Exploring the Regional Cuisine of Mexico
Updated: Dec 26, 2020
While there are several unique food regions in Mexico, there are three that stand out among them; Oaxaca, Yucatan and Veracruz. Food is an important aspect of the Mexican culture, social structure and popular tradition. Similarly to America, Mexican food has been greatly influenced by location, climate, wealth, immigration and slavery.
Mexican food has a reputation as being spicy but it is better to describe it as strong. It is said that without chiles the indigenous people did not think they were eating. Even today, most Mexicans believe that the chile holds their native identity. Native chiles with their own unique flavors and heat make each region's food unique on their own.
Dishes here are not defined by the meat or vegetables but by the sauce. Dishes without sauce are rarely eaten. If they are, a salsa or fresh or pickled chiles accompanies it. The most important example of this is the Mole. Made only on special occasions and holidays because it requires such an involved process, the Mole is considered one of the most important dishes in Mexico.
As with many older cultures, cooking is considered the main talent of the woman of the house. Sazon, the ability to cook well, is a gift generally gained from experience and a sense of commitment to diners. Cooking is part of social custom and meant to bind families and communities. For us, this means three things; amazing flavors, quality ingredients and hard work. With such an important role, as the cook of the house, great care and attention to detail is given to every aspect of their food. Many of the cooking processes of the Mexican culture are very time consuming but give us a flavor like no factory can. The corn tortilla is perhaps the greatest example of this. In the home everything is done by hand, a process that takes much of the day and is done every day. Factories can hull & grind the corn to make tortillas much faster but we sacrifice the texture and even flavor in the process.
One of the most varied parts of Mexican cuisine, street food is made up of foods not suitable for home cooking such as barbacoa and carnitas. This also includes roasted chicken, since many homes are without an oven. Other popular street foods include tacos, quesadillas, pambazos, tamales, huaraches, alambres & al pastor.
The taco is the best known street food. Its origin is based on the prehispanic custom of picking up foods with a tortilla, before utensils were introduced. Tacos are never the main meal, they are served midday or late evening. There is great distinction between the tacos in different regions, based on what proteins are readily available. In the north they are made of beef, on the coasts seafood and centrally chicken and pork.
Native foods include corn, beans, avocado, tomato and chili peppers. Turkey, iguana, insects and turtle eggs were all commonly consumed forms of protein before the domesticated livestock were introduced.
The Spanish Conquest influenced Mexican cooking by bringing a unique mix of European cooking techniques and Arab ingredients. Things like olive oil, rice, garlic, onions, oregano, coriander (cilantro), cinnamon and cloves were now available. The Spanish also brought with them the cooking technique of frying.
In the 19th century Mexico saw a great influx of immigration of French, Lebanese, German, Chinese and Italian people all bringing with them their favorite ingredients and cooking techniques. The French brought their bread, the German brought their beer.
During the 20th century we see the evolution of Tex-Mex, which is what most people in America consider Mexican food. This is where we see the use of flour tortillas. The most northern part of Mexico now favors the flour over the corn tortilla and now it is home to over 40 different types of flour tortillas. It's arid landscape makes it poor for farming, with the exception of wheat. This encouraged the flour tortilla to become successful in this area and allowed for the creation of the burrito.
While there are many more regions with unique food stories, I'd like to focus on the three most distinguishable: Oaxaca, Yucatan and Veracruz.
Oaxaca cooking has remained the most intact after the Spanish Conquest, primarily due to poor accessibility. Here we see a large variety of vegetables, seafood and tropical fruits. It has kept the domestication of chicken and pork, as well as adapted mozzarella into what is now known as Oaxaca Cheese. Corn is a staple here, as it is in most of Mexico, tortillas called 'blandas' are part of every meal. Black beans are featured prominently here. As is chocolate, which is usually consumed as a beverage frequently hand ground with almonds and cinnamon. A major feature of this cuisine is its seven varieties of Mole. They are: Negro, Amarillo, Rojo, Verde, Coloradito (little red), Chichilo (smoky stew) and Mancha Marteles (table cloth strainer).
The Yucatan region has very distinct food from the rest of the country. Primarily based on Mayan food with influences from the Caribbean, Central Mexico, Europe (especially France) and Middle Easter Cultures. One of the main spices of the area is the Annatto Seed, it gives food a reddish color with a slightly peppery smell and a hint of nutmeg. Also popular here is recados, a seasoning paste based on the achiote chile or a mix of habanero and chirmole, both used on chicken or pork. Pibil, the Mayan word for 'buried' is a common cooking technique to this area where food is wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a pit oven. Tropical fruits are prominently displayed in this area, most commonly tamarind, plums, avocado and bitter oranges. The latter often in regionally distinctive salsas. Honey is often used to sweeten dishes. Coastal areas serve a variety of seafood, including conch fillets, often served just marinated in lime juice, shrimp and lagoon snails.
Veracruz is a unique mix of influences from the indigenous people, Spanish settlers and African slaves. The Spanish brought with them many herbs, such as parsley, thyme and cilantro, which inspired the best known dish of this region: Huachinango a la Veracruzana, a dish made of red snapper. Africa's influence brought plantains, yucca, sweet potatoes and most importantly peanuts. Peanuts originally from Portugal traveled to Africa and then Mexico by way of the Caribbean. Seafood is prominent here due to its location to the Gulf and as the gateway to Mexico, outside influences are seen here in a very dramatic way. Most obviously is the fact that rice has taken the place of corn. Beef, pork and chicken are also used often, as the highlands are excellent for raising livestock. Cheese production as a result of the successful livestock farms make this region unique in its use of meat and cheese dishes.
Hungry? Let's visit the Yucatan & make some street tacos!
Yucatan Style Pulled Pork Recipe