Shades of Mexican Cuisine

December 27, 2009 at 7:10 am

From the soon-to-be released cookbook Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes from the Gulf of Mexico.

When most Americans venture into their local Mexican restaurant they are looking for that “authentic Mexican” flavor from south of the border.  Foods like crunchy tacos, fajitas, and good old chips and salsa come to mind when the typical American thinks of real Mexican food.  These, however, are not traditional Mexican foods.  They are the products of Anglo meddlings into a Latino/native American culture.  Most of the foods that we identify as Mexican are actually Tex-Mex.  They resulted from the post civil war migration of white Europeans into Texas.

So if what we call Mexican is really Tex-Mex then what is real Mexican like?  And what is the stuff that we call Tex-Mex?  And where does Southwestern Cuisine fit into all this?

All good questions.

Real, honest to goodness food from Mexico’s interior is a far cry from what we are accustomed to at the local Macho Taco.  Yes, there are tortillas and zesty sauces, but it is quite different.  The tortillas are made of corn not flour and they are much thicker than what we have grown accustomed to here in the States.  For the most part tortillas are silverware in interior Mexico.  The sauces are different as well, the bastardized marinaras give way to moles and pepianes, sauces that predate the ConquistadorsMoles are most often made by grinding dried chilies and unsweetened chocolate with other ingredients to form a thick paste.

Pepianes are similar but use ground pumpkinseeds for their base.  Ingredients are both familiar and peculiar.  Beef, pork, and chicken of course are prevalent as are turkey, lamb, and seafood.  Now it trips bizarre because goat, insects, and huitlacoche, a fungus that grows on corn, are also very popular ingredients.  There are no fried taco shells, no gooey cheddar cheese sauces, and no piles of nachos.  For a taste of real Mexico without the delay at customs try any of the Chicago restaurants owned by celebrity chef Rick Bayless.  No body does it better.

The next step is Tex-Mex.  From the end of the civil war on there has been a marriage Mexican and American foods thriving along the Texas/Mexico border.  It started with food carts in cities like Houston and San Antonio and is now nestled into every strip mall in the country.  Tex/Mex is also very popular in Europe and Asia.  It consists of most of the foods we associate when we think of Mexican food: fried tacos, fajitas, burritos, and such, and of course that scrumptious white cheese dip.  The classification Tex-Mex came from a book by food author Diana Kennedy called The Cuisines of Mexico back in 1972.  In her book Kennedy coined the phrase Tex-Mex to describe this Americanized version of Mexican cuisine.  At first the name was considered an insult to restaurant owners in Texas, but now it is the most popular regional cuisine in the nation.

As if we had not twisted Mexican food enough, now comes Gringo-Mex.  It is even more American than Tex-Mex.  Gone is the white cheese sauce and in its places comes cheddar, a cheese almost never seen in Mexico.  Gringo-Mex is a caricature of Mexican culture where all of the interesting parts are distorted for more effect.  The typical Gringo-Mex restaurant may be filled with palm trees and colorful sombreros, and they always have a cleverly named margarita like “top shelf”.  You know the ones – Chili’s, Don Pablos, et al.  It is basically Top 40 Mexican food as opposed to something more memorable.

If Gringo-Mex is Barbie doll pop music then Southwestern Cuisine is Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon.  Groundbreaking and innovative, Southwestern is wonderfully flamboyant. Southwestern Cuisine really came into its own in the nineties as classical European cooking techniques collided headlong with the bold flavors and wildness of the Desert Southwest. Born at the rustic Bed & Breakfast’s, resorts, and inns that dot the painted landscape of Arizona and Nevada, it is known for its common use of rich sauces and wild game.  Brooklyn-born chef Bobby Flay does Southwestern better than anyone and has taken it farther than anybody ever dreamed by incorporating some Caribbean influence to what is already an amazingly exotic cuisine.

The final stop on the Mexican cavalcade is Mexican/Creole Cuisine.  As I explored in my first cookbook, Amigeauxs – Mexican/Creole Cuisine, this latest form of Mexican blends perfectly with recipes and ingredients from the Louisiana bayou country.  One could say that these two culinary cousins are “amigeauxs.” Mexican/Creole Fusion is relatively new, but we are familiar with some recipes that might now fall under this classification, chiefly Creole Jambalaya (a variation of Paella) and the Mobile classic West Indies Salad, which one might describe as a Gulf Coast twist on a Mexican Ceviche.

There is no right or wrong way to eat the various types of Mexican food nor is anyone of them better than any of the others.  Whichever style you prefer is the best style.  Each of us has different likes and dislikes and I personally love them all.

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Stuart Reb Donald

Stuart is a celebrity chef and award winning food writer. Donald performs live cooking demonstrations and penned the cookbook Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor."

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