What Exactly Is ‘Mexican Food?’
South of the border meals are more than just cheese, beans and rice
In the last few years, Mexican food has evolved from a cuisine most closely associated with a drive-thru and dollar menu to high-end fare with the likes of Pujol—one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants—in Mexico City. And yet, there is still a lack of understanding around the diverse nature of the fare.
“What is Mexican food in the United States?” inquires Laura Rodriguez, a Mexican journalist. “People believe it to be tacos, tortas and burritos. The reality is that Mexican food is much more than that. It has a strong and rich culture that must be understood to be made with respect.”
For many chefs, a “traditional” Mexican meal might be made with ingredients indigenous to the country—no dairy. For another, it might be the quesadillas de flor de calabaza, melted cheese squeezed into a tortilla with squash blossoms, sold at Mercado de la Merced, the oldest market in Mexico City.
The truth is, Mexican food, and the use of the moniker to label it as such, is as wide and varied as the term “American cuisine.” The food varies from region to region, and corn is the unifier.
The grain used to make tamales, tortillas, pozole—a pork-based stew in tomato broth—has been around for more than 9,000 years. Its versatility is most predominantly on display during the holiday season. It’s particularly visible during the Day of Dead festivities, which revolve around cooking meals for departed loved ones.
“The particular food and drinks that might mark such an occasion will often vary, depending on regional differences,” says Delia Cosentino, an associate professor of art history and architecture at DePaul University in Chicago. “Ritual celebrations are not homogenous across Greater Mexico. But items like mole, pan de muertos and atole often transcend more regionally determined dishes, like tasajo from Chiapas or Mayan pibipollo of Campeche.”
Each city in Mexico has a different way of embracing its collective roots. There is not a one-size-fits-all option when approaching Mexican cuisine, and to label it as such is a disservice to the people and food.
Luis Arce Mota, Chef/Owner
“Anyone embarking on opening a restaurant, regardless of cuisine, upon, first and foremost, immerse themselves in the culture behind the cuisine they are planning to serve to the public,” advises Luis Arce Mota, the Mexico-born chef/owner of La Contenta and La Contenta Oeste in New York City.
Mota recommends hiring a native to consult on the project. This can go a long way in demonstrating a commitment to the community, but can also help prevent costly errors such the reprinting of materials or even the closure of a business due to insensitivity.
Put simply, tapping into the community sets restaurateurs up to succeed.