by Carlos Dragonne and Elsie Mendez
Talking about Mexican gastronomy is going back in time to learn about one of the most important cultural elements not only in Latin American history, but worldwide. With the recent recognition given by UNESCO as Intangible World’s Heritage, this particular cuisine has finally stepped up to reclaim its place in our modern times, but this has been accomplished by respecting and honoring traditions of more than 1,000 years old. Walking through history and traditions is what makes every dish and ingredient so spectacular in terms not only of flavors and scent, but spirit and identity. Mexico’s authentic cuisine is not what you can find in your daily “Mexican restaurant”. For this first you have to understand where does this come from and how it has changed and shaped even legends and stories that are told in every generation.
Mexico was not a colony, but a viceroyalty, and because of that, the collision between two ways of understanding food was immense. Before the arrival of Spanish conquistadores the diet of the Aztec people, as well as the other major pre-Columbian civilizations was based largely on corn-based dished with chiles and herbs, usually complemented with beans and tomatoes or nopales. They also included chocolate, vanilla, tomatillos, avocado, guava, papaya, sapote, mamey, pineapple, soursop, jicama, squash, sweet potato, peanuts, achiote, huitlacoche, turkey and fish. By the second decade of the 16th century, the Spanish invasion also meant the introduction of a wide variety of animals, such as cattle, chickens, goats, sheep, and pigs. And that was not all, for rice, wheat, and barley, olive oil, wine, almonds, parsley, and many spices were merged into culture as well to, eventually, became part of what it was being done in indigenous cuisine.
Now, don’t get confused with this being a complete fusion, for the Spanish did not alter Mexican food, they brought new ingredients which only expanded its potential. The Mexican cuisine that developed through this exchange is complex and is what makes it one of the greatest cuisines of the world.
The first recordings of what the Spanish found in their way into Mexico is known thanks to the detailed description that one of Cortes’s men, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, made in his book published as “True Story of the Conquest of the New Spain”, where he was amazed with the amount of ingredients and traditions surrounding them in every indigenous population they encounter in this journey. Díaz del Castillo talks about what the Emperor Moctezuma ate and how it was presented, as:
“For eating, his cooks presented over thirty different dishes, traditionally made and they put them over clay braziers for keeping them hot, and of that what Moctezuma ate, they made over three hundred dishes (…) usually they made for him chickens, gill cocks, pheasants, partridges, quails, tame and wild ducks (…) he was sitting on a low and soft cushion and the table was also low (…) there they would extend the white table cloth (…) and four very clean and very beautiful women gave him water in xicales (…) and then they would give him his towels and tow other women would bring him the tortilla bread.”
Díaz describes a diet so rich that it might have been easy to abandon even ritual sacrifice: There was cacao, “all frothed up” and in great quantity. There were cakes, as Díaz calls them, made of maize and “were brought in on plates covered with clean napkins.” He describes the maize-cakes as kneaded with eggs and other nourishing ingredients.
The early natives of Mexico did not have ovens, instead they heated food over and open fire, using cast iron skillets and ceramic ware. Another method was steaming. They would suspend meat wrapped in cactus or banana leaves, over boiling water in a deep pit. Frying was also a popular method.
They used a metate, which is a large tool made of lava rock or stone that they would use as a grinding stone or the molcajete, which was smaller, to grind and smash ingredients. The molcajete, or mortar and pestle, is a small bowl shaped container that can be made of stone, pottery, hard wood or marble.
When the New Spain was established, gastronomy became something reserved to convents and to indigenous people now serving as housekeepers and they were the ones that by oral traditions kept the recipes and techniques alive for over a century. It is important to understand that the first record of a recipe book ever made in viceregal Mexico was written by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. For years, the knowledge was divided in three: the convents who were adapting the Spanish and European way of cooking to the vast amount of ingredients found in the country. Here the most important sweet dishes were made and until now is one of the sweet cuisines more vast around the world; then, there was the prehispanic cuisine that has survived to our days thanks to the multiple ethnic communities living from Baja California to Chiapas, where we can actually enjoy the dishes the way they have been cooking them for more than 3,000 years. The other cuisine was found at the estates, where the multicultural gastronomy came into shape, as in this places the multiregional workers brought in their various cooking methods and ingredients.
A recipe book as it is wasn’t available, for the convent women only had notes scattered around for reference, but the traditions and dishes were passed through generations as stories are told. It wasn’t until late 18th century when the recipes used in convents are published in newspapers as a way to reach the women of every household. It is like this that one of the most important books was born: The Mexican Cook (El Cocinero Mexicano) that was published in the late 19th century using a dictionary-style design where you can find every recipe or ingredient used in that time. This book wasn’t reprinted until the decade of 1960’s when the daughter of the famous muralist Diego Rivera gathered the recipes from an original printing and printed again. This particular book, considered by many as the Bible for Mexican Cuisine was reprinted again in the early 21st century and, regardless of this, it is one of the most difficult books to find.
However, Mexican cuisine suffered from abandonment for many years. In the decade of 1970 it was thought that this gastronomy wasn’t supposed to reach the grand tables, an idea learned maybe from the early 20th century when everything that mattered was supposed to be French, in gastronomy as well as in architecture or arts. President Porfirio Díaz, who was in power for more than 30 years, brought a new kind of aristocracy into economical and social power in Mexico, all of whom were convinced that French and European cuisine was the next best thing, leaving national traditions and ingredients in oblivion. As a consequence of this gap of nearly a century, many ingredients of traditional prehispanic cuisine started to disappear and, because of this, a new movement of chefs and academics was born with one mission: rescuing and restoring the Mexican gastronomy for the new generations. People like Alicia Gironella, Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, Carmen Ramírez Degollado and many others have been working for more than 20 years trying –and many times succeeding- to create new ways of supporting and making sustainable all the chain of production of Mexican gastronomy. The work they have done of research, exposure, restoration and redeeming the indigenous cuisine is finally getting somewhere in the industry worldwide. It is important to mention that the UNESCO recognition came as a result of a project that was based mainly in exacerbate not the contemporary Mexican cuisine, but the prehispanic one, showing what is still being done in Michoacan, Estado de México, Jalisco, Oaxaca and Chiapas.
Mexican cuisine is more than mole, sauces or tortillas. It is something full of flavors and ingredients of a wide variety that even made chef Gastón Acurio wondered if there was any other place were the products were so amazingly vast. Because of that, is no wonder how you can find anecdotes such as the first sushi recipe approved by a Japanese master was the one created in Mexico in the late 1970’s, or a regional cook that found out that people in the native communities were still preparing their dishes according to the amount of river stones needed to balance the scale they use for calculating the weight of a fish used to make a once in a year celebration dish in the Patzcuaro lakeside settlements built by Vasco de Quiroga back in the 16th century.
This is what makes Mexican gastronomy such a star around the world. Traditions are strong enough to defend themselves from the vortex of a modern world eager to simplify everything. And, just like that, moles, panuchos, corundas, mixiotes, tamales and any other dish, just watch on the side of the road waiting for this velocity to stop and wonder where is that magical smell coming from and, attracted by it, take a step down from its speed and take a place in a table served for more than 3,000 years ready to amaze anyone curious enough to enter a world from which they will never want to leave.