Mexico can be found in the continent of North America and with its size being three times the size of Texas, it is the thirteenth largest country in the world. The United States shares Mexico’s northern border while Guatemala and Belize share its southern border. The Pacific ocean surrounds Mexico to the West and south while the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea surround the eastern part of the country. Overall, Mexico is made up of 1,972,550 square kilometers (Parkes, H. B., 2018).
Mexico has the largest desert in North America which is the 200,000 square miles Chihuahuan Desert, which goes across six of Mexico’s states and also into Texas and New Mexico in the USA. Mountains also run along both Mexico’s Pacific and the Gulf coast. You can see the Sierra Madre Occidental range on the West and the Sierra Madre Oriental range on the East. At the northern edge of the plateau is Mexico’s longest river, El Rio Grande, which runs 1,300 miles along the USA border. The highest volcano, and mountain is Pico de Orizaba, in Eastern Mexico. Orizaba is also the third highest mountain that is in North America. Another famous volcano is Popocatépetl near Mexico City. Banderas Bay, or Mexico’s largest bay, is also located on the Pacific coast (Parkes, H. B., 2018).
Mexico has rainforests, deserts, shores, and mountains. This means that there is a wide variety of climatic conditions all over the country and it varies according to the altitude and the location. In Baja California, it is temperate and dry while the southern part of the Baja Peninsula has warm winters and hot summers. The coast of the Sea of Cortes gets warmer temperatures than the Pacific coastline. The Sierra Mountain range, which is the wine-producing area, receives more rain. In Mexico’s northern inland, the weather is generally arid and varies throughout the year.
During the summer months, it can be very hot while the temperatures drop in the winter. Mexico’s central inland has warm/hot days and cool nights. Mexico’s Pacific coast region, also known as the Mexican Riviera, has warm to hot weather throughout the year while Mexico’s Gulf coast region is among the most humid areas of the country. Here, the weather is generally hot year-round. The Yucatan Peninsula, on the other hand, is very flat and close to sea level, so temperatures are warm throughout the year. (Barbezat, S., 2018)
In Mexico, there are 68 indigenous peoples. Today it is estimated that around 12 percent of the Mexican population belongs to an indigenous community or 15 million people. Of these 68 groups, below are the five most populated indigenous groups in Mexico (Cisneros, S. C., 2018).
The Nahuas group is the first largest indigenous group and it is made up of approximately 2.5 million people. These are mostly in the parts of Mexico City, Puebla, Oaxaca, Morelos, and Hidalgo. An interesting fact is that the Náhuatl language is the one that has had the most influence in the Mexican-Spanish language (Cisneros, S. C., 2018).
The second group is the Mayas, and they are made up of 1.5 million people. They can be found in the states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Campeche, Tabasco, and Chiapas. In the state of Yucatán it is very common for the people to speak both the Spanish and Mayan language fluently (Cisneros, S. C., 2018).
The Zapotecas are the third largest indigenous group made up of 800,000 people. They are mostly found in and around the state of Oaxaca and a former president of Mexico, Benito Juarez, had Zapotecan roots (Cisneros, S. C., 2018).
The Mixtecas group is the fourth and it is made up of 727,000 people in Mexico while 100,000 more Mixtecos live in the USA. This group can be found in the Mexican states of Guerro, Puebla, and Oaxaca. They are mostly known for their traditional and historical crafts (Cisneros, S. C., 2018).
The fifth group is the Otomíes and they are made up of 650,000 people and can specifically be found in the states of Hidalgo, Querétaro, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Puebla, Veracruz, and the state of Mexico. Otomíes have a spectacular tradition in which they will offer a God, a Saint, or a special guest a “ceremonial tortilla”. This is a handmade tortilla that will have special images, letters, or natural plant colors stenciled on them as an offering of respect and gratitude (Cisneros, S. C., 2018)(Muñoz, R., 2016).
In Mexico, each town and each region has its own traditions and its own customs. Yet, there is no doubt that all of these have the celebration of El Día de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, in common. In this first celebration, which starts on November 1 and goes on until November 2, each family prepares to receive the souls of their loved ones who have abandoned this life.
The most representative element of the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico are the altars with their offerings. In the places where the tradition is more rooted, families begin to shape their altars since October 28 and they reach their maximum splendor on November 2.
Many items adorn these altars, and each of the items on it has a special meaning, but the most important ones include: A glass of water, which quenches the spirits’ thirst after the long journey they had to make. Salt, which is an element of purification, serves so that the souls do not get corrupted during their journey. The candles light the way for the souls to find their old homes. The copal was offered by the natives to their Gods. It is also believed to have been used to rid a home of unwanted evil spirits and therefore the soul can enter the house without any danger.
The cempasuchil flower is another item that adorns and aromatizes the place during the stay of the soul. In many places of the country, it is customary to put paths of petals that serve to guide the deceased from the holy field to the offering and vice versa. A cloth-like bedroll works as the tablecloth for the altar and also as a “bed” for the soul to rest on. The fraternal offering is the bread, and it is one of the most precious items. The sugar skulls represent the fact that death is always present during these festivities. Then, the deceased favorite liquor and dish is placed for the soul to remember the great and pleasant events in their lives. Finally, the portrait of the one being remembered is placed on the altar (Thornley, R., 2017).
In this festivity, it is obligatory to visit the tombs of the deceased to tidy them up and arrange them with flowers and candle and to spend the night at the cemetery with the whole family. During this time, the family eats, sings, prays, drinks, laughs, and cries by the graves while remembering their beloved family members.
The second holiday occurs on September 16, in which the Independence of Mexico is commemorated, but on the night of September 15 at 11 pm, el Grito de la Independencia, or the cry of independence, is given. This is because on that date in 1810, the priest Don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla rang the bells of the church of the town of Dolores, calling all Mexicans to join in a fight against the Spanish rule.
With this cry, they started a war that lasted for many years. It was not until 1821 when the Spaniards were defeated and Mexico became a free country. In this way, slavery was ended and since then, Mexican people celebrate these dates with great pride. This is can especially be seen in Zócalo in Mexico City where the largest number of people gather to listen to the President of Mexico to cheer on the heroes who gave independence to the country from the balcony of the National Palace. After the cry is given, music can be heard while the people sing their hearts out and dance the night away (Thornley, R., 2017).
The last celebration is religious. Since most Mexicans are Catholic, they believe in the Virgin Mary. Instead, they call her La Virgen de Guadalupe, or Our Lady of Guadalupe. Every year on December 11 at 11 pm, almost all of Mexico’s people gather in their nearby churches and serenade her with mariachi music, prayers, and roses. This celebration then goes about all day on December 12 with multiple mass lectures and folkloric dances.
It is believed that on December 12 long ago, is when she last made her apparition in the mountain of Tepeyac to a humble farm worker named Juan Diego. He would tell the local priest about her sightings and the priest would not believe him. So, Guadalupe would give him roses to take back to his village. During that time, roses were out of season, so the priest was astonished when Juan Diego would come with handfuls of beautiful flourished roses of various colors. This celebration is huge amongst Mexicans that the tradition has also followed Hispanics to now live in the USA (Thornley, R., 2017).
The mamey has a rough texture and a thin and light brown with pink tone outside as well. The pulp inside is salmon colored and sweet taste. In addition to being used in gastronomy to prepare fresh drinks, desserts, and even liqueur flavors, it is also used in medicine and cosmetics. Yucatan is its main producer and it exceeds 17 thousand tons. This is due to a strong commercial demand at the national level since it is a traditional food with enormous nutritional value (Carey, L., 2018).
Another fruit is the tuna, or prickly pear, and it belongs to the cacti family. A thick and thorny skin surrounds a pulp that has a lot of seeds
Native Americans in Mexico may have used the plant for 12,000 years, using it as a treatment for wounds and as food. The tuna is currently used as food to be consumed fresh in juices, jams, fruits in syrup, liqueurs, etc., and the green fruits (two months old) are used to make fruit polished in syrup (Compartido, F. D. 2017).
Mexico has 20 thousand tuna producers that obtain around 352 thousand tons of tunas per year. The largest volume of production is concentrated in the states of Mexico, Zacatecas, Puebla and Hidalgo. The harvest is carried out in the months from July to September and Mexico exports tunas to the United States, Canada, Chile, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and France (Compartido, F. D., 2017).
For more than 500 years, the chile, or pepper in English, has been a staple in many pre-Hispanic dishes. Currently, it is still a primary ingredient in many Mexican dishes and it can be found in ninety percent of dishes either put in directly, chopped, like sauces, marinades, or dressings. There are more than one hundred varieties of chiles throughout Mexico, but the serrano, habanero, bell, jalapeño, and poblano peppers are the most commonly used with the habanero being the spiciest of them all. It is important to note that the chile in Mexico represents a symbol of identity. This is because the flavor that it brings to inherited recipes is what unites Mexican families (Carey, L., 2018).
Tomatoes are another vegetable that can be found in about all Mexican dishes. Whether it is used as a salsa, a side garnish, or a color and flavor additive, traditional Mexican dishes would never be able to exist without them. For example, in salsas, tomatoes are boiled and blended along with chiles, spices, and other herbs in order to make the “base” sauce. Then, chopped tomatoes, onions, and cilantro are added to make the typical “pico de gallo”. In Mexican rice dish, tomatoes are also boiled and blended with water, chicken bouillon, and onions. This is what gives the rice its flavor and rich orange color. Tomatoes can also be used to make almost anything less spicy if blended in, or simply eaten on the side (Carey, L., 2018).
Corn and beans have been the main starches, and frankly the staple ingredients, ever since the Aztecs were around.
Corn can be found as the base ingredient in many traditional dishes such as pozole, menudo, and tamales. It can also be dried and ground up to make flour called “masa” which can later be used to make tortillas and used in drinks to thicken up the texture such as in atole and hot chocolate (Parkes, H. B., 2018).
Since meat was hard to find and also preserve, Aztecs would use beans as their main source of protein. Beans also gave them an upper hand because they grew in large quantities and could be preserved for a longer time. Now, they can be cooked in water and salt and eaten as is, or cooked then fried and smashed in oil to accompany tortas, burritos, tostadas, and a variety of more foods (Parkes, H. B., 2018).
Meats and Poultry
Beef and pork are the main types of meats used in Mexico while chicken and turkey are the main types of poultry sources used (Parkes, H. B., 2018). Most people in Mexico are usually farmers who own their own beef, pork, chicken, and turkey sources, raise them for personal food use, or to sell for others to consume. These four items can be used interchangeably in various foods such as tacos, enchiladas, moles, flautas, stews, empanadas, and soups. The substitution within these dishes occurs because sometimes people from less resourceful villages cannot afford beef or pork, so they use chicken or turkey instead. If poultry is also difficult to afford, then they will simply just use beans, spicy salsa, and cheese as the “main” stuffer in a taco or enchilada.
Mexico’s beaches have a variety of seafood choices to offer its people, but the two main eaten is the Mojarra fish and shrimp.
There are many types of Mojarra species, but these are a favorite because they are very easy to find in the oceans, lakes, and rivers. So they are available all over the country and the most typical way to eat this fish is deep fried with a side salad, tortillas, and salsa or as ceviche (Graber, K., 2006).
Shrimp is possibly the most beloved and versatile of Mexico’s many shellfish. It can be sold from either ocean or river and dried whole or powdered. When fresh, they can be made in cocktails, fajitas, grilled, ceviche, or used in beer-related mixed drinks. Powdered shrimp, on the other hand, can be used as seasonings for meatballs and soups (Graber, K., 2006).
Cooking and Preserving Methods
A popular cooking method used is tatemar, or roast directly. This cooking technique is used mainly in rural communities in the center of the country. It consists of putting the food on a comal, or a heat conductor, that is directly on the fire. In this way, foods such as tomatoes, chiles, and onions are roasted. This is also how many salsas are made. The roasted skin on the ingredients gives it that extra flavor once everything is mixed in (Parkes, H. B., 2018).
Steaming is also a time-consuming technique that is used when making tamales. The dough on the tamales has to fully cook without it receiving direct heat to avoid burnt tamales. Also, the amount of water that is initially put in the pot cannot be plenty since it should not touch the tamales or else they will be soggy and fall apart. The water has to be checked frequently as so it doesn’t run out and also burn the tamales (Parkes, H. B., 2018).
The common preservation methods would be drying, freezing, and pickling. Red chiles can be dried up, ground up, and used as a seasoning. Jalapeños, tomatillos (green tomatoes), and red tomatoes can be frozen for later use, and carrots, cabbage, and onions can be pickled in a spicy vinegar mixture (Carey, L., 2018).
Flavoring and Seasoning Methods
Cilantro, oregano, and cinnamon can be said to be the staple seasoning and flavoring in traditional Mexican foods. Cilantro and oregano go very well with tomatoes. Since most Mexican dishes do have tomatoes in them, cilantro and oregano are go-to herbs and spices that are usually added to them as well. On the other hand, raw cinnamon sticks can be found in many sweet drinks like atole, hot chocolate, coffee, and agua de horchata (rice water) while ground up cinnamon can be found in rice puddings, milk gelatin, flan, cakes, cookies, and many more desserts (Evans, A., 2017)
Traditional Beverages and Dishes
Tequila is one of the drinks with which Mexico is identified. It is such an important beverage that it even has a city named after it in the state of Jalisco. This is also where this famous drink is mainly produced. Tequila, Jalisco was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2006 and its landscape is covered by thousands of the blue-green agave plants. Here you will not only find a multitude of wineries, but a museum dedicated to the traditional drink (Tapia, A., 2018).
Tequila is made from the fermentation of the nectar of the agave azul plant, which is found in its bulb root. With the proper maturation and aging of the nectar, then it becomes either tequila blanco, reposado, or añejo.
To note, tequila can only be packaged and labeled as so if it comes from the states of Jalisco, Tamaulipas, Hidalgo, Michoacán and Nayarit (Tapia, A., 2018). It can be served in mixed drinks, such as the famous “Paloma” which contains tequila blanco, and is the most adequate for mixed drinks, squirt soda, chili powder, lime juice, and ice. It can also be enjoyed as shots, with reposado being the most adequate choice for this activity, or a finely aged añejo can be served and slowly sipped on the rocks.
Mexicans have a large range of dishes to choose from if they are asked which is their favorite. Yet, Mexicans all agreed that Mole was the most important since it is actually Mexico’s national dish (Mexico., (n.d.)).
Mole is a sauce made from sautéed onions and garlic combined with spices, herbs, ground nuts, and chiles. All that is usually later taken and then simmered with chocolate. This sauce is usually served with turkey, pork, chicken, tortillas, chips, enchiladas, burritos, grilled vegetables, tamales, eggs, chilaquiles and more.
There are two main mole types; rojo (red) and verde (green). Both moles use well-blended pumpkin seed residue to give it its thick texture. This is because the chiles are also well blended with the vegetables and spices and then strained multiple times through the pumpkin seed mixture. Mole rojo has a spicier taste and is made with dried red chile peppers and then it is simmered in chocolate to give it that extra dark hue. While mole verde is milder, made with jalapeño or serrano peppers and is not simmered with chocolate (Mexico.,(n.d.)).