There’s no denying it—Americans love Mexican food. That being said, there seems to be a lot of confusion north of the border (and throughout the world) regarding what Mexican food actually is.
But first, let’s be clear—we’re certainly not knocking Tex-Mex, a perfectly valid and frequently delicious cuisine. However, what many foreigners assume to be Mexican food is only peripherally related to what’s really happening in the kitchens and on the streets of that country.
For example, the option of a “hard taco” simply doesn’t exist in Mexico—it’s a wholly American invention dating back to the early 20th century. And burritos? Their story is a bit less clear, but what’s certain is that they were popularized in Los Angeles and remain much more popular in the U.S. than in Mexico itself.
Now that we know what Mexican food isn’t, let’s take a look at some true Mexican cuisine that is less than well-known outside of the country:
Plenty of non-Mexicans have heard of tamales, but considerably fewer are actually familiar with the dish. Before we begin, let’s make something clear—in proper Spanish, a single unit of this dish is not a “tamale,” but rather a tamal.
The history of the tamal goes back thousands of years to pre-Hispanic times. The dish consists of a corn-based dough steamed in either a banana leaf or a corn husk depending on regional tradition. They are commonly filled with a meat, mixed vegetables, mushrooms, red or green sauce, or mole. What’s mole? Funny you should ask…
There are many variations on this traditional Mexican sauce whose roots can be traced back to the early Spanish colonial period. All moles include chili peppers—frequently blends of many different varieties—and most include chocolate as an ingredient. The end effect is a sweet and spicy sauce that can taste strange at first to foreign pallets but that in time is guaranteed to win over any foodie.
If you plan to ask for a sandwich in Mexico, you’re going to have to be more specific. Generally speaking, a sándwich refers to one served on bland white bread (“pan bimbo” in Mexico) while a torta refers to the version that you probably actually want to eat. Tortas vary wildly by region, with one of our favorite takes being Guadalajara’s torta ahogada (“drowned sandwich”), a basic torta served completely doused in a spicy red sauce.
Before You Go…
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