One of America’s most popular ethnic cuisines is unquestionably Mexican. How far we have come from those hard, crisp tacos and lard-laden refried beans. Dating back to the Mayan culture circa 1500 BC, corn and beans have formed the foundation of original Mexican foods and still comprise a major portion of their foods. They were plentiful and easily stored. Gradually, a variety of fresh ingredients have been added over the years, along with chicken, beef, pork and seafood, to delight the palates of most everyone, from fast food to haute cuisine, and everything in between. But the basics which we adore the most still top our hit parade. So let’s check out the whole enchilada:
As early as 5000 BC, possibly 7000 BC in Pre-Columbian history. the tamale (or “tamal”) is corn masa, individually wrapped in a corn husk and was the perfect portable food. Kind of your early fast convenience food, they were often carried by warriors, hunters and travelers as a sort of meal on the go. Early tamales were often filled with turkey,frog, flamingo, axolotl (salamander), gopher or rabbit (would I make that up?). Homemade tamales are still a tradition at Christmas in Mexican homes, and their preparation is labor-intensive and time-consuming, usually steamed in their husk but an important part of the holiday meal.
Enchiladas date back to Mayan times, perhaps earlier, when the practice of rolling corn tortillas around other foods made for easy meals. In the lake region of the Valley of Mexico, the people traditionally ate corn tortillas folded or rolled around small fish. As we know them now, enchiladas are still corn tortillas rolled around a filling, including various meats, cheese, beans, potatoes, vegetables or a combination and covered with a chili pepper sauce, topped with cheese.
In a class by itself, Enchiladas suizas (Swiss-style) are topped with a cream-based white sauce, such as béchamel, which was derived from Swiss immigrants in Mexico who produced cream and cheese.
Burritos are also rolled tortillas but made from wheat, stuffed with rice, beans and/or meat, called ‘coçito’ in the Yucatán and ‘taco’ in Mexico City. Burritos may have been created in times of war, easily transported and eaten on the run, primarily during the Mexican/American strife of the early 1900s. Because they are enclosed and easily eaten standing up, they make great street food.
Quesadillas are a flat circle of cooked corn tortilla, warmed to soften it enough to be folded in half, and then typically filled with Oaxaca cheese (queso Oaxaca), a stringy Mexican cheese. They originated in central and southern regions of Mexico and can also contain chicken or shrimp.
Arriving late at the party, chimichangas made their appearance in 1946 thanks to Woody Johnson, founder of Macayo’s Mexican Kitchen, who claims he invented them when he put some burritos into a deep fryer as an experiment at his original Phoenix restaurant Woody’s El Nido. The name means “trinket” loosely translated.
For those cooks who want to re-create their favorite dishes at home, you might want to include these basics on your shopping list:
Rice – brown, spicy or plain, a great accompaniment
Beans – both refried pinto beans and black beans
Salsa – dozens of combinations, both cooked and fresh
Avocados – either sliced or mashed with tomatoes and spices for a tantalizing and delicious guacamole
Red or verde (green) sauces to squirt on top or drown your favorite dish
Corn, white or wheat flour tortillas
Assorted peppers and chiles, both spicy and mild
Cheese (queso) usually crumbled or shredded blends, the most popular is cotija and anejo, even (drumroll) Velveeta now offers Mexican and pepper-flavored cheese blends
Tortilla chips for dipping
Although most towns and cities host the popular fast food and chain restaurants, like Taco Bell, Del Taco, Chipotle, El Torito and Acapulco’s, frequently the best Mexican foods can be found in small, family owned shops, or in an area often called “Old Town” which can be a delightful mix of restaurants and street vendors, all serving up our favorites. Buen apetito.