Of course we can’t truly focus on every dish that fill up the cookbooks or else we’d be here forever. So, we’ve chosen three dishes that exemplify the culture and the history of Mexican cuisine.
Cochinita pibil is one of the most well known dishes in Mexican cuisine. One of the beautiful aspects about Mexican food is how different it can be from place to place. The one thing they have in common is how representative of their area and culture they are. There is so much history and culture that can be found in a single dish. Take cochinita pibil for example, it’s a staple dish of Yucateca cuisine. It’s a truly great example of the mix of history and culture as cochinita pibil is a cultural fusion of Spanish and Mayan foods.
History: Cochinita pibil as we know it first showed up in Yucatán, but the original dish was much different. Before the Spanish, natives would prepare the same dish but with either deer, warthog or pheasant. Once the Spanish arrived, one of the first places to get a taste of pig was Yucatán. And thanks to that, the dish we now know as cochinita pibil was created. Making it the perfect example of the fusion of the two cultures in Mexico and bringing the old and the new together.
What it is: Cochinita pibil is shredded pig marinated in annatto. It’s served on either a warm tortilla or a panucho alongside red pickled onion. It has a very specific way of preparation and very specific ingredients (like for example bitter orange).
Mole is one of those dishes that might be beloved throughout Mexico but is not all that well-known outside of our beautiful country and illustrious culture. And yet it is still one of the greatest dishes that can be found in Mexican cuisine, not to mention one of the ones with the most available options. For some it can be an acquired taste, that’s why it’s good that there are so many kinds of mole because you’re bound to like at least one kind. And those who love it, truly love it.
History: As with pretty much all the main dishes in our culture, the tales of it’s origin can vary. There are some legends here and some stories there. Between written word and the word of mouth, there are certain things that remain. It’s said that in pre-Hispanic times the Aztecs prepared a dish called “mulli” or “molli,” a Nahuatl word that basically means sauce. We’re going to go with the lesser known of the legends:
It was said that mole as we know it is thanks to Saint Pascual Bailón, the saint for cooks and was actually an accident that turned out in his favor. It is said that Juan de Palafox, archbishop of Puebla and viceroy of Spain, arrived in his convent as a surprise visit.
Father Pascual was the main cook and was nervous enough with such a dignified and important visit. While trying to calm his nerves he put all the ingredients we now know as part of the dish in a tray to store it in the pantry. In his hurry he tripped and all of the ingredients went inside the pot where the turkey was being made. In his anguish he prayed and prayed for a miracle to happen. He was surprised to hear how everyone seemed to love the dish.
And it’s from that story that the verse was born “San Pascual, San Pascualito, atiza mi fogón, yo te pongo en mi guisito y tu le das la sazón.” (Pan Pascual, stir my pot. I will put you in my stew and you give it flavor.)
Is the story true? No one truly knows but it’s a nice tale. What is true is that mole is the Mexican dish with the most variety. There are over 100 different types of mole and they all have their differences and can come from different places. Mole poblano is not the same as mole oaxaqueño but they are both equally delicious.
Some of the most famous types of mole are as follow: mole negro, mole rojo, mole verde, mole amarillo, coloradito, and mancha manteles. The combinations might vary but the result is always the same a truly delicious Mexican dish.
Chiles en Nogada:
All the dishes on our list are wonderful and delicious, in fact they’re my personal favorites, but nothing is as iconic when it comes to speaking about Mexican Cuisine as chiles en nogada. They are the truest and most iconic of Mexican dishes. And that is why we saved the best for last.
There’s also the fact that while you can find any variation of the previous two at any moment in time in Mexico, chiles en nogada are seasonal. They’re mostly available during the time of the Fiestas Patrias, or Patriotic Parties in September.
Why is it only truly available during this time? It’s because the ingredients, like the pomegranate and the walnut, are seasonal.
History: The year is 1821, Agustín de Iturbide has signed the Córdoba agreements and of course Mexico’s Independence Act. The place is the Santa Monica convent in Puebla. Agustín nuns learned that Iturbide would be in their city to celebrate his saint day (August 28) and they decided to come up with a dish that would represent the colors of the flag. And it coincided with the time in which they would harvest walnuts and pomegranates.
They took some chili poblanos, roasted, pealed and cleaned them. Then they filled them up with picadillo where the flavors were based in pork, tomato, onion, garlic, seasonal fruits, nuts, almonds, pine nuts, among various spices. All they needed was to create the sauce and so they created it with fresh walnuts from scratch. It was a combination of the nuts, a bit of cheese, a bit of sugar mixed it up with milk and a little sherry and voilà. The plate was almost complete and so they used parsley leaves and pomegranates seeds. And there they were, the three colors of the Mexican flag: red, white and green.
Perhaps we’ll never know which of these stories are true and which are as legends, but that’s part of the charm. It’s very telling about a culture when even something as simple as how a dish was created can have so many different stories to choose from. And it’s a beautiful way in which Mexicans show their love for their culture.
Mexican food is created with love; love for our culture, love for our family, love for our specific regions, and most importantly love for our country. It’s a way for us to show our culture share it with others. It has evolved a lot over the years but it will forever remain the perfect mix of culture and beauty, the fusion of the old with the new. And that is why it’s so cherished all around the world.