophies reflect the mix of population and how their gastronomic heritage intermingled to create a totally new sensation. Mole poblano (a thick, dark blend of chilli and dark bitter chocolate) dishes and a number of sweets figure prominently in the Puebla cuisine.
The Gulf shore (Tamaluipas and Querataro)
This region is known by most connoisseurs as the kingdom of Gulf shrimp, red snapper, sea bass, crab, octopus and crayfish, and where ingenious Veracruz chefs invented the eponymous seafood garnish (stewed fish with tomatoes, olives, capers, and long chilli peppers). Tamales (steamed banana-leaf-wrapped fish fillets) are served for breakfast with strong black coffee from Cordoba. Ceviche (lime juice, cilantro, onion, and oil marinated white-fleshed, flat fish fillets) were invented in this region and are very popular not only with locals, but also with the millions of tourists who flood the beaches in winter. Ceviche has become famous enough to be featured on European and North American restaurant menus.
The Pacific shore:
Colima, Michoacan, Guerrero and Nayarit are the provinces of this region. Logically, seafood reigns supreme. Broths, antojos, and botanas (small sandwich snacks or tostadas) are prepared by cooks for the enjoyment of all. In Mazatlan, shrimp and crayfish stuffed tamales are grilled over charcoal fired grilles; which represent a welcome change to the palates of tourists and local population. Puerto Valetta is famous for shrimps, octopus, clams, oysters and squid , all of which are served in tostadas to the millions of tourists who come to enjoy the sun and beaches. Ceviches, and delightful cocktails made from tomato-based juices, onions, lime, and green chilli are very popular. Here, tequila is chased by spicy tomato juice. Manzanillo fishermen are known for their seafood chowders; they are happy to share them with whoever is willing to pay the price.
The Isthmus; (Tabasco, Chiapas and Oaxaca)
The Olmecs, the Mistecs and the Zapatecs chose this warm region for its fertile soil. Toasted corn tortillas, fried grass hoppers, string cheese, tamales, red chilli and banana-leaf-wrapped pork and mole are typical. In the Isthmus states, there exist several mole recipes each of which has its distinct flavour and colour pending on the amount of chocolate used. Pork is stuffed with fruit and roasted. Beef tongue with sweet and sour tomato juice has been popular for decades. Seafood chowders abound and are subject to availability and the imagination of the cook on that day. There are many fruit-based desserts as well as those based on flour, sugar and eggs. ezcal happens to be the most popular thirst quencher.
The Yucatan Peninsula
Mayas, the original inhabitants of this landmass jutting into the Atlantic Ocean served pheasant and deer to their rulers. When oranges, lemons, and sour lime were introduced, the indigenous cuisine took a turn for the better. Spanish culinary influence on Mayan cooks caused the birth of pork dishes with sweet and sour sauce, sweet lime-soup served with soft tortillas, and antojos based on seafood. Here, spiny lobster (crayfish), squid, shrimp. Crab, octopus, pompano and dog fish are prepared imaginatively with citrus fruits to elevate each to heavenly heights. Cancun, Cozumel and the Tulum Corridor are magnets for tourists interested in archaeology and sunshine. Cooks have invented new ways to please their guests with the plethora of foods available to them.
Mexican cuisine overall is natural, flavourful, colourful, always based on seasonal produce, and fresh. Mexican cooks are guided by superior flavour and colour. They like to present their creations simply and always prepare them lovingly.
Contrary to common belief that Mexicans drink more tequila than any other alcoholic beverage, brandy is most often-used distillate, generally consumed with Coca Cola. Mexican beer gained a reputation for its taste. Most breweries were started by Germans who paid special attention to the quality of water available on location.
Tequila, derived from the blue agave, is popular and has been refined since 1980’s to the extent that it is now considered to be a sophisticated distillate often competing with Scotch whisky and Cognac.
Authentic Mexican cuisine should not be confused with North American Mexican-style fast food.
The rich heritage of both Aztecs and Mayan cultures is palpable. Spanish influences along with those from others peoples who have settled here since the 16th century have all played a role to create a unique cuisine which deserves to be explored by all interested in good food.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu