By Julie R Butler
Tacos and enchiladas on a combo plate filled out with rice and refried beans covered with a mound of melted yellow cheese and a dollop of sour cream – yeah, it sounds delicioso, but that’s not something you’re likely to find at a restaurant in Mexico. Even as the growing Mexican-American population has been raising the visibility of authentic Mexican cuisine across the United States, there’s still a disconnect between what people outside Mexico think of as Mexican food versus what the food is actually like in Mexico. Here are a few examples.
Nachos are Not Really Mexican
Let’s get just this one out of the way to start with: Nachos are not really Mexican. Although the mythology has it that nachos were invented by a guy called Nacho in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, it should be understood that the plate of totopos topped with melted cheese and jalapeños was supposedly created for a group of gringas who were hungry at a time of day when Mexicans don’t usually eat meals.
What you will find in some restaurants in Mexico is that totopos may be brought to the table as an appetizer along with pico de gallo or other salsas piquantes, although you’re just as likely to receive bread or rolls.
Mexicans Aren’t Cheeseheads
If the nacho creation story is true, I guarantee that those first ones were not coated with Velveeta or any other type of processed cheese product that has nothing to do with actual cheese besides the name.
So what kind of cheese might Nacho have used? Maybe queso Chihuahua, which was introduced to Mexico by Mennonites and is the closest thing there is to cheddar in the country. Other possibilities would be queso asadero and queso manchego, which also melt well.
Note that none of these cheeses even comes close to the sharpness of cheddar or the strong flavors of many European cheeses, and that Monterey Jack is often used for Mexican-American dishes precisely because of its mild flavor.
As for the impression that there’s lots of melted cheese involved in authentic Mexican food – it’s just not true. Queso panela, queso doble crema, and requesón are used for different purposes, but if there is a cheese topping on hot food, it’s likely to be salty, crumbly queso Cotija. In general, Mexico is not much of a cheese culture.
Photo by AlejandroLinaresGarcia, CC BY-SA 3.0
Tex-Mex and Other Varieties of Mexican-American Cuisine
Until fairly recently, many foods that passed as Mexican were actually Tex-Mex, including chili con carne, fajitas, and chimichangas. I grew up thinking that those envelopes of chili powder and taco seasoning for the ground hamburger we used to put into pre-formed hard taco shells held the flavors of Mexico, only to learn that the cumin in those is peculiar to San Antonio and the Moroccan influence of workers brought over from the Canary Islands by the Spanish during the 16th century. In reality, chili powders in Mexico have salt and lime flavoring but not cumin.
Photo by Carstor, CC BY-SA 2.5
And of course, the other border states of New Mexico, Arizona, and California have made their unique contributions – take New Mexico green chiles, for example – and cities from New York to L.A. have their own riffs on Mexican-American cuisine.
The Farther Away from Mexico You Get...
Don’t assume that you’ll find Mexican food throughout Latin America, because the farther away from Mexico you get, the less likely you are to find authentic flavors and textures of the real thing. Argentina and Chile are a long way away and lack the indigenous influences that exist in Mexico.
Also, if you ever find yourself in Australia craving Mexican food, be warned! There aren’t many Mexicans in this far-flung corner of the world. But that hasn’t stopped enterprising Chileans from posing as Mexicans, opening Mexican restaurants, and serving food that resembles Mexican food – or at least what they believe to be Mexican food (marinara sauce and salsa roja are interchangeable, right?!)
Public domain image
The moral of the story, kids, is that if you want real, authentic Mexican food, come to Mexico!