Suitcase and World: Cuisine.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


Diana Kennedy,Susana Trilling, and Rick Bayless knew it before the rest of us even had a clue; that Mexican cuisine is something very special that deserves to be preserved and treasured as a matter of cultural heritage.

And the world finally took notice as well.  The result of tireless campaigning by the Conservatorio de la Cultura Gastronómica Mexicana, in November 2010, UNESCO inscribed Traditional Mexican cuisine on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity alongside French cuisine.  These are the first two cuisines to make the list - ahead of Chinese, Indian, Italian and Spanish which in my foodie opinion should also be included in the pantheon of great cuisines.  This speaks a lot about the food of Mexico!

All my life I have been a foodie, long before the word was even coined.  But to a certain degree, our palate is informed by the cuisines that we have ready access to.  Sad to admit but I most certainly never had a clue about Mexican cuisine beyond the Tex-Mex stuff that passes off for Mexican food in the US.  Yes, Guapo's Restaurant and their 3 taco platter was, at one point in my life, what I associated with Mexican cuisine.  Somewhere along the way, fajitas came into my sphere of tastes and I thought I had died and gone to Mexican food heaven.  Recently, I discovered the food of Richard Sandoval, at his restaurant La Sandia, thanks to a colleague of mine who was pining for good Mexican food after he left his previous job in Texas.    So, this foodie has a lot to learn about Mexican cuisine.

Mexican cuisine is so vast and diverse that I know that I won't even begin to scratch the surface of all the ingredients, flavors, texture, smells and cooking techniques on this short trip that I will soon be embarking on.  You can be sure though that I will try as many different foods as I can and if I'm so lucky as to be able to spend time either watching someone cook or even better yet, be in the kitchen with them, I will!

Mexican cuisine as we know it today is a fusion of old and new world ingredients.

The history of Mexican cuisine dates back to well before the Aztecs ruled the land.  Back in the day, dishes were  mainly made with corns, chilies, tomatoes and beans, and sometimes herbs, fruits and nopales.

Mayan Influences.  One of the earliest influences on the Mexican food was the culinary influence of the Mayan Indians who were traditionally nomadic hunters, gatherers, and very skillful gardeners. The Mayan Indians lived in the Yucatan area in Southeast Mexico. Owing to the fact that the Mayan Indians were hunters, their food basically included wildlife animals like raccoons, deer, rabbits, armadillos, rattle snakes, iguanas, spider monkeys, pigeons, turtles, frogs, turkeys and even several insects. Other accompaniments included tropical fruits, beans and corn. Although some of the influences are still retained, this kind of food in the Mexican cuisine is now known as pre-Hispanic cuisine or comida prehispánica, which is considered to be a rather exotic cuisine in Mexico.

Painting by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
Spanish Influences. The evolution of Mexican cuisine took a major turn after the Spanish conquest.  When Hernán Cortés led his conquistadors into Mexico, they discovered that ancient Mexicans (read *Aztecs*) resorted to cannibalism and that human flesh was offered as a sacrifice to their gods.

Apparently, Cortés found this ritual so repulsive that he persuaded the leader Moctezuma (aka Montezuma) II to ban the practice.  As an incentive, Cortés introduced meats like quail, ducks and rabbits among others.

To the regional foundation the Aztecs had in place, the Spanish added various herbs, nuts, grains and food animals. From this diversity, various foods began to emerge, blending old methods and ingredients with new flavors.  

The Threshing Floor. La era
Painting by Diego Rivera circa 1904
Among the most influential contributions that the Spaniards made to the Mexican diet was introduction of domesticated animals which pigs reigned supreme, as these animals were self-fattening and easy to transport. Pigs provided meat and lard which made the most sweeping change to the diet of the indigenous peoples.  Mexicans never fried food until the introduction of pork. Chicken, sheep, goats and cattle were also brought in and were mainly grazed in the central and northern regions.

The Spaniards also introduced cakes made from corn, eggs and other healthy ingredients, together with chocolate that was very abundant in the region.  The moment the first cake was introduced was the birthday of the Mexican sweet tooth.

Wheat was also introduced to explain the common day availability of wheat tortilla. Sugarcane was brought in from the Caribbean since it was the route they took when Cortes and his men arrived in Mexico. It is safe to say then that the Mexican cuisine that we know today also has a tint of Indian culture courtesy of the Spanish who passed by the Indian’s territory. Examples of this Mexican-Spanish-Indian fusion are frijoles, quesadillas , enchiladas and mole.

Arab Influences. The Spaniards also introduced influences and cooking methods from Spain's ties to the Arab world.  One look at a serving of Tacos al Pastor and you would be reminded of shawarma except in Mexico, the meat is pork. Tacos al Pastor are the signature dish of Mexico City - perfect street food eating!

After Mexico won independence from Spain in the 1820s, there was a lot of anti-Spanish feeling in Mexico, something which would certainly go on to influence the history of traditional Mexican food, as some Mexicans cooks of the period preferred to highlight non-Spanish elements of their cuisine.

French Influences.  In 1861, then President of Mexico,  Benito Juárez suspended interest payments to foreign countries, which angered Mexico's major creditors: Spain, France and Britain.  Fleets from the three European nations arrived at Veracruz in January 1862 intending to pressure the Mexicans into settling their debts.  When the British and the Spanish realized France's ambition to conquer Mexico, they withdrew their troops.  That left France to battle Mexico.

War between Mexico and France lasted until 1864 when the Mexicans accepted defeat.  The crown of Mexico was offered to Ferdinand Maximillian by Napolean III who had instigated the conflict.   Although Maximilian was Austrian and his rule only lasted for three short years, French influence showed up in Mexican cuisine during his reign.  Foods like bolillos, which are reminiscent of French baguettes and volavanes which is the Mexican variation of the French vol-au-vent were added to the compendium of Mexican foods.

Many traditional French foods and sauces were also made using Mexican ingredients at the time, giving Mexico some of the creamy sauces and flavorful soups eaten there today.

Today, innovative Mexican chefs like  Enrique Olvera of Restaurante Pujol in Mexico City, are taking their native cuisine to new heights by using the unconventional flavours and textures of native ingredients and presenting them in an utterly modern way.  This is Mexican nueva cocina cuisine and it's beginning to be noticed on the world food map.

I would love to sample the high end cuisine that Mexico has to offer but it won't be on this trip as there's just not enough time.  Maybe someday I will return to do some fine dining.

It's taken a long time but Mexican cuisine has become an extraordinary amalgamation of all the cultures that have influenced it over the years.  At its core though, traditional Mexican cuisine is a truly an element of cultural heritage and like many a treasured piece of heritage, something that has survived through the generations by word of mouth.  I may not be Mexican but I have no doubt that in my own way I will spread the word about Mexican cuisine once I finally get the chance to savor the *real stuff*!