Mexican and Tex-Mex: A Tale of Two Cuisines

A brief history of Tex-Mex

The dishes you’ve come to think of as Mexican over the years might not be Mexican at all. Well, at least not fully Mexican. Some of the dishes we associate with this colourful cuisine here in Australia are actually way off. Hard shell tacos? Not Mexican, those are an American invention. Fajitas? Nope. And chimichangas? No way!

Tex-Mex cuisine originates from the cuisine of the Tejanos, the Spanish term for the native inhabitants of Texas. It’s essentially a combination of cuisines: the ones native to the peoples of southwestern North America and the various cuisines of the Europeans who settled the land throughout the last centuries. After Texas became an American state in 1845, the cuisine began evolving even further to match American tastes.

The Americanisation of Tex-Mex food continued, becoming more and more influenced by the ingredients that Americans like. Of course, portion sizes became bigger, too. Back in the day, ranchers on both sides of the border of Texas and Mexico were eating similar foods, especially barbacoa de cabeza (barbecued beef head) and cabrito al pastor, or baby goat. Over time, Mexican restaurants in the US traded these dishes out for meats that Americans were less squeamish about: steak, chicken breast and pulled pork.

Is it Tex-Mex?

So, how can you tell if it’s Tex-Mex? Tex-Mex cuisine is often characterised by its heavy use of shredded cheese and sour cream, and it’s typically much more meat-heavy than authentic Mexican cooking. Cheddar cheese is a common ingredient you’ll find in Tex-Mex cuisine that you won’t find in a real Mexican kitchen, and you won’t find wheat tortillas or nachos either. Wheat flour is another ingredient that happened to be more abundant in the United States, and it was – and continues to be – used in place of cornmeal for both convenience and a matter of different tastes.

Enchiladas are one example of a Mexican dish is totally turned on its head in many so-called Mexican restaurants. In Tex-Mex cooking, enchiladas usually come stuffed with ground beef, drenched in a bright red sauce and swimming in yellow cheese, usually with a side of beans and sour cream on the side. In Mexico, however, people cook enchiladas in a huge number of ways, with variations dependent on the region and the ingredients available.

….or Mexican?

Mexico is a huge country, both in land and population. Even if think you know a thing or two about Mexican culture, chances are you’re not even scratching the surface. There are many different ethnic groups, cultures and customs in Mexico, meaning there’s an abundance of cuisines, specialty dishes and drinks. Did you know tequila takes its name from the town where it originates? Yep. In any case, the country is absolutely packed with amazing food, and so much more than the burritos and nachos we so often find in Australian Mexican restaurants.

Mexico has 31 different states and a population of over 120 million people. Needless to say, it’s hard to lump the dining styles of such a  into one box. From Pueblo’s majestic mountains or the dry Chihuahuan desert down to the shores of the Yucatán, Mexico’s landscape varies greatly. The rich vegetataion boasts an abundance of vegetables, fruits and herbs that are native only to certain regions.

Regional Mexican cuisines

Northern Mexico is where you might find food that somewhat resembles the food we’re used to eating at Mexican restaurants in Australia, but it will still will have some obvious differences. In the state of Sinaloa, chiloreo is a decadent type of pulled pork unlike anything you’ll find outside of Mexico. This delectable dish takes a lot of work. First, the chef slowly roasts pork until tender, before frying it in lard. Next, they cover the pork with a generous portion of a delicious chile sauce made with rehydrated peppers and onions, resulting in meat so tender you barely need to chew it.

Down in Oaxaca, sometimes called the Land of the Seven Moles, you’ll find some of Mexico’s most unique cuisine. The food here is made with laborious dedication, especially the moles, sauces which are created using dozens of different ingredients. This region boasts over 200 preparations for this sauce, all made with different types of chillies and in a variety of colours. Some even feature chocolate, although it’s rarely the main ingredient.

On the Gulf of Mexico, the food in the Yucatan is unlike anywhere else in the country. The huge variety of dishes here are influenced by Mayan culture and the region’s close proximity to the ocean. Perhaps the most famous dish to come out of the region is cochinita pibil, a suckling pig that’s roasted whole – when cooked traditionally – and marinated with citrus fruit and achiote, which alters the dish’s colour. Another dish is sopa de lima, a zesty lime soup that usually features tender meat with vegetables and cilantro.

Food for thought

These different regional cuisines barely amount to even the tip of the iceberg of the vastness of Mexican cuisine. To understand the scope and range of the Mexican kitchen would take decades or perhaps even centuries to grasp – it’s just that varied. So next time you go out for Mexican food, take a look at what’s on the menu. Is your order covered with molten cheddar cheese, chilli con carne, or canned tomatoes? Does it come served on a sizzling platter with a side of white flour tortillas? Then it’s probably not real Mexican food, but rather a whole different cuisine: Tex-Mex.

But that’s not a bad thing. In fact, Tex-Mex is super flavourful and a special cuisine all on its own. After all, there’s no denying that chimichangas are perfect for when the munchies strike, and there’s nothing quite like the sizzling sound of skillet fajitas to take you to culinary heaven. And burritos? Sure, people eat them in parts of Mexico, but Tex-Mex is responsible for the baby-sized burritos you know and love. The two cuisines are different but have at least one major thing in common: they’re delicious when done right.