Final Review

1. The Mexican Flag 2. Taco USA by Gustavo Arellano

I took this class, Taco Literacy, because I thought it would be very cool to take a class on Mexican culture and food. I was originally a Spanish major and most of the classes offered at St. John’s in the Spanish Language Department are Spain based. I think part of the reason I was planning in majoring in Spanish was to try to forge a better connection between my Mexican side of the family and me, particularly as I don’t speak Spanish (though now I can read and write it pretty well).

1. Tortillas by Paula Morton. 2. Battle of Puebla

What this class offered was the study of Mexican culture and foodways and it was incredibly rewarding. I learned so much about Mexican culture that I didn’t know before and I think it was more relevant than a Spanish Language course because it really delved into Mexican history and culture and demanded analysis of things that are overlooked or taken for granted. I had no idea, for example, why there was a flour tortilla to begin with. Growing up, my dad told me corn and tortillas (and thereby corn tortillas) came from Mexico; I just assumed that flour tortillas were a less healthy American copycat. The reality is that it was a bridge between the ruling Spanish who loved wheat and the subjugated natives who loved corn.

Diego Rivera Painting “Woman Making Tortillas”

What I do not know can fill several books; but, what I did not know filled four: Our Sacred Maíz Is Our Mother: Indigeneity and Belonging in the Americas by Roberto Cintli Rodríguez, Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food by Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America by Gustavo Arellano, and Tortillas: A Cultural History by Paula E. Morton. Admittedly, I could not read these as carefully as I liked (because taking 18 credits and working 40 hours a week makes for lots of hurried reading) but I’m definitely planning on slowing down and absorbing more from them this summer. I wish St. John’s offered more classes on Chicano Studies or Mexican Culture, but I suppose I see why it’s not overly popular in New York.

1. Tamales, Christmas 2017. 2. Marranitos (Pan Dulce)

Beginning this course, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I recently reread my first restaurant review (which I revised it per my professor’s notes) at Tortillería Nixtamal and I had very little written about the restaurant itself. I gave a thorough history of Enchiladas, which was part of the assignment, but I sort of blew off the actual review part. I didn’t talk about the atmosphere of the place, the history of it, the workers, the overall vibe, which I think is actually important. I just described one dish of food. I guess I didn’t look at food holistically despite being very aware of the strong ties food has to culture. While at Tortillería Nixtamal, I definitely appreciated the decor, which depicted a lot of things that reminded me of my family, like La virgen de Guadalupe and the Aztec warriors, for example, but I really set them aside as separate rich was really evident in my review.

1. Abuelita Chocolate 2. Woman grinds nixtamalized corn into dough to make tortillas and other such things (Dawn)

I think that it’s really important to keep in mind the overall picture–to maintain a commitment to the true depth behind food, which I guess isn’t just flavor, but history. This is something Robert Siestema reinforced, too, on his visit to our class: the importance of understanding why a certain dish is the way it is. In Mexican food, the ingredients may travel from all over the world (a marker of the imperialistic era that broguht Spanish conquistadors), but the heart of many dishes are based on indigenous recipes. Nevertheless, there’s a surprising influence of other cutlrues on Mexican food (as seen with tacos al pastor or tacos árabes, wherein Mexican chefs use Lebanese style cooking methods brought by Lebanese immigrants and popularized by second generation Lebanese Mexicans). By being aware and reverent of the histories and influences of cuisine and culture–by being open and informed of your surroundings and the people around you when eating at a restaurant, or eating any sort of dish, really–you can maintain the respect deserved by all peoples, history, and cultures.

frida picture face

Frida Kahlo. Art, Personalities, pic: c. 1930. 




Cityscape, Durango, MX. (Olson)

My Abuelita learned to cook out of necessity and her story begins when she was nine. Before her father died, my Abuelita was the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Durango; her mother had several maids and she never had any cause to cook and she had straight A’s in school. When her father died, however, the family’s fortune was lost to a bank and betraying nephew. Her mother, now needing to work in another state, was unable to care for her nine children. The eldest four (ranging from teens to early twenties) went on their own to find work and survive, the middle two (my Abuelita (9) and my Tío Pablo (6)) were left with extended family that lived close by in Durango, and the youngest three were left in orphanages.


Tio Frank. 1991.

Though her mom was sending money to the woman taking care of my Abuelita and her brother, after a year or two, she stopped taking care of them, stopped feeding them. No longer in school, without shoes, and hungry, my Abuelita and her brother walk down the dirt roads of the neighborhood and ask to help throw away trash for money for food. Eventually, my Abuelita’s older brother, Frank, who was about 17 at the time was told about their situation and he came and brought them to Juarez where he had been living and working.

When my Abuelita was about thirteen, her brother tried to get her work cleaning houses. One of their friends who worked at a music house called La Libertad told them about a possible job there. The music house was owned by a wealthy couple who lived on the top floor; they had several maids and cooks. The owners were reluctant to let my Abuelita stay because she was so young but they accepted her so she began to live there. As they would not accept her younger brother because he was so young, he was selling newspapers outside. My Abuelita said she could see him through her window at the music house selling newspapers without shoes on, even in the snow; she started cooking because she wanted to make some good food to take to him.

After taking an interest in cooking, my Abuelita began to hang out in the kitchens of La Libertad but, because the women there were not family, they did not have time to teach her. She learned to cook by watching them add their ingredients, measure by hand; she watched other people’s recipes and started combining things into her own. The first things she remembers cooking are dishes like Sopa de Fideo and beans.


Sopa de Fideo (Jauja Cocina Mexicana). 

Because she started cooking in Juarez, then travelled a few years later to Chihuahua, then Zacatecas, Tijuana, Guanajuato, her recipes are a blend of things she has found and liked all over Mexico. When she came to Los Angeles, she was nineteen and married with three children. In LA, she was able to find all of the ingredients she needed to make the food her family was used to.

My Abuelita likes to cook because she believes it brings out the best in the family when everyone is happy and nourished. She’s happy to see her family eating good food, which is part of the reason she prefers Mexican food to American–it has more value and nutrition. She also feels that her food is strongly tied to her culture and identity–her memories. When she makes Birria, she thinks of Jalisco; Mole, Michoacan; Durango, Barbacoa y Caldos.

Take the Land…and the Food?

Mexico is known for it’s rich autochthonous history as well as it’s richly spiced cuisine. However, the introduction of the “old world” in the early 1500s began a passionate relationship between non-Mexican people and Mexican food. Nina Scott, in “Measuring Ingredients: Food and Domesticity in Mexican Casta Paintings,” discusses the treatment of food within casta paintings created in Mexico in the eighteenth century.


Miguel Cabrera, De Negro y d India; China cambuja, Museo de América, Madrid. (Scott)

Scott proposes that, as most casta paintings are found in Spain, they were primarily an export item commissioned by wealthy Spaniards returning to Europe. As such, castas fell in line with eighteenth-century Europe’s penchant for scientific classification, which served to bolster and reinforce ideas of imperialism and, in that, Spanish superiority. Scott writes, “In the New World establishing racial taxonomies clearly functioned as a means of preserving the precarious hold that white Spaniards exerted over an increasingly yeasty and restive mix of peoples” (6). She further asserts that this “mania for classification and hierarchy” clearly included the foods and cuisines associated with the “racial types,” using New Spain scenes and foods to document basic differences between them and Old Spain (6). Castas were expensive to commission as they were usually a series of paintings.


Anonymous, Las Castas. (Casta)

Generally, the initial portrait is a white Spanish man with an indigenous woman engaged in some sort of elite activity like gardening, reading, or playing an instrument. This first couple is rarely depicted with food though Scott does cite one example in a scene painted in 1763 by Miguel Cabrera in which the mestiza daughter of the depicted couple holds a slice of pineapple, “a fruit long associated with kings and nobles in Europe”  due to it’s price and difficulty to grow in the Old World (6). While pineapple is common in Mexico, in castas it was elevated “to elite status to please a European viewpoint [just] as casta painters stereotyped social relationships to please their clients…” (6).


Miguel Cabrera, De Español y d India, Meltila. Museo de América, Madrid. (USEUM)

In the lower right corner as the social hierarchies descend, Scott points out, “foods and food preparation are almost always foregrounded” or sometimes completely bordered by fruits (7). Many castas also contain carefully labeled illustrations of fruits, both native and foreign to New Spain. Nevertheless, these are usually labeled in the indigenous tongue sometimes with a caption marking them as local produce. It’s interesting that by doing this the artist, whether by intent or happenstance, affirm the American identity of the fruits within demonstrating how “classification, intended as a vocabulary of maintaining power relations, was getting away from the original intent of the colonizer” (10).

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Luis de Mena, Casta Scenes. Museo de América, Madrid. (Scott)

In “Tamales or Timbales: Cuisine and the formation of Mexican National Identity,” Jeffrey Pilcher discusses the way in which food helped define ethnicity in New Spain’s hierarchical society that didn’t have the ease of clear racial boundaries. When conquistadors invaded the Aztec Empire in the early 1500s, they were awed by the indulgent feasts of the Emperor, Moctezuma. The Spanish conquistadors wrote of the varieties of meats and fish that were flavored and spiced exquisitely. While the lavish banquets were a mark of Moctezuma’s power, Pilcher notes that most Aztecs ate a vegetarian diet that consisted of maize, beans, squash, and chiles. This diet was balanced and sustainable as pre-columbian agriculture had the capacity to provide for about 25 million people (197). With the Spanish colonization of what is now known as Mexico, old world culinary traditions were brought across the ocean to be incorporated into native cuisine. While vegetables, fruits, and animals were readily accepted by indigenous chefs, Spanish efforts to convince the indigenous people to eat wheat, a Mediterranean staple that had deep religious significance for Roman Catholics, was vastly unsuccessful (198).  Pilcher comments on how Creoles justified separation from the Spanish Empire by citing their connection to the splendid Aztec Empire while the continued to reject living indigenous people as “culturally backward and unfit for participation in civic life” (200).


Diego Rivera, Woman Making Tortillas. (Woman Making Tortillas)

Published cookbooks grossly overlooked popular cuisine, derogating the consumption of native foods. Pilcher cites the Dicconario de Cocina (Dictionary of Cooking) that was published in 1845 which “pointedly questioned the morals of any family that ate tamales—the food of ‘the lower orders’” as an example of the elite class’ disdain for indigenous foods (204). What’s important to note, however, is that cooks and servants of the Spanish elite were often indigenous people who were unable to read anything, let alone cookbooks such as these but they didn’t need any instruction to make foods such as enchiladas; thereby, it is likely that these foods were still widely consumed. Other indigenous cuisines, associated with southern Mexico, such as mole, for example, continued to be largely marginalized in Mexican culture until very recently, however.

Pilcher writes, “Mestizos were likewise marginalized in New Spain. The shortage of European women made race mixture inevitable, so culture replaced skin color as the basic determinant of social position. Most “Creoles” actually had Indian ancestors, and this erosion of racial boundaries gave rise in the eighteenth century to an ‘almost pathological interest in genealogy’…Foods composed an important part of this categorization scheme, demonstrating the significance of culture as a status marker, the darker skinned subjects appeared with tamales and other native foods” (199-200). He also notes that, following independence, the indigenous peoples could only gain citizenship by trading their traditional lifestyles for European culture. Broad educational campaigns attempted to inculcate European values among the masses, attempting to create a united feeling of common purpose using secular education, religious icons, and patriotic festivals.

In “Food Marketing Industry: Cultural Attitudes Made Visible,” by Consuelo Salas and Meredith Abarca analyzes effects of Eurocentric rhetoric surrounding indigenous Mexican cuisine and the associations made therein. Salas and Abarca begin their article with a story from the Los Angeles Record that had been published and circulated May 13, 1899 describing a near death experience of Miss Maud Hufford, a blonde haired, blue eyed woman who almost died from food poisoning. The culprit for  near death of this “image of Anglo racial purity”? Tamales, which, according to the article, are frequently composed of “putrified meat…the offensive taste being disguised by the fiery condiments which are used” (203). They note that while Mexican food is very popular in the United States now, “Mexican food was once rejected or seen with suspicion as being poisonous for consumption, at least for non-Mexicans…” (204). As immigrants to the new world believed themselves to be racially superior, they demonized and distorted the indigenous people, culture, and cuisine. What’s interesting was the ways in which the Spanish appropriated Mexican cuisine by simply calling it “Spanish,” disparaging what they didn’t like by calling it “Mexican.” Later, however, after the establishment of the United States, in times of political unrest such as the Mexican Revolution and World Wars, Mexican immigration into the United States grew to establish a more visible culture in urban areas.  By the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Mexican cuisine was creating a stir as Chile con carne was popularized by Wolf Brand Chili. They discuss how food advertisements are of used to project and promote perceived cultural context. Mexican food, for example, “was associated with a lack of hygiene and its spiciness suggested low morality” (19).

“In this text [Salas and Abaca] write, notice how “purity” plays a role. This idea also related to “authenticity,” which, for me, is really a kind of culinary eugenics that tries to find purity where there is none, as food traditions in Mesoamerica were already mixed, as were the traditions of Europeans.”

            –Steven Alvarez, Assistant Professor, St. John’s University

Now with NAFTA and the global capitalist market creating international price points, Mexican agricultural producers have discontinued the cultivation of Mexican food staples such as beans and maize due to their decline in relative profitability. Unfortunately, this creates a loss of food security for the rural poor, an increase in food imports, and a decrease in the nation’s food self sufficiency. John Heath, in his article “Further Analysis of the Mexican Food Crisis,” advocates for more protections for producers of basic foods in Mexico to help combat how linkages to the international economy has reallocated Mexico’s land and labor resources in a way that threatens the survival of peasant forms of food production. He marks, in particular, the exchange of maize cultivation for sorghum because it is drought resistant, less labor intensive, and cheaper to produce. This marks a more precarious economic situation for the peasant farmer while making it more difficult for Mexico and it’s citizens to self-sustain and remain healthy with autochthonous cuisine. Rick Kearns in “Fighting Obesity & Preserving Culture with Indigenous Mexican Cuisine” highlights how Mexican activists are promoting indigenous cooking manners and dishes in order to combat Mexico’s record as the country with the highest number of obese people. It’s suggested that this statistic (which since 2013 has dropped to number five in the world, behind the U.S., China, India, and Brazil) is caused by the adoption of U.S. styled fast foods instead of traditional Mexican dishes which are healthier (World Rankings). Activists leading this movement, such as Rubi Orozco, a public health consultant in El Paso, Texas, cite how the Spanish conquistadors were impressed with the physical conditions of the indigenous people in Mexico. Nevertheless, the Spaniards introduced large animals, lard, dairy, and the practice of frying, foodstuffs and practices which were integrated gradually into the culture so that Mexican food has an international reputation for excessive cheese, meat, and fried dishes. This movement promoting indigenous cooking emphasizes the consumption of beans and organically grown corn, as traditional cuisine were built around a balanced diet of vegetable based proteins and vitamins. It also includes a call to move back toward indigenous cooking methods, which include boiling, grilling, and steaming.


Mole as Identity

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Types of powdered mole for sale at the Feria Nacional de Mole. (Sveiks)

Mole (from the Nahuatl word molli, meaning sauce, mixture, or concoction) is the national dish of Mexico; it’s a complex, sometimes extremely extensive, sauce that varies from region to region and chef to chef. What validates this claim that a sauce can be considered a dish is that mole dishes are ordered for the sauce itself, whether it’s poured over vegetables, chicken, enchiladas, or some other delicious food item. (Ben)


Now, there’s a prevalent misconception that mole sauce, particularly mole poblano because of its rich brown color, is sweet and contains chocolate. While some mole sauces do contain chocolate (in Mexico, more than likely, this will be the natural cacao that itself has about 0.1 g of sugar per tablespoon unlike processed american sweet chocolate, which contain about 8 g of sugar per tablespoon) the addition of chocolate to mole is by no means mandatory, nor does it define mole. In other words, mole does not need chocolate to be mole. (Nosowitz)


mole ingredients

Onions, Chiles, Cloves, and Nuts–the ingredients used for many moles. (Barclay)

So what does define mole? Mole can be described to be a sauce made of chiles, nuts, seeds, and spices. Clearly, this is a broad means of classification for a sauce. This is because, as mentioned before, there are many different types of moles which vary by ingredients used and the region of Mexico from which that particular recipe originates. What’s particularly interesting about mole, however, is that many recipes use a wide variety of spices and ingredients that are not native to Mexico, that were introduced to the Mexica people upon the invasion of the Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century. As such, mole is a mezcla, a mixture, in many more ways than just in the preparation of the dish. (Barclay)

Mexico Map

A map of the regions of Mexico wherein cuisine distinctions are found (Bernstein)

Two regions of Mexico absolutely cannot be left out of a discussion about mole: Puebla and Oaxaca, two bordering regions deep in Mexico. Puebla, thought to be one of the origins of mole, is in central Mexico and Oaxaca, famed for its many delicious variations of the sauce, is in southern Mexico. (Ben)

Puebla is famous for one mole, mole poblano (a dark, brownish red mole that is commonly very complex, seen above). An example of one recipe is in the video above by La Receta de la Abuelita. Oaxaca is commonly referred to as la tierra de siete moles (the land of seven moles). These seven moles include mole negro (black mole, the type usually found on American menus, savory, sweet, and also very complex), mole amarillo (yellow mole, uniquely prepared with nixtamilized corn, causing the yellow color), mole coloradito (a sweet mole whose recipe includes tomatoes, sugar, and Mexican cinnamon), mole verde (green mole, made with tomatillos and herbs), mole rojo (red mole, similar to mole poblano, typically spicy), mole estofado (a tart and sour mole from El Istmo de Tehuantepec, the largest region of Oaxaca, that can include capers and olives), and mole chichilo (a special occasion mole that includes the expensive chile chilhuacle negro found in La Cañada, Oaxaca). However, these seven types of mole are just broad classifications for the many variations found from town to town within Oaxaca (particularly relating to the chiles and herbs found indigenously within each town) as well as the cook themself, as everyone has their own variation of recipes. Nevertheless, there are still more types of mole within Mexico: mole manchamantel (staining mole), mole almendrado (mole of almonds), mole pistachio, mole de pipián (mole made from cucurbits seeds), etc.


Different mole sauces (Pipianes, Moles y Adobos)

A recipe for mole verde, courtesy of  Cocinando con Angel: “Delicioso!!!! Mole Verde Estilo Oaxaca” on YouTube, includes the following ingredients: 2 cups of chicken broth, 1/2 cup of chopped cilantro, 1 cup of chopped parsley, 15 tomatillos (green tomatoes), 2 cloves of garlic, 2 leaves of hoja santa (piper auritum), 1 serrano chile, 1 sprig of epazote (Mexican tea), 2 cloves, 6 unground black peppers, 1 corn tortilla, 1 tablespoon of lard, 3 tablespoons of pumpkin seeds, 4 tablespoons of sesame seeds, salt to taste.

  1. First, toast the pumpkin seeds and the sesame seeds without oil and separately. Be sure to continuously turn them in the pan. Do the same with the leaves of hoja santa.
  2. Lightly fry the tortilla in a little bit of oil.
  3. Add the tortilla and all of the toasted ingredients from step 1 into a blender as well as 1 cup of chicken broth, the pepper, and the cloves. Blend until smooth.
  4. Pour the blended product into a hot cazuela coated with the lard. Stir with wooden spoon.
  5. Blend the garlic, epazote, serrano chile, tomatillos, parsley, cilantro, and final cup of chicken broth.
  6. Add blended product to the cazuela that contains the first, heated mixture.

Pollo en Mole Verde (Malik)

Even in this simple mole recipe, it’s easy to see the imprint the culinary world has made on authentic Mexican cuisine as some ingredients travel far from their indigenous home to end up in a Mexican kitchen. Some ingridents are indigenous to Mexico, however. Epazote is a pungent herb native to Mexico that is used in many Mexican dishes as well as for medicinal purposes. It’s also found in Brazil, where it’s known as mastruz. It grows easily and is considered a weed by many because it’s found wild throughout Mexico and the southwestern United States. However, it’s gaining in popularity due to its “distinctly piquant flavor” (Spurrier).


Tomatillos are also known as a husk tomato and they’re indigenous to Mexico, as well, though now grown in the United States, particularly in Southern California. It’s increasing in popularity in the United States due to its use in authentic Mexican cuisine (Worldcrops Tomatillos).


The Serrano chile, one of the most commonly used in Mexican cuisine, originates from the Sierra Mountain region in Puebla and Hidalgo, Mexico. The majority of Serranos are still produced in Mexico, but they’re also modestly grown in Southern California as well as Washington State, Oregon, Illinois, Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, and the Caribbean Islands (Green Serrano Chile Peppers).


Hoja Santa (scientific name: piper auritum) is native to an area ranging from southern Mexico to Columbia. In it’s native areas, it’s peppery and aromatic leaves and bark are used for cooking despite being considered “an invasive and noxious weed” elsewhere (Piper auritum).

Hoja Santa

Pumpkins are known to be native to the Americas, specifically the Mexican-Central America and northwestern South America regions, the cultivation of which is almost as old as the cultivation of maize (Orzolek).


Cilantro, also known as Mexican parsley, is found in Mexico, Brazil, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Puerto Rico among other places, but it’s native to southern Europe. It grows best in full sun under cool conditions, but it flowers best in hot weather (Worldcrops Cilantro).


Parsley, also native to southern Europe as well as western Asia, is now cultivated in many parts of the world, three types of which are grown in the United States (Simon).


Cloves are a dried flower bud from the evergreen clove tree. Earliest references to cloves indicate that they’re native to China and Indonesia, though Tanzania now produces 80% of the worlds cloves (Gladden).


Black pepper, one of the earliest known spices, is indigenous to the Malabar Coast of India; it requires long rainy seasons, fairly high temperatures, and partial shade for optimal growth (Britannica Black pepper).

Black PepperSesame is a plant with mild, nutlike aroma and flavor that is believed to have originated in either Asia or East Africa, though it’s now commonly found in most of the world’s tropical, subtropical, and southern temperate areas (Britannica Sesame plant).


Though mole hasn’t become an overly prevalent or americanized dish, it is a dish deeply entrenched in the culture of Mexico. The dish itself is a celebration of the perserverence of the Mexica identity that embraces the influences of the world to create new foods that are amazingly flavorful and fresh.

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Mexico’s sense of identity is strong and they know how to celebrate their amazing cuisine. San Pedro Atocpan, a metropolis within Distrito Federal (D.F. or Mexico City), produces sixty percent of Mexico’s mole and ninety percent of what is consumed in D.F. Ninety percent of the residents within San Pedro Atocpan work in some capacity toward the production of mole. In fact, San Pedro Atocpan annually hosts la Feria Nacional del Mole (The National Mole Fair). It makes sense, then, that mole, has the capacity to evoke feelings, sensations, and memories of home for many Mexican people.


Today’s global capitalism allows for a greater increase in food-related interconnections, and perhaps disconnections as well, due to its ability to create and reinforce pathways by which food can travel on the market. “Food is intimately connected to place in that it must be grown somewhere, and in that we associate cuisines with specific places and people. However, food and ideas about food have become de-territorialized and then     re-territorialized elsewhere so that food is connected to place as it connects places with one another” (Komarnisky 42). It’s exceedingly common for food to do much traveling, to be transnational even (from field to grocery store to restaurant to table), but it’s also common for people to carry food with them when they travel.

In an essay detailing her anthropological studies of Mexican foodways from places like Acuitzio del Canje, Sara Komarnisky utilizes her observations from her ethnographical fieldwork to discuss the foodways by which Mexican immigrants travel and bring food favorites from their country of origin, Mexico. Almost all participants in her research travel with food regularly or have traveled with it at some point. Some even admitted to bringing several extra suitcases specifically purposed for bringing food from Mexico because the foods they crave are not available where they have migrated to. If the foods are available, the brand, taste, or quality desired is usually unavailable. Through her research, Komarnisky found that the most popular packed treats included candies, bread, cheese, and, most popular, mole, which can be easily ferried as a powder. These foods are not impeded by government regulations that monitor the movement of some foods and travel well, allowing Mexican immigrants to bring mole from home and introduce it across the globe everywhere they travel.


Woman cooking typical mole dishes at the Feria Nacional de Mole (La Feria Nacional Mexicana Del Mole – Diario Pagina Siete.)

I, myself, have never tried to make mole, though if my Abuelita ever taught me I would be very, very happy. After college, I want to stay with her for a month and absorb all of her amazing cooking skills. My first memory of eating mole was in her kitchen (and it’s hands down the best mole I’ve ever had, which I can say with certainty even though I was very young). I remember having stained my shirt earlier that day (because I was a very clumsy child) and borrowing my cousins white shirt for dinner. She was very upset when I dropped Mole con Pollo right down the front of it–what a waste of mole.

Diversity in Enchiladas

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Tortillería Nixtamal, Queens, NY. (Tortilleria Nixtamal: 100% Fresh Corn Tortillas.)

Mexican food is everything to me but I didn’t realize this until I went to college in New York where I found it a little more difficult to find. I’m from Southern California, less than two hours from the border, and I grew up entrenched in Mexican food; and maybe it’s because I’m half-Mexican or my location growing up, but it’s probably just because Mexican food is so, so good. My Abuelita’s (grandma) cooking is literally the greatest thing on the planet; the entire family congregates when she visits from Durango because we all worship her and the food she loves to create. I grew up with beans and tortillas and tamales and mojarra frita and mole de pollo and pozole and birria and cevice de pescado and basically was very, very happy. My father grew up in Los Angeles and knows all of the best restaurants within a two hour radius (and they often have live banda or mariachi). Other than my family, the food is what my heart yearns for when I’m here in New York, 3000 miles away from all the Mexican restaurants I grew up loving, like El Mercadito Mariachi Restaraunt (which if you’re ever in LA, you need to get up on this).

It’s very clear, however, that many people love Mexican food, enough that it’s been imprinted across the United States. Whether you’ve recognized it or not, you’ve probably seen the influence of Mexican food all over the country. Chile con carne (chile with meat) had become Chili, a dish so entrenched in the history of the United States that most have forgotten it’s Mexican origins (Arellano, Taco USA).

Modern Mexican food itself has had many influences. While authentic Mexican food has roots in Mayan cuisine, wherein Mayan Indians commonly ate corn tortillas with bean paste. Corn has been a staple in the Mexica diet for about 7,000 years, with evidence of nixtamalization (from the Nahuatl word nixtamalli or nextamalli that is roughly translated as unformed corn dough) found near modern southern Guatemala that dates to around 1200 – 1500 BC. The process of nixtamalization soaks maize in an alkaline solution to allow a chemical process to take place that imbues maize with vitamins and minerals it lacks in it’s raw form which, as a staple in ones diet, can lead to the acquisiton of a wasting disease. Modern tortillerías (tortilla shops) continue this process today. While nixtamalized corn dough can be used for many things, its main use in Mexico is still the production of the tortilla (the Nahuatl word is tlaxcalli; it was named tortilla by the Spanish conquistadors) by clapping down small balls of dough by hand and cooking them on a hot comal (griddle). The nixtamalization and making of tortillas has traditionally been the responsibility of women, and it still is in indigenous communities in Mexico today, who used a metate (a hollow oblong stone used to ground small grains) to grind the nixtamalized corn to make the dough daily (Las Enchiladas).


Woman grinds nixtamalized corn into dough to make tortillas and other such things (Dawn).

When conquistadors invaded the Aztec Empire in the early 1500s, however, they brought many foods from outside regions to the already diversified and extensive Mexica cuisine. Today the varied influences brought to what is now Mexico is seen all throughout the country as dishes vary within Mexico, from region to region. This is very apparent, for example, in the many variations of enchiladas throughout Mexico (“Mexican Food History.”).

Enchiladas incorporate some of the most fundamental ingredients used in traditional Mexican food; they’re made by topping a corn tortilla that has been rolled around meat and cheese with some sort of chile sauce, ingredients that can be used to make hundreds of Mexican dishes. Evidence suggests that modern enchiladas are derived papadzules, a traditional Mayan dish from the Yucatán region. Papadzules are corn tortillas that have been dipped in pumpkin seed and rolled around boiled egg and covered in tomato sauce (“History of Enchiladas.”). The name is thought to mean something similar to smeared and drenched, derived from the Mayan roots papak’ (to smear) and sul (to soak/drench) (Ben). It’s common in Mexico now to create a sauce based from boiling dried chilies like the ones pictured below, pureeing them, and seasoning the resulting sauce.


Dried chilies used in Mexican cuisine, including chilies ancho, guajillo, and pasilla. (Bravo)

In San Luis Posotí, for example, which is itself divided into two regions: Altiplano and Huasteca, the town of Soledad in the Altiplano makes enchiladas by mixing the corn dough with chilies and the salsas with cheese. Some people also add guacamole, chopped onion, potatoes, and carrots. In Huasteca, the town of Río Verde serves enchiladas prepared with peanuts, bathed in red tomato sauce, and includes a piece of chicken. Quintana Roo also utilizes peanuts in the preparation of enchiladas, along with chiles ancho and pasilla, and almonds (Las Enchiladas).

mexican regions

This is a map of Mexico divided into regions: Noroeste (northeast), Norseste (northwest), Occidente (west), Centro (central), Sureste (southeast), Sur (south). (Maps of Mexico)

In Guanajato, Mexico, known for it’s mining companies, they stuff their enchiladas with queso ranchero (‘ranch cheese’ aka queso fresco or ‘fresh cheese,’ characterized and named for traditionally being made fresh each morning by ranchers) and onions, using a salsa made of guajillo chilies, cumin, Mexican oregano, and garlic to top it off. In Querétaro, similar to the technique used in Bajío or San Luis Posotí, enchiladas are served with potatoes and fried carrots. Hidalgo enchiladas are derived from those made in Huasteca; the red sauce used is made from dried chilies and are accompanied by queso fresco, dried meat, and beans (Las Enchiladas).

enchiladas veracrz

Enchiladas de Mariscos (seafood enchiladas) done in the style of Veracruz at Javier’s, a Mexican restaraunt north of Laguna Beach, CA (“Javier’s”).

In Alvarado, Veracruz, traditional enchiladas are made with shrimp, octopus, or crab, and seasoned with epazote (an herb found in Mexico), garlic, pepper, and onion. However, you can also find enchiladas filled with stewed seafood, and chiles pasillaancho, and chipotle, which give the enchiladas a very different flavor (Las Enchiladas).

In Queens, New York, however, you can find quite a few versions of enchiladas, as well, from recipes brought by immigrants from Mexico, including enchiladas suizas, which are bathed in a green sauce made from tomatillos (green tomatoes).


Enchiladas Suizas or Verdes from Tortillería Nixtamal in Queens, NY.

Tortillería Nixtamal began when founder, Fernando Ruiz, from Veracruz, decided to end the constant search for good Mexican food in New York that seemed to be without a destination. After consulting his cousin in Mexico, Ruiz decided that the true pitfall of Mexican food in New York was the tortillas. Therefore, he decided to begin an authentic tortillería using nixtamalized corn. The corn they use is sourced in Illinois, the meat is locally obtained in Queens, and the produce is brought directly from Mexico. The venue in queens is very open and bright, both due to the large windows and the colorful tiling. It’s a fun space, as seen in the review by The Feed (seen below).

Their menu offers Starters (including sincronizadas, nachos, pozole, and tostadas), Parrillada Molcajetes (for those who want to build their own tacos), Tacos, Tamales, and other traditional plates that include enchiladas and tostadas. They also have aguas frescas, champurrado, flan, y tres leches for the well rounded experience.

I think these enchiladas from Tortillería Nixtamal are similar to what might be found in Guanajato, Mexico as they’re filled with queso fresco. This is nice because, if you’ve ever had queso fresco before, it’s very light on your stomach but super flavorful, with a rich, softness that cut through and balanced the tangy green sauce really well, which was, in itself, very savory and bright. Because the restaurant is a tortillería, the tortillas were very fresh and had a really great texture; overall, the soft cheese, meaty tortilla, and fresh lettuce were a great team.