Mexican gastronomy: A Story told by Traditions
By: Carlos Dragonné and Elsie Mendez
Speaking of the mexican gastronomy is to make a trip back in time to learn about the cultural elements most important not only in the history of Latin America, but all over the world. With the recent appointment by the UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, this kitchen in particular finally has excelled in the world to claim their place in our modern times, but what has been achieved while respecting their traditions and honoring their more than 1,000 years of history. To walk through this same history that makes each dish unique and spectacular not only in terms of flavors and aromas, but in spirit and identity. The authentic cuisine of Mexico is not what you can find in your mexican restaurant average. For that answer, we must first understand where it comes from and how it has changed and created up legends and stories that are told from generation to generation.
First, you must stay clear that Mexico was not a colony, but a viceroyalty, which caused the collision of two ways of understanding the food were immense. Before the arrival of the spaniards, the diet of the pre-hispanic cultures was based extensively in dishes of corn with chiles and herbs, usually complemented with beans, tomatoes or nopales. Also included vanilla, tomatillos, avocado, guava, papaya, sapote, mamey, pineapple, jicama, squash, sweet potato, peanuts, achiote, huitlacoche, turkey and fish. For the second decade of the SIXTEENTH century, the Spanish invasion also meant the arrival of a large varieties of animals, such as cattle, chickens, goats, sheep, and pigs. And not only that, I also got the rice, the wheat, the oats, olive oil, wine, almonds, parsley, and many spices that were merged with the culture and, eventually, became part of the kitchen indigenous.
However, we must not confuse this as a complete melting, since the Spanish did not alter mexican food, but they brought ingredients that only exponenciaron their potential. The mexican cuisine that was developed through this exchange is complex and one of the reasons why it is one of the largest kitchens around the world.
The earliest records of what the Spanish found its way through Mexico is known thanks to the detailed description which one of the men of Hernán Cortés did. Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote in his book “True History of the Conquest of New Spain” his astonishment with the amount of ingredients and traditions around each indigenous community that crossed her path. Diaz del Castillo talks about what the empreador Moctezuma ate and how it was presented:
“For food, their cooks had more than thirty dishes of different, traditionally prepared, and laid them on braziers of mud to keep them warm, and that Moctezuma ate, did more than three hundred dishes, ( … ) usually prepare hens, roosters, pheasants, quail, ducks (…) sat on a cushion, soft and low and the table was also low (…) there they spread a table-cloth of white cloth, ( … ), and four women are very beautiful and very clean we were given water in xicales (…) and they gave him towels and other women were bringing him bread and omelette.”
Diaz described the food so rich that it couldn’t be easy to leave it down to ritual sacrifices. Also had cocoa in large quantities. There were cakes, as Díaz calls it, made of corn and “were brought on plates covered with napkins clean.” Descibre the corn cakes as made with eggs and other ingredients.
The early natives of Mexico did not have ovens, instead heated the food on fire, using cast-iron pans and ceramic. Another method used was to steam. Put the meat wrapped in cactus leaves or banana over boiling water in a deep well and also used the fat to fry as a very popular method.
They used the metate, a tool made with volcanic stone that was used as a grinding stone or the molcajete, which was smaller and was used as the mortar to grind and crush ingredients in a molcajete which could be of stone, wood, ceramic or marble.
When New Spain was established, the gastronomy was reserved for the convents, where the indigenous communities now served as homemakers, and personal care and were those who, through the oral traditions, kept alive the recipes and techniques for more than a century. It is important to understand that the first book of recipes which we have a record in the colonial Mexico was written by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. For years, the knowledge is divided in three: the convents that were adapting the techniques of Spanish and european to the vast amount of ingredients in Mexico. Here, the most important dishes of sweets were made and, until now, the cuisine of desserts mexican is one of the most important around the world; in the second place, the cuisine of pre-hispanic survived until our days due to the multiple ethnic communities from Baja California to Chiapas, where we are currently able to enjoy dishes of the same form in which they have been prepared for more than 3,000 years. The other part of our cuisine is found in the estates, where the multi-cultural cuisine took shape thanks to the cosmopolitan number of workers who arrived to Mexico with its techniques and flavors, in addition to its ingredients, originating in Asia and Africa.
As a book of recipes in a formal way was not available, were the women of the convents, who gathered together the notes that they had as references, it was through the stories told generation after generation that the paltillos and traditions found transcendence. Only until the EIGHTEENTH century, the recipes used in convents were published in newspapers as a way of reaching out to the women of each house of the colonial Mexico. So it was one of the most important books in the mexican gastronomy nation: “Cook Mexican” was published at the end of the NINETEENTH century using a dictionary-style in that each recipe, ingredient or technique used could be found immediately. This book was not reissued until the decade of the 60’s in the TWENTIETH century when the daughter of the great muralist Diego Rivera met all these recipes of an original print and took it to the bookstores again. This particular book, considered by many as the Bible of mexican cooking was reprinted again until the beginning of the TWENTY-first century and, despite its importance, remains one of the books more difficult to get.
However, the Mexican cuisine suffered a real abandonment for many years. In the 1970s, it was thought that the national cuisine should not reach the large tables, an idea learned, perhaps, from the time of the beginning of the century when all that had a minimum of importance or prestige was of French origin, both in the food as in the arts or architecture, an idea conceived and promoted by president Porfirio Diaz, who during his more than 30 years in power, devised a new class of aristocracy and carried them to power, both economic and social, in Mexico, convinced that the ways French and european were the best there was on the planet, leaving aside the national traditions and ingredients. As a result of this vacuum of almost a century many traditional ingredients of the cuisine of pre-hispanic started to disappear and go extinct, and because of this, today there is a new movement of chefs and academics that have a single mission: to rescue and restore the greatness of our kitchen for the new generations. People like Alicia Gironella, Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, Carmen Ramírez Degollado and many others have been working tirelessly for more than 20 years of trying –successfully-on many occasions – to create new ways to support and make sustainable the production chain of the national cuisine. The research work exhibition, restoration, and until redemption of the kitchen indigent is finally coming to fruition in the global industry. It is important to mention that the appointment of the UNESCO came as a result of a project primarily based in exacerbate not only the contemporary mexican cuisine, but mainly the pre-hispanic, showing what is still being done in states such as Michoacán, State of Mexico, Jalisco, Oaxaca, and Chiapas.
The mexican cuisine is more than moles, sauces, or omelets. It is something full of flavors and ingredients from a great variety that even the peruvian chef Gaston Acurio has been asked if there is another place on the planet where the array of goods is “so amazingly vast”. Because of this, it is no surprise that one can find anecdotes like the one account the first recipe of sushi foreign adopted by a japanese master was created in Mexico at the end of the decade of the 70, or one in which a cook regional discovered in the indigenous communities of the cooks still prepare their dishes according to the weight of the major ingredient measured by the weight of river stones that are used in a tumbler to prepare a dish that is done religiously, only once a year on the banks of lake Pátzcuaro, within the communities created by Vasco de Quiroga in the SIXTEENTH century.
This is what makes the mexican gastronomy a star in the world. The traditions are strong enough to defend itself in the vortex of a modern world that desperately seeks to simplify all processes. And, just like that, with this determined defence, the mole, panuchos, corundas, mixiotes, tamales, and other dishes, observed from the side of the road, hoping that this speed stop a little bit of his dynamic and are wondering where comes that aroma magic and, drawn the same, take a break and sit at a table served for more than 3,000 years list to surprise anyone with sufficient curiosity to enter a world of flavors that you will never want to leave.