While some Mexican food traditions are completely ingrained in the way Americans eat today, others — often more labor intensive or specific to a certain area — haven’t gotten the spotlight they deserve. The cuisine has regional nuances and national favorites; here, explore some of the foods that contribute to the varied culinary scene, ranging from rich, dark mole to a bright mango drink and beef-and-egg breakfast plate.
Machacado, also called machaca, is a breakfast dish native to northern Mexico, consisting of carne seca (shredded dry beef) mixed with scrambled eggs. It is often made with chopped onion, tomato, and hot peppers or salsa, and usually accompanied with refried beans and flour tortillas. The dish is believed to have originated in the town of Cienega de Flores, in the state of Nuevo Leon, just north of Monterrey, where the arid climate allowed the beef to be air-dried and cured. Today, many prefer to dry the beef in a dehydration machine, because it’s faster and considered safer. The meat is usually skirt steak called arrachera, but other cuts of beef are also used. The finished product can be pricey because 30 pounds of arrachera may yield only about 12 pounds of carne seca once the dehydration process is complete.
Legend says that in 1928 a woman named Fidencia Quiroga, known in town as “Tía Lencha,” created the dish for laborers who were working on a highway connecting Monterrey with Nuevo Laredo in northern Mexico. Whether or not she was the inventor, Tia Lencha’s name became synonymous with machacado’s popularity, inspiring a major carne seca manufacturer to use her name for their brand, Productos Alimenticios Tia Lencha SA. Although Chicago has a considerable number of immigrants from the state of Nuevo Leon, machacado is not easy to find in the city because the carne seca has to be either imported from Mexico, or dehydrated in house.
Born in the state of Jalisco, carne en su jugo translates to “meat in its own juices” but is best described as steak soup. Although there are variations, a classic carne en su jugo has chopped steak meat (such as skirt or flank) in a broth with pinto beans, tomatillos, cilantro, onions, serrano peppers, bacon, and avocado. Radishes and lime are normally provided as extra garnish.
The origins of this flavorful dish are contested: Some claim a man named Juan Jose Galves Ceballos invented carne en su jugo in 1965 to reduce drunkenness, or as a cure for a hangover. But one legend has it that a woman at a church festival threw a bunch of ingredients in a pot with broth to feed churchgoers. Still another claims a restaurant named De La Torre invented the dish in 1958. Whatever its origin, it has become a favorite staple of Tapatios — people from Guadalajara — and has increased in popularity over the past few decades in Mexico, and in American cities like Chicago with large numbers of residents from Jalisco.
The mangonada, aka chamango, is a spiced frozen drink. It is believed to be a variation on a mango paleta — a Mexican ice pop — originating in Tijuana; fruit purees and sorbets probably emerged as a way for market vendors to use fruits that didn’t sell. The mango paleta is frozen and enhanced with other flavors, including lime, chamoy (a sweet-sour-salty chile-spiked syrup made from pickled fruit), and Tajin (a popular sweet Mexican chile powder).
Transformed into a drinkable treat, the mangonada starts with mango sorbet, over which is poured blended mango or mango puree, all topped off with chopped mango and the same flavoring ingredients: powdered chile, lime, and chamoy. The drink is spicy, cold, salty, and refreshingly fruity; it’s often served in a clear, domed plastic cup to show off the bright colors — yellow mango contrasted with the red sauce — and comes with a straw covered in tamarind candy paste. The mangonada has gained immense popularity and can now be found in neverias (ice cream shops) across the U.S. Variations are sometimes made with other types of fruits and sorbets.
One of the most iconic foods in Mexico is the tamale, which dates back to Mesoamerica. Tamale, meaning “wrapped” comes from the word tamalli in the Aztec language Nahuatl; warriors could take tamales into battle or on trips because they could survive long journeys. And although many Latin American countries have their own versions, Mexico has the most iterations — estimates vary widely between 500 and 5000 — and the country consumes hundreds of millions of tamales a year.
For generations, families have gathered around the table to make tamales at Christmas time, Day of the Dead, the New Year, and other special events. The most common tamale is made with steamed corn dough, called masa, stuffed with pork in red sauce or chicken in green sauce, and wrapped in corn husks. The long, involved process for making tamales is treated as a family ritual.
Tamale ingredients can shift depending on the region in which they are made. For example, in more tropical climates, like Oaxaca, tamales are larger and wrapped in banana leaves, a part of the local flora. Other fillings from various regions include cheese, strips of chile peppers, beans, iguana meat, turkey, and, in coastal regions, shrimp.
Today, families in Mexico and the U.S. keep the tradition alive by making them at home and at festive gatherings; in Chicago, people wait in long lines to purchase tamale ingrediets around Christmas.
Perhaps no dish better captures the conflicted past of Mexico than mole, which comes from the Nahuatl word mōlli, meaning sauce. Mole has a complex blend of flavors, thanks to its extensive ingredients — which can include chile peppers, nuts and/or seeds, chocolate, fruits including tamarind, spices, bread, and herbs — and long cooking process. Though recipes vary, they often call for roasting the ingredients, grinding them into a paste or powder and frying them, and then simmering them with a broth. The longer you roast the chile peppers, the darker and more bitter the mole becomes; it’s then typically balanced with dry fruit and chocolate. Some say it was first served over wild turkey, but today it is usually served over chicken, accompanied by rice, or as a sauce for tamales and enchiladas.
Because of the seemingly endless combination of ingredients, mole can come in a variety of colors, which can sometimes indicate the state in Mexico the mole is from: Every region has its own take on the sauce. The most popular variations are from Puebla and Oaxaca, which represent the blending of the indigenous, European, and African roots of early Mexico. While legends about the creation of mole poblano involve nuns or monks preparing the meal for an important event or religious leader, early versions of mole undoubtedly existed in Mexico’s pre-Columbian era and are said to have been prepared for big celebrations and tribal leaders as well. These contrasting stories speak to Mexico’s long history of tradition and conquest.
It’s possible to find a wide variety of moles around Chicago. In Oak Park, the restaurant New Rebozo boasts 21 kinds of mole. The biggest Mexican communities in Chicago, like Pilsen and Little Village, celebrate mole with neighborhood festivals including Mole de Mayo and Festival del Mole.
In Chicago, most Mexican restaurants serve menudo only on weekends, and frequently run out by the afternoon. The most common version of the spicy soup is made with a red chile pepper base and beef tripe, but there are variations and regional differences: in the north, hominy and pigs’ feet may be added, while other versions see jalapeños instead of red chiles or sheep stomach instead of beef.
The soup is enhanced by garnishes like crushed red pepper, lime, chopped onion, cilantro, crushed oregano, and sometimes cabbage, and is commonly recommended as a hangover cure. Like many of Mexico’s popular dishes, menudo is labor intensive and calls on the contribution of several family members, who must thoroughly clean and tenderize the tripe. It is a special occasion dish reserved for Saturdays and Sundays or for important family events, such as weddings and holidays.
Legend has it that menudo was created during the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century. According to the story, menudo was created to serve the troops of the Revolution because food was scarce and tripe was relatively inexpensive. Others claim it dates back further, to when peasants were given the discarded parts of the cow, while the Spanish nobles enjoyed the finer cuts of meats. Menudo became popular in the Southwest region of the United States as early as the mid-20th century, and is now widely sold in Mexican restaurants and grocery stores throughout the U.S.