Mexican cuisine is a flavorful blend of native and European foods prepared using mostly Indian and Spanish cooking techniques. The food of Mexico is geographically diverse. Some foods, however, are common in most regions. Handmade tortillas are the traditional flat bread of Mexico. Beans, served in various forms, are included in most meals. One-pot meals, hearty soups and stews, and casseroles are typical. Meat is cooked over high heat, grilling or frying being the most popular preparation methods, although slow, moist cooking such as braising may also be used. Mexico is quite famous for its assortment of stuffed foods like tacos, flautas, chiles relleños, tamales, enchiladas, quesadillas, and burritos. Vegetables (usually potatoes, greens, tomatoes, and onions) are included as part of the main dish or served as garnish. Flavorful chile peppers are used extensively. Sweets are very popular as well as dried and candied fruits and vegetables and sweet nut pastes. Coffee is the most common beverage, but soft drinks and fruit drinks are also well liked. Milk is consumed infrequently (incidence of lactose intolerance is estimated at ! of the population) except in beverages like hot chocolate or café con leche. In the Mexican Plains, beef is frequently eaten, served as steaks or stews. This area is known for a special method of pit-roasting meat called barbacoa. In the Baja Peninsula and along the coast, fish is an important part of the diet. Cheese and wheat products are more common in the cuisine of northern Mexico. In the tropical regions, there is an abundance of seafood and freshwater fish, and a variety of fresh produce is available. Avocados grow well and are added as a garnish to soups, stews, and salads or made into guacamole. More than ninety varieties of chile peppers are grown in this region! Generally the smaller the chile the hotter it is, and this heat intensifies as the pepper ripens and when the chile is dried. Black iguana is an unusual food that may be enjoyed in some tropical areas. The foods of the Yucatán region reflect its previously geographical isolation. Foods that are wrapped in banana leaves and steamed are common as well as citrus flavored dishes. Achiote is the signature seasoning of the region and is used to make flavorful pastes to coat foods before cooking. Shrimp are a specialty, and egg is a prominent ingredient. Toasted squash seeds are used to thicken sauces. In southern Mexico, cacao trees are cultivated, and chocolate flavors infuse both savory and sweet dishes. The famous sauce of the region is mole, made with chiles and unsweetened chocolate and seasoned with various other ingredients. One delicacy of this area is grasshopper pan-fried with chiles, garlic, salt, and lemon juice. The culinary influences of each geographic region produce a vibrant national cuisine!
Some areas of Mexico practice a hot-cold system of diet by which meals must be balanced between hot and cold foods to promote health and prevent illness. Herbal remedies are commonly used to treat many conditions. Babies who are breastfed are often given other fluids like formula, water, and sweetened herbal teas to treat conditions like colic or diarrhea. As a result, baby bottle tooth decay may be a problem. One traditional health belief about infants is that they can suffer a fallen fontanel occurring from a fall, having the nipple yanked out of his or her mouth too quickly, or being held vertically while still too young. In this condition, the palate is believed to have dropped causing an inability to suckle and resulting in a change in stools and weight loss. The treatment may include putting a tight cap on the infant!s head, applying salt poultices or olive oil, holding the baby upside down, pulling the hair, and using a finger or thumb to press up on the infant!s palate.
Mexico is among the countries with the highest prevalence of overweight and obesity in children (particularly school aged children) and adults. Extra weight may be seen as a symbol of health and well being, complicating efforts to reduce incidence of overweight and obesity. Research suggests that environmental exposure to lead may also be a serious public health problem in Mexico. Additionally, intestinal infections such as amoebic dysentery are a common cause of death. Low-income Mexicans often have very little variety in their diets and subsist mainly on corn, beans, and squash putting them at risk for developing nutritional inadequacies.
Calcium – Calcium is needed to build strong bones and teeth. It also plays a role in blood clotting, muscle contraction, and nerve-cell communication. In the long term, dietary intakes well below the recommended levels may impact bone development. Bones increase in size and mass during childhood and adolescence, therefore adequate calcium and vitamin D should be consumed throughout childhood into early adulthood.
Iron – Iron is necessary for oxygen delivery to cells and regulation of cell growth. Iron deficiency develops gradually and is commonly seen in women of childbearing age and children. A lack of iron results in an insufficient supply of oxygen to cells eventually causing anemia, fatigue, poor work performance, slow cognitive and social development in children, and decreased immunity.
Riboflavin – Riboflavin is a vitamin that is essential for energy metabolism in cells, the activation of several compounds and vitamins, and protection of cells from oxidative damage. Signs and symptoms of riboflavin deficiency include weakness, sores around the lips, inflammation of the mouth, swollen tongue, anemia, and confusion.
Vitamin A – Vitamin A plays a critical role in healthy vision, growth and development, and immune function. Vitamin A deficiency is common in developing countries and is often accompanied by zinc deficiency. Symptoms of deficiency include blindness, diminished ability to fight infections, decreased growth rate, and slow bone development. Vitamin A helps mobilize iron from its storage sites, so a deficiency of vitamin A limits the body’s ability to use stored iron. This results in an “apparent” iron deficiency because iron levels in the blood are low even though body stores are normal.
Vitamin C – Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps produce collagen and aids in iron absorption. Vitamin C is important for a healthy immune system and plays a role in cardiovascular, neurological, and endocrine systems. Vitamin C deficiency sometimes causes a condition called scurvy, which results in a multitude of symptoms including bleeding gums, skin irritations, bruising, and poor wound healing.
Vitamin B6 – Vitamin B6 helps metabolize fats and proteins and is one of the most common B vitamin deficiencies in kids.
Vitamin B12 – Vitamin B12 is involved in energy production as well as converting the inactive form of folate to its active form. Vitamin B12 deficiency can occur with folate deficiency. Supplementation with high doses of folate can mask the symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency, which is why it is important to differentiate folate deficiency from vitamin B12 deficiency and treat each condition accordingly. Vitamin B12 deficiency usually occurs slowly overtime and is characterized by macrocytic (megaloblastic) anemia, gastrointestinal symptoms (loss of appetite, nausea, inflamed tongue), neurological symptoms, psychiatric disorders (irritability, memory impairment, depression), and possible increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
Zinc – Zinc is involved in many important processes in the body. Symptoms of zinc deficiency include delayed growth, loss of appetite, impaired immune function, hair loss, diarrhea, delayed sexual maturation, eye and skin lesions, delayed wound healing, taste abnormalities, and mental fatigue.
Milk/Milk Products – milk (cow, goat), evaporated milk, cheese (fresh unripened, soft aged, and semi-hard or hard aged)
Meat/Poultry/Fish – beef, goat, pork, chicken, turkey, shrimp, red snapper, other firm-fleshed fish
Eggs/Legumes – chicken eggs, black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, pinto beans
Cereals/Grains – corn, wheat, rice
Fruits – bananas, cactus fruit, carambola, casimiroa, cherimoya, coconut, custard apple, guanábana, guava, lemons, limes, mamey, mangoes, melon, oranges, papaya, passion fruit, pineapple, strawberries, sugar cane, sweet sop, zapote
Vegetables – avocados, cactus, chili peppers, corn, green pumpkin, jicama, lettuce, onions, peas, plantains, potatoes, squashes (chayote, pumpkin, summer), squash blossoms, sweet potatoes, tomatillos, tomatoes, yams, yucca (cassava)
Seasonings – anise, achiote (annatto), chiles, cilantro, cinnamon, cocoa coriander, cumin, epazote, garlic, hoja santa, mace, onions, vanilla
Nuts/Seeds – pine nuts, pumpkin seeds (pepitas), sesame seeds
Beverages – aguas naturales, atole, coffee (café con leche), hot chocolate, soft drinks
Fats/Oils – butter, lard
Sweeteners – sugar, marzipan, panocha (raw brown cane sugar)
The typical meal pattern is four to five meals daily: breakfast, coffee break, lunch, late afternoon snack, and dinner. Meals are mainly eaten at home and served family-style. Meal planning and preparation is the wife’s responsibility. Breakfast is quick and consists of sweet bread or pastry and fresh fruit served with café con leche. The late morning coffee break is similar to brunch and includes heartier fare often including tortillas, eggs, meat, beans, bread, and fruit with coffee or hot chocolate. Lunch is the largest meal of the day, traditionally featuring several courses, which might include a soup, seasoned rice, a main course, beans, salad, and dessert. Today, however, the courses are often combined or less food is served. Following lunch, a rest (siesta) is taken if time permits. The afternoon snack consists of sweets (sweet rolls, cakes, cookies) served with coffee, hot chocolate, or atole. Dinner is very light and usually consists of leftovers or may be skipped altogether. Recently, Mexicans have shifted to eating a lighter lunch and a more substantial dinner. Snacking is popular in urban areas. Street vendors, cafés, cantinas and open-air markets provide a wide variety of foods. More elaborate meals that are labor-intensive and require more difficult preparation are reserved for holidays and special occasions. It is considered rude to reject offered food or drink or to refuse an invitation to dine. Guests do not begin eating until the host says “Buen provecho!” The fork is held in the left hand and the knife in the right hand. Dishes are passed to the left, and portions are usually large. It is improper to leave the table for any reason before others have finished eating.
Most grocery stores (ethnic foods aisle)
Mexican/Central American specialty markets
Farmer’s markets (or grow a garden)
Whole Foods and natural food markets
This is an easy way to give rice an exciting flavor!
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil or butter 1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 onion, finely diced
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup long grain brown rice, rinsed and drained 1″ to 2 cups water
1 tablespoon tomato paste or sauce
Heat oil in a 2-quart pot. Add cumin and chili powder and sauté for a few seconds. Add onion and salt and continue cooking until onion is soft. Add rice and stir well to coat. Now add water and tomato paste and bring to boil. Lower heat and simmer, covered, until all the water is absorbed (about 40 minutes).
Recipe by Cynthia Lair from Feeding the Whole Family (Sasquatch Books, 2008)
Set out black beans, Mexican Brown Rice, salsa, guacamole, and other favorite toppings. Let people create their own tostada or burrito. Make extra beans and recycle them into soup, spreads, dips, or casseroles later in the week.
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil 1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 cups dried black beans, soaked 6-8 hours and drained 1 dried chipotle chile
4 cups water
2 teaspoons sea salt
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup chopped tomatoes
12 to 14 flat corn tortillas
Leaf lettuce, thinly sliced
Heat oil in a 4-quart pot or pressure cooker. Sauté onion, garlic, and cumin in oil until onions are soft. Add beans, chile, and water to onions and spices; bring to a boil. Turn down to simmer and cook, covered, until beans are tender (50-55 minutes), or use pressure cooker and bring up to pressure for 40-45 minutes. When beans are tender and have absorbed the water, stir in salt, cilantro, and tomatoes.
Bake or heat tortillas (read the instructions on the package). Serve tortillas, beans, and garnishes in separate bowls. Let diners create their own tostadas.
Recipe by Cynthia Lair from Feeding the Whole Family (Sasquatch Books, 2008)
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