If you think of Mexican, there are probably several specific foods that spring to mind. You might never have set foot in Central America, but thanks to chains like Chipotle and Taco Bell and the growing popularity of Tex Mex, you might think you have a pretty good grasp of Latin cooking. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that most of us have got it all wrong.
Despite all our preconceptions about burritos, queso and tortillas, a true taste of Mexico is often totally different to what we get in our favourite fast food restaurants. This doesn’t make a taco from Chili’s any less delicious - just miles removed from anything you could get in Mexico City. To remind us all what we’re missing, here are seven things that we all get wrong about Mexican food.
1. Tortillas aren’t all floury
There’s nothing more comforting than a soft, white tortilla blanket wrapped around something delicious. But, despite the fact that many modern tortillas are made with readily available bread flour, most traditional Mexican recipes call for corn as the main ingredient - since this crop is typically much more readily available than wheat.
2. Tacos aren’t all crunchy
Anyone who is familiar with enticing Taco Bell advertising will have seen rigid, crispy shells packed with everything from mince to lettuce. In Mexico, however, a hard-shelled taco is a much more unorthodox menu item, with most recipes revolving around the traditional soft corn tortilla. In fact, crunchy tacos were not a fixture until Glen Bell introduced them to his eponymous chain.
3. Quesadillas are made differently
The classic, comforting quesadilla is usually as simple as it is cheesy - two soft tortillas, pressed flat and stuffed with cheddar, sour cream and Monterey jack. In traditional Mexican cooking, however, things can get a little more complicated. These types of cheese are rarely if ever available to the majority of Mexican families, meaning that most quesadillas actually come with dollops of fresh oaxaca cheese.
4. Nachos were made for America
They might be one of the world’s favourite sharers, but if you fancied chowing down on cheese-covered chips during a baseball game pre-1943 you’d have been out of luck. Invented by chef Ignacio Aya at the height of World War Two, the dish was actually created to cater for the wives of Texan officers who ventured over the border for a bite to eat.
5. Not everything is super spicy
While heat is undoubtedly a big part of Mexican cooking, it isn’t necessarily the be all and end all. The 60 or so different types of chilli that you can find across the country can be anything from smokey to sweet to ferociously spicy, depending on where they were grown and what species they are. While we might think “proper” Mexican is searingly hot, this isn’t always the case.
6. Queso is completely different
It might be the gooey, orange accompaniment that everyone looks forward to at the start of any Mexican meal, but traditional queso is a different kettle of fish. Typically made with oaxaca, chihuahua or manchego cheeses, smoked sausage and chillies, proper queso is far removed from a pot of melted Velveeta - and much the better for it.
7. Fajitas are fake
Though they look and smell absolutely amazing, a sizzling iron skillet of chicken and peppers has no basis in Mexico whatsoever. Like so much of what we’ve come to associate with Mexican cooking, fajitas were in fact invented in Texas. So much for authenticity.
If you don’t have personal experience to draw from, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that what we think is traditional is actually the real do. As Mexican food proves, you should never assume that you’ve tasted the truth. You never know what you might be accidentally missing.