Introduction to Mexican Food History (And What that Means for Nutrition)

Mexican food history is fascinating! The story of Mexican food history and culture is fundamentally about colonization, agriculture, geography, and even philosophy!

There are many reasons you may want to learn more about how Mexican food has changed over time. Maybe you want to learn more about your culture. Maybe you’re a history buff! Or maybe you’re a foodie who wants to know why Mexican food today is the way it is. 

Personally, I’m a Mexican-American dietitian. I found learning about Mexican food history really helped heal my relationship with food. It helped me break away from black and white thinking about nutrition. 

Ever since, I’ve been incorporating mini history lessons into my work with my clients.

In today’s blog post, we’ll go over major influences on Mexican food, a rough timeline of Mexican cuisine throughout history, and finally compare and contrast Mexican food today vs back then. 

So let’s get started!

Why learn about the history of Mexican cuisine?

First I want to address the big question: if I’m a dietitian why talk about food history? I have slightly different answers depending on who you are. 

(Of course learning about it just because history is cool is also fair!)

For dietitians/healthcare providers

For dietitians, understanding history helps make us more compassionate providers. It helps us understand why food customs may be the way they are, and encourages us to focus on the right issues. 

Let’s talk about sodas, for example. Mexico has the highest soda consumption in the world (1). A dietitian who doesn’t understand the history behind this would just think this is due to cultural preferences. They would focus on getting their client to “learn to like” water. 

On the other hand, a dietitian who knows the history behind this would know that soda consumption is so high in Mexico due to historical issues with water safety. They would then ask questions to make sure their client has adequate access to safe water at home. 

As you can see, two dietitians with the same credentials and the same client can take very different paths if one knows their history. 

For individuals

For Mexican-American individuals, knowing how long our cultural foods have been around can really help us tune out diet culture noise!

It’s a lot easier to dismiss the latest fad diet as nonsense, when it’s telling you to eliminate a food you know has been nourishing your ancestors for thousands of years. Knowledge is power!

Major influences on Mexican food culture

To start the discussion on the history of food in Mexico, let’s talk about all the different cultures and people that have made Mexican food what it is today. 

Indigenous Food

The first group is the Indigenous people of Mexico and Central America. There were many Indigenous groups of people across Mexico, with their own traditions and foods. 

When discussing Indigenous food in Mexico, we have the most historical data on the Aztecs and the Maya. So for our purposes we’ll mostly discuss Aztec and Mayan food. 

Indigenous Mexican food is responsible for many of the hallmarks of Mexican food today: corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, avocados, chocolate, chilies, the list goes on and on (and on). 

Also, a lot of the tools we associate with Mexican food like the metate and the molcajete were originally part of the Indigenous tradition. 

Spanish Food

The Spanish introduced most of the common proteins you see in Mexican food today, including beef, pork, chicken, and goat. 

Spanish colonization is also responsible for dairy in Mexican food, as well as almost all use of added fats and oils. 

Other major influences

Of course Mexican food is more than just Indigenous and Spanish food. Many other cultures have influenced Mexican cuisine throughout history.

Middle Eastern Food

Middle Eastern food contributed sugar, coffee, and (my personal favorite) al pastor to Mexican food. 

French and German Food

You can thank France and Germany for pan dulce and Mexican beer, respectively. 

African Food

While rice originated in Asia, Mexican rice is strongly influenced by African cooking techniques. The use of plantains in Mexico is also strongly influenced by African food. 

Timeline of Mexican Cuisine

Mexican food culture has been constantly evolving for thousands of years. Here’s a brief summary of the major dates in Mexican food history. 

Timeline of traditional Mexican history from ancient Mexican food to modern times.

Pre-Hispanic Era

Pre-Hispanic Mexican food was also strongly influenced by the rest of Mesoamerican cuisine. The Aztec and Mayan empires had strong trade routes across the continent. 

This means there’s some overlap between Mexican food, Central American food, North American food, and even South American food. 

Food from this era used many of the same staple ingredients we see in Mexican food today. Corn, beans, squash, tomato, chiles, and avocado were the main staples. 

Of course there were many fruits and vegetables native to Mexico that were also eaten. Examples include nopales, jicama, pitaya, guava, chayote, and many more. 

Proteins from this era included small wild animals like birds, fish, small mammals, and insects. Plant-based proteins were also common, such as chia seeds, beans, pumpkin seeds, and more. 

Importantly, turkey was especially common in Mayan food at this time. Turkey is still one of the most authentic foods to serve with mole

Most Ancient Mexican Dishes

Your favorite Mexican dish may trace its roots back to this era. Examples of popular Mexican dishes from this era include:

  • Corn tortillas
  • Tamales
  • Mole
  • Salsa
  • Guacamole
  • Tacos
  • Pozole
  • Atole
  • And more

Spanish Colonization

Immediately after Spanish arrival in the Americas, the Latin American food system changed drastically. 

The Spanish colonizers were very adamant about bringing Spanish food with them and cultivating Spanish food in the Americas.

This includes most livestock we know today: pigs, cows, chicken, goats, and sheep. It also includes all dairy products.

The Spanish were very intentional about introducing wheat to Latin America for their own religious and health purposes. 

Perhaps most interestingly, the Spanish introduced the concept of frying food in oil to the Americas. Prior to this, oils were used rarely if at all in Mexican food. This means olive oil was also a Spanish introduction. 

This is when we start to see Indigenous Mexican food start to look a little more like the Mexican food we recognize today. Some foods that represent this fusion of Mexican and Spanish cuisine include:

  • Tostadas (fried in oil)
  • Refried beans (sautéed in lard)
  • Flour tortillas

It’s also important to point out the ways that Spanish colonizers disrupted Indigenous foodways, in addition to simply introducing Spanish foods to the Americas. 

Spanish colonizers forced Indigenous people to grow wheat, diverting Indigenous land and labor away from corn and toward Spanish crops like wheat. Certain Indigenous foods were outlawed for religious reasons

Post Revolutionary Period

After the Mexican revolution, many immigrants arrived in Mexico. This period is responsible for Mexican foods like:

  • Pan dulce
  • Mexican beer
  • Mexican cheeses
  • Al pastor

Modern Period

Don’t forget that history is still happening!

The modern period of Mexican food history is characterized by a shift in labor. More people are moving into cities and fewer people work in agriculture. 

This means we are seeing more processed and convenience foods as there is less time to prepare meals at home. (Note: I’m NOT saying this is a bad thing. This happens to most societies over time). 

There’s also been an increase in trade with the United States and other countries. Mexican foods that come from this era include:

  • Processed snacks (like chips, Cheetos, etc.)
  • Instant masa harina (“maseca”)
  • Sodas

Mexican Food Then vs Now

One of the coolest things about Mexican food is how much it still resembles its ancient origins. 

But, like all cuisines, Mexican food has evolved over time. Changes in Mexican food are due to social and economic changes over time, as well as exposure to other cultures and their foodways. 

Here are some of the major changes we’ve seen in Mexican food over the years. 

Cooking methods

Prior to colonization, Mexican cooking methods mostly included:

  • Cooking on a comal (griddle) – note this technique does not use oil
  • Baking in an underground oven or pit
  • Steaming
  • Boiling (including making soups and stews)

The biggest difference here is that cooking prior to European contact didn’t involve frying or oil. 

While pre-Hispanic Mexican food contains fats (from fish, seeds, and avocado), extracting oil from plants was very rare. This means all frying techniques, olive oil, and lard were all introduced by the Spanish. 

Ingredients

Many of the core pre-Hispanic ingredients are still common in Mexican food today. This includes:

  • Corn
  • Beans
  • Squash
  • Tomato
  • Chiles 
  • Avocado
  • And more

There are also some pre-Hispanic Mexican ingredients that are not as common as they used to be, including spirulina and insects. You will still see these ingredients in Mexican food, but not to the same degree as before. 

Ingredients that have been more recently introduced to Mexican food include:

  • Dairy
  • Sugar
  • Olive oil
  • Certain fruits like coconut, mango, limes, tamarind and more
  • Rice

Processing and Labor

Many pre-Hispanic cooking tools are still common today. Think of the molcajete and the metate. These were used in pre-colonial Mexico to grind foods. 

Since foods were ground by hand, Indigenous people developed processing techniques to soften grains like corn and make it easier to grind. This process is a signature of Mexican food and carries its own unique health benefits. 

Since colonization, mills have been introduced and are much more common now. Although you will still see plenty of hand grinding on the metate or molcajete. 

Like most other countries, Mexico has seen a lot more industrialization of its food system. This is due to changes in the labor force and economic system. 

Regional Differences

It’s important to point out how large Mexico is and how many different climates and terrains are present in Mexico alone. 

While many ingredients are common across Mexico (like corn, beans, and squash), there are distinct regional differences in Mexican food.

Northern Mexico places more emphasis on wheat flour, red meat, and dairy, for instance. Yucatán has a distinct cuisine that closely resembles its Mayan origins. And of course, coastal areas of Mexico will have more seafood, etc. 

How can I learn more?

We’ve gone over a lot in this post but trust me when I say we’ve just scratched the surface!

If you would like to learn more about Mexican food history I have some books and trainings I recommend. 

Recommended Reading

(Note: these are affiliate links. If you click them and make a purchase I’ll earn a small commission. I’m only recommending books I’ve personally read.)

The Body of the Conquistador by Rebecca Earle

Chilies to Chocolate: Food the Americas Gave the World by Nelson Foster

America’s First Cuisines by Sophie Coe

Eating NAFTA by Alyshia Gálvez

The Columbian Exchange by Alfred Crosby

Trainings and Webinars

I offer training on the link between Mexican History and Nutrition! We’ll go even more in depth than we did in this blog post, and connect what we learn with building nutritious meals today. 

Check out my pre-recorded trainings below:

Mexican History and Nutrition Workshop

Mexican History and Nutrition Workshop – for Health Professionals

FAQ:

How did Mexican food evolve?

Mexican food has a foundation in Indigenous Latin American foods like corn, beans, and squash. Colonization by the Spanish introduced livestock animals like beef, pork, and chicken, as well as dairy. 

Colonization also disrupted certain native foods like corn and amaranth in favor of wheat. 

Other regions also influenced Mexican food like France, Germany, and the Middle east (among others). 

Today, globalization and economic changes are shifting Mexico toward a more industrialized and processed food system. 

What foods are originally from Mexico?

Many foods are originally from Mexico. These include corn, many beans, squash (including pumpkin and zucchini), tomato, avocado, chile, guava, chocolate, vanilla, chia seeds, spirulina, and more. 

Final Thoughts

As you can see, Mexican food history is rich and fascinating. 

Today we’ve covered basic staple ingredients and cooking methods from different eras of Mexican history. My goal is for you to see that while Mexican food has changed a lot over time, a lot of the Mexican food we know and love today is fundamentally Indigenous food. 

As a dietitian, I teach food history to help my clients (and other dietitians) understand the big picture. It’s so much easier to focus on what actually matters and tune out the fad diet noise when we understand just how long our cultural foods have been nourishing us. 

Want to learn more about Latin American food history? Get my full reading list. 

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