Mexico – a diverse country with a rich history, a variety of regional climates and an array of cultural influences – has rightfully produced a colorful menu of traditionally influenced cuisine.
Early Roots and Cultural Influences
Most of Mexico's iconic dishes are rooted in ancient Mayan Indian civilization. From what we know, Mayans were hunters and gatherers, who live on wild game and fish, as well as corn tortillas served with bean paste. However, as the Aztec Empire rose in the 1300s, some wild game were domesticated and sundries such as honey, salt, chocolate and peppers became more common.
Yet Mexico’s cuisine continued to evolve when Spain invaded in 1521. What was considered “traditional” Mexican food became heavily influenced by Spanish dishes with the introduction of new livestock (cows, pigs and sheep), dairy products, garlic and other new spices, herbs and even wheat. The evolution didn’t stop there. During the time of European exploration, foods and traditions from all over the world began influencing Mexican cuisine, including Caribbean, Dutch, Lebanese, South American, French, West African and Portuguese dishes.
Today, traces of Mexico's early civilizations and later world influences are present in modern Mexican cooking. However, Mexico itself is a hub of cultural and agricultural diversity. Due to the size of the country and the number of influences, Mexican cuisine has become a very broad term. In fact, it’s best to look at Mexico’s seven agricultural regions to pinpoint popular and iconic dishes and drinks.
A Taste of Mexico's 7 Agricultural Regions
1. The North (Aguascalientes, Baja, Chihahua, Coahuila, Durango, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas and Zacateas)
Dominated by ranches, this region's cuisine features expertly grilled beef (especially in fajitas) and goat (cabrito), in addition to a variety of cheeses. The region dominates flour tortilla production with at least forty types and also boasts the country's oldest continuously producing wine district.
2. The North Pacific Coast (Colima, Jalisco, Nayarit and Sinaloa)
While this coastal region contains ranches like those found in the North, raising cattle, pigs and sheep and producing cheese, it is also famous for its fresh seafood, variety of chiles, cheeses, fruit and vegetable production and grain. Some of Mexico's best varieties of tequila are also produced here, in the state of Jalisco.
3. The Bajio (Guanajuato, Michoacán, Queretaro and San Luis Potosi)
The Spanish settled this region's plateau surrounded by rugged mountains. They introduced cuisines which lead to the region's favorites, morisquesta (sausage and rice) and carnitas (fried pork). The region is also recognized for a variety of cheese-based decadent desserts.
4. The South Pacific Coast (Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca)
Out of all of Mexico, this region's cuisine features the most traditionally Aztec with abundant chocolate, chile served as a side (rather than an ingredient), pork, chicken and black beans used as staples and bland tortillas used to produce tamales and empanadas.
5. The South (Campeche, Quintana Roo and Yucatan)
The Yucatan Peninsula's cuisine has the strongest Mayan influence, but has also been heavily influenced by Caribbean and Middle Eastern cultures. Corn is a staple, here, and a commonly used spice, anchiote, gives many dishes a red color. The tropical region also features abundant fruits used in many dishes and even in the region's salsas.
6. The Gulf (Tabasco and Veracruz)
Heavily influenced by trade throughout the Gulf of Mexico, this region's cuisine features strong Cajun and Caribbean characteristics. Vanilla is native to this region and commonly used in many dishes. Also, a coastal region, seafood is a staple of this area's cuisine.
7. Central (Distrito Federal, Hidalgo, Mexico, Morelos, Puebla and Tlaxcala)
Dishes from all over Mexico are popular and common in Mexico City, the hub of the country. Many of ingredients used in the city's favorite dishes are imported from other regions. At the heart of Mexico, street vendors serve up tacos and tortas.