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Mexican Food. History and Geography

Hello there
Some of you my know from my old posts that I was born and raised in East LA and have memories of home cooking (actually neighbor cooking as we were dust bowl Okie Gringos and the neighbors taught my Mom how to cook). Thinking about those times in the 50s I have developed a thirst for knowledge concerning the history of northern Mexican cooking. Northern would be Baja, Sonora, and Chihuahua. Predominantly poor people there but some of the best traditional dishes.. Mexico's version of Provencal food perhaps.

As an aside ---
I was in Houston some years ago and went to dinner with my Boss at a Mexican restaurant. Unsure of the names and description of some of the dishes I ordered a Chili Relleno dinner plate feeling sure it would be a comfortable dining experience. When I cut into my first chilli I was shocked to find it stuffed with ground meat. I leaned back and said, "well this is different.. Ive never had meat in a chili relleno before". My boss grinned and said proudly, "Tex-mex."

So this is why I didn't include any of the states along the Texas Border (North of Big Bend cooking in not influenced by anything except dust). South along the Rio Grand their cuisine is obviously a Mexican/gringo mix they are proud of

End aside ----

As for the states mentioned I find Sonoran foods to be the most eclectic. They, like Baja have a strong sea-food influence but seem most grounded in Corn dishes (Tamale, tortilla, etc) and vegetables out of the river basins. Meat is predominately chicken. Sonoran food also picks up a lot of the hotter chili dishes and goat from Chihuahua (don't you just love that name? cheee wa wa). Chihuahua has a ton of different chillies, lots of vegetables and beans along the rio grand and the meat is predominantly chicken with goat and beef... and cheese from the dairy along the river too.

So I am just blabbing here. I really would like to have more authentic northern Mexican receipts with maybe some specific geography and history. To me "authentic" means traditional family food and something you will probably not find in a Mexican restaurants north of the border.

Any takers? Any books?

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  1. So years ago you had meat in a chile relleno and you disqualify everything in Texas because of that. Most Tex-Mex rellenos don't use ground meat. The situation in Houston has changed greatly over the years. Are you also aware Chihuahua has a long border with Texas across the Rio Bravo?

    4 Replies
    1. re: James Cristinian

      Sorry if I offended... Yes I judged all Tex Mex based on that one meal. My bad. And yes I know the geography of the MX state. I pointed out, perhaps without skill, that the border north and west of Big Bend is not, to me, the same as everything else down stream. Chihuahua has the benefit of cuisine from the mild chilli north (Hatch) to the hotter chilli south, to the green gardens of the east along the river. Something Sonora does not enjoy and Baja would never guess. Thanks

      1. re: camper

        Just so there's no confusion on this point, ground meat in a chile relleno does not imply Tex-Mex. In Mexico many chiles are stuffed with ground meat, most commonly probably picadillo, which can be ground pork and/or beef. The famed chile en nogada is filled with picadillo.

        1. re: Soul Vole

          Just so there is no further confusion on this point there would be almost zero chance that families and cafes in the three northern Mexican states mentioned that would stuff a chilli relleno with ground meat. Not even chicken.. only cheese.

          I made a mistake.. I dissed Tex Mex. Tex Mex is not East LA. Tex Mex is not Baja. Tex Mex is not Sonora. Tex Mex is maybe in Chihuahua but I doubt it.

          I am really sorry that I could not make this more clear. I don't know how I could have made it clearer. I am interested in "northern" Mexican food recipes and history

          All this really points out how many experts there are in Mexican food when there is no such thing as all-encompassing Mexican food. All food is regional. What is American Food? New England boiled dinner? Texas Smoked brisket? San Francisco cioppino? sour dough?

          Almost sorry I made this post.

          1. re: camper

            Don't be sorry. I'm finding this an interesting discussion. I know little about Northern Mexican cuisine and would like to know more.

    2. I think the only authors (writing in English) who have really taken Mexican cuisine seriously are Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy. Both of them have several books, I'd go look at a bunch of the reviews on amazon or wherever. So much US info about Mexico refers only to Tex-Mex cuisine, which is fine, but there is so much diversity in Mexico that is not known in the US. It would be like someone eating cheese grits in the US and thinking that they knew what California sushi roll was like. Both of these authors spent their entire careers looking at different localities within Mexico and writing about it. I would start with them and branch out from there.

      1 Reply
      1. re: lireland

        There's a current thread about books by Roberto Santibanez (Truly Mexican).

        by Z Martinez is a good book on Oaxaca cooking

        Robb Walsh tries to make the case that Tex-Mex is an authentic American regional cuisine.

      2. Use Google Advanced Search and search the ".mx" domain ("Site or Domain" search field) for recipes. You are searching in Mexico, for Mexican web pages, when you do this. If you don't speak Spanish, Google Chrome browser can translate pages as you surf.

        You can do this for any area (usually a country) that has a unique domain.

        1. Do a search on here and eGullet for EatNopal's posts.

          1. While not directly addressing regional cooking in Mexico, I recently read a couple of books that broadened my view of Mexican cooking

            Planet Taco

            Taco USA

            1. You've got a lot of different themes going in rpost...Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex, Northern Mex, "authentic" (whatever that really is) as well as a few statements that are rather far off the mark. But...as you say they are filtered through your childhood experiences and what you knew growing up.

              One of the more recent and comprehensive books on Mexican cuisine is Planet Taco: A History of Mexican Cuisine by Jeffery Pilchard.

              Mexican cuisine is a mother cuisine. You might want to also check out 3 Cuisines 3 Cultures by Ken Albala

              You also want to look at the migration patterns, particularly those during the Bracero Program (roughly 1943-1964). The migration into CA was primarily from Jalisco, Sonora and Sinoloa, which is why the cooking styles and regional cuisines from these states is reflected in the Cal-Mex you probably grew up eating. Chihuahua, Durango, Nuevo Leon, Tamulpais and so forth shared the Rio Grande border and migrated more in that direction than to CA.

              Baja is a special case unto itself. The chefs currently active there like to refer to their cooking as "sin piramide" meaning, literally, without the pyramide, Figuratively it means that their cooking does not rely on the foundation and base that the traditional cuisine of mainland Mexico does; they are free to use and interpret the raw ingredients they have to work with as they see fit,not as tradition dictates. The influences there are Mexican, Asian and European, primarily Italian. The Kumeyaay indians were settled on both sides of what is now the CA/Mex border and were for thousands of years before the Spanish and English moved into both regions. Both sides of the modern border share a nearly identical geography, climate, topography, flora fauna and so forth, each side, tho', has chosen to work with and interpret the region from quite different cultural perspectives.

              * The seafood influence you mention is coming more from Sinoloa than Sonora. Sinoloa is very famous for it's fish and seafood cuisine

              * Chile rellenos in Mexico are more likely to be stuffed with picado - ground meat mixtures - or seafood, than they are with cheese. You will also find them without the capeado (batter coating) and/or made from dried chiles rather than fresh. There are a million variations on the chile relleno that reflect the tremendous regionsl diversity of the cuisine in Mexico

              * Chicken is not necessarily the primary meat of Northern Mexico; beef is more frequently seen since that is the primary area for beef herding. Goat is prevalent all across the north.

              * The best traditional dishes are going to be those from the central highlands, the area around Mexico City, Puebla, Tlaxaca, Veracruz and Oaxaca

              * Corn was considered peasant food and an inferior grain by the Spanish and they wanted to eradicate it and convert the indigenous population to wheat. The problem was that wheat did not thrive well in the central and southern parts of the country. It did do well in the northern states. Today it is more of a staple in some of those regions than is corn. Neither corn, nor wheat is grown to any extent in Baja.

              * You can thank the Mennonites who settled in Chihuahua for developing many of the cheeses in northern Mexico

              A lot of folks in the U.S. don't realize just how big Mexico is or how just how diverse it is. The traditional seats of power were Veracruz, central Mexico and Acapulco. Travel and communication between the northern states and territories took weeks and months. The states and people in the northern part of the country adapted what they knew to what they had creating some interesting regional differences and specialties as a result.

              3 Replies
              1. re: DiningDiva

                This is educational.
                I would have assumed that beef was not that important to Sonoran food (and obliviously not to Baja food) due to the lack of grazing and the distance from the Llano.
                We had some beef when I grew up.. cal-mex is probably right.
                Mostly chicken
                Lots of seafood

                However it is difficult for me to accept "far off the mark" and "filtered" in the same response.

                I could not be more sure of the influence of the Sonoran that the immigrants brought to Los Angeles foods or of their geography and tradition. Crossing into California, it seems to me, would not have varied their ways. For example there would not have been and still may no be Sonorans who re-fried beans as a side dish. Re-frying beans is what one did when one cooked too many the night before. It was a way to stretch the beans. Also you would be hard pressed to find a Sonroan immigrant then (perhaps today) that had ever heard of a flour tortilla. Sonornas also where not chilli-pepper hot in their condiments (relatively speaking). Hot chillies it seems to me were primarily a product of the far eastern indio and that, in of itself, is quite important. My experience is that even though the culture of my day "looked down" on the indio they inherited the bulk of their diet and therefore their cooking from the aboriginal culture.


                1. re: camper

                  According to the Wiki article, Sorora produces 40% of Mexico's wheat. It is also a major livestock state, especially cattle.

                  What do you think of gastronomy part of the Wiki article?


                  "El orgullo de Sonora es productor de una de las mejores carnes en el mundo,... los exquisitos guisos que se ofrecen en el Estado ...."

                  1. re: camper

                    Crossing in CA would not have changed their techniques, but it would have changed their ingredients as many of the regional ingredients needed were not readily available up until the last 20 years. They did what all immigrants do, they make do with what they can find in the new country while applying old country recipes and techniques.

                    To relegate refritos to something to do with leftover beans negates the fact that they are very, very frequently used as a primary ingredient in many dishes and antojitos. Beans, whole or refried, are generally served at the end of Mexican comida - not necessarily as a side dish - so that if anyone is still hungry, the beans can fill up the holes in the hunger. Mexicans have more uses for beans in all forms than carter has liver pills.

                    The flour tortillas from Sonora are generally considered to be the best in the republic. Flour tortillas are far more prevalent in northern Mexico than central and southern precisely because wheat is grown there. Sonoran women are brilliant at the flour tortilla, it is a source of pride for them to be complimented on them.

                    I have no clue what you mean by "far east indio". There was no doubt that the Manila Galleon spread chiles from west to east and east to west. Many varieties of chiles are indigenous to Mexico, they grow all over and were a vital part of the pre-Columbian diet. Chiles are rather amazing in that their characteristics can change over just a few generations. They adapt to the local geography and climate in which they are grown. Not all Mexican food is hot and spicy and most Mexican families will only make their sauces as hot as they want them, or not.

                    One of the most incindiarily hot dishes comes from Sinoloa and that is the Aquachile...usually raw shrimp marinated and served in a thin chile sauce. Erizo in Tijuana serves an absolutely stellar version. It's hotter than hell but you can't stop eating it...roots are in Sinoloa, not Baja. Culican is the capital of Sinoloa and gives it's name to one of the most delicious chile based sauces, the salsa Culichi. made with the chile poblano. It's rich, addictive and not hot at all even though it generally takes quite a few chiles to make the sauce.

                    The Spainards hated the indigenous food and spent eons trying to change, modify it, eradicate or destroy it. After the first independence Mexicans hated their own cuisine and tried importing French and European cuisine and culture. All of it had an impact to one degree or another. Yes, there are still dishes that can be traced directly back to the pre-Columbian cultures (pipianes, for example). There are also a huge number of dishes that can be traced back to post-conquest and colonial eras (salsa veracruzana for example). And there are a huge number of dishes and recipes that will show the 2 worlds colliding (mole poblano, or chiles en nogada for example).

                    I'm not exactly sure where you are getting your information as it doesn't jibe with most of the scholarly and anecdotal information available.

                    And for the record, cheese is not the most common filling in a chile relleno in Mexico.

                2. I have traveled and eaten my way through a great deal of Mexico. I am no expert, but I love cooking and eating :)

                  Puerto Peñasco in Sonora has plenty of fish and shrimp, limes and hot chili, beans and flour and corn tortillas. Lots of chicken and egg dishes too. Simple, unpretentious, flavorful food.

                  Here is a very good (authentic but modern) fish taco recipe and shrimp cocktail recipe from Puerto Peñasco (and a little history too) that you might enjoy: http://www.lacocinita.com/story.php3?...