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What is real Mexican food?
Cuisine varies from region to region in the U.S. and Mexico
Mexican food is not just about tacos, tortillas and enchiladas. It's also menudo, seafood, tortas ahogadas, poc-chuc, chiltomate and papadzules.
Although some of these dishes might not be found on a Yuma menu, the authentic dishes are favorites in different regions of Mexico.
Even in Yuma, food differs in style and taste from one restaurant to another, usually depending on the roots of the founders.
And the Mexican food we enjoy in Yuma differs from that served south of the border, in New Mexico and in Texas.
Carlos Ochoa, executive chef at Arizona Western College, notes that Mexican food has a wide range. “It's not just tacos, enchiladas and burritos. There is seafood, salads, stews, grilling.”
His personal favorite is the seafood. He enjoys crossing the border into San Luis Rio Colorado, Son., and picking up some manta ray and bringing it back in an ice cooler. He cooks it outdoors on a “disco” and makes it into tacos.
“It tastes kind of sweet and savory and it's not really fishy fish. It really is delicious.”
For salads he enjoys mixing it with “vinaigrettes with Spanish seasonings such as chipotles and adobo spices.” For another salad, he will throw in steak with fresh tomatoes and chiles. He also likes to marinate chicken or pork and then grill it.
For dessert, he might whip up a chocolate flan with fresh whipped cream and berries. But on a weight-loss journey (he's currently lost 50 pounds), he likes a healthier version of the flan. Instead of eggs, he uses low-cholesterol egg substitutes.
Although Mexican food has the reputation of being high in fat, it doesn't have to be, Ochoa said. He recommends taking certain measures, such as using Smart Balance butter substitute in recipes for a fraction of the fats and calories.
Although his heritage is Puerto Rican, Ochoa cooks a lot of Mexican food. He can't help it, living in the Southwest and in particularly Yuma, where he arrived in 2002. The area's strong Mexican roots “have had an influence,” he said, adding that he believes the Mexican food in Yuma is “superior.”
Chelsie Kenyon, a food guide who shares her recipes on About.com, noted that “Mexican cuisine is far more extensive than a plate of enchiladas, rice and beans. Mexico has a geographically varied and historically influenced cuisine ranging from seafood-based dishes nearer the coast, to the heavy Spanish influence in the Yucatan, to the infamous moles of the central regions.”
Mexican food itself is a blend of native Aztec and Mayan ingredients with Spanish influences, she said.
Kenyon noted the wide variety of flavors that differ by region. In northern Mexico, burrito-sized flour tortillas, pinto refried beans and Spanish rice are standards. Dried meat and burritos is also common to the areas.
While northern Mexico favors beef, the south prefers chicken and vegetables, according to Kenyon.
Cabo San Lucas has fresh seafood year-round and fish tacos are popular. Baja California, the birthplace of the Caesar salad, is a region with a lot of Spanish influence and known for its paella.
In Durango, located in the northern area of Mexico, there's barbacoa, in which various meats are steamed underground over coals in a pit, is common.
Tortas ahogadas (literally, drowned sandwiches) are a favorite in Jalisco, as well as birria, which is native to the state.
A signature dish in Sinaloa is the chilorio, which is pork in a chile sauce, and campechana sinaloense, a cocktail of fresh seafood.
Veracruz is home of the tomato-based sauce with green olives and pimientos, often used in the dish called huachinango (red snapper) a la Veracruzana.
Puebla, the birthplace of mole, a sauce served over chicken, is known for chile en nogada, which has green chiles topped with walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds.
Oaxaca, located in southern Mexico, features a mole made with bananas served with blandas (tortillas). An unusual dish is iguana tamales and chapulines (grasshoppers) in tacos or as a snack.
Kenyon noted that in the Yucatan Peninsula, dishes have Asian, Arabic and Mayan influences. An examples, she points to poc-chuc, a pork dish with achiote and sour orange; chiltomate, a sauce made with roasted tomatoes, chiles and onions; and papadzules, rolled tortillas stuffed with hard-boiled eggs and topped with a squash seed sauce and tomato sauce.
Other “Mexican” food
Some dishes, which people often think of as Mexican, are mostly unknown in Mexico. For example, chimichangas were actually invented at El Charro in Tucson in the 1950s, and nachos were supposedly first served at a concession at Dallas' State Fair of Texas in 1964.
TexMex cuisine originated hundreds of years ago when Spanish/Mexican recipes combined with Anglo fare, according to www.foodtimeline.org. The name comes from a combination of the words “Texan” and “Mexican” and refers to the adaptation of Mexican dishes by Texas cooks.
The website states that “Mexican restaurants, whose popularity coincided with the arrival of large numbers of Mexican immigrants after 1950, have for the most part followed the form and style of what is called ‘Tex-Mex' food, an amalgam of northern Mexican peasant food with Texas farm and cowboy fare.”
“Eating in America,” by Waverly Root and Richard de Rochemont, notes that “Tex-Mex food might be described as native foreign food, contradictory through that term may seem. It is native, for it does not exist elsewhere; it was born on this soil. But it is foreign in that its inspiration came from an alien cuisine; that it has never merged into the mainstream of American cooking and remains alive almost solely in the region where it originated.”
The combination platter of enchiladas, tacos and tortillas has become the standard of the Tex-Mex menu. Another popular Tex-Mex dish is the fajita, which was introduced at Ninfa's in Houston in 1973 as tacos al carbon.
Then there is New Mexican cuisine, which has a strong emphasis on chiles, used fresh or dried. It's found in the green chile cheeseburger and the fiery, red chile-marinated pork carne adovada and red chile-drenched Frito pies.
According to newmexico.org/cuisine, New Mexico cooking includes versions of enchiladas, tamales, burritos, posole corn, pinto beans and stuffed pockets of cornmeal dough called gorditas.
As Christine Szalay Kudra, another online foodie, points out, Mexican cuisine offers a lot to explore, going well beyond the familiar tacos and burritos. She suggests trying a few regional Mexican recipes for something different and exciting at your table.