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Mexican Cuisine

mexican cuisineJust south of the U.S. border you can find one the most colorful, flavorful, and celebrated cultural foods styles in the Western hemisphere. Strong with Spanish influences, and with roots in the ancient civilizations of the Aztecs and Mayans, Mexican cuisine has a rich history that can still be seen daily in modern cookery. The staple foods of three hundred years ago remain staples today; to settle down with some crisp tortilla chips and a bowl of guacamole, or a piece of rich chocolate, is actually to hold a piece of Mexican food history.

Though subject to regionalized variations (staple ingredients of one region are not easily obtained in others), Mexican cooking does have a more unified national cuisine than, say, Italy, with famed dishes being attributed to the entire culture rather than a specific area. Northern Mexico is recognized for its use of meats, specifically beef, while coastal areas utilize fish and seafood; Southern Mexico is known for a large variety of vegetarian dishes.

The Spanish Influence

The variations in meal staples from region to region are influenced only in part by local resources. Spanish contributions to Mexican cuisine are significant; areas that were explored more fully than others absorbed more foreign influences than locations which were left alone.

Before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, Mexican cookery was built on the traditions of the Aztecs and Mayans (the name "Mexico" itself comes from the term Mexicas, which is what the Aztecs called themselves). The staples of the diet were maize (corn), beans, squash, avocado, tomatoes, chilies, cocoa beans and chocolate, vanilla, turkey, and fruits like papaya and pineapple. These items are still considered staples of the Mexican diet today, though in varying quantities (chocolate, for example, would not be listed in the top five most essential foods in Mexican cuisine). To this the Spanish added staples of their own native cuisine, most importantly rice, and also beef, pork, garlic, onions, and wine. When these two lists are combined, we see the defining foods of modern Mexican cooking have changed little in the past few centuries.

Modern Food

Maize is absolutely essential in Mexican culture and cuisine. It is the foundation of almost every meal, and can even act as a meal independent of other ingredients. Tortillas are the most utilized maize products; the most important item in the Mexican kitchen, they are the equivalent of rice in Asian food or bread in European and American households. Round, thin, and flat, they can be eaten alone like bread, or used as the base for famed everyday dishes like quesadillas (a tortilla folded in half and filled with meat, cheese, vegetables, and other fillings and then deep fried) and tacos (tortilla rolled around fillings of meats, beans, and sauces).

Tortilla making is one of the most important tasks in the Mexican home, and can be very time consuming. Domestic cooks rise early to prepare the corn, grind it into dough (masa), shape the dough, press it thin, and cook enough to sustain the household through an entire day of meals (and snacks).

Beans are the other central player in Mexican cuisine, served at almost every main meal. Pinto and black beans are most commonly used, and are usually boiled and served in their own liquid. Refried beans, which have been cooked twice, are also a well known Mexican dish, and can be flavored with chilies and other spices.

Sauces are important to Mexican cooking; inexpensive and flavorful, they are sometimes used as a filling on their own. Guacamole (avocado dip), salsa (tomato based sauce with varying additions and spices), salsa verde (green salsa), etc. are popular variations known in the United States.

Beverages are also a well known focus in the native cuisine, whether virgin or alcoholic. Aguas frescas, fruit and vegetable infused waters, are made in the home or sold by street vendors, as are licuados, liquefied fruits mixed with raw egg or milk. Tequila and other mescal, or agave based liquors, as well as beer, are the best known alcoholic drinks.

Meals in Mexico

In Mexico the day begins early. For those rushing to work, atole, a traditional maize-based drink of cornmeal, water, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla/chocolate, and sometimes pureed fruit, served warm, is a quick breakfast. A more complete morning meal, eaten later in the morning, might include huevos rancheros, lightly fried tortillas with fried eggs and tomato/chili sauce, and beans. Eggs, beans and chorizo (spicy sausage) are also common, as are simple fruit and pastries.

The main Mexican meal of the day is traditionally eaten in the late afternoon, between 2PM and 4PM. The typical complete meal has five courses: soups (usually vegetable or bean based), "dry soup" like seasoned rice, meat and/or fish dishes (like arroz con pollo, rice with chicken) with tortillas and sauces, beans, and fruit/coffee. Moles (turkey or beef with a blend of chilies, garlic, and hand ground spices, fried and simmered into a thick sauce - which may include a small amount of bittersweet chocolate) are signature meal of Mexican cooking, and might appear here.

Supper is simple and small, eaten late in the evening. Snacks like tamales (dough stuffed with meat or sauce and fried) or empanadas (turnovers) might be available, but coffee, fruit, and pastry alone are not uncommon.

Street food and snacks are an institution in Mexico, sold by vendors and abundant throughout the country. Nuts, fruits, beverages, tamales, steamed lamb, carnitas (pork fried in its own fat), corn on the cob with lime, sweet potatoes, and much are available throughout the day, and can comprise an entire meal on busy days.

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