5 Myths About Mexican Cuisine and Why They’re Wrong

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 incredibly rich flavors, colorful ingredients, and aromatic scents. In 2010, Mexico’s cuisine was awarded the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity award. This 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. 

Mexican food may have a few misconceptions. Let’s bust through a few of the most common myths about Mexican food. 

Myth 1: Tex-Mex Food 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 says, 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 a 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 chiles, different types of maize, a variety of beans, and an assortment of seafood, spices, herbs, and so much more. Popular dishes in Tex-Mex food are chimichangas, chalupas, nachos, and hard-shell tacos. At first glance, they may seem “Mexican”. But the use of other ingredients transformed them into something that is not completely Mexican. 

Bottom line: Mexican food is not Tex-Mex food 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 chiles is a staple ingredient and 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 chiles. Even if the traditional recipes include them, the recipe 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, chiles and heat add flavor to dishes and are important in many Mexican foods. However, they are also often complimentary in other dishes and are not always a necessity. 

Myth 3: 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, avocados, 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. 

Over time, these cultures mixed. Not to mention spices and produce brought from Spain such as anise, cinnamon, herbs, garlic, peaches, melons, figs, eggplant, and more. These were brought to the country to create the Mexican cuisine that we know and love today. Currently, Mexican food uses the ingredients imported from Europe in its traditional cooking. But 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 addition 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 4: Mexican Food Is the Same Throughout the Country

Mexican food is vibrant throughout the country and varies region by 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 meat such as cows, pigs, sheep, and goats.  

Central Mexico has a variety of important crops that grow splendidly in this 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. This region is also famous for being the location of one of the meccas of Mexican cuisine. The state of Oaxaca as an example is known as the “land of seven moles.” 

As a Mexican American myself, it’s incredible for me to experience a new dish every time I visit a different part of Mexico. It’s also exciting to simply order a dish like enchiladas and receive a plate of enchiladas that is visibly different according to the state. Mexican food recipes vary, and it’s incredible to see and taste the differences. 

Myth 5: Mexican Food Is Unhealthy 

Mexican food is a fusion of native ingredients with ingredients from Spain and influence from the United States. Sadly, mass corporations (foreign and Mexican), increasing numbers of fast-food restaurants, brands like Walmart, and other food brands coming to Mexico also have influence. Over time, it has started to create an obesity issue among Mexican people. 

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 like bread available in every corner of a Mexican town and city? Of course. Are some of the popular dishes meat-heavy? Oftentimes yes. Does it mean that all Mexican food is fatty and unhealthy? No!

The reality is that Mexican food has always had a gastronomic base that includes ingredients like beans, corn, chiles, 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 Mexican food have made the cuisine, in some cases, much healthier than cuisine from other countries. 

Mexican ingredients mixed with spices that are prepared either baked, grilled, or on the griddle have given us Mexican dishes like grilled chicken sinaloa style, white pozole (hominy) with chicken soup, pumpkin flower tamales, tuna and cactus sopes, and so much more. 

Bottom line: is Mexican food unhealthy? It can be. But can it be healthy, and are there light alternatives? Absolutely. 

Mexican Cuisine: The Takeaway 

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 rich dishes served throughout the country and a few exceptional Mexican restaurants abroad. 

To me, Mexican food means home, family, togetherness, comfort, and ingenuity.  I hope that this post helped describe and explain some of the most popular misconceptions about this incredibly rich cuisine. 

Interested in learning more about planning your next trip to Mexico? Check out this guide about exploring food in Mexico.

 

by Maritza Chavez

Cooking Italian Cuisine While Living in Thailand

Diego Ambrosio
Diego Ambrosio

Thirty-something Diego Ambrosio was born in Catanzaro, Italy, located in the southern part of the country. He is passionate about wild nature, cooking (especially Italian cuisine), singing, and playing different musical instruments like guitar, piano, and bass. Diego considers himself an extrovert and talkative person, but he also likes to listen to people.

While now living in Phuket, Thailand with his father and partner, Diego cooks on a regular basis. He enjoys mixing the local fresh ingredients and produce with his Italian recipes. In addition, he learned to create new fusion recipes that he enjoys just as much as his native dishes. Read on to find out more about his favorite southern Italian cuisine and his homemade Thai-Italian fusion.

What is your favorite Italian cuisine?

This is probably one of the hardest questions you can ask an Italian since they would immediately begin thinking of multiple answers. Why? Because there are so many favorite Italian dishes! If I really had to choose a dish by type, I think my first answer would be tortellini with cream, peas, and ham. The second would have to be parmigiana di melanzane with fried potatoes and peppers on the side. Finally, for dessert, tiramisu… all, obviously, homemade.

What is your Italian hometown’s signature dish?

‘NdujaAs in most countries, Italy has a rich list of excellent regional products. Many of these are even exported abroad, as they are delicious and appreciated by various European and non-European countries. Without a doubt, the best product from my region, Calabria, is ‘nduja. ‘Nduja is a particularly spicy, spreadable pork sausage typically made with pig parts such as the shoulder and belly. Producers combine the pork with tripe, roasted peppers, and a mixture of spices. ‘Nduja originates from the small southern Calabrese town of Spilinga. Italians mainly serve it with slices of bread or with ripe cheese. My hometown, Catanzaro, also has its signature dish. It’s called Morzeddhu alla Catanzarisi. This is prepared with tripe and beef offal, tomato paste, chilli pepper, salt, a bay leaf, and oregano.

Traditional Morzeddhu

Morzeddhu, a Calabrian staple

Morzeddhu must be eaten while hot, perhaps with a further splash of spicy sauce. It also must be eaten in the pitta, a typical Catanzaro bread shaped like a flattened donut and with little or no crumb inside.

According to legend, Morzello, or Morzeddhu in the local dialect, was born from that mother of invention, necessity. An impoverished widow was forced to accept odd jobs to support her hungry children. On Christmas Eve, her boss asked her to clean a slaughterhouse and dispose of the waste in the nearby river, Fiumarella.

Worried about what she would serve her hungry children for Christmas dinner, she saved the meat, cleaned it, and prepared a meat soup. And thus, Morzello was born.

What is the most famous Thai dish in Phuket, Thailand?

Without a doubt, Pad Thai is one of the country’s most iconic dishes and is easy to find all over Phuket. There are two main types of Pad Thai, Pad Thai Gai and Pad Thai Goong. Gai includes chicken and Goong, shrimp. Pad Thai is a stir-fried dish typically made with rice noodles, chicken or shrimp, tofu, scrambled egg, bean sprouts, and other vegetables. The ingredients are sautéed together in a wok, which creates rapid heat distribution. Once finished, chefs serve Pad Thai with peanuts, sugar, chili peppers, and a lime wedge on the side.

And just for the record… Pad Thai is my second favorite Thai dish. I prefer Pad See Ew which is similar but has a sweeter sauce.

Pad See Ew Goong

What types of Italian cuisine do you cook in Thailand?

When I arrived in Phuket, I thought it would have been impossible to reproduce typical Italian recipes at home for various reasons. The first challenge was surmounting the impossibility of finding all the authentic Italian ingredients. Next, we had to overcome the lack of an oven in the house. Ovens are critical for cooking different Italian dishes such as the famous Lasagne al Forno or pizza. Over time, we have fortunately managed to get almost everything we need to taste a bit of home. In fact, after a whole first year of researching, we managed to find a house that had a professional oven inside.

Homemade bread, a frequent Italian cuisine at Diego's house

Now, we can cook any type of Italian dish. In fact, we have become so accustomed to making Italian food at home that we’ve eaten out very few times. Both my father and I are able to prepare any type of Italian recipe — first courses, main courses, side dishes, and delicious desserts — that enrich our daily meals all the time. Finally, we also make our own homemade bread.

Where do you source Italian ingredients from?

Fortunately, it is not difficult to find Italian products in Thailand. There are various shopping centers and supermarkets like Makro and Villa Market, offering imported products. However, you have to be very careful when selecting your products. Everyone can easily find products of apparent Italian origin, but some of these  are actually not from Italy at all.

For example, an Italian knows very well that if he has to buy pasta, he can trust brands such as De Cecco, La Molisana, and Agnesi. All of these brands are available in Thailand, so we can avoid other little-known brands of dubious origin. The same goes for Italian mozzarella. Clearly the prices for authentic Italian products are higher than in Italy. For example, Italian fresh and aged cold cuts and cheeses cost at least 40% more. However, for some products (such as pasta), I can find similar prices to Italy.

If you were to pick a favorite Italian cuisine to make for us that you make on a regular basis, what would it be?

I practice making real Italian pizza for my loved ones frequently. Every two weeks, typically on a Saturday evening, we will get together and eat Italian pizza. My father is a great teacher, but I will obviously be his heir sooner or later and am determined to perfect it.

The preparation process has almost centennial origins, handed down from generation to generation. It has been perfected even more over time by generations of Italians.

The "Mother Yeast" Diego uses for Italian Cuisine
The Mother Yeast

The extraordinary thing is that my father created the so-called “mother yeast.” It is a natural yeast capable of regenerating itself eternally. It certainly has significantly improved the quality of the pizza. Additionally, you can vary the outcome by using different types of flour. Each flour has a specific protein intake capable of creating a unique gluten shield of its kind.

Spread the dough in round and rectangular trays. Follow that with a long process of rest, maturation, and fermentation for about three days in the fridge. At the end of this period, the pizzas are removed from the fridge, covered with a cloth, and left to rise for several hours. Finally, we move on to stuffing and baking. The oven must be at a maximum temperature of around 250 or 300 degrees Celsius. First, bake the pizzas on the bottom rack without ingredients in order to cook the bottom of the pizza. Then, add the ingredients. Put the pizza back into the oven. This time, put it on the top shelf to finish cooking.

Do you have to substitute the ingredients for the dish you are making with Thai ones? If so, what are the differences in ingredients that you see in Thailand vs Italy?

We managed to obtain all the Italian products we needed to make the pizza without having to resort to any Thai substitute. However, we have added a dose of creativity by trying to prepare some pizzas with typically Thai ingredients. For example, we made Tom Yam Goong Pizza. It is an Italian-made pizza with Thai seafood and Thai chili peppers.

While we were able to find all of the ingredients necessary to make the pizza, I can say that the Thai culinary culture is very rich in strong and contrasting flavors. Many of these flavors would seem absurd to mix together if cooking traditional Italian cuisines. This is because Thai food is actually based on a balance between different flavors, including spicy, sour, sweet, salty, and bitter.  Sometimes, chefs combine these flavors together. For example, the famous Thai dish Som Tam is both intensely savory and insanely sour — in short, the flavors of southeast Asia mixed on a plate. Every Som Tam dish normally contains garlic, chili, fish sauce, lime juice, and dried shrimp. All these flavors fit with the direction that Som Tam should “taste sweet, sour, hot, and salty.”

Do you get creative and make Thai-Italian dishes with both themes or cultures in the dishes?

My culinary passions obviously led me to the preparation of typical Thai dishes. My Thai girlfriend likes to say that one of the Thai dishes that I like to prepare, the famous Khao Pad Goong, “comes out better than the original.”

After studying and reproducing the original version of the dish, I dedicated myself to experimenting and mixing the two cultures. I managed to propose a unique and delicious Italian-Thai version of Khao Pad Goong.

I added some anchovies, dried tomatoes, sweet pepper, celery, and Italian parsley to the traditional recipe. Furthermore, I also replaced the classic rice oil with extra virgin olive oil instead. The result tastes fabulous and the multitude of flavors generated in the mouth tastes literally sublime.

What is your favorite Thai ingredient to mix with Italian food?

I think that soy sauce is a very interesting ingredient I discovered in Thailand. Chefs in Italy rarely use soy sauce in Italian cuisines. This type of sauce goes fabulously with fish dishes such as salmon. It also tastes wonderful when added to typical Italian salads with a Romaine lettuce base.

Diego is an extrovert and very sociable person but enjoys eating Italian cuisine while living in Thailand. He prefers making pizza for his family and friends. However, when he is not baking homemade pies, he recommends trying these three pizzerias in this order:

1) Pizzeria Da Moreno in Patong (probably the best ever, since it follows the authentic Neapolitan recipe)

2) Pizzeria Agli Amici in Chalong.

3) Trattoria Pizzeria Cosa Nostra in Chalong.

In his next article, Diego will share more about Italian cuisine. Be sure to stop by and check it out. To discover what other recipes Dreams Abroad members are learning about, read about Edgar’s experience making traditional paella!