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The tantalising flavours of Mexican cuisine

A blend of Aztec, Spanish, and French influences with some holy help from the Nuns!
Bhisham K.S.

Dining is one of the most delicious treats of any Mexico visit. The first rule for most North American visitors is to forget what you thought was Mexican food. Many of the dishes we commonly associate with Mexican cooking are either not Mexican at all (fajitas, for example), or are prepared using less than authentic techniques and ingredients. Salsa has surpassed ketchup in U.S. sales. Mexican cuisine is delightfully diverse, strongly regional and almost always bold (although not necessarily hot) in flavour. Since Mexico spans several climatic zones, the types of foodstuffs available varies greatly from region to region. Mexico's jumbled topography has limited the "homogenisation" of dishes in terms of their ingredients and preparation. What's a favourite on the coast may be unavailable further inland. Herein lies the allure of dining in Mexico.

Remember, Mexican cuisine (much like its history) has been strongly influenced by foreign countries. Spanish, French, and North American practices intermingled with the nation's century-old Pre-Columbian culinary heritage, producing a rich blend of dishes that are copied and envied around the world. As to ingredients, the world can thank Mexico and Central America for beans, corn, squash, tomatoes, jicama, chocolate, avocado, papaya, guava, vanilla, dozens of spices, and of course, chile peppers.
Food ritual - siesta and the bazaar
Food is probably the most important element of Mexican culture. Much of the daily routine and tradition in Mexico revolves around the ritual of the preparation and eating of food. In days gone past, the afternoon "siesta" started at around 1 p.m. and lasted through till about 4 in the afternoon. During that time, families gathered for their main meal of the day and after they had eaten, they had a little "siesta" - rest. Back then, the streets of Vallarta were alive by six o'clock in the morning, as women made their way to the local markets to fill their baskets with fresh fruit, vegetables and fish straight from the sea. Once they collected their daily provisions, the women would return home to begin grinding the corn and flour to make fresh tortillas for the afternoon meal, and bake fresh loaves of bread, sweet breads and cookies.

Regional variety
Mexican food is rich in color and flavor, and is quite diverse, as would be expected in a country with such diverse regional and geographical variation. Cities and towns along the ocean are famous for their abundant "mariscos"- seafood dishes. Inland and high-land mountain cities and towns are famous for stews, intricate sauces and corn-based recipes. Desert areas have cultivated delicacies of different sorts. In some desert regions, for example, there are numerous dishes containing various cactus plants. At least 60 different types of chiles are grown throughout Mexico, and these are staples of many of the regional dishes. In addition, with Mexican food you will find evidence of the blending of two different heritages and cultures -- traditional and varied indigenous food creations are combined with Spanish influences.When all of the regional offerings and cultural blends are brought together, Mexican cooking is chalk-full of deliciously endless variety and creativity.
Undoubtedly an important part of Mexican culture is its varied cuisine. When Christopher Columbus started his search for valuable species in 1492, instead of arriving in India, he found America, sparking off the conquest of countries which like M‚xico opened the world to new culinary horizons with its universal donation of vanilla, avocado, corn, tomato and chocolate, among others. In M‚xico there are great regions which have their own gastronomic art. Due to their variety and deliciousness, the cuisine of Puebla, Oaxaca and Yucat n stand out. However one must not forget the recipes from Baj¡o (central part of the country) or the cuisine of the border states.
Mexican food is popular throughout the world. But the kind you're probably used to -tacos with guacamole, quesadillas, enchiladas and carnitas- is only a small part of this country's culinary repertoire. With it's variety of indigenous civilisations, each region in M‚xico is marked by a distinct aroma, taste and texture.In central M‚xico you'll find a blend of Aztec and Spanish. Typical is the centuries old "mole poblano", a thick, dark sauce made with dried chiles, nuts, seeds, spices, cocoa and other ingredients. Southern M‚xico, with its variety of dried peppers, is famous for its savoury herbed stews and sauces.
Seafood, garnished with tomatoes and herbs followed by rich coffee is the basic meal along the Pacific Coast. And in the Yucat n Pen¡nsula, dinner is likely to be a Mayan delicacy like "pork pibil" cooked in banana leaves with the famed "achiote" sauce. In food, as in everything else, the Mexican people have found a way to raise the everyday basics to an art form. The popularity of the Mexican cuisine around the world attests to the tremendous variety of dishes coming from far and wide across our country. Love of Mexican food shows an appreciation not only for the constant process of search and discovery of the right combination of the ingredients, but for the great Mexican imagination.
Indegenous, pre-Columbian cuisine
In the pre-Colombian period, the diet of Mexican ancestors was purely native, with nutrition based on the great product of Mexican agriculture, corn. When thrashed and boiled into a "pozole", the corn could be made into flavorful tortillas and tamales, or rendered into flour for other variations. The diet of corn was supplemented with vegetables and meat. A great variety of spices, known as "chile," could be combined with sweet potato, beans, squash, "chayote", and "jicama". Early mexicans also relied on herbs such as "los quelites", "quintoniles", "huazontles", and a wide range of mushrooms. Indigenous wildlife such as deer, rabbits, armadillos, raccoons, "tepezcuintles", and birds such as turkeys, pigeons, and quails could also be served. Even turtles, snakes, and frogs could be made to complement the native American plate.
Spanish Conquest
After the Conquest and during the colonial period, the country's cuisine changed dramatically with the culinary influences brought along by the Spanish. With the conquistadores and their descendents came a taste for "cebada" , for rice, olives, wines, spices from India, beef, and different kinds of fruit. Today's Mexican cuisine is a blend of the original Indian fare with the Spanish.
Some holy influence!
Some of the greatest innovations in Mexican cuisine came from the inspiration of nuns, among whose activities were to cook for the monks and priests. In great feasts held in the honor of the Viceroy, the nuns of the famous convents in Puebla, Michoacan and Oaxaca attained brilliance in traditional bakery. The nuns developed many new pastries and covered sweets, including "natillas", "jamoncillos", "cajetas", and "bu•uelos". The most famous of the nuns creations is the spicy "mole poblano" sauce born from the "mulli" a typical sauce of the "nahuas" which combines a variety of "chiles". For a dinner to receive a new archbishop, one of the nuns of the Convento de Santa Rosa de Puebla decided to alter the "mulli" by adding other seasonings such as chocolate, peanuts, sesame and cinnamon just to reduce its overwhelming spicyness.
Immense talent at home
During the 19th century, mexican woman played a profound role in domestic life. To be a good women in Mexico means to have a profound knowledge and great skill in preparing the cuisine. The imagination, talent and gift for improvisation of the women of that period contributed much to the recipes which have been handed down to us. The demand for their delicious dishes around the world is a testament to them.
Basic ingredients
Tortillas are the foundation for so many recipes in Mexican cuisine. They come in two basic varieties: corn and flour. Either way, they are made by combining a ground grain (corn or wheat) with water, salt, and lard. The dough is rolled into a ball, flattened, and cooked on a hot griddle. They're then filled, fried, rolled, or stuffed to create a dish; they're also eaten plain to accompany a meal or dipped in sauce.
Cumin is commonly called for in Tex-Mex or Southwestern dishes. The seed is used whole or ground into cumin powder.
Cilantro, or Mexican parsley, is an herb resembling flat-leaf parsley. It has a unique taste that cannot be substituted. Coriander is the seed that bears cilantro. The seeds are used whole, and also ground.
Mexican cinnamon is different from the spice known to U.S. cooks. The Mexican name is canela and it is used to flavor both sweet and savory dishes.
Jicama is a root vegetable, like a turnip. It has a woody skin that is peeled away. The flesh is eaten raw with lime juice and salt or chili powder. It's becoming more widely available in the United States. With its slightly sweet taste and crunch like an apple, it makes a terrific addition to salads.
Chilies: Both fresh and dried chilies are used as seasoning. Chilies are a natural preservative, thus making Mexican dishes good candidates for the freezer. They come in many, many varieties, ranging from fiery hot to sweet. To quench the fire when cooking with chilies, remove the seeds and membranes and use only the fleshy part of the pepper in your dish.
The common chilies
Anaheim peppers are pale green, long, and slender, with a rounded tip and a very mild flavor. If you buy canned "mild green chilies," they are most likely Anaheims.
Jalapenos can be hot -- or very hot! They are dark green, fat and squat, with a rounded tip. The smallest ones are usually the hottest ones! They're used fresh and pickled.
Chipolte chilies are smoked, dried jalapenos. As the jalapenos are smoked, they turn brown.
Poblano chilies are often used to make a dish called Chilies Rellenos. They're dark green and they range from mild to hot. They look like an elongated bell pepper and are excellent for stuffing.
Serranos are smaller and slimmer than the more common jalapenos. They're green, but turn a brilliant red as they ripen. They're fiery hot - a little serrano goes a long way!
Ancho chilies are a dried variety; they are actually vine-ripened, sun-dried poblanos.

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