By Jeffrey M. Pilcher
Mexican cuisine has experienced a renaissance in the past few decades. In the United States, taco trucks and immigrant family restaurants have replaced Americanized taco shells and chili con carne with Oaxacan tamales and carne asada. Meanwhile, celebrity chefs have embraced Mexican food, transforming it from street food into fine dining.
In Mexico, exclusive restaurants once served French cuisine more often than national dishes, but beginning in the 1980s, chefs created the nueva cocina mexicana in order to reinvent traditional dishes for an upscale clientele of local notables and well-heeled tourists.
Inspiration for this gourmet movement came partly from the French nouvelle cuisine and partly from the glories of the Maya and Aztec empires. Not only did these ancient civilizations hold a romantic appeal, but also they embodied the nationalist ideology of “indigenismo,” which sought to revitalize Mexico’s indigenous heritage. Muralists such as Diego Rivera portrayed Indian heroes in monumental paintings, while archaeologists restored the pyramids of Teotihuacán and Chichén Itzá as tourist attractions.
The founders of the nueva cocina had mixed backgrounds. Some were working-class cooks from the countryside who presented the festival foods of their home communities to Mexico City diners as exotic relics of the indigenous past. For example, Fortino Rojas at Restaurante Chon is credited as the inventor of the pre-Hispanic menu. Others were cosmopolitan aristocrats such as Patricia Quintana, who trained in French kitchens and studied the native codices (sixteenth-century documents) to create menu items for her celebrated restaurant, Izote.
Yet there was an earlier version of the nueva cocina in Mexico, just as French cuisine has passed through multiple revolutions. Already in 1742, the chef known as Menon published a cookbook called Nouvelle Cuisine, which sought to simplify the artifice of medieval cuisine, with large joints of roast or boiled meats and complex spice mixtures. Menon and his colleagues established the modern French model of smaller cuts of meat, sautéed and served with a sauce of emulsified pan drippings.
Mexico’s first published cookbooks, from the 1830s, also offered what could be called a nueva cocina, which represented a curious mix of old and new, European and American. In some ways, it was closer to medieval cooking than to the new French cuisine, and it advanced a national identity that was more criollo (creole) than indigenista.
Criollos, people of European ancestry born in the Americas, formed the elite of colonial Mexico. Nevertheless, the Spanish Crown denied them political authority and instead ran the empire through viceroys and administrators parachuted in from the Iberian peninsula. Criollos therefore developed an identity distinct from their European-born cousins and rivals. These New World patriots considered themselves not the offspring of conquistadors but rather the heirs to the ancient Aztec emperors, and therefore the legitimate rulers of Mexico. Nevertheless, they looked down on living Indians as their social inferiors.
Consider the following criollo menu from the nineteenth-century: guacamole (avocado salad), mole de guajolote (turkey in chile sauce), and chiles rellenos (stuffed chiles). All of these dishes had pre-Hispanic antecedents, yet the recipes transformed indigenous ingredients with European techniques and tastes. (All recipes can be found below.)
Start with the guacamole. Today the dish features avocado, tomato, onion, chile, and cilantro, all mashed up in a sauce or mole, which comes from the Nahuatl word molli. Some fancy restaurants prepare guacamole tableside in rustic molcajetes (basalt mortar and pestle). Yet the criollo recipe is a distinctly European salad, dressed with oil and vinegar.
Next comes the main course, mole de guajolote. This will also probably come as a surprise, even to those familiar with Mexican cuisine. Today, it is considered to be mestizo dish, or a mixture of Indian and Spanish traditions. The turkey and chile peppers are from the New World, while the spices are from the Old. Yet this criollo recipe harkens back to medieval Spain not only with the complex spice mixture but also through the appearance of ham shanks and pork loin alongside the turkey.
Most interesting of all is the dessert, conservas de chiles rellenos (candied stuffed chiles), made by simmering green chiles in sugar syrup and then stuffing them jam. Although this recipe appears trendy enough for any postmodern dessert menu of the nueva cocina mexicana, it also recalls the convents of colonial Mexico, which carried on the medieval Arabic traditions of custards and candied fruits.
These three criollo recipes are quite different from the dishes of the same names that are widely eaten in Mexico today. But however strange they may appear, they also have surprising similarities with the nueva cocina of today. One could argue that culinary indigenismo is an updated version of nineteenth-century criollo cooking, combining references to the ancient Aztecs and Maya with European cooking techniques.
Avocados in guacamole.
Peel and seed the avocados, chop with a knife of silver or wood — metal gives them a bad taste and bad color — arrange on a plate and serve with oil, vinegar, onion, oregano, and chile ancho. There are persons who mash the avocados and convert them into a paste. This dish can be eaten with all sorts of grilled meats and with stew.
Source: Vicenta Torres de Rubio, Cocina michoacana (Zamora: Imprenta Moderna, 1896), 18.
Mole de guajolote (Turkey mole)
For a large turkey, use two [ham] shanks (codillos) and a real of pork loin. [Take] two reales of chile pasilla and one real of ancho, de-vein and toast on a comal (griddle) until well browned but without burning. (Note: A real was one-eighth of a peso. In colonial Mexico, prices were quoted in reversed, listing ounces per real rather than reales per ounce.) Put a real of tomatillos on to boil. Half [a real] of clove, half of cinnamon, a few grains of fine pepper, a little toasted coriander, the amount of toasted chile seeds that can be taken with three fingers of a hand, and half of sesame seed, also toasted. Grind together the spices and the chile, sprinkling with water until it is ground, and then remove [from the metate] and put in its place tomatoes and grind the seeds well. Season this mole putting a large cazuela (cooking pot) greased with pork fat on the fire, then when it’s hot, add the [divided] turkey in regular pieces [presas] and the shank and loin. After [browning], add the chile and soaking water to fry with the meat until it begins to splatter, then add the ground tomatoes and also the soaking water, and add to the meat enough water so that it remains covered and salt. Allow to simmer until the meat softens and thickens the broth. Serve with sesame seeds on top.
Source: Novísimo arte de cocina (Mexico City: C. Alejandro Valdés, 1831), 34-35.
Conservas de chiles rellenas (Conserves of stuffed chiles)
Carefully stem and de-vein [the chiles], remove the seeds, wipe and place in salted water, change on the following day, with another that has a little added salt: after half an hour, change this and return to the first water, taking care to change [the water] as may be necessary until it loses the picante [heat]. Next put on a fire and let boil, taste, and if you perceive even a bit of picante taste, add to clear water until it is removed. Clarify sugar syrup and place on a gentle fire, add the chiles so that they are conserved. When they are well conserved, fill with candied cidra, coconut, or whatever other thing, in order to cover them afterwards with their sesame seeds and orange blossom water on top.
Source: Novísimo arte de cocina (Mexico City: C. Alejandro Valdés, 1831), 194.
Jeffrey M. Pilcher is Professor of History at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, Que vivan los tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity; The Sausage Rebellion: Public Health, Private Enterprise, and Meat in Mexico City; and Food in World History. He also edited the Oxford Handbook of Food History.