The Amazing History of Mexican Cuisine

With a heritage of over 1000 years, Mexican cuisine has finally excelled in the world to claim its place in our modern times with the recent appointment by the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Raquel Moran from El Maguey Mexican restaurant in Bowling Green, Kentucky explains, “the term ‘cultural heritage’ has changed content considerably in recent decades, partially owing to the instruments developed by UNESCO. Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions,performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events and of course food”.

Across the region, each dish is unique and spectacular not only in terms of flavors and aromas but in spirit and identity. The authentic cuisine of Mexico is not what you might find in your average Mexican restaurant. To find it, we must first understand where it comes from and how it has changed and created legends and stories told from generation to generation. 

First, it should be clear that Mexico was not a colony but a Viceroyalty, which caused the collision of two ways of understanding the food. Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the diet of pre-Hispanic cultures was largely based on corn dishes with chilies and herbs, usually complemented with beans, tomatoes or nopales.

Also, they included vanilla, cherry tomatoes, avocado, guava, papaya, sapote, mamey, pineapple, jicama, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, peanuts, annatto, corn smut, turkey, and fish. For the second decade of the sixteenth century, the Spanish invasion also marked the arrival of a large variety of animals including cattle, chickens, goats, sheep and pigs. Not only that, it also came rice, wheat, oats, olive oil, wine, almonds, parsley and many spices which merged with the culture and eventually became part of Indian cuisine.

However, we must not confuse this as a complete fusion, because the Spaniards did not alter Mexican food, their new ingredients simply served to further explore their potential. The Mexican cuisine that developed through this exchange is complex and is one of the reasons why it is one of the largest food traditions in the world.

The earliest records of what the Spaniards found on their way to Mexico is known from the detailed description that one of the men of Hernán Cortés army. Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote in his book “True History of the Conquest of New Spain”  about his astonishment with the amount of ingredients and traditions around each indigenous community that crossed his path. 

Diaz del Castillo talks about what the Emperador Moctezuma ate and how it was presented: “For food, the chefs had more than thirty different dishes, traditionally prepared and laid before them on mud braziers to keep warm, and Moctezuma had more than three hundred dishes, usually chickens, roosters, pheasants, quails, ducks. Sitting on a soft, low pillow, the table was also low, spread a white tablecloth and four very beautiful and very clean women gave water and towels and other women brought him bread tortilla. “

Diaz describes the food so rich that it could be easy to abandon their ritual sacrifices. There were also large amounts and cocoa. There were cakes, as Diaz called them, made from corn and “were brought in covered with clean napkins”

The first natives of Mexico did not have ovens, instead, they heated food on a fire, using iron pans and ceramic containers. Another method used was steamed. They suspended the meat wrapped in leaves or banana cactus over boiling water in a deep well and also used fat for frying as a popular method.

When the New Spain was established, gastronomy reserved for convents, where indigenous communities now served as housekeepers and care staff, were the ones who, through oral traditions, kept alive the recipes and techniques for more than a century. It is important to understand that the first book of recipes on record in the Viceregal Mexico was written by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz.

For years, knowledge was divided into three:

1. The convents that were adapting the Spanish and European techniques to the vast amount of ingredients in Mexico. Here, the most important sweet dishes were made and so far desserts Mexican cuisine is one of the most important around the world;

2. The pre-Hispanic kitchen survived until today because of the many ethnic communities from Baja California to Chiapas, where we currently enjoy dishes in the same way they have been prepared for more than 3,000 years.

3. The other part of our food was on the farms where the multicultural cuisine took shape thanks to the cosmopolitan number of workers who came to Mexico with their techniques and flavors, plus ingredients originating in Asia and Africa.

A formal cookbook was not available, recipes were gathered through the stories told by generation after generation. Some women of the convents wrote notes to record recipes. It was not until the eighteenth century, the recipes used in convents were published in newspapers as a way to reach women of each house of colonial Mexico.

That was how one of the most important books on Mexican cuisine nation: “The Mexican Chef” was published in the late nineteenth century using a dictionary-style in which each recipe ingredient or technique used could be found immediately.

This book was not republished until the 1960’s when the daughter of the great muralist Diego Rivera collected all these recipes from an original print and took published them again. This particular book is widely regarded as the Bible of Mexican cuisine remains one of the most difficult books to get.

However, Mexican cuisine suffered a real abandonment for many years. In the 1970’s, it was thought that the national cuisine should not reach the big tables. President Porfirio Diaz, who during his 30 years in power, conceived a new kind of aristocracy and led to both economic and social power. He convinced Mexico that French and European ways were better, leaving aside national traditions and ingredients.

As a result of this gap of almost a century, many traditional ingredients of pre-Hispanic cuisine began to disappear and die. Because of this, today there is a new movement of cooks and academics who have one mission: to rescue and restore the greatness our kitchen for new generations.

People like Alicia Gironella, Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, Carmen Ramirez Degollado and many others have been working tirelessly for more than 20 years creating new ways to support and make sustainable the production of the national cuisine.

The research exhibition, restoration and even redemption of the traditional indigent kitchen is finally coming to fruition worldwide. It is noteworthy that the appointment of the UNESCO came as a result of a project mainly based on exacerbating not only contemporary Mexican cuisine, but mainly pre-Hispanic, showing what is still done in states like Michoacan, State of Mexico, Jalisco, and Chiapas.

Mexican cuisine is more than moles, salsas, and tortillas. It’s full of flavors and ingredients of a variety that even the Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio wondered if there is another place on the planet where the variety of products is “so staggeringly vast”.

This is what makes a star of Mexican cuisine in the world. Traditions are strong enough to defend themselves in the vortex of a modern world that desperately seeks to simplify all processes.

We encourage you to take a break and sit at a table here in El Maguey Restaurant, served by more than 3,000 years of tradition and enter a world of flavors you never want to leave.

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