Mexican food (and no, we are not talking Taco Bell here) conjures up the tantalizing aroma of bold flavors, an array of vivid colors and textures, and a warm, welcoming family atmosphere. One can’t help but think of sitting around a table with friends or family while sharing culinary delights such as tortillas, tamales, or salsa when thinking of Mexican food.

Traditional Mexican food has a long history that is full of recipes and techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation. While the traditional form of Mexican cuisine is alive and well, it has been influenced by different cultures such as those of the Spaniards and Americans (think Tex-Mex). The Spaniards introduced sugar and livestock to the Mexican territories, thereby changing dessert and meat options. Previously, desserts were more natural choices, such as native fruits. Contrary to what some may believe, meat was not a large part of the traditional diet, although some wild game (i.e. rabbits or birds) was hunted. Other protein sources that could be added were grasshoppers and caterpillars. Okay, so some readers may be thinking ugh, but both were abundant, and of course there is the old adage, don’t knock it ’til you try it! As humans have a tendency to do, we have altered or “Americanized” many cultural dishes, including Mexican, by adding different flavors and fats, portions, cooking methods, etc. In the case of Mexican food, one of the changes is that beef options are offered in more dishes, whereas with more traditional Mexican food, pork and chicken are more common.

Although traditional Mexican food varies by region and the availability of resources (crops and/or meats), there are basic staples that provide the groundwork to many meals. These items include maize, or corn, beans (black or pinto), sweet potatoes, squash, tomatoes and peppers. A variety of flavors and spices are also incorporated. Again, these vary according to region and the dish being prepared, but chile (or chili, depending on who you ask) peppers, onion, garlic, cumin, cinnamon, Mexican chocolate, limes, oregano and chipotle (which is a jalapeno that has been dried and smoked) offer a diverse selection to suit anyone’s taste. Many descriptions of Mexican food have used the words smoky and earthy, but a little zing or heat can be added with just a few drops of lime juice or a touch of chipotle.

Preparation of Mexican food can be performed in multiple ways. While there are a variety of modern utensils and cookware, don’t discount more traditional methods, as many are still in use today. One example is a comal. This is a flat griddle made out of cast iron, aluminum, and now Teflon, which can be used to cook tortillas or toast spices and vegetables. There is also the Mexican version of the mortar and pestle called a molcajete. Traditionally, it was made of volcanic rock or clay, although it is made with other materials now, too. These are used to grind, smash and mix a variety of ingredients including herbs and spices. For those not feeling traditional enough to use a rolling pin or hands, tortilla presses are handy. Wooden spoons of all shapes and sizes are used to stir stews, sauces, etc. Not only can they add charm and beauty to a kitchen, but they do not damage cookware. Another great benefit is that wooden spoons do not absorb flavors, so they are versatile in that they can be used for multiple dishes, with a wash in between, and not cross-contaminate flavors. For the ambitious chefs who want to grind their own corn to make corn tortillas from scratch, modern metal grinders can be helpful, or a bag of cooked, ground corn (called masa) can be purchased for easier and quicker prep.

Cooking options for traditional Mexican food used to include an open fire or simple hearth, however, the following methods are and can be used as well: grilling, boiling, steaming or simmering. Some methods may bring out more of the flavors or textures than another, depending on the dish being prepared, but don’t be afraid to experiment. If Mexican food has not been part of your culinary repertoire and/or there is no time to attempt cooking a meal of your own, find a local Mexican restaurant and give it a try. This approach not only lets someone else do the cooking and cleaning, but allows you to relax and expand your palate.

Fun fact: The Wall Street Journal ran an article in 2012 that listed Mexican food fun facts, and in that list was the mention of Doritos. Apparently, this famous American chip was helped into creation by Mexican workers who fried leftover tortillas, then added flavoring to them.

— Tammy Cloutier is a wildlife scientist and freelance writer for the Journal Tribune. She lives in Kennebunk.

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