Five Common Misconceptions About the Mexican Diet

tianguis.jpg
Flickr user tlacolulaerestu
The tianguis, or open-air market, that is how food shopping gets done in much of Mexico.

We spend a lot of time pontificating about Mexican food around here. We live in a place blessed by excellent Mexican food, and yet it's a place beset by people too afraid to eat it. This weird dichotomy means that a barbacoa specialist may set up shop next to a popular combination-plate Mexican-American place, and yet remain completely unknown by non-Mexicans, even in the age of Yelp.

The problem is similar to that of Chinese food; the American vision of the cuisine was set when authentic ingredients were scarce and the food cooked by people for whom it was simply a way to make money. Even today, there are very few truly excellent, innovative Mexican chefs in the United States.

Still, the following five misconceptions, if corrected in the American collective psyche, would go a long way toward opening the door to a cuisine so varied, so refined, so completely tied to its sense of place that it ought to be uttered in the same breath as Chinese and French.

5. All Mexican food is spicy.

driedchiles.jpg
Flickr user theta444

This is the most understandable stereotype of the five; Mexico has raised the art of the chile to heights found nowhere else on the continent. That doesn't mean that everything has to be fiery hot. While there are some searing dishes, particularly from the north of Mexico, chiles tend to be used for their flavors, not their heat. The rich moles of Oaxaca, while hardly sinus-clearing, are all built on various chiles, and for every dish that's got a base of chile, there are two that don't.

4. Mexicans don't eat vegetables.

calabacitasytomates.jpg
Flickr user sorais

To look at the American idea of Mexican food, one would think not a single vegetable besides onions and chiles grew in the Estados Unidos Mexicanos. The truth is that Mexico is still a developing country, and there are huge swaths of the country where meat is an occasional luxury. You're much more likely to eat squash than beef in a typical Mexican household, and there's an entire set of meatless dishes meant for Lent.

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28 comments
LT
LT

So, any specific dish or recipe suggestions for more authentic vegetable-based Mexican dishes? (Or just a suggestion for a specific regional cuisine to look into?) I love Americanized Mexican food and would like to explore the cuisine further but, as a vegetarian with a vegan boyfriend, am usually a little hesitant to try to eat at more authentic places. 

The Refried Mexican
The Refried Mexican

Another big misconception among hueritos, negritos, chinitos et al. about Mexican food is that it will either leave you gassy or with a bad case of the runs.

mitch young
mitch young

Some great implications in the post.

1) Just because we have a lot of immigrants from X doesn't mean we get good X-an food. Likewise, just because we don't have a lot of immigrants from X doesn't mean we don't get good X-an food. Look at Italian food -- there are so few immigrants from Italy that NYC's Chinatown is swallowing little Italy, likewise Chinatown is encroaching on North Beach in SF. Yet we have more Italian food overall now and much more variety as far was regional Italian. The same is true of Japanese food -- not too many Japanese immigrate today, but the ones that do are likely to be real cooks.

2) Mexicans are actually healthier in Mexico, and get less healthy the longer they are in the US. We should publicize that south of the border, maybe it will be a disincentive for emigrating. Mexico is a country with a lot of promise, but it really should hang on to its people.

3) I understand the drive for 'authenticity' but I think that some Tex-Mex or bastardized Chinese or Italian dishes are great -- and authentically American in a way that no 'authentic' taco, dim sum, or Tuscan whatever can be. Egg foo yung and poo poo platters and Cantonese restaurants with three pages of tropical cocktails  in front of the menu rule, as does cioppino and Vietnamese iced coffee and the Del Taco 'green' bean burrito.

Gabbyglez
Gabbyglez

Excellent article and all good points.  However, our Mexico lindo y querido has surpassed the U.S. in obesity rates.  Not so much because of the food but because the amount of sodas and juices that are peddled to our paisanos by big corporations like Pepsi and Coca Cola.

Mopasbruin
Mopasbruin

I agree with your findings and would like to add to number 4. My Mexican parents both grew up in the "rancho" where most residents were farmers or small merchants who grew most of their food. Here in the U.S. my mom cooked for me the meals that she grew up with--bean soup with onion and garlic, cactus leaf salad with onion, tomato and garlic (no lettuce), chicken soup, squash with tomato and onions, scrambled eggs with tomato and onions, red rice, and the occasional milanesa (breaded steak-thinly sliced). I would say the staples were beans, onions, tomatoes, garlic and, of course, tortillas (maize) that we would roll up or wrap around our food. Thanks for enlightening the public about our real everyday foods and of high cuisine (mole, chiles en nogada, etc).

VatoLoco
VatoLoco

I like your rebuttal to the unhealthy part lol you just said well look at you!!! and didn't give any actual info haha

Christian Z.
Christian Z.

I've been trying to tell people these really are misconceptions but they steel themselves against believing anything other than the stereotypes:

"No! Mexican food really is cheap! All Mexicans are poor so if you try to put anything other than a veneer of poverty on Mexican food then that just makes it totally fake! And I should know because I've been to the Alberto's in Costa Mesa! And if you think differently it's just because you're some fancy schmancy Orange County food blogger who needs all your food gussied up before you'll eat it."

"No! There can never be such a thing as upscale Mexican food! The only way you could ever call Mexican food 'upscale' is if it has been fused with some other sort of cuisine, and then it's the other part that is upscale, not the Mexican part!"

"No! It isn't 'real' Mexican food unless it's swimming in grease!! It's totally laughable to think of Mexican food as being healthy."

It also irks me (and some restaurant owners in the area) when people have the misconception that guacamole has to be spicy.

keen
keen

Mexican food is centered around beans and rice. Is this a misconception as well?

Pat Saperstein
Pat Saperstein

All excellent points, Dave! Unfortunately, the Mexican supermarkets in L.A. seem to push gallons of orange drink, doughy pastries, strawberry-flavored milk and packaged fried pork rinds pretty heavily, even with their large and inexpensive produce sections.

Jasmin
Jasmin

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Angelahirst11
Angelahirst11

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909Jeff
909Jeff

This ispossibly the best most well thought out articulate post you have ever left (Noshock factor)

Dave Lieberman
Dave Lieberman

Well, as usual I agree with part of your comment and disagree with part of it.

1. Agree a hundred percent.

2. I think the reasons for emigration are a lot more complex than whether the food is healthier, and I'm not going to get into an immigration debate on a food blog, but I will say this: if healthy food were cheaper here, or if unhealthy food were more expensive, people would eat better—and I am not espousing any particular mechanism for making that happen.

3. Agreed, but the bastardized stuff is far, far more available; it'd be nice to have a balanced choice. I will confess to sometimes wanting Combinación Número Cinco, but not very often... and Vietnamese iced coffee is absolutely authentic.

Martha A. Farebrother
Martha A. Farebrother

I totally agree here, Mexican restaurant food is not a real representation of real Mexican food, I grew up on rice, beans, cactus, caldos, but I do have to admit it is because my mother is very health consious. There is also and evil side to our cuisine tamales, enchiladas,menudo,chorizo,pan dulce at night with chocolate. Now I'm hungry...Yum!

Mopasbruin
Mopasbruin

Oops, I forgot to add the cilantro and the daily fresh salsas and Serrano chiles and the dry chiles.

Christian Z.
Christian Z.

Are you talking to me or Dave? Dave's getting paid for his entry here; I'm not getting paid for my comments so they may not be as robust as they could be. Plus, Gustavo gives me a good ribbing when my comments are too long.

Christian Z.
Christian Z.

Yes, it is another misconception. Doesn't mean you can't ever have beans and rice. It just means there's waaaaaaay more to Mexican food than the combo plate w/ beans and rice where you pick any two of the following: taco, tamale, enchilada, chile relleno or chimichanga.

Dave Lieberman
Dave Lieberman

You know what, keen? That's the best segue into an "¡Ask a Comida Critic!" question I've ever seen... I'm going to punt that to our fearless leader, Gustavo Arellano.

mitch young
mitch young

Thanks. I'll save the shock factor for responses to the Weekly's 'hard man'.

gustavoarellano
gustavoarellano

Ah, praise from one skin to another—HOW ADORABLE!!!

MD Blog
MD Blog

1.  Ugh! Chinese gentrification ...

909Jeff
909Jeff

Please do not portray yourself as subordinate to Gustavo

909Jeff
909Jeff

I didnt make it up that Lawyer that used to work in your building posted it on the story about them getting raided... You didnt dispute it so it must be real... Of course typical of you to pick a fight with me on Daves message board... Coward!

mitch young
mitch young

@6f3eadd62833660f9e73b83ff62e34c0:disqus  A real 'Cantonese Cuisine" joint wouldn't be an example of gentrification -- quite the opposite. However, a neo-tiki bar serving  ironic "Cantonese Cuisine" in a culinary version of Combustible Edison covering Martin Denny (boy does that date me)  would definitely be a sign of impending hipster infestation.@DL Yeah, Vietnamese Iced Coffee was a bad example, but instructive. Definitely authentic to us, but of course not exactly deeply rooted in Vietnamese culture. I imagine it was the French that brought coffee, and those little drip cups thingees, and I know they were the ones that brought sweetened condensed milk. Kind of calls into question what authentic is.

909Jeff
909Jeff

Thats cool didt we just find out that youre a felon?

gustavoarellano
gustavoarellano

More pendejadas from the Armenian genocide denier...

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