Mexican cooking has a rich heritage that begins at the dawn of civilization. More than 7,000 years ago, at the same time the Aztec people were designing intricate calendar systems and building astounding pyramids, they also were holding festivals accompanied by flavorful dishes. Dine on lush tropical fruits, bean-stuffed chili peppers, spicy tomato sauces, grilled corn, honeyed sweet potatoes, and cocoa-crusted turkey, and you find yourself in the land of the Aztecs.
Yes, the ancient Mexican diet was both flavorful and varied. For centuries, Mexican cooking endured and even thrived on a rich array of fruits and vegetables, always accompanied by some type of beans, corn, and hot peppers. In fact, many of the foods we take for granted today were first used as food by the Aztec cultures. Turkey, mangoes, corn, pineapples, peanuts, beans, squash, avocadoes, cocoa, vanilla, chilies, and sweet potatoes, for example, were all common elements in Aztec dishes. Even foods we identify with European countries — such as Italy and tomatoes — were first cultivated by the Aztecs. But then came an even more exciting time for the Mexican table. When the Spanish conquistadors first landed in Mexico in the early 1500s, they brought with them a multitude of new foods. Most important were the animals that could provide milk and meat — cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats.
We also can't forget the addition of rice to the Mexican diet. While the native peoples of Central America had cultivated corn for more than 7,000 years, they quickly adopted the versatile, white grain that had been introduced to Europe centuries earlier. Throw in a bit of European wine and you have the makings of modern Mexican cooking.
This merger of cooking styles has continued over the years. While we usually credit the Spaniards with bringing foods to Mexico, many people forget that the country is on the Pacific Rim. Polynesian and East Asian food also influenced Mexican cooking as trade routes grew. As a result, varied seafood dishes, spices, and flavorings such as soy sauce frequently pop up in Mexican dishes.
Still, the result is always uniquely Mexican. While the country adapted — and continues to adapt — to new ingredients, the people have never forgotten what makes their cooking unique. New fruits, vegetables, cheeses, red meats, fish, and poultry may be added to the diet as trade relations change and grocery stores gain greater variety, but always the Mexican meal will revolve around corn, beans, and chilies in at least one dish.
In fact, many of the dishes that were served to the first conquistadors are still served in the same style today. Tamales filled with beans, turkey, or fruit and cooked in open pit fires are mentioned in historical documents along with drinks made with cornmeal and cocoa. Chili sauces, stuffed chilies, tomato moles, and eggs with mashed pinto beans also were served to the travelers of 500 years ago.
Mexican cooking is also known for its combinations. It's a rare dish that uses just one or two ingredients. Meats, for example, are marinated then drenched in sauces containing dozens of ingredients. Fish may be broiled or baked but it is always topped with a unique sauce. Even something as simple as a salad of melon balls will have a tart sauce draped over it.
And, to the dismay of many a traveler, the ingredients often don't seem to make sense to anyone but a Mexican. A favorite candy, for example, combines sweetened milk, cocoa, pistachio nuts, and chili powder. Fruits will be marinated in vinegar and chili peppers. Beef steaks will be cooked with sweet fruits and even drinks will contain cornmeal, peanuts, and chopped vegetables. Poultry will be marinated in a cocoa sauce.
So get your taste buds ready, and have a great time in the kitchen cooking these fabulous Mexican recipes for your own family.