On Wednesday I introduced you to the basics of Mexican cuisine as we prepare to celebrate Mexican culture here at Flying Fish this Sunday for the Cinco De Mayo festival. Our Supper Club event will break out Mexican flavors along with the margaritas to go along with them. So to prepare you here is a look at the regional differences across the country of Mexico.
The foods eaten in what is now the north of Mexico have differed from the south since the pre-Hispanic era. Here the indigenous people were hunter-gatherers with limited agriculture and settlements because of the arid land.
When the Europeans arrived, they found much of the land suitable for cattle, goats and sheep grazing. This led to the dominance of meat, especially beef, found in the regionâ s most popular dishes: machaca, arrachera and cabrito. The distinctive cooking technique is grilling, as the ranch culture promoted outdoor cooking done by men. The ranch culture has also prompted cheese production and the north produces the widest varieties of cheese in Mexico. These include queso fresco (fresh farmerâ s cheese), ranchero (similar to Monterey Jack), cuajada (a mildly sweet, creamy curd of fresh milk), requesÃ³n (similar to cottage cheese or riccotta), Chihuahuaâ s creamy semi-soft queso menonita and 56 varieties of asadero (smoked cheese).
Another important aspect of northern cuisine is the presence of wheat, especially the use of flour tortillas. The area has at least 40 different types of flour tortillas. The main reason for this is that much of the land supports wheat production, introduced by the Spanish. These large tortillas allowed for the creation of burritos, usually filled with machaca in Sonora, which eventually gained popularity in the Southwest United States.
The variety of foodstuffs in the north is not as varied as in the south of Mexico because of the mostly desert climate. Much of the cuisine of this area is dependent on food preservation techniques, namely dehydration, canning and cheese-making. Dried foods include meat, chili peppers, squash, peas, corn, lentils, various beans and dried fruit. A number of these are also canned. Preservation techniques change the flavor of foods; for example, many chili peppers are less hot after drying.
The north has seen waves of immigration by Chinese, Mormon, and Mennonites, who have influenced the cuisines in areas such as Chihuahua and Baja California.
The cooking of Oaxaca remained more intact after the Conquest as the Spanish took the area with less fighting and less disruption of the economy and food production systems. However, it was the first area to experience the mixing of foods and cooking while central Mexico was still recuperating. The state has a wide variety of ecosystems despite its size and a wide variety of native foods. Vegetables are grown in the central valley, seafood is abundant on the coast and the area bordering Veracruz grows tropical fruits. Much of the stateâ s cooking is influenced by that of the Mixtec and, to a lesser extent, the Zapotec. Later in the colonial period, Oaxaca lost its position as a major food supplier and the areaâ s cooking returned to a more indigenous style, keeping only a number of foodstuffs such as chicken and pork. It also adapted mozzarella cheese, brought by the Spanish and modified it to what is known now as Oaxaca cheese .
One major feature of Oaxacan cuisine is its seven moles, next to mole poblano in importance. The seven are Negro (black), Amarillo (yellow), Coloradito (little red), Mancha Manteles (table cloth stainer), Chichilo (smoky stew), Rojo (red), and Verde (green).
Corn is the staple food. Tortillas are called blandas and part of every meal. It is also used to make empanadas, tamales and more. Black beans are favored; often served in soup, and a sauce for enfrijoladas. Oaxacaâ s regional chili peppers include pasilla oaxaqueÃ±a chile (red, hot and smoky) along with amarillos (yellow), chilhuacles, chilcostles and costeÃ±os. These along with herbs such as hoja santa give the food its unique taste.
The food of the YucatÃ¡n peninsula is distinct from the rest of the country. It is based on Mayan food with influences from the Caribbean, central Mexico, European, especially French and Middle Eastern cultures. Like in other areas of Mexico, corn is the basic staple, as both a liquid and solid food.
One of the main spices is the annatto seed, called achiote in Spanish. It gives food a reddish color with a slightly peppery smell with a hint of nutmeg. Recados are a seasoning paste based on achiote used mostly on chicken. Recado rojo is used for the areaâ s best-known dish, cochinita pibil. Pibil refers to the cooking method, generally wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a pit oven. Various meats are cooked this way. Habanero chilis are another distinctive ingredient, but they are generally served as part of condiments on the side rather than integrated into the dishes.
One feature in Yucatan cooking is tropical fruits such as tamarind, plums, avocados and bitter oranges, the last often used in the region's distinctive salsas. Honey was used long before the arrival of the Spanish to sweeten foods and to make a ritual alcoholic drink called balchÃ©. The coast areas feature seafood, especially esmedregal, a type of jack fish, which is fried and served with the spicy salsa de chile xcatic. Other fish dishes include those in spicy chili pepper sauces and those in achiote paste.
West of Mexico City are the states of MichoacÃ¡n, Jalisco and Colima as well as the Pacific coast. The cuisine of Michoacan is based on the Purepecha culture, which still dominates most of the state. The area has a large network of rivers and lakes that provide fish. Its use of corn is perhaps the most varied. While atole is drunk in most parts of Mexico, it is made with more different flavors in MichoacÃ¡n, including blackberry, cascabel chili and more. Tamales come in different shapes, wrapped in corn husks. In the BajÃo area, tamales are often served with a meat stew called churipo, which is flavored with cactus fruit.
The main Spanish contributions to MichoacÃ¡n cuisine are rice, pork and spices. One of the best-known dishes from the state is morisquesta, which is a sausage and rice dish, closely followed by carnitas, which is deep-fried pork. The latter can be found in many parts of Mexico, often claimed to be authentically MichoacÃ¡n. Other important ingredients in the cuisine include wheat found in breads and pastries. Another is sugar, giving rise to a wide variety of desserts and sweets such as fruit jellies and ice cream, mostly associated with the town of Tocumba.
The cuisine of the states of Jalisco and Colima is noted for dishes such as birria, chilayo, menudo and various pork dishes. Jaliscoâ s cuisine is known for tequila with the liquor produced only in certain areas allowed to use the name. The cultural and gastronomic center of the area is Guadalajara, an area where both agriculture and cattle raising have thrived. The best-known dish from the area is birria, a stew of beef, mutton or pork with chili peppers and various spices. One important street food is tortas ahogadas, where the torta (sandwich) is â drownedâ in a chile sauce. Near Guadalajara is the town of TonalÃ¡, known for its pozole, a hominy stew said to have been originally created with human flesh. The area that makes tequila surrounds the city.
On the Pacific coast seafood is common, generally cooked with various European spices along with chili peppers, and is often served with a spicy salsa. Favored fish varieties include marlin, swordfish, snapper, tuna, shrimp and octopus. Tropical fruits are also important.
The cuisine of Veracruz is a mix of indigenous, Afro-Cuban and Spanish. The indigenous contribution is in the use of corn as a staple as well as vanilla (native to the state), and herbs called acuyo and hoja santa. It is also supplemented by a wide variety of tropical fruits such as papaya, mamey and zapote along with the introduction of citrus and pineapple by the Spanish. The Spanish also introduced European herbs such as parsley, thyme, marjoram, bay laurel, cilantro and others that now characterize much of the stateâ s cooking. They are found in the best known dish of the region Huachinango a la veracruzana, a red snapper dish. The Afro-Cuban influence is from the importation of slaves through the Caribbean, who brought the peanut with them. Other African ingredients often found in the state include plantains, yucca and sweet potatoes. As it borders the Gulf coast, seafood figures prominently in most of the state.
Mexican food is incredibly varied and not just the same ordinary Tex-Mex food we tend to associate with American Mexican fast food. Slow cooking and home cooking are the order of the day and it shows in the deep rich flavors they can achieve.
If you are interested in sampling some Mexican food this Sunday be sure to call 373-4363 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up for our Cinco de Mayo festival event. Reservations are required and dinner starts promptly at 7:00pm Hope to see you there!
Tim Tibbitts is the chef and owner of Flying Fish Modern Seafood in Freeport Bahamas. Flying Fish is the #1 rated restaurant in the Bahamas on tripadvisor.com. You can see what Flying Fish is all about at www.flyngfishbahamas.com or www.facebook.com/flyingfishmodernseafood and follow Tim on twitter @flyingfishfreep