1 GEOGRAPHIC SETTING AND ENVIRONMENT
Mexico is located directly south of the United States. It is slightly less
than three times the size of Texas. Two major mountain ranges run through
the country's interior: the Sierra Madre Oriental on the east and
the Sierra Madre Occidental on the west. Between the mountain chains lies
the great central highland plateau. Mexico borders the Pacific Ocean to
the west and the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea to the east.
Mexico has a wide range of natural environments, but temperatures are
generally mild year-round. The coastal plains and lower areas of southern
Mexico are usually hot and humid. Mexico City, the country's
capital, and other inland areas are at higher elevations and are generally
drier. Annual rainfall may exceed 200 inches in the more tropical zones of
the coastal areas, while parts of Baja California (a long, narrow
peninsula located just south of California) receive very little
precipitation. Desert-like conditions exist in the north.
Although only about one-fifth of the country remains covered with
vegetation, much of the country's wildlife are still in existence.
Some animals include rabbits, snakes, monkeys, jaguars, anteaters, deer,
toucans, parrots, and some tropical reptiles, such as the mighty boa
2 HISTORY AND FOOD
When the Europeans arrived in Mexico in 1517, Mexico’s indigenous (native)
peoples included the Aztecs of the central interior, the Maya in the
Yucatan Peninsula, and the Zapotec in the south. Their diet consisted
mainly of corn, beans, peppers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, and
herbs. Chocolate, native to Mexico, was considered a drink fit for
royalty. The Indians occasionally
hunted, adding wild turkey, rabbit, deer, and quail to their vegetarian
When the Spanish explorers landed in Mexico, they introduced livestock,
including cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, and chickens. On later journeys to
this "New World," the Spanish brought plants from Asia, such
as sugarcane and wheat.
Spain ruled over Mexico for over 300 years. By the time Mexico gained its
independence, Spain had left its mark on its people and culture, including
3 FOODS OF THE MEXICANS
Corn is the basis of the Mexican diet, as it has been for thousands of
years. It can be found in almost every meal, usually in the form of the
tortilla (flatbread). Corn can also be boiled to produce
, a hearty corn stew. Popular fruits and vegetables are tomatoes,
(green tomatoes), squash, sweet potato, avocado, mango, pineapple,
(from the prickly pear cactus). Though beef is consumed, chicken and pork
are more common. The variety of chilies includes the widely known
jalapeño, as well as the
. Chilies give Mexican cooking a distinctive flavor, which is often
enhanced with herbs, such as cilantro and thyme, and spices, including
cumin, cinnamon, and cloves. Cheese and eggs round out the diet. Seafood
is most common in coastal dishes.
Though Mexican cuisine is a blend of indigenous (Indian) and Spanish
influences, most Mexicans continue to eat more native foods, such as corn,
beans, and peppers. Such foods are cheap and widely available. Bread and
pastries are sold, but the tortilla, homemade or bought daily at the local
(tortilla stand), is the basis of the typical meal. Flour tortillas are
also eaten, especially in northern Mexico, but the corn variety is most
American soft drinks, such as Coca-Cola, have become popular in Mexico in
recent decades, but fruit-flavored soda drinks are also widely consumed,
as are fresh fruit juices, available from street vendors.
, an import from Spain, and beer (
) are also popular beverages. Coffee is normally served spiced and sweet (
café de olla
Frijoles are simmered over low heat until most the liquid has been
absorbed and the beans and onion are soft.
A pot of beans can be found simmering on the back burner in most Mexican
kitchens. They may be eaten with any meal of the day, including
- 2 cups pinto beans
- 1 medium onion, peeled and finely-chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed or minced
- 3 Tablespoons chili powder
- Place beans in a large pot and cover them with cold water. Allow them to
- When ready to cook, drain, rinse, and cover the beans again in cold
- Place the pot on the stove over medium to high heat and bring to a boil.
Simmer 5 minutes.
- Turn off heat, remove the pot, and carefully drain the beans by pouring
them into a colander placed in the kitchen sink.
- Rinse beans with cold water. Return beans to the pot and once again
cover them with cold water.
- Add the onion, garlic, and chili powder.
- Cook over medium heat until most of the water has been absorbed and the
onion is soft. Add salt to taste.
Serve as a side dish with tacos, or as a main dish with warmed corn
Frijoles Refritos (Refried Beans)
Though refried beans can be bought in cans in the grocery store,
homemade Frijoles Refritos (Refried Beans) are much more flavorful.
- 1 recipe Frijoles (above)
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- 1 cup white onion, chopped
- 1 teaspoon salt
- In a large bowl, coarsely mash the Frijoles with a fork or wooden spoon.
- In a large frying pan or skillet, heat the oil for about 30 seconds over
medium to high heat.
- Add onion and sauté for 5 minutes, until onion is golden but not
- Add the mashed beans and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often. Salt
- Scoop the beans onto a warmed corn tortilla, and add a bit of shredded
cheese (such as Monterrey Jack or mild cheddar).
Serves 4 to 6.
Café de Olla (Spiced Coffee)
The olla is the earthenware mug in which this aromatic coffee is often
- 4 cups water
- ⅓ cup dark brown sugar, packed
- 1 cinnamon stick (about 3 inches long)
- 8 whole cloves
- 1 orange peel (about 3 inches long), white parts removed
- ½ cup dark roasted coffee, coarsely ground
- Milk (optional)
- Combine water, sugar, cinnamon stick, cloves, and orange peel in a
saucepan; place it on the stove over medium to high heat, and bring to a
boil, stirring occasionally.
- Lower heat, cover the saucepan, and let mixture simmer for 5 minutes.
- Remove from heat, stir in the coffee, and let sit for 8 minutes,
- Use a sieve or a coffee filter to strain the coffee into 4 individual
- Serve immediately, adding milk, if desired.
4 FOOD FOR RELIGIOUS AND HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS
During the centuries of Spanish rule over Mexico, the majority of Mexicans
were forced to convert to Christianity. Christian holidays, including
(Christmas Eve) and
(Christmas), are celebrated with great enjoyment and family meals. Many
festivities include native Indian traditions. During
(Holy Week) leading up to Easter, meat is typically not consumed.
Día de los Tres Reyes
(Three Kings Day or Epiphany) on January 6 and
Día de los Muertos
(Day of the Dead) on October 30 are occasions for more celebration,
including the consumption of specific foods. On
Día de los Tres Reyes,
a special sweet bread,
Rosca de Reyes,
is eaten. A typical menu for
Día de los Muertos,
during which Mexicans decorate and picnic on the graves of their dead
(meat-filled turnovers, an import from Spain) and
(steamed corn husks with various fillings, including shredded pork). Also
included are chicken or turkey with
(pronounced MO-lay, it is a distinctive sauce combining chocolate,
chilies, and spices),
pan de muertos
(a sweet bread, baked in a ring and with a tiny plastic skeleton hidden
calaveras de azucar
(sugar candy skulls, bought at candy stores).
On each of the eight nights before Christmas, friends and neighbors travel
from house to house, stopping at selected houses to sing or recite lines,
asking for lodging. At the last door, they are welcomed inside for
festivities, including the breaking of the
, a papier-mâché animal filled with candies. Other typical foods
during this time include
(thin, fried pastries, covered in sugar) and
Many Mexicans buy tortillas made fresh daily at the local
tortillería (tortilla stand). Corn tortillas are the basis for
most typical meals. Flour tortillas are also eaten, especially in
northern Mexico, but the corn variety is most popular.
Rosca de Reyes (Three Kings Sweet Bread)
This is a truly Mexican version of the traditional Spanish bread.
- 1½ ounces compressed yeast
- ½ cup warm water
- 1¼ cups sugar
- ⅛ teaspoon cinnamon
- 1¾ cups butter, at room temperature
- 8½ cups flour
- 8 eggs
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup butter
- 1 egg
- 1¾ cup flour
- Candied fruits (optional)
Make the dough:
Crumble the yeast into the warm water and set aside.
- In a large mixing bowl, mix together sugar, cinnamon, and butter.
- Add the eggs, mixing thoroughly.
- Add the dissolved yeast.
- Slowly add the flour, a little at a time, until the dough is smooth and
- On a large baking sheet, shape the dough into a ring, pressing the ends
together to make a full circle.
- Cover the ring with a clean cloth or dish-towel and let sit in a warm
place (to rise) for 2 hours.
- Preheat oven to 350°F just before baking.
Make the paste
: Mix together the butter and sugar, add in the egg, and gradually mix
- This paste can be used to decorate the top of the cake once it has risen
but before it is baked. The typical decoration is rays that come out
from the center.
- Candied fruits may be pressed into the cake before baking.
- Bake 30 to 40 minutes, until cake is golden brown.
Serves 10 to 12.
5 MEALTIME CUSTOMS
(breakfast) usually includes coffee and pan dulce (sweet rolls), though
eggs are also eaten on occasion.
, served with tortillas and beans, is also a popular breakfast dish.
(lunch), the main meal of the day, is eaten between 1 and 3
It may consist of soup, a meat dish, rice, tortillas, coffee, and
, supper, is typically a light meal eaten after 9 p.m. However, in Mexico
City and other urban areas, dinner can be an elaborate meal, eaten in one
of many restaurants.
Huevos Rancheros (Ranch-Style Eggs)
- 4 corn tortillas
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- 2 cups salsa, room temperature (from the supermarket)
- 4 large eggs
- 1 cup white cheese (such as Monterrey Jack), grated
- 1 avocado, sliced
- In a skillet, heat oil (about ½-inch deep) over medium to high
- Add 1 tortilla at a time and fry each for about 5 seconds until softened
but not crisp. Place on paper towels to drain.
- Heat a small amount of vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium to
high heat; break the 4 eggs into the skillet and fry them, 2 to 3
minutes per side (or until the whites are cooked and the yolk is no
- Place a tortilla on each of 4 dinner plates, topping each tortilla with
a fried egg.
- Pour ½ cup of salsa over each egg and top with ¼ cup cheese
and a few slices of avocado.
Snacks are called
(literally, "little whims") and are eaten at any time of
the day. An
might be a beefsteak taco, a tostada (a fried, flat tortilla, often
topped with chopped tomatoes, onion, lettuce, and cilantro), or a
(a lightly grilled corn dough, often served with salsa or beans). A
schoolchild’s lunch may consist of a
(a sandwich of cheese, avocado, and sausage, or chicken on a bread roll)
(a folded flour tortilla filled with melted cheese). Street vendors sell
slices of pineapple,
(a sweet root vegetable) with a wedge of lime, and
(steamed corn on the cob served with butter and shredded cheese). Ice
cream and fruit ices are popular as well. Though American fast food has
entered Mexican diet, street stands and market stalls continue to make and
sell traditional Mexican foods.
The creamy flesh of half an avocado will be cut into small cubes for
Pico de Gallo (Mexican Salsa).
Pico de Gallo (Mexican Salsa)
- ½ an avocado
- 4 to 6 tomatoes, chopped (enough to measure 2 cups)
- ½ cup white onion, chopped
- ¼ cup chilies, finely-chopped (serranos or jalapeños)
- ⅓ cup cilantro, chopped
- 2 Tablespoons fresh lime juice
- ½ teaspoon salt (or to taste)
- Slice the whole avocado in half (vertically), going around the pit.
- After separating the two halves, use the half without the pit in it.
- Use a knife to cut the avocado into small cubes, then use a spoon to
scoop the meat out of the peel.
- Add the tomatoes, onion, chilies, cilantro, and lime juice in a bowl.
- Stir gently to combine.
- Add salt to taste.
- Let stand at room temperature for 10 minutes (to allow the flavors to
- Serve with tortilla chips.
The tortilla, topped with shredded cheese and a heaping spoonful of
Pico de Gallo (salsa), is heated in a dry skillet. Lift the edge of
the tortilla to check on its progress.
When the underside of the tortilla is golden in color, fold it in
half to form an envelope and cook for another minute to allow the
cheese to melt completely.
- 2 flour tortillas
- 1 cup cheese, shredded (preferably Monterey Jack)
- Salsa (preferably Pico de Gallo; see recipe, above)
- Place a frying pan on medium to low heat.
- Put first tortilla in (oil should not be used!) and sprinkle half the
cheese and a spoonful of salsa onto ½ of the tortilla.
- When the cheese begins to melt, use a spatula to fold the other half of
the tortilla over top, making an envelope.
- The tortilla should turn golden, but should not brown; turn down the
heat, if necessary. Let cook about 1 minute, to allow the cheese to
- Remove to a plate and repeat, using the second tortilla.
Makes 1 snack.
6 POLITICS, ECONOMICS, AND NUTRITION
Although almost one-fourth of all Mexicans earn their living from farming,
agriculture only accounts for a small percentage of the country's
gross national product. The government provides protection for farmers by
One quesadilla per person is enough as a snack, but two might be
served as the main course for lunch or as a light supper.
supporting the prices of agricultural products. Mexico is self-sufficient
in most fruits and vegetables (that is, Mexican farmers grow enough to
meet the needs of the people), and in beans, rice, and sugar. However,
many people living in rural areas are poor, and are barely able to grow
enough food to feed their own families.
Arroz Blanco (White Rice)
Technically a sopa seca, or dry soup, this dish is often served before
the main course.
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
- 1 cup white rice (uncooked)
- 2 cups chicken broth or stock (canned is fine, 2 cups equals 16 ounces)
- In large skillet, heat oil over medium heat for about 1 minute.
- Add the onion and garlic and cook until the onion is golden but not
- Add rice and mix ingredients together well. Cook rice for about 5
- Add broth and reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer 15 to 20 minutes,
- Serve the rice when all the liquid has been absorbed.
Chocolate Mexicana (Hot Chocolate Drink)
- 1½ ounces unsweetened chocolate
- 2½ cups milk
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 Tablespoons dark brown sugar
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- Slowly melt the chocolate in a small saucepan over low heat.
- In another small saucepan, warm the milk, cinnamon, vanilla, brown
sugar, and cinnamon sticks together.
- Pour the warmed milk mixture into the melted chocolate and stir to
- Remove the cinnamon sticks and pour hot chocolate into two mugs.
Children as young as 14 may work, but there are strict laws about the
conditions and hours of employment. However, young people working on farms
are often working for their family, so the laws are not enforced. Most
children in Mexico receive adequate nutrition, although there is a small
percentage of very poor children whose diets lack basic nutrients.
7 FURTHER STUDY
Cooking the Mexican
Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1989.
Geddes, Bruce, and Paloma Garcia.
World Food: Mexico.
Victoria, Australia: Lonely Planet Publications, 2000.
A Taste of Mexico.
New York: Thomson Learning, 1994.
Days of the Dead.
New York: Hyperion Press, 1996.
Lonely Planet Online. [Online] Available
(accessed February 19, 2001).
QueRico. [Online] Available
(online grocer for authentic Mexican ingredients and foodstuffs)
(accessed February 2, 2001).