GEOGRAPHIC SETTING AND ENVIRONMENT
Mexico is located directly south of the United States. It is slightly less than three times the size of Texas. Two major mountain ranges run through the country’s interior: the Sierra Madre Oriental on the east and the Sierra Madre Occidental on the west. Between the mountain chains lies the great central highland plateau. Mexico borders the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea to the east.
Mexico has a wide range of natural environments, but temperatures are generally mild year-round. The coastal plains and lower areas of southern Mexico are usually hot and humid. Mexico City, the country’s capital, and other inland areas are at higher elevations and are generally drier. Annual rainfall may exceed 200 inches in the more tropical zones of the coastal areas, while parts of Baja California (a long, narrow peninsula located just south of California) receive very little precipitation. Desert-like conditions exist in the north.
Although only about one-fifth of the country remains covered with vegetation, much of the country’s wildlife are still in existence. Some animals include rabbits, snakes, monkeys, jaguars, anteaters, deer, toucans, parrots, and some tropical reptiles, such as the mighty boa constrictor.
2 HISTORY AND FOOD
When the Europeans arrived in Mexico in 1517, Mexico’s indigenous (native) peoples included the Aztecs of the central interior, the Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula, and the Zapotec in the south. Their diet consisted mainly of corn, beans, peppers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, and herbs. Chocolate, native to Mexico, was considered a drink fit for royalty. The Indians occasionally hunted, adding wild turkey, rabbit, deer, and quail to their vegetarian diet.
When the Spanish explorers landed in Mexico, they introduced livestock, including cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, and chickens. On later journeys to this “New World,” the Spanish brought plants from Asia, such as sugarcane and wheat.
Spain ruled over Mexico for over 300 years. By the time Mexico gained its independence, Spain had left its mark on its people and culture, including their cuisine.
FOODS OF THE MEXICANS
Corn is the basis of the Mexican diet, as it has been for thousands of years. It can be found in almost every meal, usually in the form of the tortilla (flatbread). Corn can also be boiled to produce pozole , a hearty corn stew. Popular fruits and vegetables are tomatoes, tomatillos (green tomatoes), squash, sweet potato, avocado, mango, pineapple, papaya, and nopales (from the prickly pear cactus). Though beef is consumed, chicken and pork are more common. The variety of chilies includes the widely known jalapeño, as well as the poblano , serrano , and chipotle . Chilies give Mexican cooking a distinctive flavor, which is often enhanced with herbs, such as cilantro and thyme, and spices, including cumin, cinnamon, and cloves. Cheese and eggs round out the diet. Seafood is most common in coastal dishes.
Though Mexican cuisine is a blend of indigenous (Indian) and Spanish influences, most Mexicans continue to eat more native foods, such as corn, beans, and peppers. Such foods are cheap and widely available. Bread and pastries are sold, but the tortilla, homemade or bought daily at the local tortillería (tortilla stand), is the basis of the typical meal. Flour tortillas are also eaten, especially in northern Mexico, but the corn variety is most popular.
American soft drinks, such as Coca-Cola, have become popular in Mexico in recent decades, but fruit-flavored soda drinks are also widely consumed, as are fresh fruit juices, available from street vendors. Sangría , an import from Spain, and beer ( cerveza ) are also popular beverages. Coffee is normally served spiced and sweet ( café de olla ).
A pot of beans can be found simmering on the back burner in most Mexican kitchens. They may be eaten with any meal of the day, including breakfast.
- 2 cups pinto beans
- 1 medium onion, peeled and finely-chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed or minced
- 3 Tablespoons chili powder
- Place beans in a large pot and cover them with cold water. Allow them to soak overnight.
- When ready to cook, drain, rinse, and cover the beans again in cold water.
- Place the pot on the stove over medium to high heat and bring to a boil. Simmer 5 minutes.
- Turn off heat, remove the pot, and carefully drain the beans by pouring them into a colander placed in the kitchen sink.
- Rinse beans with cold water. Return beans to the pot and once again cover them with cold water.
- Add the onion, garlic, and chili powder.
- Cook over medium heat until most of the water has been absorbed and the onion is soft. Add salt to taste.
Serve as a side dish with tacos, or as a main dish with warmed corn tortillas.
Frijoles Refritos (Refried Beans)
Though refried beans can be bought in cans in the grocery store, homemade Frijoles Refritos (Refried Beans) are much more flavorful.
- 1 recipe Frijoles (above)
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- 1 cup white onion, chopped
- 1 teaspoon salt
- In a large bowl, coarsely mash the Frijoles with a fork or wooden spoon.
- In a large frying pan or skillet, heat the oil for about 30 seconds over medium to high heat.
- Add onion and sauté for 5 minutes, until onion is golden but not browned.
- Add the mashed beans and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often. Salt to taste.
- Scoop the beans onto a warmed corn tortilla, and add a bit of shredded cheese (such as Monterrey Jack or mild cheddar).
Serves 4 to 6.
Café de Olla (Spiced Coffee)
The olla is the earthenware mug in which this aromatic coffee is often served.
- 4 cups water
- ⅓ cup dark brown sugar, packed
- 1 cinnamon stick (about 3 inches long)
- 8 whole cloves
- 1 orange peel (about 3 inches long), white parts removed
- ½ cup dark roasted coffee, coarsely ground
- Milk (optional)
- Combine water, sugar, cinnamon stick, cloves, and orange peel in a saucepan; place it on the stove over medium to high heat, and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.
- Lower heat, cover the saucepan, and let mixture simmer for 5 minutes.
- Remove from heat, stir in the coffee, and let sit for 8 minutes, covered.
- Use a sieve or a coffee filter to strain the coffee into 4 individual cups.
- Serve immediately, adding milk, if desired.
4 FOOD FOR RELIGIOUS AND HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS
During the centuries of Spanish rule over Mexico, the majority of Mexicans were forced to convert to Christianity. Christian holidays, including Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) and Navidad (Christmas), are celebrated with great enjoyment and family meals. Many festivities include native Indian traditions. During Semana Santa (Holy Week) leading up to Easter, meat is typically not consumed.
Día de los Tres Reyes (Three Kings Day or Epiphany) on January 6 and Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) on October 30 are occasions for more celebration, including the consumption of specific foods. On Día de los Tres Reyes, a special sweet bread, Rosca de Reyes, is eaten. A typical menu for Día de los Muertos, during which Mexicans decorate and picnic on the graves of their dead relatives, includes empanadas (meat-filled turnovers, an import from Spain) and tamales (steamed corn husks with various fillings, including shredded pork). Also included are chicken or turkey with mole (pronounced MO-lay, it is a distinctive sauce combining chocolate, chilies, and spices), pan de muertos (a sweet bread, baked in a ring and with a tiny plastic skeleton hidden inside), and calaveras de azucar (sugar candy skulls, bought at candy stores).
On each of the eight nights before Christmas, friends and neighbors travel from house to house, stopping at selected houses to sing or recite lines, asking for lodging. At the last door, they are welcomed inside for festivities, including the breaking of the piñata , a papier-mâché animal filled with candies. Other typical foods during this time include buñuelos (thin, fried pastries, covered in sugar) and ponche (fruit punch).
Many Mexicans buy tortillas made fresh daily at the local tortillería (tortilla stand). Corn tortillas are the basis for most typical meals. Flour tortillas are also eaten, especially in northern Mexico, but the corn variety is most popular.
Rosca de Reyes (Three Kings Sweet Bread)
This is a truly Mexican version of the traditional Spanish bread.
- 1½ ounces compressed yeast
- ½ cup warm water
- 1¼ cups sugar
- ⅛ teaspoon cinnamon
- 1¾ cups butter, at room temperature
- 8½ cups flour
- 8 eggs
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup butter
- 1 egg
- 1¾ cup flour
- Candied fruits (optional)
- Make the dough: Crumble the yeast into the warm water and set aside.
- In a large mixing bowl, mix together sugar, cinnamon, and butter.
- Add the eggs, mixing thoroughly.
- Add the dissolved yeast.
- Slowly add the flour, a little at a time, until the dough is smooth and stretchy.
- On a large baking sheet, shape the dough into a ring, pressing the ends together to make a full circle.
- Cover the ring with a clean cloth or dish-towel and let sit in a warm place (to rise) for 2 hours.
- Preheat oven to 350°F just before baking.
- Make the paste : Mix together the butter and sugar, add in the egg, and gradually mix in flour.
- This paste can be used to decorate the top of the cake once it has risen but before it is baked. The typical decoration is rays that come out from the center.
- Candied fruits may be pressed into the cake before baking.
- Bake 30 to 40 minutes, until cake is golden brown.
Serves 10 to 12.