11 Common Misconceptions About Mexican Food

Due to its rich traditions, creative concepts, a mix of flavors, influences, and elaborate techniques, Mexican cuisine is a historical and cultural snapshot that dates back hundreds of years before European colonization.

Mexico’s food captures the world’s attention and appetite in many ways through its incredible rich flavors, colorful ingredients, and aromatic scents. In 2010, Mexico’s cuisine was awarded the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity award. The award identifies and celebrates Mexican cuisine as one that “expresses community identity, reinforces social bonds, and builds stronger local, regional and national identities.”

Mexican cuisine also tells the story of its resilient past, and invites the world to take a bite of a taco or a plate of mole to get a picture of indigenous Mexican creativity and native ingredients through modern Mexican flavors.

Despite this wonderful tapestry, Mexican food is often misunderstood as simple, fast, cheap, and unhealthy.

Tex-Mex and Mexican fast food have come to define what people think of “Mexican” food outside of Mexico. Mexican food is a fusion cuisine, a blend of indigenous and European ingredients and techniques that varies from region to region so much so that a similar dish could be called completely different things in two parts of Mexico.

However, it is clear to food historians that traditional Mexican food has a strong connection to its indigenous past. That is where the line can be drawn with other Mexican inspired cuisines like Tex-Mex, Cali-Mex and Mexican fast food. Let’s dive into some misconceptions about Mexican food.

Myth 1: Tex-Mex is Considered Mexican Cuisine

Though popularized by famous fast-food chain restaurants in the United States, Tex-Mex dishes are often seen as the dishonest version of Mexican specialties. The word “Tex-Mex” originates from the name of the railroad and train that traveled between Mexico and Texas. The term was used to describe Texans or Tejanos, and then it spread to become the name of the region’s food.

Tex-Mex and Mexican food appear similar due to the set of ingredients and flavors used in both cuisines. However, they are very different. The distinction lies in a couple of things, one of them being the history that unites and separates both cuisines. Tex-Mex, as the name implies, is a fusion between Texas (U.S.) and Mexican food. It was especially prominent after the separation of Texas from Mexico in 1836. When Texas was no longer part of Mexico, Texans created their own food fusion between Mexican ingredients and ingredients available in the U.S. such as cheddar cheese, wheat, and beef.

On the other hand, Mexican food features an abundance of chilies, different types of maize, a variety of beans, and an assortment of seafood, spices, herbs, and much more. Popular dishes in Tex-Mex food are chimichangas, chalapas, nachos, and hard-shell tacos. At first glance, they seem “Mexican,” but the use of other ingredients transforms them into something that is not completely Mexican.

Bottom line: Mexican food is not Tex-Mex or vice versa. You can think of both as distant relatives coming from the same family tree.

Myth 2: All Mexican Food Is Spicy

Did you know that not all Mexican people like spicy food? Some can’t tolerate it. The abundant use of chilies as a staple ingredient is a common image of Mexican food. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no flexibility around that.

Many dishes don’t have any kind of chilies. Even if the traditional recipes include them they can be modified, and still be wonderfully Mexican and delicious. Guacamole, Quesadillas, Mexican rice, and fish tacos are just a few dishes that can be made without peppers and taste just as great.

Oftentimes, salsas are provided at restaurants for people to add on top of a taco or in a soup. But it is up to the person if they want to add it or not. It certainly adds to the dish, but if omitted, it’s still a delicious Mexican dish. Yes, chilies and heat add flavor to dishes and are important in many Mexican foods. However, they are also often complementary in other dishes and are not always a necessity.

Chilies (and salsas) add depth to a dish, so choosing the right one is an important task. The goal is keeping a subtle balance between all flavors. The chili complements the rest of the flavors in a dish, and does more than simply pump up the heat.

Myth 3: Mexican Food Is the Same Throughout the Country

Mexican food is vibrant throughout the country and varies from region to region. The country’s extensive size (covering 758,400 square miles), the variety of climates, different terrains, and temperatures are just a few of the factors that influence crops, ingredients, and regional dish specialties. Take northern Mexico, for example. The area is influenced by ranching culture, and typically prepares foods heavy in meats from cows, pigs, sheep, and goats.

Central Mexico has a variety of important crops that grow splendidly in the region. Avocados, sugarcane, rice, coffee, potatoes, beans and so much more are some examples. The pacific coast is known for dishes like pozole and birria, and many other different types of delicious stews. The region is also famous for being the location of one of the meccas of Mexican cuisine. Oaxaca, as an example, is known as the “land of seven moles.”

Myth 4: Mexican Food Is Not Vegetarian or Vegan Friendly

Before the Spanish came to Mexico, Mexican cuisine was made up of a few ingredients cultivated locally. Those ingredients were cactus, corn, beans, tomatoes, squash, chili peppers, vanilla, chocolate beans, and a few more. It wasn’t until the Spanish arrived that Mexico was introduced to animals such as chickens, cows, and pigs as well as cheese, butter and milk. Not to mention, additional spices and produce brought from Spain included: anise, cinnamon, herbs, garlic, peaches, melons, figs, eggplant, and more. These were brought to the country and helped create the Mexican cuisine that we know and love today as, over time, these cultures mixed.  

Currently, Mexican food uses the ingredients imported from Europe in its traditional cooking. However, it is possible to eat vegetarian and vegan options in Mexico using its native ingredients.

Some of the most popular vegan or vegetarian-style dishes are cactus salad, Mexican rice, veggie tostadas, squash tacos, guacamole, salsa, and bean tacos. Not to mention, with the additions of dairy and meat alternatives available today, vegan and vegetarian people have an incredible variety of Mexican dishes to choose from. These are not only delicious but authentic too.

Myth 5: Mexican Food Is Unhealthy

Like every other cuisine, there are some unhealthy dishes in the Mexican repertoire, but these are your celebratory and special occasion dishes.

When traditional Mexican food is made at home it is fresh and can be healthy without compromising on flavor and authenticity. Because traditional Mexican food does not make use of liquid cheeses, marinades and salsas packed with sugar, or mysterious and highly processed ingredients, the result is a more balanced and healthy meal.

If you go back in history, you will find that indigenous communities that inhabited what we call Mexico today used to eat a mainly plant-based diet with occasional meat. Unhealthy ingredients were added with the arrival of the Europeans to America, for example, cattle meats, dairy, and refined sugar. More processed ingredients (like liquid cheese, fried hard shells, sour cream, and the like) were added as Tex-Mex food (waiving the Mexican flag) became a global phenomenon.

Speaking about traditional Mexican food, do people cook with oil and pig lard? Yes, depending on the dish. Are tortillas a staple ingredient in the kitchens and restaurants of Mexico? Definitely. Are sweet desserts and bread available in every corner of a Mexican town and city? Of course. Are some of the popular dishes meat heavy? Oftentimes, yes. Does that mean all Mexican food is fatty? No!

The reality is that Mexican food has always had a gastronomic base that includes ingredients like beans, corn, chilies, squash, avocados, and fruits. These rich, healthy ingredients are always available within Mexico, straight from the farmers. Therefore, accessibility and the use of local and fresh ingredients in Mexico have made the cuisine, in some cases, much healthier than cuisines for other countries.

Bottom line: is Mexican food unhealthy? It can be. But it can also be healthy. Are there light alternatives? Absolutely

Myth 6: Nachos Are Mexican

Well, sort of, but not really.

Nachos were invented by a Mexican, Ignacio Anaya, and at a restaurant in Mexico, in a town south of the USA border known as Piedras Negras, in 1943. The story goes that “Nacho” (the short name for Ignacio) was without a chef in his kitchen and had to cook for members of the U.S. army and their wives. So, to get out of the predicament, Nacho quickly fried some tortillas  and, while still hot, added shredded cheese and jalapeno slices on top. The dish was an immediate hit. The popularity of the dish spread throughout Texas with the name of its inventor Nacho, and from there went on to conquer the world.

In Mexico, you can find nachos in Tex-Mex restaurants and occasionally at theaters. But don’t expect to find them in Mexican restaurants. Instead, you can order the hearty and ready-to-please Chilaquiles. The main difference between Chilaquiles and nachos is that chilaquiles use totopos (corn items similar to tortillas that are usually fried or baked) instead of corn chips. The totopos are soaked in salsa and typically mixed with chicken, Mexican cheese, and cream.

While Nachos are a Tex-Mex favorite, they have a Mexican heart.

Myth 7: Hard Shell Tacos Are Mexican

Hard shell tacos are an American invention. In 1954, Glen Bell, the founder of Taco Bell, developed an original take on regular Mexican tacos and invented the hard shell taco, thinking it would appeal to American lovers of Mexican food. And he wasn’t wrong; the hard shell taco is a must-have on Tex-Mex fast food menus in the U.S. and has achieved international fame.

Tostadas are probably the closest thing to a hard-shell taco in Mexico. A tostada is a flat-shell corn tortilla that has been either fried or baked, preserving its original shape. The tostada is then topped with refried beans, different proteins, vegetables, cheese, and salsa.

Myth 8: All Mexican Food Is Street Food

Is all Mexican food street food? Absolutely not! A lot of Mexican food, however, has been inspired by street food. Many Mexican food items that have become popularized worldwide (like tamales, tacos, tostadas, empanadas, etc.) originated from street vendors and roadside carts in Mexico. However, many traditional recipes are elaborate creations using unique ingredients and are served in upscale Mexican restaurants.

Myth 9: Corn Chips Are a Snack in Mexico

This will come as a surprise to many, but corn chips are not a snack in Mexico. Mexicans prefer potato chips, especially freshly fried on the streets and swimming in lime and hot chili sauce.

There are, however, snacks made from corn in Mexico, but they don’t look anything like the typical rounded yellow corn chips you find in supermarkets outside of Mexico. Corn snacks come in different shapes, consistency, and forms, but they all share one thing: they are covered in chili powder.

Myth 10: Burritos Are Eaten All Over Mexico

While burritos are eaten in parts of northern Mexico, they look different from the ones you find at Mexican fast food chains. Burritos in the north of Mexico, also known as “Burritos Nortenos”, are large wheat tortillas stuffed with beans and shredded meat and rolled in a tubular shape. It is believed they were invented in Ciudad Juarez, a border town with the U.S., but there is no concrete evidence about this.

The version that you find in the U.S. and in many fast food chains around the world was made popular in California, most likely San Francisco, during the mid 1900s. The Cali-Mex version added rice and cheese making the shape look more like a parcel. From there, many different variations were created and the popularity of burritos soared and was soon part of the U.S. menu, and later famous worldwide.

Outside of the north, burritos are still foreign to most Mexicans, so don’t be surprised if you get a strange look when asking for one. If you’re lucky, someone may bring you a little donkey, which is the literal translation for burrito to English.

Myth 11: All Mexican Food Is Tortilla Related

It may sometimes appear that a lot of Mexican food includes tortillas (tacos, quesadillas, burritos, and so on) and it’s true many of them do, but not all Mexican cuisine is based on tortillas. Mexican cuisine is incredibly rich and diverse and every region has its own unique dishes. Some tasty Mexican dishes that are not tortilla based include: chili con carne, tamales, lima soup, ahogada (spicy pork sandwich), elote (Mexican corn on the cob), pozole (a pork or chicken stew), chicken mole, and the list goes on and on.

Final Thoughts

Food is the international language that we all speak, no matter where we come from. And in the case of Mexican food, it invites the world to forget their misconceptions with just a single bite from one of the many dishes served throughout the country and a few exceptional Mexican restaurants abroad.

Mandy Henry
Author: Mandy Henry

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