Growing up Mexican American just 150 miles from the border, I thought I understood my ancestral cuisine. A tortilla was a fluffy, flour disc that your abuela (grandmother) warmed over the stove and slathered with butter and honey. Queso was a brick of neon-coloured Velveeta cheese your mum melted in a pot with a can of green chillies and served with Tostito corn chips during the Dallas Cowboys game. And tamales were a spicy blend of pork, masa and Crisco vegetable shortening that your tias (aunties) smeared over corn husks and steamed for Christmas dinner.
So, it was a shock when, on my first trip into Mexico’s interior 25 years ago, I opened a menu and recognised none of the options. Where were the fajitas sizzling on a platter? What made the enchiladas suizas (Swiss) and the eggs divorciados (divorced), and what happened to the complimentary chips and salsa?
Apprehension evaporated with my first bite, however. I had ordered chiles en nogada, hoping it would approximate the chiles rellenos I loved back in South Texas, but no. This poblano chilli was not battered and fried but blackened over a flame and stuffed with beef, potatoes, peas and squash cooked in a tomato puree. Instead of being smothered in neon cheese, it was covered in a walnut cream sauce flecked with parsley and pomegranate seeds. The flavour was extraordinary: smoky with hints of oregano and cloves.
And it wasn’t just chiles en nogada. In restaurants and at street stalls across Mexico, I savoured foods radically more complex, delicious and nutritious than what my community ate back home. Fresh corn tortillas replaced packaged wheat; pork belly was favoured over Crisco. Herbs and vegetables were harvested moments before use. Cooks selected chillies for their taste and aroma rather than their capsaicin. Cheese was used sparingly, with no Velveeta in sight.
If this was Mexican food, what had I been eating all my life?
When they invaded the Aztec Empire in the 15th Century, Spanish conquistadores were also amazed by the food. Montezuma dined on platters of duck, venison, rabbit and fruit, along with cauldrons of frothed chocolate and stacks of corn tortillas. According to scholar Jeffrey M Pilcher in his book Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, the colonisers feared adopting too much of this diet, lest they become “Indians” too. Corn was especially disparaged: the clergy deemed it “pagan”. But over the centuries, the food Spaniards brought over on their ships from Europe – cows, pigs, wheat, olive oil, wine, spices – coalesced with Native ingredients and techniques to form a mestizo (literally “mixed blood”) cuisine that was further enhanced by enslaved Africans and immigrants from Asia and Central Europe.
I see the world in these books
To trace this evolution, I logged on to the Mexican Cookbook Collection at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). Among its 2,000 volumes is a digitised set of handwritten recipe books that were passed down through Mexican families as far back as 1789. The frayed pages reveal thousands of recipes calligraphically recorded by household matriarchs.
Some are so vague that they serve more as a reminder than as a recipe, like Carmen Ballina’s 1937 directive for caldo [soup] for 12: “Starting early in the morning, boil in water a kilo of meat, garbanzos, carrots and whatever else you’d like. When the soup is done, start cooking whatever pasta you wish to add, tapioca, wheat, fideo, etc.” Such entries, composed in breathless paragraphs, read almost like prose poems. Others are rigorously detailed with meal plans, place settings and – in the case of Hortensia Volante’s 1916 manuscript – an illustration of how to ice a cake.
“I see the world in these books,” Carla Burgos, a UTSA graduate student who has spent the past two years transcribing them, told me.
Back when Mexico was still a colony, the manuscripts mostly contained Spanish dishes such as gazpacho, along with Turkish, Greek and above all French food, plus English cakes for teatime. “They used saffron every day, and quail eggs,” Burgos said. “It was not cheap food.”
That was especially true during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, roughly between 1876 and 1911. He and his cronies feasted on champagne and caviar while Mexico’s poor subsisted on the same corn tortillas that nourished their ancestors. After the Mexican Revolution, however, the new government tried to unify the nation as mestizos. That’s when Josefina Velázquez de León makes an entrance in the UTSA archive. For three decades, she collected recipes from church ladies across the nation, ultimately publishing 150 cookbooks. She helped brand Mexican food as a cuisine of regional specialties ranging from the Yucatan’s cochinata pibil (citrusy pork shoulder) to Oaxaca’s mole (slow-simmering sauces made of dozens of ingredients, including chocolate).
Yet it took time before Mexicans really claimed their cuisine. Renowned chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo Restaurant in Austin, Texas, told me that while growing up in Mexico City in the 1960s, “It was not fancy to receive people at home and serve Mexican food. That was everyday cooking. We would serve only foreign dishes, nothing Mexican at all.”
Meanwhile, north of the border, Americans were making a fortune off Mexican food. First, they mass-produced dishes like chili con carne (a stew of beans, meat and chillies) as canned goods; then they corporatised Mexican street food into behemoths like Taco Bell. Never mind that the US had been legislatively antagonising Mexico ever since annexing half its turf in 1848, from trade and immigration policies to the war on drugs. Salsa was raking in more revenue than ketchup by the early 1990s. Even Donald Trump, who pledged to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it, once tweeted that Trump Tower Grill made the best taco bowls.
“That is the grand dichotomy of Mexican food, that so many people who cannot stand Mexicans, let alone Mexican migration, do love the cuisine,” said Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.
You may also be interested in:
• How Mexico is reclaiming spirulina
• The surprising truth about Caesar salad
• Where there’s no queso in quesadilla
Americans especially pine for “authentic” Mexican food – something Arellano contends does not exist, “except as a money-maker for anyone who uses it”. Restaurants have been touting authenticity since the 1940s, but it became a foodie obsession in 1972 when British ethno-gastronomer Diana Kennedy published The Cuisines of Mexico. Building off de León’s work, this cookbook turned Kennedy into the Julia Child of Mexico and garnered her accolades like Bravo’s Top Chef Master Rick Bayless. But while Arellano credits Kennedy with convincing Mexico’s elite to finally take pride in their regional cuisine, she was ruthless in her pronouncements, particularly concerning the Tex-Mex dishes of my childhood. (It plays “havoc with your stomach, with your breath, everything,” she once told Texas Monthly.)
Such disparagements pained Mexican Americans, who were already struggling over whether or not they were “sufficiently” Mexican. Journalist Lesley Téllez told me that while growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, “assimilation was what we had to do to survive generations of discrimination. Mexican food was one of the few tangible things that my family took joy in, that was an expression of love and pride that we were not able to share in the wider world.”
Téllez moved to Mexico City in 2009 to improve her Spanish but became so enamoured by the vibrant food scene that she enrolled in Escuela de Gastronomía Mexicana, where she studied with chef Yuri de Gortari. She then co-founded a culinary tour company and ran it for a decade. When she sat down to write her own contribution to the UTSA archive, Eat Mexico, however, she was riddled with anxiety. “I felt this identity insecurity, like – will they say this recipe is not authentic?” Téllez recalled. “It was like I had Yuri on one shoulder and Diana Kennedy on the other!”
Authenticity haunts Mexican chefs, too. De la Vega had to defend her credentials when she first opened El Naranjo in her mother’s home state, Oaxaca.
“In the provincias, they don’t like the chilangos [residents of Mexico City]. They said, ‘Why, if she was not born here, why does she come and cook Oaxacan food?’,” de la Vega remembered.
She was forced to close her restaurant in 2006 when a teacher’s strike triggered mass unrest. After reopening in Austin she then had to convince Americans that Oaxacan food was legitimately Mexican. A friend teased de la Vega that she would be serving chips and salsa within three months, but “still, I don’t have it!” she laughed.
Thanks to chefs like de la Vega, Mexican food is finally earning the respect long accorded to European cuisine. In 2015, Unesco declared traditional cooking from Michoacán to be an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”. Two Mexico City restaurants, Quintonil and Pujol, ranked among the top 15 of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2019. Internally, Mexico has also started recognising Native contributions to its culinary prowess, with Zapotec chef Abigail Mendoza Ruiz gracing a recent cover of Vogue Mexico.
Mexican food is about identity and agency
Mexican American chefs are also achieving gastronomic greatness, thanks in part to the UTSA archive. An especially loyal patron is chef Rico Torres, who combs the collection for ideas for the 10-course tasting menus that he and his partner Diego Galicia recreate from scratch every 45 days at their San Antonio, Texas, restaurant, Mixtli. One menu traced Mayan trade routes via avocado, fish roe and quinoa; another celebrated the state of Jalisco with pork ribs encrusted with chicharrones (fried pork rinds) and pineapple.
“Mexican food is about identity and agency,” Torres told me. “It has to show respect for where it came from, who created it and what its origins are.”
That has certainly been my own takeaway since my first trip to Mexico a quarter of a century ago. I have now eaten like a queen in half of its 32 states, from duck stuffed with cactus fruit in Guanajuato to guisados (a stew-like taco filling) galore in Querétaro. Yet I still crave the Tex-Mex meals of my childhood – yes, even the ones swathed in Velveeta. First of all, they were made in a former territory of Mexico and thus constitute a regional cuisine in their own right. And second, the chefs were my own family’s matriarchs, who viewed canned food and packaged tortillas not only as a cost-effective way of feeding our families but also as freedom from the kitchen.
Our food was Mexican because we were – and nothing is more authentic than that.
Chiles en Nogada (translated)
Once fried, the stuffed Chiles can be put onto a plate and be covered with Nogada [sauce].
The sauce is made by grinding – fresh, well-cleaned and peeled – walnuts and then adding a little bit of pepper, and a bit of vinegar-soaked bread. After all is well grinded, season it with a good vinegar adding fine salt and oil until it becomes a very thick broth.
Note that the Nogada turns black not too long after you add the salt. For this reason, it would be very good to add the salt right before serving, or not adding it at all and letting each person add it to their taste.
Pour the sauce; it will warm up the Chiles and, once warm, put them on the plate and bathe with seasoned Nogada, optionally topping it with pomegranate to adorn the plate.
Nogada can be made with any oily substance, like the seeds, almonds and others, but none is as tasty as that with walnut.
Stephanie Elizondo Griest is the author of two travel memoirs about Mexico: Mexican Enough and All the Agents and Saints.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called “The Essential List”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.