Mexican cuisine as it is known today has a fascinating history that includes a connection with explorer Christopher Columbus. Many students learned that “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” and discovered America, but he never actually reached those shores. Instead, he landed in the Bahamas. Columbus’ journey brought him to many Caribbean islands, including Jamaica and Hispaniola, where he found the precious metals, new foods and spices he’d been seeking. Although he had hoped for a faster route east, Columbus found himself in a place he named the West Indies, an island grouping with climate perfect for growing sugar, tobacco and cotton—as well as a rich assortment of spices, including nutmeg/mace, cinnamon, cloves and allspice. In the years following Columbus’ journey, many European explorers made their way west into Mexico and South America, beginning a trading partnership which ultimately changed the culinary landscape in countries on both sides of the Atlantic.
Ancient Traditions and Indigenous Ingredients
Prior to the Europeans’ arrival, the cuisines of the Caribbean and Central and South America relied on the limited cooking methods of roasting, barbecuing, boiling, steaming and stewing. In the Yucatán, the classical Mayan oven known as the pib was used. A pib is constructed by lining a large hole in the ground with stones, upon which a fire is built and allowed to burn until the stones are red hot. Traditionally, tamal, or corn-based dough, is wrapped in banana leaves (sometimes with chicken) and reburied in the pit and allowed to cook.
More contemporary versions employ similar methods using pork smeared with a marinade of annatto (seeds or paste), orange juice and spices. This richly flavored mixture is ideal for the slow-cooking, moist environment achieved with the banana leaf. Annato, which is referred to as roucou in Belize, comes from the seed of the tropical achiote plant. Mild in flavor, it produces a rich, orange-red color that is used commercially to color everything from Cheddar cheese to ice cream. In Central America, the annatto seed is ground with garlic, vinegar and spices and used as a marinade for chicken, fish or pork. In Puerto Rico, annatto seeds are fried in oil, then used to give a vibrant yellow color to rice. The ancient cultures worshipped the sun for its ability to sustain crops; yellow dishes, such as potatoes huancaína (boiled yellow potatoes in spicy cream sauce) and a variety of corn stews and soups, were enriched with annatto (or sometimes turmeric) to highlight this important color.
The Introduction of European Influences
Many dishes of modern Latin American cuisine involve cooking techniques and ingredients brought over from Europe after 1492. Vinegar, flour and rice were important, but domesticated animals and husbandry techniques had the greatest impact. Until that time, there were very few, if any, large animals that could be domesticated in small, confined spaces. Wild animals, skinny and unruly, were not available in any great numbers. Hogs and cattle were among the first livestock introduced by Europeans and were prized for their superior meat-to-bone ratio, controllable breeding cycles, versatile fat and excellent dairy products. Although the climate was invariably hot, large amounts of water, open space and vegetation were available to support these large animals.
As important as the meat was, it was the fat that brought about the change in cooking methods. Despite its unfavorable reputation, fat is a necessary part of the diet and important to many cooking methods. With its introduction came the ability to fry meats and vegetables, adding a new dimension to traditional dishes that previously had been boiled or stewed. Modern Mexican cooking is an adaptation of the best of both cultures.
Mexican Cuisine Today
Mexican cuisine is noted for its ability to develop flavors through a complex system of charring, roasting, frying and stewing. For example, all dried chili peppers are first heated over a comal, or dry sauté pan, to extract the essential oils and make them pliable. The peppers are then soaked in water, seeded and ground in a basalt mortar called a molcajete. Other ingredients, such as garlic, onions and tomatoes, also are charred and ground into a paste or sauce. Once everything is processed, the mixture is fried in lard. This combination is then cooked and reduced, then used in a variety of applications. It is always contrasted with ingredients that are acidic—lime or a type of sour cream—or with fresh flavoring components such as herbs. The methods’ overall complexities have been handed down through the generations; the introduction of fat allowed for the expansion of many of these indigenous techniques.
Molé is a fusion of ingredients and cultures and is thought to have originated in the central Mexican state of Oaxaca. It can be green, dark red or a rich coffee color, depending on the ingredients. It is sometimes erroneously known in the U.S. as a chocolate sauce, although cocoa is included in only a few of the multiple varieties of regional molé preparations. Cooked separately from the meat, it is best served with meats that have been simmered until tender. It is sold packaged in many Latin markets worldwide.
Of all regional ingredients of Latin cuisine, corn and beans have always been the most important. These two key ingredients sustained people of the Americas for nearly 10,000 years. (See “Holy Frijoles!,” page 78.) Corn is prepared in hundreds of different ways. In Mexico, the ears are processed through a treatment known as nixtamalization. This involves soaking dried corn in a lime mixture, then further processing it into hominy.
Hominy is ground into masa harina, which is converted into masa, the corn dough used to make tortillas. The process is long and labor-intensive but has the benefit of giving the corn back its niacin—a vital feature, since so many of the calories consumed by the people of these cultures come from corn. Without nixtamalization, epidemics of pellagra would have ensued.
In addition to its nutritional properties, corn is versatile: The silk is used to make tea; the dried husks serve as wrappers for steaming food; and the cob is ground up as animal feed. Although extremely important to the people of Mexico, corn has never been paramount in European cuisine. Other than polenta, there are few dishes made with corn throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, where wheat and rice are the staples.
All cuisines are an amalgam of many cultures and ingredients. The best techniques and flavors are borrowed and combined with local foods and methods to create new dishes that, in time, become traditional. The cuisine of Mexico today has its roots in the ancient cultures but has evolved to one of full flavor, interesting cooking methods and mouth-watering complexity.
Making Beans Count
When working with dried beans, thorough inspection and careful cleaning are mandatory. Small stones or dirt are hidden in piles of beans. In quantity formulations, it is critical to cook beans with a gentle, consistent heat, so as to not agitate the beans and have them break down. It also is necessary to cook beans in sufficient water so the beans cook evenly. The ideal is to have the beans emerge soft and creamy on the inside, while holding their shape. Any attempt to speed the cooking process tends to disintegrate the product instead.
Cooking time depends on the altitude—the higher, the longer—plus the age of the bean; beans stored too long develop a “hard-to-cook” factor and, sometimes, an off-flavor. Dried beans give more complete control over flavor and texture aspects of the final formulation. It is often recommended to soak and drain beans, but this is generally unnecessary and causes some loss of flavor, while not significantly reducing the cooking time. Canned beans are a popular convenience item, though they typically contain a firming agent, such as ethylenediamine-tetra-acetic acid (EDTA) or calcium chloride. For larger batch preparation, some suppliers offer a selection of dried, cooked bean ingredients. One such product is cooked ground beans.
Beans are an incredibly versatile ingredient to add substance and additional health benefits to many menu items. High in protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, they are a classic health food and integral to Mexican and Latin American cuisine.
Jeffrey Troiola is corporate chef and leader of Research and Development for Dallesandro Gourmet and Specialty Wholesalers.
Sizzle and Smoke
It is a time of great discovery in the fresh and prepared foods markets and in restaurants, as people change their eating habits to reflect improved flavor profiles and healthier ingredients. Heavy emphasis on flavor from fat and cheese leaves Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine perceived as “unhealthy.” But, the shift toward authentic flavor sources of herbs and spices leads to many more healthy alternatives to “flavor-up” this favorite cuisine.
One path in the search for healthy ingredients has led backward, not forward—way back to the pre-Aztec cultures of Central and South America. Here the use of ajis, or “chilies” as they are known in Central America, has been widespread and constant since their origin in the foothills and high ranges of the Andes Mountains in Brazil, Peru and Paraguay thousands of years ago. This fruit (botanically, the chili pepper is a fruit) has been preserved, distributed (in part by birds and in part by the slave trade), cultivated and used in many ways, cultures and cuisines all over the world. Peppers are an original “global” ingredient.
One way to preserve the chili pepperpods is to dry them on a flat, clean surface using the sun as the dehydrating agent. A classical method is to braid the pods in ristras—long, woven strings of peppers tied in such a way as to allow sufficient airflow and sunshine for drying. But, for those peppers of thick, dense flesh with a large seed pod, it was difficult for early peoples to achieve the dehydration percentage required to keep the pepper from spoiling. In central Mexico, beginning in the pre-Aztec period, native peoples would place the peppers (traditionally jalapeños or their varietals) next to a fire to dehydrate them at a faster pace. These peppers also picked up flavor from the smoke of the wood, which in central Mexico was usually mesquite. Thus was born the chipotlé (derived from the Nahuatil name for smoked pepper). Chipotlés can be any variety but today are traditionally the large varieties of jalapeño grown throughout Mexico.
Cooking time and volume of the smoke-dried pepper in a formulation will dictate the intensity of the smoke flavor, as will the woods used for the smoke-drying. Chefs at Boulevard Bread and The Root Café in Little Rock, Ark., and McEwens on Monroe and The Elegant Farmer in Memphis describe smoke-dried peppers as bringing “mystery” to the dish. With the olfactory sense hard-wired to taste, the nose usually announces a dish long before it is tasted. In the case of smoke-dried peppers, it is a trick play: The smoky smell and flavor have been associated with grilling meat, signaling a rich and hearty meal. For example, the smoke-dried peppers used in turnip greens at The Elegant Farmer fool the nose into experiencing the traditional fatback or other meat additives classically nestled in those wonderfully healthy greens.
Another example of peppers acting as a welcome mimic is the hickory-smoke-dried, sweet Italian Marconi pepper. When dried, the large sweet pepper has the appearance and aroma of a piece of smoked meat—and has even been marketed as “Certified Organic Vegan Jerky.”
Today’s chefs and food manufacturing experts strive to create the healthiest and most intelligent ingredients as part of the recent surge in popularity of “modern-ancient” Latin cuisine. Smoked-dried peppers are a popular choice. They add intense and alluring flavors, adding to the already flavorful grilling combinations used in the form of rubs and marinades, or even basic grilling. They also can bring a more delicate flavor profile to a variety of entrees and side dishes prepared in commercial kitchens or at home.
Fred Gray is a sometimes food writer and the owner of Sparkling River Pepper Co. (www.sparkling-river.com) in Mt. Olive, Ark., makers of smoke-dried chili pepper products.
Close-Up: Hispanic Consumer Eating Trends
Hispanics now comprise 16% of the U.S. population, and the U.S. Census indicates the U.S. Hispanic population is expected to grow 34% from 2010 to 2020. Not surprisingly, those projections are fueling more Hispanic consumer retail and foodservice eating studies.
The NPD Group suggests that a growing number of U.S. Hispanic consumers—combined with their adherence to dining traditions—is beginning to influence national consumption patterns
Hispanics already are influencing breakfast consumption patterns, according to NPD’s “National Eating Trends (NET) Hispanic,” which is a year-long study that captures the in-home and away-from-home food and beverage consumption habits of Hispanics in the U.S. by level of acculturation.
“NET Hispanic” reports that while non-Hispanics include non-toasted bread in 2% of their breakfast meals, 12% of Hispanics’ breakfasts include non-toasted bread. During the last decade, typical consumers decreased the number of times they include non-toasted bread with their breakfasts. NPD’s “National Eating Trends (NET)” shows that for the two years ending February 2001, the average American had 48 eatings of non-toasted bread at breakfast, which declined to 41 eatings for the two years ending February 2011.
While non-toasted bread appears to be the breakfast carbohydrate of choice in Hispanic homes, other breakfast options are consumed less often compared to non-Hispanics’ consumption. For example, hot cereal has a 10% share of non-Hispanic breakfast eatings, while that number for Hispanics is only 6%. Eggs are found more often on the table during breakfast in Hispanic homes than in non-Hispanic homes in the U.S.
“This shift could bode well for bread makers and bakery departments, and they should make efforts to connect with Hispanics sooner rather than later,” says Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst at NPD. “On the flip side, hot cereal marketers will need to appeal to this group in ways that differ from traditional efforts. For example, the warmth and convenience of hot cereal could be important aspects to highlight, as Hispanics are already consuming warm breakfasts at above-average rates.”
Dinner meal side dishes are another category that is being influenced by Hispanic consumption behavior, according to “NET Hispanic.” Hispanics eat rice more often at lunch and dinner compared to non-Hispanics; in a time when side dish consumption has been declining across all major categories, both plain and flavored rice are being included in more meals as a side dish among the overall population.
Dining traditions play an important role in U.S. Hispanics’ eating behaviors. When asked to describe how frequently Latino/Hispanic traditions are followed in their homes, 96% of Hispanic respondents indicated these traditions are followed “always/often/sometimes” when planning and serving meals for the household. In addition, dining traditions vary among each Hispanic group. For example, Cuban-Americans differ from Mexican-Americans in their eating patterns.
“There’s no doubt about it — Hispanics are a large and quickly growing group, and they will likely move the needle on national consumption trends over the next 10 years,” says Seifer. “Marketers who wish to stay ahead of this growth should invest in understanding not only U.S. Hispanics’ behaviors, but also the traditions they honor at the dining table.”