The Islamic Contribution to Mexican Cuisine

When Mexico’s leading writer, Nobel Prize laureate Octavio Paz, arrived in New Delhi in 1962 to take up his post as ambassador to India, he quickly ran across a culinary puzzle. Although Mexico and India were on opposite sides of the globe, the brown, spicy, aromatic curries that he was offered in India sparked memories of Mexico’s national dish, mole (pronounced MO-lay). Is mole, he wondered, “an ingenious Mexican version of curry, or is curry a Hindu adaptation of a Mexican sauce?” How could this seeming coincidence of “gastronomic geography” be explained? . . .

One of Mexico's most famous dishes, mole poblano. Photo by Ignacio Urquiza with permission from SaudiAramcoWorld

One of Mexico’s most famous dishes, mole poblano. Photo by Ignacio Urquiza with permission from SaudiAramco World

Some of my readers know my articleThe Mexican Kitchen’s Islamic Connection.”  If you don’t, you might enjoy reading about how Mexican cuisine is full of dishes like those of medieval Baghdad.

Chiles and other ingredients for mole poblano

Some of the many ingredients in mole poblano. Photo Ignacio Urquiza with permission from SaudiAramco World

In another post, I will round up the links to further thoughts I have had on this issue, as well as talking about how I came to write this article in the first place.

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18 thoughts on “The Islamic Contribution to Mexican Cuisine

  1. Bill Esparza

    I think Tecpaocelotl’s essay is more poignant–chiles are far more profound as a global product, giving Thai, Indian, Hunan, Sichuan, Singapore, Vietnam, etc. their spicy profiles.

    The cooking that exists in Mexico, the traditional cooking has prehispanic orgins, mole existed before the Columbian Exchange, all these foods existed. Ingredients and cooking devices aren’t cuisine, and the many ways that dishes were flavored were not preserved along with most of the indigenous culture that was erased by the conquistadores.

    Spices are not essential to mole–chiles are the essence of mole–the chocolate based mole with imported spices is a more recent development. These spices and proteins–cooking devices–only became commercial substitutions, but the flavor has always remained.

    Alex Atala served a chunk of pineapple with a rain-forest ant that added 3 spice notes to the pineapple including something similar to cardamon. The fundamental flavor and cuisine hasn’t changed, just like deconstructivist cooking doesn’t make the food Catalan.

    There’s no Hindu adaption–none of this. All cultures pass their cuisines, flavors, and mannerisms on from generation to generation. Ingredients, techniques, and cookware aren’t cuisine.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Bill, Thanks for taking the time to write this thoughtful critique. I need hardly say that I have a different interpretation and as soon as possible I will find time to respond in more detail.

      Reply
      1. Bill Esparza

        Hello Rachel. I’d love to see you start with looking in Mexico . First off, the 4 categories of moles you list is shortsighted. Regional moles exist in most every state, and they are based on different chiles. There are fascinating moles in Guerrero, Michoacan, Colima, Durango, Hidalgo, Queretaro, and it goes on. Many have only a few ingredients–the base of mole is chiles, but you’ve focused on the baroque moles of Puebla, and Oaxaca–the least interesting of the moles(the chocolate moles).

        The point Alex Atala made was that pre-Hispanic cultures found natural flavorings and proteins in their environment and used them. The Columbian Exchange was the beginning of the modern homogenization of the world diet. The spice trade was the Wall Martization of the 16th century pantry, with a profitable market for imported spices and proteins to replace local products.

        You’re position is that spices are cuisine–period. And, this cultural bias that Mexican culture is borrowed and other cultures are original is myopic. All cuisines took in ingredients, cooking techniques, and devices from other cultures, but their cooking is their own. The Chinese merely substituted chiles for peppercorns–it doesn’t make their cuisine Mexican. There is either Mexican cuisine from tradition, or there are no cuisines anywhere.

        The interesting thing about curry, the most profound ingredient is chile. No one ever asks what level of turmeric you’d like. Indians don’t see a non-Indian walk in their restaurant and back off on the fenugreek!

        The Chinese gave us the world’s first washable plates, making our food more sanitary and delicious–maybe it’s all Chinese food?

        Mexican cuisine can trace all it’s cuisine back to pre-Hispanic times–it’s passed from generation to generation and survived intact. To suppose that ingredients were brought in from North Africa via Spain, and that these dishes are based on foreign recipes is unsubstantiated and a typical historical bias that favors the conqueror. Food came–yes—-both ways(I’m looking at you Swiss chocolate, and gazpacho) but the flavors were already there.

        Reply
  2. Mae

    I found the article fascinating. When I toured the Taos Indian Reservation, the resident who served as my guide mentioned another Islamic influence on Mexico and the Southwest: the North African origin of the adobe ovens that are now seen as characteristic of the region. Many writers about these ovens imply that they pre-dated Spanish arrival, but Wikipedia cites The British Museum Encyclopedia of Native North America as a source for the North-African origin. I wonder what other seemingly ancient mezo-American foodways have a Spanish-Islamic source.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Mae, Quite a few, I think. You might be interested in a book by Gary Nabhan, Arab/American. I don’t agree with everything he says, but he has a lot of suggestive ideas.

      Reply
      1. mae

        I’ve read a few other books by Nabhan, and especially like “Why some like it hot.” I will have to look at that one. I would be interested in what you disagree about with him. Thanks.

        Reply
        1. Rachel Laudan Post author

          Hi Mae, I thought I had written earlier about Nabhan’s great deserts and it turns out I have in this post on two great deserts. My worries about this book are that he sometimes runs together the migration from the western Mediterranean in the early colonial period and the migration from the eastern Mediterranean in the early twentieth century. Separated by time and place, their contributions were very different and need to be disentangled.

          Reply
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  4. C.M. Mayo

    Rachel, I loved this paradigm-smasher of a piece. I loved it because it so elegantly and eloquently points out something that should have been obvious but, alas, was lost in the mists of time and oft-repeated stories of sometimes doubtful provenance. It made me think; it made me see the world anew. It opened up a conversation about the Manila galleons, too. Hmmmm but the Mexicans I shared it with did a lot of huffing and puffing. Which is very interesting. You made it quite clear that Mexican cuisine incorporates indigenous ingredients. But that seemed to be a little difficult for some people to take in over the huge noise of your bomb.

    The other day I had some beef curry and by Jove the curry tasted exactly like what they serve up as mole in a certain (not so good) Chicago restaurant. But the curry was delicious. Perhaps it would have even better with a touch of chocolate.

    Reply
  5. C.M. Mayo

    Adobe brick construction– my understanding is that some indigenous peoples in the Americans used mud and mud bricks in their construction before the arrival of the Spaniards, but the Spanish adobe brick techniques, I would assume for the ovens, originally came from the Arab cultures of north Africa. Many interesting intersections through time.

    Reply
  6. Rodrigo

    Very interesting Rachel. The grounds of your article made draw a parallelism between sweets based on ice -“raspados”- in Mexico (http://bit.ly/1a3TpWz) and the Persian Yakhchal. How fascinating is that!

    Ps. You should have a Twitter account to follow your updates.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks for thoughts and advice Rodrigo. Any images of the Persian sweets. I have another explanation for the Mexican raspados. Will chat more about this.

      Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Ah, Rod, yes. Amazing structures. I had not realized that was their name. Thanks for adding them to the discussion.

      Reply

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