Growing up in Texas I thought that Tex-Mex food was Mexican food. Later I was to learn that Tex-Mex food is a cuisine native to Texas that borrows heavily from Mexican peasant food. This variation on an ethnic food continues to evolve, with new dishes continuing to appear from time to time.
Mexico is a huge country, with many different eco-systems, ethnic groups and economic levels. Each of these has its own particular dishes and common types of ingredients. When most people think of Mexican food they think of enchiladas, tortillas, tacos and beans. The reality is far more varied, both in terms of types of dishes and regional cuisines.
In small towns and impoverished pockets of Mexico, beans, rice and corn continue to be the staples of the native diet. To balance these, and provide some fat to the diet, avocados are commonly used. All of these are native to Mexico, and are cheap and easy to grow in much of Mexico.
People living in areas that are near the ocean use seafood as one of their food basics. Ceviche a raw marinated seafood dish with tomatoes, cilantro, lime juice and onions is one of the most well known. However, fish and shrimp are prepared in all manner of dishes, and form a basic part of these regions’ diets.
In land-locked areas, beef and chicken form a basic part of the diet for those who are able to afford it. Frog legs and goat are also commonly seen. Vegetables and rice are typical, and tortillas tend to be a favorite everywhere.
While some of Mexico is at a high altitude, Mexico City is at an elevation of over 7000 feet, most of Mexico is located in more temperate or tropical climates. Foods common to tropical climates are commonly seen. Cilantro and chocolate are favorite seasonings.
In contrast, Tex-Mex food has a much more limited menu. The original influence for Tex-Mex food comes from the area immediately south of its border. (Similarly, Mexican food in other border states is influenced by the cuisine in their nearby area of Mexico.) Local chefs, however, have given the food their own particular twist.
Tacos, enchiladas, tamales, chalupas, tostados, nachos (mini tostadas), chile con queso, guacamole, tortillas, rice and beans have long been the fundamentals of the Tex-Mex diet. While traditional Mexican tacos were made by gently frying a tortilla, the hard pre-fab taco was the creation of a local Texas company. The ground beef filling common to this area is not the filling used in most parts of Mexico, which use a shredded beef or chicken filling.
The Tex-Mex tamale has a thin outer corn meal covering in contrast to the softer thicker corn meal covering found in most other areas. Chile con queso (cheese with chiles) is a soft fondue dish rarely found elsewhere. Tex-Mex tortillas were always corn, never flour. Dessert was a choice of pralines or ice cream.
This is the classic Tex-Mex of the 1930’s to 1970’s. One of the biggest additions since then is the fajita. This dish of grilled marinated meat, green peppers and onions rolled into a large flour tortilla was created in Texas in the early 1980’s. What is currently called nachos is another relatively new dish. In contrast to the dish of crisp tortilla chips with a mixture of cheese, meats and chiles poured over it, the earlier Tex-Mex version was a neatly made layering of beans, cheese, tomato and salsa on a miniature crisp tortilla.
Since this time, Tex-Mex food has been influenced by other regions of Mexico and other parts of the United States. If you ever go to Texas and find flautas, flan or taquitos on the menu, you are looking at the impact of other American-Mex foods on the local Texas cuisine.