Taco Tuesday posts dominate social media each week, which isn’t surprising when you consider Americans devour a whopping 4.5 billion tacos per year. Even if you aren’t a taco fan yourself, you probably enjoy burritos, nachos or some other type of Mexican cuisine. You might even have a strong opinion about whether Tex-Mex is real Mexican food or just an Americanized knockoff.
Some Americans credit their fondness for Mexican meals to the rapidly growing Hispanic population in the United States. That may play a role in your own diet, but Mexican food actually appeared on U.S. soil long before that. Tacos didn’t officially earn their U.S. moniker until the early 1900s, but other Mexican staples, such as chocolate and chile peppers, appeared centuries before that.
What is Mexican Cuisine?
Mexican cuisine typically refers to dishes made from beans, peppers, meat and some type of vessel, such as a tortilla or taco shell. Many dishes are spicy, but you can reduce the heat by adding fewer peppers.
When preparing Mexican cuisine, you might use some — or all — of these ingredients:
- Black beans
- Pinto beans
- Green peppers
- Red peppers
- Chile peppers
- Chipotle peppers
- Shredded chicken
- Steak flanks
- Pulled pork
- Ground beef
- White cheese
These ingredients are then placed on a vessel, such as a flour tortilla, soft corn tortilla, crunchy taco shell or tortilla chips. You can also add them to rice or salad or stuff them inside of a tamale.
Americans often top Mexican food with salsa, sour cream, guacamole and pico de gallo — also known as salsa fresca, a blend of diced tomatoes, onions and cilantro with a hint of lime juice. You can also add shredded cheese or melted queso to your completed dishes.
Is Tex-Mex Cuisine the Same as Mexican Cuisine?
Tex-Mex cuisine refers to Mexican dishes fused with American trends, so it’s similar to many traditional Mexican dishes. It started in Texas — hence the ‘Tex’ part of the name — and spread across the country, making a final stop in Canada. The Tejano people are credited with launching this popular style of food.
Some people argue that Tex-Mex doesn’t compare to traditional Mexican fare when it comes to taste and the quality of ingredients. Here are some key differences between Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine:
- Mexican cuisine uses white cheese, not cheddar or other varieties
- Tex-Mex recipes often use cumin, but authentic Mexican dishes get their flavor from cilantro, chile peppers, cacao or other herbs and spices
- Mexican tacos come in corn tortillas stuffed with pork or steak, while Tex-Mex fans favor ground beef in crunchy corn tacos or soft flour tortillas
Based on these differences, Taco Bell and Chipotle don’t offer traditional Mexican cuisine. However, they still incorporate important parts of Tejano culture into their menus, and they’re easier to find than traditional Mexican restaurants. There are more than 7,000 Taco Bell locations scattered across the globe, and Chipotle has around 2,400 restaurants.
Where is Mexican Food From?
Mexico might seem like the obvious answer, but it’s not the only source of Mexican-style cuisine. Some popular recipes stem from a blend of Native American and Spanish dishes, and Latin Americans also enjoy — and inspire — some Mexican dishes.
Mexican food originated approximately 9,000 years ago with help from the Mayan communities. Back then, meals mainly consisted of vegetables and grains, including corn, beans, avocados, squash, tomatoes and chilies. Eventually, Spanish settlers — or rather, invaders — introduced the Mayans to garlic, herbs and meat.
Around the time of the Spanish invasion, Mexican food didn’t always contain the same meat we eat today. Dishes were often made with turkey, duck, squirrel, deer, rabbits and even dogs. Some meals even contained maguey worms and grasshoppers.
However, meat was prepared in methods similar to those used today. Meat was often slow roasted to preserve flavor and moisture, and it was typically seasoned with spices or herbs.
Drinks were made from corn, similar to the atole drinks we have today. Later in history, Mexicans introduced Europeans to chocolate, and Spanish settlers shared sugar. This resulted in drinks similar to the hot chocolate we have today.
Corn also was — and is — a staple for savory Mexican deals. You can create dough for tamales or tortillas with corn as well as make crunchy taco shells. Tortillas were made by hand until the 1940s when electric and gas-powered machinery, then considered high tech, was introduced.
What’s Unique About Mexican Food?
Mexican food has a rich history that spans thousands of years — it has truly stood the test of time. This cuisine boasts a global appeal, which means people around the world chow down on Mexican dishes. You can find Mexican food in Mexico, of course, but you can also order Mexican dishes on nearly every continent. With the exception of Italian food, most cuisines lack the worldwide popularity of Mexican fare.
Some cuisines rely on a few basic ingredients. Mexican food incorporates vibrant veggies with rich spices and satisfying proteins. You can customize Mexican food to meet nearly any lifestyle or dietary preference, including:
- Gluten free
- Dairy free
- Sugar free
- Whole 30
- Low carb
Because it’s so easy to customize the taste and price of each dish, Mexican food appeals to nearly every age and demographic. Some Mexican meals require hours in the kitchen while others can be thrown together in minutes.
What Are Some Popular Mexican Meals?
Mexican dishes are different throughout the world, so what’s popular in your city might be a rarity elsewhere. With that being said, there are several dishes that always seem to find a spot on most Tex-Mex menus or at traditional Mexican dinners.
Depending on where you live, popular menu options may include:
- Soft tacos and hard tacos
- Cochinita pibil
- Chiles rellenos
- Carne asada
- Tortilla soup
- Refried beans
- Fried ice cream
Many people mistakenly assume flan is a Mexican recipe, but it was actually a Medieval European meal. It came to the U.S. around the same time as ceviche, another dish commonly confused as Mexican cuisine. The Incas created ceviche with fresh fish, and Central Americans later flavored this dish with citrus.
How Do You Make Mexican Food?
You can easily make your own Mexican-style creation by combining a grain, a protein, veggies and spices. Let’s break down each category so you have some ideas:
- Grains: Flour tortillas, corn tortillas, hard taco shells, tostados, tortilla chips, corn dough (like the dough used for tamales), rice
- Protein: Black beans, pinto beans, chicken, pork, beef, steak, sausage, tofu
- Veggies: Chile peppers, chipotle peppers, green peppers, onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, jalapenos
- Spices and Herbs: Cilantro, cumin, cacao, oregano, taco seasoning
You can also add cheese, corn, diced tomatoes, smashed avocado and any of your other favorite foods to a Mexican-inspired recipe. Experiment with different combinations to find a sweet or savory dish that you and your loved ones enjoy.
Looking for specific recipes rather than a general idea of how to make Mexican food? Try this recipe for chicken mole enchiladas inspired by the dish we found on the Food Network:
Chicken Mole Enchiladas
- 2 chicken breasts
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 5 dried pasilla or ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
- 1 1/2 cups hot water
- 2 corn tortillas
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 1/2 medium onions, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 3/4 cups chicken stock
- One 3.1-ounce disk Mexican chocolate, chopped
- Salt and black pepper
- Olive oil, as needed
- Twelve 6-inch corn tortillas, warmed
- 1/4 cup sour cream
- 3/4 cup queso fresco
Here’s how you make this popular recipe:
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F, then place the chicken on a baking sheet. Apply salt and pepper, then drizzle olive oil over the chicken with salt and pepper and drizzle with the olive oil. Bake for approximately 10 to 15 minutes until chicken is fully cooked, not red or rubbery. Shred chicken into small pieces after it cools.
While your chicken bakes, work on preparing your mole. Start by soaking the dried chiles in 1 1/2 cups hot water for 15 minutes, then drain your mixture and set it aside.
Toast the corn tortillas in a skillet without oil or cooking spray until crisp and golden. Once cool, tear your tortillas into pieces and set them aside. Drizzle oil in the skillet, then saute the onions with a dash of salt over medium heat for 3 minutes. Add garlic to the onion mixture, and saute your veggies for an additional 2 minutes..
Combine the onion and garlic mixture in a blender with the chiles and tortillas you set aside, plus peanut butter and oregano. Pour the chicken stock over your ingredients and blend until mixture is smooth.
Add the blended mixture to a medium saute pan, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium, then cover your pan and let the mixture simmer for 20 minutes.
Carefully stir in the chocolate, then season the mole with salt and pepper. Save 1 cup of mole for the enchiladas, and set aside the rest for dipping the tortillas.
Now it’s time to assemble the enchiladas. Start by filling a medium saute pan halfway with oil over high heat. Using tongs or another heat-safe kitchen utensil, dip each tortilla one at a time into the hot mixture. Fry it for a few seconds until it’s hot and soft.
Place fried tortillas into the warm mole and then move them to a plate. Fill each tortilla with the chicken mixture, then roll it like a cigar. Place tortillas side by side, seams down, in the serving dish, then pour mole on top. Serve with sour cream and queso.
Need an easier Mexican recipe? Try this homemade guacamole:
- 4 to 6 avocados, pitted and mashed
- Lime juice
- Sea salt
Add a dash of lime juice to mashed avocados, then sprinkle with sea salt. That’s it! Serve with chips, veggies or tortillas. You can also use guacamole as a topping or filling for tacos, casseroles or toast.
Got a little more time?
Add diced tomatoes, jalapeno, garlic powder or minced garlic to your mixture. Top with cotija cheese or fresh salsa.
Mexican foods are packed with fresh flavor, whether you eat vegetarian fajitas, lime-infused guacamole or pork-filled tamales. Some people prefer traditional Mexican fare to Americanized Tex-Mex cuisine, but both options stem from memorable historical periods. Next time you bite into a tasty taco or savor a rich piece of chocolate, think about how you’re eating the same food your ancestors once enjoyed.