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Recently, a seemingly innocent question about Southwestern cuisine has made me think more closely about the differences between Southwestern and Mexican food. I am sure there are many chefs and foodies who have different opinions. This is only my opinion based on my experience, studies and travels. Besides, I am Mexican.
Mexican food is regional. For instance, in the Yucatán, a major part of the food is still made in the ancient Mayan tradition. The ingredients used are indigenous to that region. The annatto seed is from a tropical plant that grows wild throughout the Mayan Riviera. In the state of Puebla, the food has a strong Moorish and Spanish influence. The style of cooking is similar to that of the Middle East. Around Mexico City you will find items such as the edible herb called huazontle and a fungus that grows on corn during the rainy season called huitlacoche both eaten in Mexico since pre-Columbian days (also used by Native Americans and known as corn smut).
The northern region, El Norte, is vaquero country, home to the Mexican cowboy and the influence for the infamous Southwestern cuisine we know here in the States. Foods here were developed around the premise of the campsite fire. This type of cooking inspired the style of food in northern Mexico today. In addition to the vaquero, the Basque sheepherders, settlers from the southern part of Mexico and cowboys from north of the border all had an influence on the food. The Basque introduced the use of garlic and olive oil along with their cooking techniques. Settlers from the south brought the extensive use of corn, thus the corn tortilla. Cowboys and vaqueros introduced their method of broiling beef until tender, hence the barbacoa and birria. Bread came from France, milanesa from Italy and garlic sauce from Spain. The flour tortilla is found closer to the northern border in our neighboring Mexican state Sonora.
So a burrito with red enchilada sauce topped with melted yellow cheese is Southwestern food indigenous to Arizona and New Mexico. The fajita is indigenous to Texas or Tex-Mex cuisine. Chips and salsa are not common in Mexico, unless you are vacationing in a resort that caters to the "American palate."
If a chef decides to get creative with his or her fusion style of cuisine and adds roasted poblano peppers to the mashed potatoes, it is called Southwestern. However, they eat mashed potatoes in Mexico as well and call it Nueva Cocina Mexicana or Cocina Alta Mexicana.
Remember, not everyone in Mexico wears big hats and huaraches.
Silvana Salcido Esparza is a local chef and restaurant owner.