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Cinco de Mayo - Traditional Mexican Foods

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Traditional Mexican Foods
Tacos, Burritos, Chimichangas -- These are foods that you might find at a Mexican restaurant or Tex-Mex restaurant in the United States.  Are these foods traditional fare in Mexico?  Listed below are some Mexican favorites along with a history of food in Mexico.  See Related Links to view the Mexican Food Pyramid, developed by the Southeastern Michigan Dietetic Association.

Grains:  Rice, Rolls, Tortilla, Noodles
Vegetables:   Corn, Yams, Cactus, Salsa, Chilies, Onions, Squash, Jicama, Potatoes, Tomato
Fruit:   Guava, Mango, Banana, Oranges, Cherimoya
Milk:   Milk, cheese, Cocoa drink
Meat:   Eggs, Beef, Fish, Beans, Chorizo (spicy sausage), Chicken
Other:   Lard, Flan, Churro (fried cookie), Avocado, Pandulce (caramel dessert)

Foods that we associate with Mexico and the nutrients they supply:

  • Beans: protein and carbohydrates
  • Tortillas: carbohydrate
  • Cheese: minerals and protein
  • Chiles/Salsas: vitamins
  • Mangos: vitamins

What the nutrients in these foods do for us

  • Protein builds muscles and tissue
  • Carbohydrates supplies energy
  • Minerals (calcium) builds strong bones and teeth
  • Vitamins (vitamin A and C) help us to see and help to heal cuts

Mexican Food Facts

  • Mexican food is a mix of Indian and Spanish traditional foods.
  • Staples of the Mexican diet include corn, tomatoes, squash, and a variety of beans and peppers
  • Lard is commonly used in beans and to fry foods. 
  • Cocoa is a popular seasoning
  • Refried beans are usually prepared in large batches and reheated during the week.  Lard is added during the reheating process to help separate the beans
  • The word taco means snack, although American’s use it for one dish in particular
  • Tortillas accompany almost all meals as either a bread or as part of the main dish
  • Tortillas are very versatile they can be served: toasted or fried, rolled or folded, stuffed with meats or vegetables and /or topped with gravy or sauces.
  • Chiles are a staple.  They add enhance the flavor and add variety to foods without adding fat.  They come in many sizes, colors, and flavors.  Most have a sweet/mild taste but some such as Jalapeno, Poblano, and Serrano, are fiery/hot.

Food and Cooking in Pre-Hispanic Mexico

  • Corn: Because of its importance to the society corn revered by the people. According to tradition, corn was treated with such reverence that prior to cooking the cooks would breath on it, warming it against the shock of the cooking temperature and if a loose kernel was found on the floor, it was picked up with a prayer begging for pardon for the neglect.  
  • Beans and chili: Beans and chili has been a staple for centuries.  The chili is used as a seasoning or condiment for the beans.
  • Squash and pumpkin:  Squash and pumpkin pulp was seasoned with chili and cooked, the hollowed out gourds were used as serving dishes and for decoration.
  • Water life: The waters of Mexico are a rich source of food.  Rivers and lakes provide fish, frogs, fresh water shrimp and naturally occurring pasta called ahuatle.  The people living near the sea ate fish, turtles, crabs and oysters.
  • Desert fruit: Nopal, a cactus that grows in the desert areas bears a red prickly pear fruit and its leaves are cooked and eaten.
  • Cacao (cocoa): At one time Cacao was so valued it was used as a form of money.  A favorite beverage is chocolate mixed with water, corn, honey and vanilla served in a gourd.

Food and Cooking in Post-Independence Mexico

Following independence in 1821, increasing numbers of Americans and Europeans arrived in Mexico.  They brought new recipes and cooking techniques into Mexican cuisine, these were used primarily in the middle and upper classes.

  • France: The French opened restaurants that served French dishes, cheese, wine, liquors, and desserts.  They also opened pastry shops, which are still very common today.
  • Spain: During the colonial period, Spaniards introduced a new process to produce corn tortillas using water and calcium.  They also brought wheat mills that produced flour for bread.
  • England: A favorite dish brought by the English was roast beef with gravy they also brought tea a custom that didn’t catch on with the people
  • Germany: The Germans planted the coffee fields in Chips, Tabasco and Vera Cruz.  They also introduced different ways of preparing pork.

Mexican Food Today

The Mexican food we eat in the United States, tortillas, burritos, tacos, and salsa, has been adapted to meet the food preferences and tastes of Americans.  Although some of the foods are served in Mexico, ours are very different from the traditional dishes.  One of the most recent Mexican influenced dishes is a Wrap.  A Wrap is a tortilla filled with a variety of ingredients such as meat, vegetables, cheese, bean, salsa or anything else and can be served hot or cold.  Wraps are fun and easy to make and share.  They can also be a healthy snack or meal. See Related Links for a fun Wrap-making exercise.


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