What is “Real” Mexican Food?

After watching a “Tasty” video on Facebook and reading some of the thousand or so comments, the majority of which slammed Tasty, insisting that the recipes were not “Mexican,” it seemed natural to ask, “What is real Mexican Food?” It’s a somewhat ambiguous answer, depending on how you look at it – so lets start with breaking it down and using the definitions of “historical” and the “authentic” (“authentic” meaning a dish considered traditional or authentic – but whose historic origin is in another country) shall we?

Historically, Mexican food is generally believed to have started with the Mayans. Having discovered a way to soften corn for grinding (Nixtamalization), it led to the creation of tortillas. Beans were an easy and plentiful source of available protein, thus bean paste on a tortilla became a staple food along with the corn, wild game, fish and tropical fruits that made up the Mayan diet.

With the rise of the Aztec Empire, chilies, honey, salt and chocolate worked their way into dishes and then of course, once the conquistadors of Spain arrived, food ingredients changed significantly once more.

The Spanish brought with them stores of cinnamon, garlic, olive oil, rice, grains and more – and introduced them to the peoples of México. Domesticated animals as a food source, were also introduced and of course with them, cheese and dairy. So today, what’s considered to be historically “Authentic Mexican Food” is a blend of the indigenous Mayan and Aztec, plus Spanish – all rolled together in one deliciously, tasty mash-up.

While the history of Mexican food is considered to be this mix of Indigenous and Spanish, with travel and trade came more influence on Mexican cuisine, with contributions from the Caribbean, French, European and Portuguese. Ultimately, this resulted in a rich and varied base, on which to build additional, regional specialties. Because of this, some traditionally Mexican foods are not actually Mexican in their historical origin – but are instead, a result of this outside influence. These dishes were welcomed to México’s shores, adopted and perhaps adapted – and have become firmly entrenched in the Mexican food history.

One example is “Flan” – a traditional Mexican food and historic a Mexican one. While the Spaniards are the ones who brought it to México, it’s origin is not actually Spain, it is thanks to the Roman Empire. The Spaniards adopted it though and are the ones to thank for that wonderful caramel syrup it now comes with and of course, how it traveled to Méxcio. Mexicans then adopted the dish and adapted it and today, Flan is generally associated and thought of as a traditional, authentic Mexican food.

So that brings us back to the original question: What exactly is Mexican Food?

Mexican food (by the historic definition), generally doesn’t include anything other than food with it’s origins by the Mayan, Aztec and Spaniards. This means that foods like burritos, chimichangas, chilie con carne and those Taco Bell hard shell tacos, etc., are not authentic Mexican (BTW, those are “Tex-Mex” and a whole other cuisine in their own right.) However, it’s also important to note that sometimes, those supposed non-authentic dishes may have been built upon recipes and ingredients, or techniques from historically authentic dishes, which may ultimately lend more authenticity to them, which seems to secure them a place in the “Traditional Foods” slot and a place at the Mexican Food table. “Tacos al Pastor” is a relatively modern example of this happening.

Tacos al Pastor originated in Puebla, México, sometime in the 30’s when Lebanese immigrants to México started cooking the classic Lebanese food, Lamb Shawarma – but serving it on a flour tortilla. Gradually it changed from using lamb to using marinated pork instead (likely because it’s more widely available in many areas) and cilantro and raw onion was added. Somewhere along the line, roasted pineapple made it into the mix and today’s Taco al Pastor was born! By the historic definition, is it Mexican? No. Is it authentic, traditional and in generally every other way, known and accepted as Mexican? Yes.

It can be a little confusing but it boils down to this: “Mexican Food” depends on which definition you adhere to and what leniency you allow, especially with all the historic influence and regionality – but maybe a question to consider is why box it in? Can Mexican food not evolve and change? What about the upscale Mexican restaurants that take traditional or historic recipes and update or change them? Some of the world’s top restaurants are Mexican, taking historic dishes and updating them. Do people feel they no longer serving Mexican food? The point comes down to perspective but being so strict in defining an entire country’s cuisine, not allowing for change, flexibility or an evolving of dishes seems somehow…dispiriting. While historic recipes, dishes and methods of preparation are important to hang on to, does the cuisine on a whole have to remain stuck in the past?

Ultimately, is there really any point in stressing over the definitions? Cultural food is always being influenced as globalization increases. At Deliciosa, we agree others can argue over what category dishes fit in. As long as we can have some more flan, we’re good.

To watch the “Mexican Desserts” Tasty video that started the debate, click here!

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