Mexican Food, America Eats, from Life in the USA: The Complete Guide for Immigrants and Americans

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Mexican Food in the United States
When Americans speak about Mexican food, they are usually referring to Tex-Mex (or Cal-Mex) cooking, an extremely popular cuisine that spans the long border between the United States and Mexico. The food of the southwestern US state of New Mexico, and the dishes of many of the Native American peoples of the southwestern US, employ similar dish names to many Tex-Mex and some Mexican dishes, but use different flavorings and cooking techniques. An authentic Mexican restaurant, perhaps an expensive one in a major city, will usually go out of its way in its advertising to distance itself from Tex-Mex cuisine. A more informal restaurant may offer both types of food from the same menu.

Dishes like chili, fajitas, salsa, tortilla chips, corn chips, chimichangas, quesadillas, burritos, and nachos may be great food, but they are home grown American inventions. Even dishes that exist in Mexico like enchiladas, tacos, and tamales are cooked and served differently in the United States. True Mexican dishes are not cooked to be burning hot (with chiles) as are many of their relatives north of the border; chile sauce is a condiment in Mexico, to be added according to the taste of the diner.

American variants of Mexican cooking also add prodigious quantities of cheese, either shredded or melted, to nearly every dish, a practice rare in Mexico itself. The same heavy hand applies to the American use of sauces of all kinds. North of the border portions are larger, plates crammed with dishes that tend to run one into the other. In Mexico, the soft corn tortilla performs the function that bread on the table performs in the United States; it is a side starch. In the United States, tortillas, often fried up to a state of crispiness, become an ingredient in nearly every dish.

Of all dishes enjoyed on both sides of the border, guacamole may be the hardest to vary: a simple dip made from avocados, onions, chiles, spices and lime juice. Even here, Americans tend to mash the avocado into too mushy a paste, overdo the chiles, add too much cilantro or otherwise botch this Mexican classic. The Mexican chef will ideally prepare the guacamole using the traditional lava stone mortar and pestle called the molcajete, first grinding the chiles, onions and cilantro together with salt before gently folding in—not mashing—slices of the avocado, then adding lime juice or possibly a small dollop of diced tomato.

Associated with the Mexican state of Puebla, mole poblano sauce (usually called just mole sauce in the US, although the word “mole,” pronounced with a stress on the first syllable, refers to all Mexican sauces) is a mainstay of genuine Mexican cuisine that has never caught on with the American public. The sauce is created by grinding dried chiles, nuts, and spices (anise, sesame, cloves, coriander) which are then mixed with Mexican chocolate (a very sweet variety usually mixed with cinnamon). Mole poblano de guajolote, a recipe dating back several hundreds years, is turkey cooked in mole sauce, called by many the “National Dish of Mexico.” Mole poblano also goes well with chicken. The stuffed corn tortillas called enchiladas are also accented with mole poblano on occasion. Making mole poblano is a multi-step, complicated affair; the sauce is hence associated with special occasions, holidays and fine restaurants.

Puebla (the state just south of the Mexican capital) affects American food and drink consumption trends in two unusual ways. Chefs from Puebla populate the kitchens of top quality American restaurants and have a reputation for reliability and skill with all types of cuisine. The minor Mexican celebration of Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates the Mexican defeat of invading French forces at Puebla in 1862, has of late been blown out of proportion in the United States, where it has become (for non-Mexicans) a festive occasion for the consumption of Mexican-American food, Mexican beers (Corona is the most popular), and the Tequila cocktail called the Margarita. Many Americans erroneously believe the fifth of May to be Mexico’s Independence Day.

Puebla may be a rich culinary region, but Mexico is a large country with a number of distinct food traditions. The border states to the north of the country share a beef and ranching heritage with Texas. The Veracruz area along the Gulf of Mexico is famous for seafood, as is the Pacific coast. The Yucatán and areas of southeastern Mexico feature spicy (and often pepper hot) chicken and vegetable dishes, as well as specialties the likes of Iguana (a large indigenous lizard), and pork pibil cooked in banana leaves and achiote sauce (made from crushed annatto seeds, which imparts a deep reddish-yellow color to the dishes). The southern state of Oaxaca is known for a refined cuisine that features complex moles that may have each several dozen ingredients.

All regions of Mexico treasure “Pre-Hispanic“ ingredients that were commonly used by the Aztec, Maya and other native peoples before the Spanish arrived: chocolate, chile peppers, black beans, tomatoes, squash, and especially corn (among Mexico's many gifts to world agriculture). Most spices, however, are of Spanish or Arabic origin; the Spanish also introduced cattle, pigs, and other livestock, making for a true multi-cultural mix. Rice and coffee, both extremely popular in Mexico, are of Old World origin as well.

The brief French tenure in Mexico in the 1860s brought French cooking techniques, especially in baking, while Germans and Austrians founded nearly every one of Mexico many breweries, most of which export beer to the United States. The one country that has affected Mexican eating on only a small scale has been the United States; the influence is more the other way around. As with all Americanized cuisines—Italian and Chinese come quickest to mind—the American food buff can find authentic Mexican restaurants or retail food products with a little careful digging.