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Tex-Mex Food

Food classifications in the United States don’t always work out neatly. This is especially true with the term “Tex-Mex.” To some, the term is synonymous with a Mexican-American food hybrid that is not of great culinary interest. To many, however, Tex-Mex describes a great American food tradition. It might be best to look at the Tex-Mex menu from the standpoint of pure numbers to understand its true significance: its dishes are enormously popular in every corner of the United States. It would be accurate to say it is now the dominant ethnic food variety in the country, except for the fact that it is so integrated into the general food culture that it is more mainstream American than ethnic.

An important word that applies to the heartland of Tex-Mex food, the border between the American state of Texas and Mexico, is Tejano, Spanish for Texan; the region involved has a distinct economy, vibrant music, its own forms of both the Spanish and the English language. This is not a recent phenomenon. The cuisine of the region began to develop when it was under Spanish control, beginning in 1598.

The original Tex-Mex hybrid began with a mixture of European Spanish and the Native-American cookways of the region. When a number of families from the Canary Islands migrated to San Antonio in 1731, they brought a taste for Spanish and North African spices like cumin and cilantro that would differ from those that would become popular in metropolitan Mexico. Some theorists believe that Tex-Mex chili is a descendant of the Moroccan stews that are still today slow-cooked in the distinctive tangine clay oven (others give the dish more of a cowboy origin).

The Texas border region was Spanish for more than a hundred years, Mexican for less than fifteen years, part of an independent Texas for nine years, and part of the United States for more than 150 years (to be fair, it was also part of the Confederate States of America for four years). Remote from the centers of both Mexico and the United States, it developed its own foodways, influenced by the ranching culture prominent in both Texas and the northern states of Mexico. Beef is a prominent ingredient, with chicken in increasing use in Americanized forms.

The cuisine is spicy, based on chiles, onion, garlic, cumin, cilantro, cayenne and black peppers. Beans are a primary starch, along with the flatbread, wheat or corn based, known as tortillas. The corn chip, the tortilla chip, and the piquant tomato dip known as salsa are all Tex-Mex inventions, better known in bars and casual restaurants in Minneapolis, Seattle, or Chicago than they are in Mexico City or Guadalajara. Some other typical Tex-Mex favorites include:

  • Chili: particularly what is also known as chile con carne or Texas chili, a stew of chunked (not ground) beef, onions, garlic, spices and ground dried hot chile peppers. Subject to many varieties throughout the United States.
  • Nachos: a favorite American finger food, in its simplest form tortilla chips, covered with chopped jalapeño peppers and melted cheese. Ingredient combinations are unlimited.
  • Fajitas: strips of beef, chicken or shrimp stir-fried with onions, tomatoes, and green bell peppers, often served on a sizzling cast-iron platter, with flour tortillas, guacamole, pico de gallo, refried beans, shredded cheese and sour cream.
  • Chile con queso: a creamy dip of yellow cheese, diced tomatoes and peppers, sometimes with added meat flavorings. Served warm with tortilla chips.
  • Chimichangas: a squat deep-fried filled soft wheat tortilla. Many stories are extant about how the Chimichanga came to be named; the usual consensus is that the word is based on a euphemism for a swear word uttered when the original chef accidentally dropped a burrito into a deep fryer. A crispy, delicious treat.
  • Quesadillas: a pan or oven-fried filled wheat tortilla, usually containing cheese combined with other tasty ingredients. Frequently cut into wedges for serving.
  • Enchiladas: a stuffed tortilla, wheat but more authentically corn, usually served in the United States bathed in a red chile sauce and melted cheese.
  • Guacamole: a thick dip designed to be scooped up with tortilla chips, made of a base of mashed avocado, typically with addition of lemon or lime juice, chopped onion, cilantro, and some kind of chile spicing.
  • Burritos: meaning literally “little burro,” the burrito is a soft flour tortilla, often oversized, filled with meats, cheese, beans or a combination of ingredients.
  • Refried Beans: Mashed beans, not really “refried;” the term is a misinterpretation of the Mexican Spanish “frijoles refritos” signifying that the beans have been fried thoroughly. Few Tex-Mex dishes are ever served without this staple.
  • Salsa: A combination of chiles, tomatoes, onions and spices, sometimes served free with tortilla chips as a starter course or with drinks. Available in many strengths in jars at American supermarkets.
  • Pico de Gallo: Literally “rooster’s beak” in Spanish, a condiment made from diced tomatoes, onions and chiles.
  • Tacos: a hard-fried corn tortilla bent to form a U-shape and filled with ground meat, refried beans, lettuce, shredded cheese and other toppings. Taco-shells are available at many American supermarkets. A Gordita is a thicker squatter variety of taco.
  • Flautas: “flute” in Spanish, these are small, filled cylindrical rolled up tortillas that have been deep fried until crisp.
  • Chalupas: a crispy edible bowl creating by deep frying a corn-based masa dough; filled with meats, cheese, sour cream, onions, or clili. Standard dinner restaurants in the United States sometimes use the chalupa as the basis for what they erroneously call a “taco salad.”
  • Tamales: a cylindrical cake formed from mashed corn, filled with flakes of beef or pork, steamed in a tied corn husk (the husks are sold separately for this purpose). Frequently served in the United States covered in red sauce and melted cheese.