Friday, May 29, 2015


                             Chiles, chiles, chiles!  What an overwhelming selection!



Contemporary Mexican food as we know it today is a rich blend of indigenous and Spanish cuisines. When Hernán Cortés, the Spanish explorer, arrived in Mexico in 1519 he found types of foods, fruits, vegetables, and wild animals that Europeans had never seen before. The food of the ancient Mayan, Mixtec, Olmec, Toltec, Inca, and Aztec, although separated by time and distance, all existed within a common agricultural universe which was created by centuries of conquest and commerce.  Cortés found that the pre-Columbian people of Mexico, including the Aztecs, ate such things as mangoes, pineapples, avocados, tomatoes, coconuts, and basic staples like maize, beans, squash, and hot chiles. The Spaniards must have been totally amazed by the rich and varied native foods they encountered!

One of Diego Rivera's iconic paintings portraying an indigenous worker in the agave fields.  Agave nectar (more accurately called agave syrup) is a sweetener commercially produced from several species of agave, including Agave tequilana (blue agave) and Agave salmiana. Most agave syrup comes from Mexico and South Africa.

The Aztecs made use of the wild plants and animals present in the large valley where they made their home and which is now the home of large and sprawling Mexico City.  They also used some of the most unusual and advanced systems of agriculture found at that time which was called Chinampa.  The word "chinampas" which means "floating' gardens" refers to the small, stationary, artificial islands of land which the Aztecs constructed for agricultural purposes on the freshwater lake which surrounded the ancient city of Tenochtitlan (and now known as Mexico City).  

Artist rendition of "farmland" around Mexico City

An artist rendering of the chinampas, floating gardens, of the pre Hispanic city of Tenochtitlan in the Valley of Mexico (now known as Mexico City)

It's all about maize, corn, and the humble tortilla which gives us these delicious Mexican foods! 

Tacos or enchiladas?  What a difficult choice! 

         Here's another difficult choice:

Image result for images of tamales

 Tamales in corn husks or banana leaves?  

This ancient agricultural system using chinampas is believed to have produced a great abundance of vegetables, fruits, and flowers which included corn (maize), squash, chiles, and tomatoes, all native foods commonly found in Mexico and the Valley of Mexico. In addition to the ancient Chinampa system the pre-Hispanic cultures also developed and widely used the MILPA concept of agriculture.

The ancient milpa field concept, with a variety of co-existing and symbiotic plants, is still a viable agricultural practice in Mexico  

Mexico has long relied on the milpa or mixed crop method that planted corn, beans, squash, and other symbiotic plants (usually chiles) in the same field. Traditionally, a milpa plot (from the Nahuatl word for "corn field") is planted with maize (corn), beans, and squash (which are known as "The Three Sisters"), but might also include a variety of other plants. This technology meant that the same crops could be planted over and over without depleting the soils nutrients because the joint plantings enriched the soil in an amazingly symbiotic way. 

The "Three Sisters" of a milpa plot are squash, climbing beans, and corn as depicted in the following artist renderings

Frijoles de Olla:  Beans are a part of the daily diet in Mexico as much as tortillas. There are endless ways to prepare beans, but almost all start from the same base known as an olla or bean pot.  Frijoles de Olla is similar to a thick soup with an extraordinary flavor.  Find your own preferred recipe on the net and go for it!  

Milpa farming is still thriving in Mexico including the Yucatan Peninsula 

Both the Aztecs and the Mayan used the milpa farming system where herbs, chilies, squash, beans, and corn created their own mutually beneficial universe. The beans would support the cornstalks and add nitrogen to the soil, the large leaves of the squash would help to conserve moisture by shading the root system, and the chilies and herbs provided some deterrent to animals and insects while they allowed birds to eat and deposit seeds in other areas. The milpa, in the estimation of H. Garrison Wilkes, a maize researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, "is one of the most successful human inventions ever created."

This is one of my favorite artistic portraits of indigenous people working a milpa field

As the Aztecs expanded their territory they also imported foods from other regions including the tropical areas of Mexico.  For these and other reasons, the foods that the ancient peoples of central Mexico enjoyed were some of the richest and most varied in the world.  And aren't we thankful that we have benefited from this truly wonderful legacy!  

Because Mexican cuisine is such a unique blend of pre-Hispanic and European traditions, UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) declared the culinary traditions of Mexico a world cultural patrimony and on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010.  BRAVO MEXICO!

The following link takes you to the video which was presented to UNESCO  for this award and is definitely worth watching:

An indigenous woman with a basket of corn is certainly iconic!

Many people outside of Mexico may not know or understand what makes up real traditional Mexican foods.  The reality is Mexico has a rich culinary tradition - much of it coming out of hundreds or even thousands of years of history.  So what was eaten in the pre-Hispanic world of the Aztec empire and what is still eaten daily in today's Mexico are often the same with the possible difference of how it is prepared. 

Many of the staples of the Aztec diet are still familiar in Mexico today which include, but are not limited to the following: maize (corn), frijoles (beans), aguacates (avocados), calabaza (squash), chiles (aka chilies), jitomates (red tomatoes), tomates (green tomatoes), and nopal cactus (aka prickly pear or tuna cactus). And certainly not to be left out or forgotten is cacao (or chocolate).

Chiles (Spanish) are also called Chili or Chilli in the indigenous Nahuatl language 

A molcajete (mo̞lkaˈxe̞te̞ or mol-cah-hay’-tay) Mexican Spanish from Nahuatlmulcazitl is a stone tool, the traditional Mexican version of the mortar and pestle used for grinding various food products including chiles. The molcajete was used by pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican cultures, including the Aztec and Maya, stretching back several thousand years.

 Cacoa,  the chocolate bean, was called Xocoatl by the Aztecs, and was used in the preparation of the royal beverage for the rulers of their empire

A sampling of some of the most common fresh chiles found in modern-day Mexico

Another favorite and iconic dish in Mexico is the chile relleno that originated in the city of Puebla. It consists of a stuffed, roasted, fresh poblano pepper which is sometimes substituted with non-traditional Hatch chile, Anaheim, pasilla or even jalapeño chili pepper.

Calabasa, or squash, comes in many varieties and was a main staple of the pre-Hispanic people

What a stylish presentation of squash! 

One of my favorite juicy summer fruits is called "tunas" or nopal cactus "pears" but don't eat or touch the spines!  

Maize, or corn, was and still is the main staple in Mexican cuisine

Without corn we would not have tacos, enchiladas, tamales or a myriad of other Mexican culinary delights! 

The aguacate, or avocado, another of my favorite foods native to Mexico,  has also given us guacamole!   Bravo!   

Guacamole is an avocado-based dip or salad that began with the Aztecs in Mexico. In addition to its use in modern Mexican cuisine it has also become part of American cuisine as a dip, condiment and salad ingredient.  I don't know about you, but I say yum!

In addition, the following are more of the foods and ingredients which originated in Mexico and which are commonly consumed not only in Mexico, cut worldwide:  The names of these various foods are originally from the Aztec Nahuatl language and examples include: Vanilla, Guava, Chayote, Epazote, Camote, Jícama, Tejocote, Tenochtitlan, Zapote, Mamey Zapote, and many varieties of modern beans, peppers, and chiles.  Very impressive!

Zapote is the name used for several common tropical fruits in Mexico and Mesoamerica and regardless of its varied Latin botanical names are always known with its common name of Nahuatl origin, Zapote.

More colorful chiles which add flavor and spice, but not always heat, to the cusine of Mexico.

Wild pavos (turkeys) and perros (dogs) were both domesticated by the Aztec for human consumption.  The diet of the Aztec, however, consisted primarily of fruits, vegetables, and grains. It is estimated that the pre-Hispanic people of Mexico subsisted on approximately 1,200 calories a day. For a small people with a small caloric intake they were certainly able to build some large and impressive structures including their pyramids!  Only on special occasions was the average Aztec able to enjoy a "carnivore fix" which could also include native deer, rabbit, duck, and other birds.  

The indigenous Nahuatl name for turkey is Guajolote and the Spanish name is Pavo.

Another iconic dish in Mexico is CARNITAS made from the meat of the pig. Carnitas, literally "little meats," is a dish originating from the state of Michoacán. Carnitas are made by braising or simmering pork in oil or preferably lard until tender. Scrumptious!  The turkey lucked out when the meat of choice became pork!  

Carnitas tacos are definitely a gourmet treat in Mexico.

NOTE:  Nahuatl has given the English language some words for indigenous animals, fruits, vegetables, and tools. The most prominent are chocolate, tomato, coyote, avocado, and chile or chili.  Not so common, but oh so good, is the delicacy huitlacoche (aka corn smut).  Chiclets gum comes from the Nahuatl word chicle!  You never know when this information might come in handy, but there you are!


Definition: A fungus that grows on ears of corn and referred to as "smut" (what a charming word!)

Origins: Huitlacoche dates back to the Aztecs who enjoyed this naturally-occurring corn fungus as part of their diet. They would use the corn and the attached fungus in tamales and stews. The fungus grows on all above-ground parts of corn species. It is considered a delicacy not only in Mexico, but by other North American native peoples and this blogger!

The selection of chiles in Mexico makes the cuisine of Mexico wonderful and special!

Chiles are dried for preservation and then rehydrated for the preparation of foods and sauces

FYI: How to spell the word chile/chili/chilie:

From the dozens of chile varieties grown and enjoyed throughout the country, to the sweet and delicious delights of chocolate, ancient Mexico has given much to the world. There is a vast variety of pre-Hispanic foods including lesser known items such as amaranth, nopal cactus, chayote, chia, epazote, hoja santa, maguey cactus, and tamales, all of which have their history in the ancient cultures of Mexico and Mesoamerica. 

And less I forget to include the obvious, the basis of native Mexican cooking was, and still is, corn and corn-made tortillas which are the most typical of all Mexican food. For me it would be impossible to imagine modern-day cuisine without the contribution of pre-Hispanic foods.  Gracias!  

Indigenous women still grind maize and prepare tortillas in the time honored manner of their predecessors. 

Tortillas are the main staple in Mexican meals and consumed in huge quantities on a daily basis

Grinding corn and preparing hand-made tortillas is as ancient as the Aztec culture of Mexico

I don't know about you, but I salivate just looking at these tacos!

POSTSCRIPT:  There are over a hundred varieties of chiles commonly used in Mexican cooking ranging in size, shape and flavor strength. They add color and spice to many dishes. Chiles may be red, green, yellow, orange, or burgundy. 

Some of the most common Mexican chiles include, but are certainly not limited to:

Poblano-fresh or Ancho-dried, medium
Cascabel, hot and pungent
Cayenne, not cultivated in Latin America, dried, hot
Chiltecpin, bird chilies, fresh and dried, hot
Fresno, fresh, mild
Mirasol yellow–fresh or Guajillo red-dried Habanero, Scotch bonnet, very hot when fresh
Jalapeno fresh, chipotle dried, hot
Pasilla usually dried, mild
Serrano, fresh, hot


I do in fact know that tequila is technically not a food.  However, I think it is important to mention that since it's origin is from a plant and with the normally included lime we might need to reconsider ......or not.  Here is some interesting stuff to add to your knowledge considering this liquid "non-food." 

Agave tequilana0.jpg

Tequila is produced from the blue agave which is native to Jalisco, Mexico

Agave tequilana, commonly called blue agave (agave azul) or tequila agave, is an agave plant that is native to the state of Jalisco, Mexico.  It is an important economic product of Jalisco due to its role as the base ingredient of tequila. The high production of sugars, mostly fructose, in the core of the plant is the main characteristic that makes it suitable for the preparation of alcoholic beverages.
The plant prefers altitudes of more than 5,000 feet and grows in rich and sandy soils. Blue agave plants grow into large succulents, with spiky fleshy leaves, that can reach over seven feet in height.  On the highway to or from Guadalajara, the state capital of Jalisco, one passes what seems like miles and miles of blue agave fields.  Quite a sight!


The following dishes are some of my favorite Mexican culinary delights which definitely brings delight to this blogger.  Buen provecho (bon appétit) and enjoy!

Chiles en nogada are probably my most favorite of all the wonderful culinary offerings found in Mexico. They are truly unique, delicious, and beautiful. The name comes from the Spanish word for the walnut tree which is nogal. It consists of poblano chiles filled with picadillo (a mixture usually containing shredded meat, aromatics, fruits and spices), topped with a walnut-based cream sauce called nogada, and pomegranate seeds, which gives it the three colors of the Mexican flag: green for the chili, white for the nut sauce, and red for the pomegranate. Not only does Chiles en nogada make your taste buds sing, they also makes you feel a sense of patriotism. How many foods can you say do that!

One of my favorite dishes in Mexico is a seafood platter with fresh ocean offerings including, but not limited to, shrimp, mussels, clams, squid, and octopus.

And I simply adore ceviche!  Ceviche is a seafood dish popular in the coastal regions of the Americas, including Mexico, Central, and South America. The dish is typically made from fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices, such as lemon or lime, and spiced with a combination of diced tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and chiles.  

After seafood dishes, I simply adore sopas (soups) like pozole which is a hominy based soup. Pozole is a traditional pre-Columbian soup or stew from Mexico. The main ingredient in pozole is hominy which consists of dried maize kernels which have been treated with an alkali in a process called nixtamalization. Pozole includes a meat, usually pork, chili peppers, and other seasonings and garnish such as cabbage, salsa and limes. It is a very typical Mexicsn dish and found in various states including Sinaloa, Michoacán, Guerrero, Zacatecas, Jalisco, Morelos, State of Mexico and Distrito Federal.

Another great favorite is tortilla soup, or sopa de tortilla, which is a Mexican traditional soup made of fried corn tortilla pieces which are submerged in a broth of tomato, garlic, onion, chile de árbol, and epazote. The soup is often garnished with avocado, cilantro, limes, and white cheese. My husband swears I have had more servings of tortilla soup than anyone else in the country including nationals. I think he might be right!


I remember hearing many years ago that a picture is worth a thousand words. Those words definitely contributed to and inspired me in the creation of MEXICO AND BEYOND: LAURA'S PHOTO JOURNEY. I hope you have enjoyed this visit to the foods and culinary delights of Mexico and I look forward to seeing you again in the near future. Until then, gracias and safe travels! Laura

                                          Memories are just a click away!

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