There is no doubt that the popularity of Mexican food is off the charts. I think that Mexican food today is the most exciting cuisine on the planet. That is a subjective opinion. In the next few thousand words I am going to support that statement with a number of interesting facts about Mexican food that I think are pretty exciting.
The diversity of ingredients that are autochthonous to this part of North America is simply staggering. When you add all of the plants and animals that were incorporated by the colonial trade routes and patterns of migration you get one of the greatest examples of biodiversity on the planet.
I went to school in Santa Cruz, CA, and lived right next to the Chadwick Garden. Trying an heirloom tomato for the first time changed my life. When I got to Mexico and tried tortillas made out of heirloom varietal corn I became obsessed with all the ingredients and flavors that were endemic to Mexico.
You eat something your whole life, like industrial corn tortillas made in the United States, and then you try a species of exotic, heirloom varietal corn grown on a small farm in rural Mexico and you can’t believe they are the same thing.
Corn, chiles, chocolate, vanilla, beans, squash, avocados, and so many more ingredients are just waiting to be tasted like it was the very first time.
Mexico knows about all the modern haute cuisine tendencies but preserves the ancestral techniques using stone, fire, and fermentation in a way that elevates the ingredients to incredible heights.
A Mestizaje of Mexican Dishes
There is something to be said for a deep toolbox of skills for cooking. Food tastes different when it is cooked on an open fire and ground with a volcanic stone metate. It just does. The process of nixtamalización cooks corn in an alkaline solution of lime (mineral not fruit) or ash to break down the cellular membrane of the grain. The final product tastes amazing and is more nutritious than the raw version.
The people living in North America before the arrival of the Spanish colonists contributed a plethora of cooking methods like nixtamalización, fermentation, stone grinding, and underground fire pit ovens.
The young chefs who left Mexico to study modern gastronomy in Europe and the United States have another set of cooking techniques that complement the Native techniques. Mexican food is a mixture or mestizaje of many different styles of cooking. There is a lot of history and culture in each ingredient of each dish.
The most forward-thinking chefs in the world, guys like Rene Redzepi, are only now starting to experiment with fermentation like Mexicans have been doing for centuries. Mixing ancestral techniques with modern European tendencies has yielded some pretty cool experiences.
I think eating at Xokol in Guadalajara or Quintonil in Mexico is one of the world’s great culinary experiences because of the balance of modern and traditional cooking techniques.
Lastly, the reasons why we eat, and what we eat are driven by people and culture. There is a lot of family history involved in the typical cuisines and those stories make the food taste richer.
11 Fun Facts About Mexican Food
More so than most parts of the world, Mexico has done an incredible job incorporating immigrants into society. Waves of Spanish, Lebanese, German, Japanese, Chinese, Venezuelan, and United States immigrants have chosen to make Mexico their home and contribute to the local culture. It is hard to imagine Mexican food without beef and dairy, beer, tacos de pastor, rice, coconuts, or mangoes, but they all arrived because of immigrants.
If economic conditions were always good we might never have learned how tasty worms, crickets, and ants could be. The old saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention” has taught people in Mexico how to maximize every ingredient and value the sacrifice of each animal.
The hoof, the intestine, and the liver are all turned into delicacies that most rich countries turn their nose up at. Ofal can be delicious if it is prepared properly but you have to be willing to try new things.
Mexico has a combination of ingredients, techniques, and culture that can perform magic in the kitchen.
1. Mexico is a Mega-Diverse Country
Mexico is designated a mega-diverse country by the World Wildlife Fund (Mittermeier 1988) for the high number of endemic species of both flora and fauna. The different regions of Mexico are geographically diverse ranging from tropical coasts to snow-covered volcanos and alpine forests. Traditional Mexican food is as diverse as regional agriculture.
Today, Mexico has an excellent transportation system that moves food all over the country quickly. Fish can be in Mexico City the same day it is caught. Pitayas are harvested in Amacueca the same day they are sold in Guadalajara’s Plaza de las Nueve Esquinas or turned into cocktails at Cantina La Occidental.
Dairy products leave the Laguna Region for Mexico City 24 hours a day.
Facts About Mexican Food Ingredients
Today, we have access to a great deal of Mexico’s diverse, fresh ingredients in most local markets. It wasn’t long ago that finding quality Oaxacan grasshoppers outside of Oaxaca was a challenge.
2. Corn is the most important crop in Mexico
Corn is native to Mexico. It is by far the most important crop grown in Mexico, historically and contemporarily. It is the primary ingredient in a lot of traditional dishes and modern Mexican cuisine.
There are around 60 different varieties of native corn in Mexico with delicious flavors and beautiful colors. The size of the corn kernels ranges from enormous cacahuazintle used for pozole to the small olotillo that makes amazing tortillas.
There is a saying in Mexico that goes, “Sin maíz, no hay país” or Without corn, there is no country. It was meant to raise awareness about the country’s native corn varieties under threat from the genetically modified sort. The campaign is working. In recent years, demand for specialty corn has skyrocketed.
Mexico is by far the best place in the world to taste a wide variety of corn in all of its different preparations. You might need to look around a little bit but the specialty corn is there are readily available. It is worth looking for.
It is hard to imagine Thai food or Chinese food without chiles but until the 16th century, they were only found in the Americas. Spanish conquistadors established a trade route from the Philippines to Mexico and back to Europe. Chile peppers were an instant hit wherever they went in the era of spice trading and black pepper craze.
The Spanish word chile comes from the Náhuatl word chilli. You will see written as chili peppers, chilli peppers, or chile peppers and there are around 60 different types commercially produced in Mexico. Chiles are a fundamental component of authentic Mexican cuisine. Selective breeding and hybridization have led to an astonishing number of chile peppers varieties globally but Mexico has some of the oldest and tastiest chiles on the planet.
Chiles come in a wonderful assortment of colors and sizes. Some are spicy and some are not. They are eaten raw, cooked, stuffed, dried, and ground up into chili powder.
Chile en nogada is a favorite Mexican food served in September during the Independence celebrations and is associated with patrioticism. September coincides with the pomegranate season. A chile en nogada is a class of chiles rellenos. They are poblano chiles stuffed with a spiced-tomato broth ground beef.
Historically, ground beef was mixed with a candied cactus fruit called biznaga or acitrón but these cacti are endangered and apple is much more common these days. The chiles are then drowned in a walnut sauce and garnished with pomegranate seeds. The presentation of the chile en nogada looks a lot like the colors of the Mexican flag.
Some chiles are associated with places. Yahualica, Jalisco grows a special variety of chile de arbol that costs many times more than similar chiles imported from India. The chile chilhuacle from Oaxaca is an aristocratic chile from pre-hispanic times. There are very few farms producing this chile on a commercial basis and the prices are astronomical. However, a Oaxacan-style mole negro made with chile chilhuacles is a luxury experience. The chile is the reason why mole is one of Mexico’s most popular dishes.
Chile sauces and moles are some of the best souvenirs to buy when visiting Mexico. The flavor combinations are endless.
I know a lot of chefs who claim that cacao is the most important ingredient that Mexico has shared with the world. Chocolate has created a cult-like following of chefs and connoisseurs.
Cacao beans have served as means of currency being traded for other goods. The name for the people from Guadalajara, Jalisco is Tapatíos. This is from the Nahuatl word tapatiotl, or ‘its worth three’ in reference to the little bags of cacao beans traded as currency up to the 18th century.
According to Mayan mythology, kakow (cacao) was found the the gods on a mountain and given to man by Quetzalcoatl the plumed serpent god. The ancient Mayans held annual cocoa festivals after successful harvests. Chocolate is and was a treasured commodity.
Vanilla is a flavoring that is derived from orchard flowers that originate in Mexico. The Totonac people of Veracruz were some of the first to domesticate and cultivate the flower on farms. They developed a taste for xocolatl, a sort of hot chocolate flavored with vanilla. Hernan Cortez is credited with introducing both vanilla and chocolate to Europe in the 16th century.
The Aztecs used tomatoes in their cooking at the time of the Spanish conquest. The Nahuatl word tomatl is the root of the Spanish word tomate and the English word as well.
While the tomato has become an important part of many international cuisines, there are varietals of tomatoes that are native to Mexico. I have seen tiny little baby tomatoes growing wild in a field but the jitomate riñón found in Oaxaca is incredible. You can find seeds on rareseeds.com. They have a spectacular variety of heirloom seeds from all over the planet.
7. Facts about Mexican Avocados
Botanically, avocados are classified as berries with one large seed. Avocados are evergreen trees that belong to the laurel family and are native to Mexico and the Americas. There is evidence of domestication going back 5,000 years.
The Mexican state of Michoacan is famous for avocado farms. Uruapan, Michoacan holds the unofficial title of World Capital of the Avocado.
Mexico accounts for nearly half of the world’s avocado market. The United States buys 86% of Mexico’s production which is valued at $3 billion dollars.
Contrary to popular belief, the Nahuatl word auacatl does not mean testicle tree but it seems that auacatl was a euphemism for “testicle.” And honestly, there is little doubt as to why.
8. All distilled agave spirits are mezcals
Mezcal has a number of different definitions depending on which paradigm you choose to look through.
Today, mezcal is intellectual property and has strict regulations on who can use the name to sell alcohol.
Etymologically, mezcal comes from the Náhuatl word mexcalli which means cooked agaves.
The native people of Mexico have been cooking and fermenting agave juice for thousands of years. However, the distillation of the fermented juice did not begin until the Spanish introduced the copper alembic still in the 16th century.
The native peoples of the Americas cooked agaves in ovens made in underground pits similar to barbacoa de borrego or cochinita pibil.
Contrary to popular belief, mezcal does not contain mescaline or any psychedelic powers.
9. La Nao de China
The Spanish trade route to Asia went right through Mexico. La Nao de China was a Spanish galleon that sailed between Acapulco and Manila, completing the last leg of the eastern trade route.
Mexico as well as Spain received a great deal of goods from Asia. Many would take root in Mexican soil and forever change the landscape.
Rice and coconuts are two of my favorite foreign ingredients that have become an important part of Mexican food dishes.
Mole is a wonderful example of the fusion of all these new spices mixed with local chiles and chocolate.
10. Fun Facts About Baja Med Mexican Cuisine
The term Baja Med cuisine is used really loosely up and down the peninsula but originally it was coined by Chef Miguel Angel Guerrero. The unique style of cooking has brought the peninsula worldwide recognition.
The idea behind Baja Med fuses the unique ingredients of the Baja Peninsula with the global cultures that inhabit the region. Spanish missionaries introduced grapes for wine and olives for oil.
Baja California has more than 150 wineries producing 90% of all the wine made in Mexico.
Valle de Guadalupe is the most popular viticulture destination in Mexico but San Antonio de las Minas, Ojos Negros, Santo Tomás, and San Vicente are all producing great wine and fun tours.
The hunting and fishing on the peninsula provide a cornucopia of delicious treats, many of which are only found in this area. The cold-water seafood cultivated in Baja California is very different from the warm-water seafood of Sinaloa and Veracruz.
Culturally, Baja California is one of the most diverse places in Mexico. The Chinese food in Baja is regarded to be the best in Mexico. There are thriving African, Venezuelan, Haitian, Indian, and United States communities all thriving in the unique Mexican culture of Baja.
The most famous Baja Med dish that is real Mexican food is the Caesar Salad. It was invented in Tijuana at the Hotel Caesar’s on Avenida Revolution by an Italian immigrant named Caesar Cardini in the 1920s.
Caesar Cardini’s daughter claimed that the salad was invented on a busy July 4th when supplies were running low and the chef mixed together what he had left. The salad is made with whole-leaf romaine lettuce added to a bowl coated in dressing. The traditional Caesar salad dressing recipe has olive oil, parmesan cheese, sardines, mustard, garlic, raw egg yolk, black pepper, lime juice, and Worcestershire sauce.
When you visit Baja California, I highly recommend you stop by Caesar’s Restaurant to try the salad. It is a great experience.
11. Mexican Beer
Modelo Especial is now the best-selling beer in the United States. It is made by Grupo Modelo in Mexico. The two largest beer companies in Mexico, Grupo Modelo, and Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma, are owned by multinational corporations. Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma is owned by Heineken and based in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Grupo Modelo is owned by AB InBev ( Anheuser-Busch InBev) out of Anderlecht, Belgium and Constelation Brands out of New York, United States.
If you really want to taste some Mexican beer, the Mexican-owned craft breweries are where you need to be. For decades, the big companies had an absolute stranglehold on the beer market. In the last 15 years, the Mexican national beer market has changed substantially. Craft beer can be found at more stores, restaurants, and sporting events than ever before. People travel to Tijuana and Mexicali just to go on pub crawls from one excellent brewery to the next.
The contemporary Mexican beer scene is found in the microbreweries and not in the multinationals. The heart of the industry is the small entrepreneur who loves to make beer for his family and friends and got really good at it. There are some cool characters in the world of Mexican beer.
Final Thoughts On The Facts About Mexican Food
I am going to think about this article about the facts about Mexican food as a work in progress. I got a lot of ideas about places that I have not visited yet and ingredients that I still need to try.
Traditional Mexican food is incredibly regional. Jalisco-style food is very different from Yucatan-style food because of the geography, climate, and culture.
There is a good reason why traditional Mexican cuisine is included in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The native ingredients from Mexico have changed culinary trends across the planet. The Belgians went crazy for chocolate and the Chinese love spicy chile peppers.
My favorite part about Mexican food is the culture of immigration. Mexico does a very good job of integrating immigrants into the Mexican identity. Who doesn’t want to go get street tacos on National Taco Day with your friends?