Mexican food encompasses a rich, diverse culinary culture. The earliest agricultural staples of the Aztecs, who dominated northern Mexico, and the Mayans, who occupied the southeastern Yucatan, were beans, squash and chile peppers. Maize or nixtamal (corn), “the Gift of the Gods,” is the cornerstone of Mexican cuisine. It appears in almost everything: tortillas, enchiladas, tamales, tacos, even dessert (sopapillas). Early Mexican dishes included atole (hominy porridge, which evolved into Pozole soup), tortillas, and tamales, both savory and sweet.
The region also yielded avocados, peanuts, tomatoes, squash, and coconuts. But it was the conquest of Mexico by Spain in 1521 that most influenced the Mexican cuisine we know today. The Spaniards introduced new livestock--pigs, cows, and sheep had never been seen before in the New World--as well as dairy products like cheese. They also brought herbs and spices, including garlic, sugar cane, and coriander. Coriander leaves, known as cilantro, are featured in many Mexican dishes.
Spanish influences evident in modern Mexican cuisine include quesadillas, now a Mexican street-cart staple, and burritos. Until the conquistadors arrived, there was no wheat in Mexico. Burritos are still practically unheard of in southern Mexico, where tortillas are made the traditional way, with corn. The colonization of Mexico also brought the assimilation of cuisines and cooking techniques from France, the Caribbean, Portugal, West Africa, and South America.
Chile, not Chili
There are reportedly more than 60 varieties of chile peppers, from very mild Anaheims to fiery hot habaneros. Jalapeños are the most recognizable, alongside chipotles--jalapeños that have been dried and smoked--the primary flavor in adobo sauce. A favorite Mexican main course, Chiles Rellenos, features large poblano chiles stuffed with cheese or spicy meat (picadillo). Jalapeño poppers, an American bar-menu staple, are a version of these.
Chili, on the other hand, as in spicy chili con carne, is an entirely American version unrelated to the Mexican pepper, and not a Mexican dish. Other non-traditional, gringo versions of Mexican food include the American-born nacho and refried beans, a Tex-Mex revision of frijoles refritos. Tex-Mex food is a modern hybrid incorporating southwestern cowboy fare. Looking for a telltale sign that your Mexican food isn't authentically Mexican? Mexican dishes never use American yellow cheese. Queso Monterey, Queso Chihuahua, and Queso Fresco are used instead.