We had just come back from a summer in India, and all that my eight year old wanted to eat after months of Indian food was a burrito filled with rice, beans, and cheese. He ate burritos for lunch and burritos for dinner. A month after we were back, I thought his obsession would be over, and he would get back to his staple rasam and rice. I was so wrong. I had lost my son to a burrito.


Mexican cuisine is diverse, varied, and colorful. It has evolved and been enriched over the years by influences from around the world. Mexico is the third largest country in Latin America and has the largest Spanish speaking population in the world. The culinary history of Mexico dates back 5,000 years to a time when the Mesoamericans (Olmecs, Mayans, Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Toltecs, and Aztecs) cultivated corn for consumption.

During this pre-Hispanic era, foods like beans, chilies, tomatoes, avocados, potatoes, jicama, cayote squash, guavas, pineapples, and sapotes were grown. Livestock like turkeys and boar were the only source of meat along with fish and seafood in the coastal regions.

The indigenous people created a system of using land for growing crops, storing food, and distributing the surplus to the people. They also knew the importance of beans in their diet as they provided the nutrients lacking in corn. This made the Mexican diet rich in whole proteins. Beans were also planted in the same soil in which corn was grown so that the soil was enriched with nitrogen.

The greatest discovery in culinary history was that of the cocoa tree in the forests of the Americas. The Mayans and the Aztecs made a frothy, spicy drink by crushing the seeds of the cocoa plant. Chocolate was considered to be an aphrodisiac by the Aztecs.

Montezuma II, an Aztec emperor known to have been a food connoisseur, drank chocolate with vanilla and honey everyday and called it “The Divine Drink” which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink, he said, would permit a man to walk for a whole day without food.

The Spaniards colonized Mexico in the late 1400s and introduced into the local diet different sources of meat, such as pig and game, along with rice, lard, and oils. They also introduced cheese and frying techniques into Mexican cooking.

The legend goes that Mole Sauce was created by a Oaxaca nun who cooked an incredible feast for the Archbishop. She made a sauce with chilies and onions, but in order to reduce the spiciness she added cinnamon, chocolate, and peanuts to the sauce. Spanish nuns also introduced the art of baking.

The Spanish weren’t the only influence, however. The French ruled Mexico for a brief period and introduced cream sauces; one dish in particular is stuffed chilies with walnut sauce. German explorers brought cheeses. Later, spices and black pepper would find their way to Mexico from India and the cuisine adopted sweet and sour tastes from Asia.

Therefore Mexican cuisine is a “mezcla” (mixture) of old and new, ancient methods of cooking and evolving methods of adaptation, thus making it a favorite all around the world.

Roasted Tomato Salsa

This recipe is quick and easy, and the ingredients can be grilled or roasted in the oven. Do not remove the charred parts of the tomato, as they add a smoky taste to the dip.

5 roma tomatoes, halved
3 shallots, halved
9 garlic cloves, whole
2-3 serrano chilies cut lengthwise (increase the chilies to make extra spicy)
1 tablespoon olive oil
¼ cup cilantro, chopped fine
salt, to taste

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place all the ingredients in a bowl and mix in the olive oil. Layer a baking sheet with aluminum foil and grease it with olive oil. Place all the ingredients on the greased sheet and roast it in the oven for 15-20 minutes until the shallots, garlic, and chilies are charred. Remove and grind in a blender until it forms a chunky consistency. Add salt to taste and garnish with chopped cilantro. The salsa makes a great dip with chips, and works well in burritos and nachos.

Spicy Chipotle Quesadillas

This is my favorite appetizer to make for entertaining. Assemble the quesadillas early on a tray and cover it with saran wrap. As guests arrive, grill or toast the quesadillas on a pan and serve immediately with a dollop of mango salsa. I use queso fresco or asadero cheese; the American equivalent is mozzarella. Queso anejo (the American equivalent is parmesan) is an aged cheese and can also be sprinkled on enchiladas. Chipotle peppers are smoked jalapenos that are fiery hot. Use sparingly.

8 flour tortillas (6 inches in diameter at least)
1 seven ounce can of chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, chopped fine
1 small red onion, sliced into strips
1 cup shredded mozzarella and cheddar cheese mix
olive oil for brushing
mango salsa

Place a tortilla on a flat board and brush the bottom half with a little chipotle pepper in sauce. Spread sparingly. Add a few red onions, then sprinkle generously with the shredded cheese. Fold the tortilla and place it on a tray. Repeat this for all the tortillas.

Just before serving, heat a flat pan, and brush it with olive oil. Place the folded quesadillas onto the pan and cook on each side for two minutes, or until the cheese melts. Cut it into wedges and serve with a dollop of mango salsa and sour cream.

Spanish Rice with Annatto Powder

Achiote seeds are red in color. You can get this in a powdered form called annatto powder, which is commonly used for flavoring and coloring foods. You can make a variation of this rice with 1 tablespoon of tomato paste and a cup of frozen peas and carrots.

1 cup long grain rice
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 small red onion, chopped fine
1 teaspoon of achiote powder(a.k.a. annatto powder)
2 cups vegetable stock
2 tablespoons pickled jalapeno peppers, sliced
1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
salt, to taste

Soak the rice in warm water for 15 minutes. Heat oil in a sauce pan, add the garlic, onions, and annatto powder, and sauté for 2-3 minutes. Stir the rice into this and sauté for another few minutes. Add the vegetable stock and bring it to a boil. Season with salt and simmer with a closed lid for another 15 minutes until the rice is well cooked and the liquid is absorbed. Garnish with jalapenos and cilantro and serve. This can also be used in a burrito along with beans and salsa.

Praba Iyer teaches custom cooking classes around the Bay Area. She was Associate Chef at Green’s Restaurant, San Francisco. She also blogs about cooking at www.rocketbites.com