While restaurants throughout the world may try to convince you otherwise, Mexican cuisine is a whole lot more than sizzling fajitas, cheese-laden nachos and salt-rimmed margaritas. In fact, most unsuspecting visitors who venture beyond their hotel's dining room to eat at local dining establishments are surprised when they discover just how multi-faceted Mexican cuisine really is!
In the early days, as in before the arrival of the Spanish, Mexican cuisine was based on the staples of corn, beans, chilies, squash, fish and wild game. The arrival of Spanish colonists brought with it new meats, nuts, spices, fruits and cheese. The problem was that Spanish sailors and soldiers, in a lapse of judgement, failed to bring women along on the trip. This meant that while they brought along all of their favorite food products, didn't really know how to cook!
Therefore, these new elements were integrated into indigenous Mexican cooking. Over the course of the next 500 years, Mexican gastronomy - later drawing from French, African and even Asian influences - became perhaps one of the world's earliest fusion cuisines. Nowadays, Mexico's cuisine is one of its best assets.
Be sure to grab some Mexican "antojitos" (little whims) if you're on the run; you can pick them up at the street stands located throughout Mexican towns and cities. These universally-beloved antojitos are essentially the country's comfort foods; think along the lines of fish 'n' chips in England or hotdogs and hamburgers in the USA. Typical antojitos include tacos, tamales, quesadillas, burritos and enchiladas.
However, the more traditional side of Mexican cuisine is comprised of countless typical dishes. Especially famous are Mexico's soups, "pipiantes" (special stews) and "moles."
These moles, which combine all sorts of New and Old World ingredients, perhaps comprise the most distinctive and characteristic element of Mexican cuisine. While they are more of sauces to serve with meat or poultry than meals in and of themselves, these tasty moles easily steal the show. There are endless varieties, some of which can contain over 30 ingredients! However, all moles share two similarities.
First, the vast array of ingredients, each of which throws in its own subtle dimension and flavor to the dish. Each individual ingredient is cooked and separately before they are all combined, ground down into a paste, re-cooked in oil or lard and then thinned out into a sauce. Secondly, even though these moles may seem similar to stews, stews are thickened with starches like flour while moles are thickened purely with their own ingredients.
Located in one of Mexico's more fertile areas, Guanajuato takes full advantage of fresh and locally-grown wheat, vegetables and fruits. The area specialty is the hearty "enchiladas mineras" (miner's enchiladas), a reference to the area's mining tradition. These hearty enchiladas are filled with cheese or chicken, topped with potatoes and carrots and served in a tasty guajillo sauce. Something else to try are the "tunas de xonocostle," a fruit often used in salads that comes from the area's abundant prickly cacti.
Lately, a culinary renaissance has swept the country, yielding a return to pre-hispanic foods that are then served along with a bit of "mezcal"- like tequila, but with a fiery kick. So, if you're feeling on the adventurous side, order up some "jumiles." Either used as a taco filler or ground up with tomatoes and chilies into a sauce, these beetles - yes, beetles - are surprisingly tasty!