Or, How Mexican Food Is Not The Same As Spanish Food

Chiles grow natively in Mexico.  Hence, millennia ago, the native people of Mexico discovered they were edible, and based their cuisine on them.

500 years ago, conquistadores from Spain arrived in Mexico, did a lot of damage, and forever changed the way of life there.  They discovered chocolate and vanilla, and they discovered that they were good.  They must not have thought the same of chilies.  They transported the chocolate and vanilla back to Spain, introducing them to the European elite, but the chilies…those stayed in Mexico.

Last year, living in the Mexican neighborhood of Pilsen in Chicago, I felt stranded in a sea of Mexican restaurants.  Logically, along with Mexican immigrants have come Mexican restaurants.  Along with Mexican immigrants and restaurants, Americans have come to know Mexican culture better.  And along with that came the wrong analogy that:

Mexicans = Spanish

Spaniards = Spanish

Mexican food = spicy

Spanish food = spicy

The reality is that though Mexicans speak Spanish, Mexico ≠ Spain.  Spanish food and Mexican food have virtually almost nothing in common.  Many people have expressed this idea to me, that since Mexican food is spicy, Spanish food must also be.  Mexico and Spain share the same language (though with vast regional differences), but they do not share the same cuisine.

In fact, Mexicans in Spain have said to me that the most difficult thing in Castilian Spanish (the Spanish spoken in Spain) is the food vocabulary.  A few examples will suffice:

tortilla (Spain): omelet

tortilla (Mexico): wrap made of flour or corn

melocotón (Sp): peach

durazno (Mx): peach

judías (Sp): beans

frijoles (Mx): beans

bocadillo (Sp): sandwich

torta (Mx): sandwich (and “torta” means “slap” in Spain)

Spanish and Mexicans eat different dishes and thus have different words for them.  Enchiladas, burritos, tacos: typical dishes in Mexico that don’t exist in Spain (outside of the occasional Mexican restaurant).  Spain and Mexico are on different continents, have different climates, and had no contact with each other until 500 years ago.  This isn’t to say that after Spain colonized Mexico, they didn’t mutually influence each other.  The Spanish gleefully took chocolate and vanilla back to Europe.  Mexicans adapted churros and added cinnamon to them.

Why am I writing an entire blog on food during my year in Spain?  Because food is culture.  Eating is that one thing that all people must do on a daily basis (and, generally, several times a day) for sustenance, for life, for enjoyment.  Different cuisines cropped up based on the native crops available to a people.  In Spain, that meant foods like oranges, almonds, and olives.  In short, the Spanish diet is Mediterranean.

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