Despite the recent rift and clashes between Mexico and its northern neighbour, no one can deny the close diplomatic and cultural ties of the two nations. Mexican descendants have been living in the border states of Texas, California and New Mexico ever since those territories were annexed by the United States.
It is thanks to the American stage that Mexican have successfully conquered the world.
Full of flavours, spices and usually calling for the freshest ingredient possible, Mexican cuisine have been making a breakthrough on the British scene for a couple of years now. As Briton's eating habit tend to follow a more healthy trend, Mexican food has been adapted and burritos joints, as well as taquerias, have been popping out all over the country.
Mexican found has been influenced by different cultures: the Spaniards brought their own when they conquered the Mexico valley region, African slaves brought by the Spanish in the Caribbean added their grain of salt, French and German immigrants also brought with them their culinary heritage including French haute cuisine methods and German brewing techniques.
The successive waves of influence probably explain why Mexican food is so keen to blend its Meso-American roots with worldwide food staples. The incursion and adoption of Mexican elements into the American diet furthered that trend and today every pretext is good to mix Mexican food with non-native ingredients, techniques and dishes.
A Quick History Of The Mexican Diet
Mexican food is by no measurement possible new to the table. It can be traced back to 9,000 years ago as the cuisine of Maya communities in South and Central America. At that time, corn began to be domesticated and started to form the base of the Mesoamerican native diet.
When the Mexica, native of the valley of Mexico, established the dominance of the Aztec Empire over the rest of the region, they facilitated the integration of different staples and cooking methods, into the Empire's subject daily lives.
Though the core of the Aztec diet was made of corn, bean and squash, the economic and trade network established through alliances by the Aztec rulers made it possible for ingredients such as tomatoes, avocados, cacao, vanilla or agave to find their way into regions yet unfamiliar with those.
Fast forward a few hundred years later, and the Spanish conquistadors added another layer of sophistication to the Mexican cuisine. Until then meat cuts were pretty scarce in the native Central-American diet (excluding for many different wild bird species) but Spaniards remedied to this by introducing the natives to livestock breeding and beef, pork, chicken, as well as goat and sheep, made their way on the Mexican menu.
If you ever take a road trip through Mexico, starting in the north at the US-Mexican border you will cross cold semi-arid plains perfect for cattle pastures. As you keep driving south and get closer to the twenty-fourth parallel (Tropic of Caner) temperatures will rise and semi-arid hot steppes will replace green fields. Continue further South and you will reach lush rainforests and tropical savannas.
That being said Mexico stretches over 3,200 kilometres from north to south and almost as much from East to West (on the northern border). The country is also bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the West and by the Gulf of Mexico as well as the Carribean Sea to the East.
To fully understand Mexican cuisine as a whole, sampling the best Mexican food recipes is not enough. It is important to consider the great disparity in climates and in the type of agriculture the indigenous people have been practising across the region.
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In the north, the cold semi-arid climate not suitable for much agriculture was home to the Tepehuanes, Tarahumaras, Mayos and Yaquis native indigenous people. Because of the harsh climate of their land, they were mainly hunters-gatherers until Spanish people introduced them to cattle breeding and the local food culture evolved to reflect it. For example, wheat flour tortillas are favoured rather than the classic corn tortilla and if you order a quesadilla it will be more likely to cook with American style cheese rather than Mexican queso.
In the Southern state of Oaxaca, Tabasco or Chiapas the various microclimates allowed for multiple crop types including year-round vegetables and tropical fruits. The dozens of different indigenous groups inhabiting the region all contributed to the rich and varied cuisine heritage this part of the country. Many Mexican food critiques consider the cuisine from those states at the authentic Mexican food.
In other states of the country like Yucatan, the food stands out by having retained a lot more of its Mayan roots. Undeniably, the food culture as also been influenced by Central Mexican, European and Middle Easterns cultures but techniques such as pit oven cooking are characteristic of the area.
Such ovens do not suggest the Mexican food culture is rich in baked desserts!
Melting Influences In The US
The US-Mexican border as we know it today was only established in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which ended the Mexican-American War. The terms of the treaty meant that Mexico lost more than 55% of its territory, including what is today California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
However many Mexican citizens who had land in these areas decided to stay in the territories incorporated in the US.
The first use of the term Tex-Mex referred to the Texas Mexican Railway established in 1875. It was later used to describe Texans of Mexican ancestry. However, it was not until 1963 that the term was first used to describe the mix of Spanish and Mexican food heritage which had incorporated American produced ingredients.
Tex-Mex menus are usually heavy on meat and are defined by one ingredient, not so common in traditional Mexican food: shredded cheese.
Texas-style chilli con carne, nachos, hard tacos and fajitas are all creations that were invented North of the Mexican border.
This style was made very popular in Europe at the end of the 1980's when Tex-Mex cooking packs started to appear on supermarket shelves.
Korean-Mexican Fusion and Baja-Med Cuisine
California's historical links to colonial Spain and Mexico has always been present in the local culture, ever since the territory was incorporated in the US in 1850.
Today, almost 50% of California's population is Hispanic and a nearly 30% of Californians speak Spanish as their first language. Though Mexican-born immigrants and second generation Mexican-Americans are not the only Hispanics in California, they constitute a fair bit of the Latino community in the state.
But California has always been a land welcoming immigration. In Los Angeles, communities from all over the world have live side by side under the American flag for over 150 years. In the late 2000's this melting-pot resulted in the emergence of one new type of cuisine: Korean-Mexican. This food became very popular with Los Angeles' foodies notably thanks to Twitter.
The fusion was inspired to Filipino-American food enthusiast Mark Manguera who's Korean family in law introduced him to Korean cuisine. Korean-American chef Roy Choi brought his vision to life and the Kogi Korean BBQ food truck was born, making sensation serving Spicy Pork Tacos, Kimchi Quesadillas and Short Rib Sliders.
Just South of the Californian border, in the Mexican state of Baja California, another culinary movement emerged, One that would mix typical elements of Mexican cuisine with traditional staples of Mediterranean food and a zest of Asia elements.
Given the location of the Mexican state, with the Pacific Ocean to the West and the Gulf of California to the East, Baja California is an almost-island, explaining why Baja Med food uses a lot of sea-food. Japanese fishermen that settled in those parts of Mexico in the 1930's, introduced the country to fish-tempura which were quickly adapted and eaten in tacos.
Other European dishes adapted my Mexican chefs have been highlighting the local talents and ingenuity as well as the focus of Baja-Med cuisine on local produce and seasonality. Such dishes include a remake of the classic Italian beef carpaccio, which Baja-Med version uses extremely thin sliced beetroots seasoned with blue cheese and mint vinaigrette.
Indian-Mexican Food In The UK
In the UK, Mexican food took another unexpected turn. The country has a long love story with curry thanks to its important Indian immigrant population and harsh winters evening that always call for an earthy, spicy curry.
In 2012, Birmingham based restaurateur Mahesh Raikar decided to marry his love for Indian and Mexican food and Wrapchic was born. The Indian burrito chain has since been serving curry flavoured burritos, Wraposas (a crossbreed between taco wraps and samosas) and Wrapchos, mixing of Indian spices and ingredients and Mexican dishes.
After opening many outlets in the UK, the brand's goal to bring Indian-Mexican flavours to the world started on the international scene with the opening of two outlets in Dubai. This year the chain decided that it was time to introduce India to its concept and it the first branch to open, in Chennai, seems to be a
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Mexican Influences In Japanese Cuisine
Japanese and Mexican food could not be further apart. The former relies on finesse, incredible knife skills and carefully selected ingredients when the latter relies more on spices, bold flavours and filling carbs. However, they both share millennia-old traditions that have led both cuisines to be internationally loved and respected in the gastronomy world.
In the 1980's a bold Japanese cafe owner took the leap and decided to fuse Japanese and Mexican food. Matsuzo Gibo's bet to please the American military forces based in Okinawa was successful and takoraisu (or Taco Rice) became an instant hit. SO much that KFC decided to put it on the menu of its restaurants nationwide during the 1990's.
Tacos served in hard shells made of rice had been served in Okinawa since the 1950's giving the American soldiers based there a taste from home. However, Taco Rice as it is known today is a dish consisting of taco-flavoured ground beef served on a bed of rice, usually served with shredded cheese, shredded lettuce, tomato and salsa sauce.
Japanese people being very traditional especially when it comes to their food heritage, it was up to American chefs in the US to bring the fusion further.
Jaburito, a small restaurant in Las Vegas, has become famous thanks to its Japanese style burritos and have replaced the classic and traditional tortilla by nori leaves that you would usually expect on a Japanese maki roll.
Guacamole, enchiladas, tamales and tostadas are now common dishes to find in the UK. and Mexican food has become so popular in the UK than in 2017 a BBC Good Food survey found that more than 55& of the 5000 people surveyed prefer Mexican food to Indian food when ordering takeaway.
It might be the beginning of a longer trend, however even if I doubt that Mexican restaurants will ever take over Brick Lane in London, expect to see many more Chipotle, Wahaca and the like in coming years.
One more certainty is that the margarita, a classic tequila and lime cocktail invented in Mexico, is not going off bar menus anytime soon.
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