We’ve got to hand it to ourselves, the UK culinary scene is at the top of its game in most aspects of global cuisine. Indian food being the first that springs to mind. Mexican food however, is not one of them. Authentically Mexican restaurants are far and few between. The lack of selection means that all too often Mexican food is associated with poorly executed Tex-Mex: overly stuffed foods doused in sour cream and loaded with cheddar cheese.
Before you scoff at your screen thinking ‘who is this food snob throwing shade at my favourite burrito spot?’, I’m not being dismissive about good Tex-Mex. A world without nachos is not something I’d like to consider, muchos gracias. But nachos, burritos and fajitas aside, we need to give traditional Mexican cooking its time in the spotlight; a cuisine bursting with intense flavour and steeped in ancient tradtion.
Eating Mexican food is like sampling history. Almost all dishes have been influenced by the mass migration Mexico has experienced over thousands of years, and with each new culture brought new foods.
The Aztecs formulated the blue-print for Mexican cuisine, domesticating 3 crucial ingredients: corn, beans and chillies. Then followed the Spanish, bringing with them tomatoes, black pepper and garlic. Modern day Mexico saw a touch of Arabic influence, introducing earthy spices like cumin and cinnamon - these spices are a rarity in Mexican dishes but do make an appearance in certain regions of Northern Mexico. Ingredients like shredded cheese, ground beef, sour cream, wheat and hard shell taco were adopted into Mexican cuisine by the Anglo-Americans that marched westward in the 1800s into what we know today as Texas. Due to their close proximity to the Mexican border, it wasn’t long before they encountered Mexican culture and cuisine, forming what we know today as Tex-Mex.
But throughout the influx of migration in Mexico, one crucial aspect of Mexican cooking remained constant: Mexican food is at its core, artisanal. Simple ingredients are sedulously assembled to form sophisticated dishes. There’s a physicality to Mexican food. Take tortillas, for example. A well made tortilla is simple, but takes hours of work. Corn kernels are hand ground using a heavy stone tool called a metate, The ground kernels are then mixed with water and an alkaline solution to form a dough called mas. It’s hard work and time consuming but the result is so worth it - and much healthier than the wheat tortillas we usually find in the UK.
Tacos: a dish we all know and love, are the perfect embodiment of Mexican cooking. Have a look at the numbered ingredients below to learn more about the techniques, ingredients and stories behind the makings of a taco.
The birth of the taco came about like all the best things in life, by accident. In the days when the Aztecs ruled Mexico, wives of the farmers and field pickers would wrap up their husband’s lunch of grilled meats and vegetables in a tortilla - and that is how the taco came to life!
Tortillas can be used as a wrap for ingredients like meat, fish and veg as seen in the taco here. They’re also used as a vehicle for mopping up salsa - in the same way that Europeans have bread on the side of a plate.
Traditional tortillas are always made of corn. It was only when the tortilla made its way north past Rio Grande, that wheat was introduced to the mix.
Authentic tacos aren’t topped with cheese, but with coriander and diced white onion
3. Sweet and Sour
The secret to Mexican cooking is striking the perfect balance between sweet and sour. Proper corn tortillas are sweeter and more durable than their wheat counterparts, so a squeeze of lime and other fruits like tomatillos are a welcome addition
Chillies are popularly know as the backbone of Mexican cuisine. They provide more than just heat to a dish though. One of the myths about mexican cooking is that all the dishes have to be hot. Unlike a lot of South Asian food, chillies are used in Mexican dishes like salt and pepper. First you add the meat, fish or veggies and then it’s up to you how much chilli you sprinkle on top.
Traditional tacos are made from stewed, grilled or fried meat (chicken or pork), fish or vegetables.
Mexican food relies on plentiful herbs for a balancing of flavours. Herbs are used for sprinkling as a garnish, ground into salsas and for braising. Fresh oregano is quite common too, but the mexican kind. It’s a little more pungent that oregano you find in the Mediterannean .