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The History of Mexican Cuisine: From Ancient Roots to Modern Fusion

Many Americans think authentic Mexican food is what you get at Taco Bell: flour tortillas, grilled chicken, mountains of shredded American cheese and a glob of sour cream. But in the hot climates of Mexico, wheat is hard to grow. Corn tortillas are much more common. And chicken? Sure, it's used in cooking, but seafood is much more abundant on the coastline.

 To understand what makes authentic Mexican cuisine, you have to first understand its history. The history of Mexican food represents a rich diversity that you can still see in the people and countryside, and also taste in the delicious food.  

The Food of the Early Aztecs

 The Aztecs were the earliest inhabitants of what is now Mexico, living in vast cities as early as the 14th century. You might be surprised to learn how many of their dishes are still eaten today. Corn was plentiful, and the Aztecs pounded it and made it into thin bread. The corn tortilla remains a food staple in Mexico today. The Aztecs also ate envelopes of steamed corn filled with meat or vegetables: the earliest tamales. The food made heavy use of chili peppers and spices, just like the best modern Mexican cooking.

 Avocados are indigenous to North America, and the Aztecs would make ahuaca-mulli ("avocado mixture") by crushing the fruits in a molcajete (a pestle). Avocados are one of the only fruits or vegetables that have a high fat content, and this made it an important addition to the Aztec diet that was based mainly on corn and beans. We still prize it today because it's delicious, only the name has evolved into "guacamole".

 If you could only thank the Aztecs for only one thing, it would have to be the discovery of chocolate. The people were passionate about it. They mixed the cacao beans with spices and served it as a drink, but they primarily reserved it for their leaders and nobility. They recognized the heavenly taste of chocolate to the extent that they incorporated it into their religious rituals.

 Influence of the Spanish

 When the conquistadors arrived in the 15th to 19th centuries, they took the best of the Aztec foods back to Spain (chocolate, of course), but they also introduced many of their own foods into the local cooking. It's hard to imagine Mexican food without rice, but rice was originally introduced by the European invaders. They also integrated other European cooking styles, such as cooking with wine, garlic and onions. Beef and cheese were also Spanish imports that still play an important role in Mexican cooking today.

 Regional Variations

 When Mexico began to expand and be settled, differences in cuisine began to develop by region. The differences in terrain, some coastal and some desert, as well as differing cultural influences of the settlers now mean that variations can be found, although there are common themes. For example, the Baja California region has coastline on both sides, so that means seafood is a strong part of the heritage. Tuna, lobster, wahoo and marlin are just a few of the fresh fish staples used here. Ceviche is also a regional specialty, as are other dishes with a heavy Spanish influence.

 In the Yucatan peninsula, Asian and Arabic settlers make this area have some of the most diverse food in the country. The food of the Mayans is also in evidence, and pork cooked in plantain leaves is one of the ethnic dishes that you can still count on finding even today, despite its ancient roots. Northern Mexico has more rugged terrain, and here you'll find the dishes you probably most associate with Mexico: pinto beans and corn tortillas.

 In the south, Central American influences are stronger, and the tropical climate means more fruits and vegetables. Southern Mexicans also use more chicken than their northern counterparts, who use more beef in their cooking. Essentially, what food you'll find where depends on who settled there, as well as what the geography is like.

 Today, although dishes are still deeply steeped in their ancient roots, modern cooking styles have allowed for all kinds of evolutions. American influences mean that you can find American-style flour burritos with fusion fillings just as easily as you can a steamed blue corn tamale. Upscale restaurants offer current trendy fare like pumpkin empanadas or cream cheese-stuffed rellenos. Don't be fooled, though. No matter how much the food of Mexico evolves into the future, it still all has its basis in the simple, bountiful food of the Aztec ancestors.

by, Elizabeth Kelly

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