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Ethnic Cuisine: Mexico

by Elaine Sosa

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Covering the bottom third of North America and made up of thirty-one states and one very large capital, Mexico is probably the best neighbor a food-lover could have, when you consider the natural bounty of this rich and varied country. Mexico Holidays are a must for world travelers. That's no doubt what the Spaniards thought when they landed on the shores of the Yucatan in 1521, much to the dismay of the Aztec, Maya, Zapotec and other natives populating this vast stretch of land. Hernan Cortes and his crew set the stage for three centuries of Spanish rule which finally started to unravel in 1810, when a village priest, Miguel Hidalgo, uttered his famous grito, or cry: "Mexicanos! Viva Mexico! Viva la Independencia!" The ensuing hundred years were filled with invasions (most notably from the U.S.) and fitful leadership, whereas the dawn of the twentieth century saw the beginning of the Mexican Revolution in earnest, with the likes of Pancho Villa duking it out with his countrymen. When the dust had settled, the Mexicans were in control, but hardly united. This was, after all, a country comprised of three distinct groups: native peoples, the descendants of the Spanish and mestizos, the result of intermarriage between the first two.

The melding of cultures contributed significantly to the melding of foods and food preparation in Mexico, often referred to as mestizaje, or "mixing." Corn, a staple for over 4,000 years, is the backbone of the diet. The kernels are softened in water and lime and then ground and fashioned (most commonly) into tortillas. Protein-rich beans and an infinite variety of chilies round out this holy trinity of Mexican cookery. The Spanish liked what they saw in Mexico and added a few things of their own, among them domestic animals, sugar and cheese. Mexican cuisine is further enhanced by an incredible array of fruits and vegetables which seem to taste better in Mexico than anywhere else: tomatoes, squash, sweet potatoes, avocado, coconut, pineapple, papaya and prickly pear cactus, to name several of the best. Herbs and spices also flavor the pot: cinnamon, clove, anise and cumin are all frequently-used spices, while cilantro, thyme, marjoram and the pungent epazote are popular herbs.

Good ingredients certainly count for a lot, but the Mexicans are also gifted cooks and seem to know how to give a dish that extra zing that makes it special. A simple salsa Mexicana is taken to new heights with a touch of cilantro and lime, while a complex mole sauce is always heavenly thanks to over thirty carefully-chosen herbs and spices which are added in and left to slowly simmer in the pot. Whether it's humble tacos de pollo or a regal cochinita Pibil, the Mexican kitchen is filled with honest, flavorful food which is prepared in a host of interesting ways.

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