The Kitchen Think: Mexican Cuisine–The Original Fusion


To many Americans, Mexican food fits an all-too-easy stereotype: tacos, tamales and chimichangas. The truth is so much richer – this food is about honest flavor and the march of world history. This is Mexican food: the original fusion.

The country’s cuisine is a mestizo mash-up of every country that ever tried to remake Mexico in its own image, and every foreigner who was ever forced to work her land. Invaders brought not only the animals, fruits and vegetables native to their homelands, but also those native to the countries they had pillaged en route to New Spain, as Mexico was called.

Slaves and other laborers arrived, bringing with them flavors from lands across the ocean, fusing those ingredients with what they found locally to create dishes that still fire up the culinary world five centuries later.

International fusion guided New Spain’s culinary development from the beginning of colonization. The Islamic influence on the cuisine arrived with the Spanish, who had adopted many of the flavors, dishes and cooking methods used during the centuries of Moorish rule on the Iberian Peninsula. But even those who arrived involuntarily in New Spain had a tremendous influence.

“The African influence is best seen along the Gulf of Mexico and the Costa Chica area,” says food writer and historian Jeffrey Pilcher, referring to the Atlantic coastal area around Veracruz and the Pacific coastal region of Guerrero and Oaxaca. “There were extensive sugar and coffee plantations, and a lot of African slaves were brought in to work these areas. The indigenous African food and culture that was carried over by them had an impact.”

Pilcher, the author of “Que Vivan Los Tamales: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity,” says rice is the most prominent example of Africa’s influence on New Spain’s cuisine.

“The rice came from Senegal and along the Niger River, where a particular form of African rice was grown. This is very different from Asian rice,” Pilcher adds. “It is true that rice was in Spain and probably was also carried to Mexico by the Spanish, but it was a different kind of rice, probably more like the Asian rice.”

Some of the ingredients that influenced the cuisine had to travel around the world and back again before becoming part of the country’s legendary cuisine. The peanut, for example, was indigenous to South America and brought to Europe and Africa by Portuguese explorers. African slaves brought the peanut back with them.

Image by alBerto Trevino

In their homeland, Africans used ground peanuts, onions and spices to create thick sauces. These African recipes, when combined with the Islamic-inspired Spanish dishes that used ground cinnamon, cloves, cumin, garlic and chiles, may have created some of the first moles.

“Another great example of the African influence are the enormous number of plátano macho dishes in the southeastern part of Mexico, particularly Veracruz,” says Rachel Laudan, a food writer and historian. “They were masters at cooking with plátanos.”

The French and Austrians kept the fusion wheel spinning when they briefly ruled the country in the 1860s. It’s widely believed that the French are the reason there are so many bakeries in Mexico, but that’s not completely accurate. The Spanish were the first to plant wheat in New Spain because it was the only grain accepted by the Roman Catholic Church for communion wafers and because, well, the Spanish loved bread. They viewed maize – corn – as something for the lower classes.

The French influence can be found in the more sophisticated, richer pastries in Mexican bakeries, like cuernos and pastel de tres leches, a direct descendant of the rum syrup-soaked French Savarin cake. French-inspired dishes didn’t stop at the bakery door, either. Chiles en nogada, bolovanes, queso fundido and, of course, crepas were all inspired by French cuisine.

Even Asia got in on the fusion fun – not once, but twice. For 250 years, the Manila-Acapulco galleons operated between the Philippines and Mexico beginning in the 1500s. The ships brought exotic cargo, such as palm trees and mangos. Tamarind may have arrived this way. The second wave of Asian influence came in the early 1900s along the Pacific coast, where descendants of the Chinese who came to work on the railroads or in the silver mines still live.

In Baja California, the town of Mexicali has been dubbed Mexico’s Chinese food capital because it claims to have more Chinese restaurants than any other Mexican city. Stir-fried dishes are made with more oil than traditional Chinese stir-fry because many Mexicans  fry their rice before cooking it. But perhaps the ultimate fusion food born in this area is the chimale: masa stuffed with barbecued pork or kung pao chicken.

Air travel and the Internet now puts everything at our fingertips. The next big thing in the culinary world can ping around the globe in seconds. But Mexico’s cuisine has been flavored over the centuries by many cultures and countries. Its dishes ultimately became mestizo Mexicano because of the subtle fusion of ingredients that the land made its own.


Other countries and cultures contributing to Mexico’s culinary fusion:

  • Ecuador and Peru: Ceviche
  • Germany: Lager beer, Rye grains, Blutwurst spawned Morcilla (blood sausage)
  • Greece: Feta cheese was the inspiration for Panela cheese
  • Italy: Mozzarella cheese gave us Oaxaca cheese; Parmesan cheese inspired Añejo cheese; Spaghetti and tomato sauce morphed into fideos
  • Mennonites: Mennonite cheese inspired Chihuahua cheese
  • United States: Fajitas became Tacos al carbón; Cream cheese and Coca-Cola.


This article originally appeared in Café Magazine.

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I’m Christina Chavez

I was a TV journalist for many years, but with a house full of kids I decided to come off the road, go to culinary school and follow my passion for cooking. Mama’s High Strung is all about food… everything from creative recipe ideas to some really cool kitchen gadgets and cooking tips. I live in Chicago, but I love to travel and write about my food discoveries! You can reach me by email: