Cinco de Mayo is upon us, and with it comes excuses to drink cheap margaritas and eat a lot of vaguely Mexican food. It's a very Americanized holiday and a minor one in Mexico itself (don't confuse it with Mexico's Independence Day, which falls on September 16).
But we do like to take the opportunity to celebrate Mexico and all of the foods it brings us. What would our lives be like without corn tortillas, chili peppers, or — the horror — chocolate? Here's a look at some of our favorite foods that come from Mexico.
Of course, many of these foods didn't originate just in the nation now known as Mexico, but throughout Central and South America. But most of these have entered American culture through the lens of our neighbor directly south, and I like to use this admittedly minor holiday not just as an excuse to down an extra margarita, but to consider what life would be like without the foods of the New World.
Before native Mexican, Latin, and South American foods entered the Western world, Europeans didn't have tomatoes, corn, or chili peppers. Mexico has also given us the avocado, tequila, and chocolate — some of our most luxurious foods.
There are so many reasons to be grateful for the wealth of food our neighbor to the south brings us. Here are a dozen; I'm sure you could add a dozen more!
- Corn tortillas: One of the most iconic foods of Mexico and Latin America, we shouldn't take these little rounds of corn goodness for granted. They're ubiquitous in grocery stores now, but they're also an ancient food — one of the primary staples of the Aztecs and early Mexican peoples.
- Tacos: It's a short step from tortillas to the taco. From its more authentic incarnations to the Americanized Tex-Mex tacos, we appreciate them all.
- Corn on the cob, street-food style: There are so many ways that corn, a staple of Mexican cuisine, has enriched our lives, but this festive style of corn on the cob is one of the most delicious.
- Chili peppers: One of the most essential ingredients in Mexican cuisine, chili peppers in Mexico come in a dizzying array of sizes, shapes, heat levels, and flavors.
- Mole: One of the great classic sauces of Mexican cooking, mole shows the range and complexity of Mexican cuisine. Have you ever made mole from scratch? It certainly rivals fine French cooking for the skill and ingredients required, and the taste is so incredible.
- Mexican vanilla: Mexican vanilla often gets a bad rap since budget bottles sold to tourists can contain coumarin, a substance banned by the FDA and not considered safe in food. But real Mexican vanilla, the good stuff, is my favorite vanilla in the world. It's spicy and complex and can instantly change your sense of what vanilla can be. Try Nielsen-Massey's Mexican vanilla; I almost always have a big bottle on hand.
- Avocados: Ah, avocados — where would we ever be without them? Their creamy fruit is always a treat, and we have Mexico to thank for it.
- Agave syrup: The agave plant gives us many things, including this sweet syrup.
- Tequila and mezcal: Tequila and mezcal are perhaps the most well-loved product, however, of the agave plant (mezcal comes from the maguey plant, which is closely related to agave). Here's my all-time favorite tequila.
- Paletas: Like elote, paletas are a street food that have become wildly popular and now are well known throughout the United States. Popsicles made of fruit juice, rice milk, and other creative ingredients — what a treat!
- Chocolate: Yes, chocolate. Where would we be without chocolate? Thank you, Aztecs, for getting us going with chocolate; the first person to figure that whole thing out deserves a monument.
- Horchata: This creamy rice drink is becoming better known in the United States, and happily so. It's a wonderful creamy treat.
Traveling to Mexico? Here's What to Bring Home
(Image credits: Sara Kate Gillingham; Sarah Rae Smith; Joanna Miller; Lesley Tellez; Stephanie Foley/Gourmet; Williams-Sonoma; Dana Velden; House of Sims under CC BY 3.0; Producers; Paul O'Hanlon for Ten Speed Press)