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Mexican cuisine is a style of food which is primarily a fusion of indigenous Mesoamerican cooking with European, especially Spanish, cooking developed after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. The basic staples remain the native corn, beans and chili peppers but the Europeans introduced a large number of other foods, the most important of which were meat from domesticated animals (beef, pork, chicken, goat and sheep), dairy products (especially cheese) and various herbs and spices.
While the Spanish initially tried to superimpose their diet on the country, this was not possible and eventually the foods and cooking techniques began to be mixed, especially in colonial era convents. Over the centuries, this resulted in various regional cuisines, based on local conditions such as those in the north, Oaxaca, Veracruz and the Yucatan Peninsula. Mexican cuisine is highly tied to the culture, social structure and its popular traditions, the most important example of which is the use of mole for special occasions and holidays, particularly in the South region of the country. For this reason and others, Mexican cuisine was added by UNESCO to its list of the world’s “intangible cultural heritage”.
Mexican cuisine is complex, as complex as any of the great cuisines in the world such as those of China, France and Turkey. It is created mostly with ingredients native to Mexico as well as those brought over by the Spanish conquistadors, with some new influences since then. Native ingredients include tomatoes, squashes, avocados, cocoa and vanilla, as well as ingredients not generally used in other cuisines such as various edible flowers, vegetables such as huauzontle and papaloquelite or small criollo avocados, whose skin is edible. European contributions include pork, chicken, beef, cheese, various herbs and spices and some fruits. Tropical fruits such as guava, prickly pear, sapote, mangoes, bananas, pineapple and cherimoya (custard apple) are popular, especially in the center and south of the country.It has been debated how much Mexican food is still indigenous and how much is European. However, the basis of the diet is still corn and beans with chili pepper as a seasoning as they are complimentary foods.
Despite the introduction of wheat and rice to Mexico, the basic starch remains corn in almost all areas of the country. While it is eaten fresh, most corn is dried, treated with lime and ground into a dough. This dough is used fresh and fermented to make a wide variety of dishes from drinks (atole, pozol, etc.) to tamales, to sopes and much more. However, the most common way to eat corn in Mexico is in the form of a tortilla, which accompanies almost every dish in Mexico. Tortillas are made of corn in most of the country but other versions exist such as wheat in the north or plantain, yuca and wild greens in Oaxaca.
The other basic ingredient in all parts of Mexico is the chili pepper. Mexican food has a reputation for being spicy, but its seasoning can be better described as strong. Many dishes also have subtle flavors as well. In Mexico, the various chili peppers are used for their flavors and not just their heat, with Mexico using the widest variety of chili peppers. If a savory dish or snack does not contain chili pepper, hot sauce is usually added and chili pepper is often added to fresh fruit and sweets. The importance of the chili pepper goes back to the Mesoamerican period, which it was considered to be as much of a staple as corn and beans. In the 16th century, Bartolomé de las Casas wrote that without chili peppers the indigenous did not think they were eating. Even today, most Mexicans believe that their national identity would be at a loss without it. Many dishes in Mexico are defined by their sauces and the chili peppers those sauces contain, rather than the meat or vegetable that the sauce covers. These dishes include entomatada (in tomato sauce), adobo or adobados, pipians and moles. A hominy soup called pozole is defined as white, green or red depending on the chili pepper sauce used or omitted. Tamales are differentiated by the filling which is defined by the sauce (red, green, chili pepper strips or mole). Dishes without a sauce are nearly inconceivable to eat without a salsa or with fresh or pickled chili peppers. This includes street foods such as tacos, soups, sopes, tlacoyos, gorditas and sincronizadas.For most dishes, it is the variety of chili used that gives it its main flavor.
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