Mexican Cuisine in the UK
The gastronomic traditions of a country can tell quite a lot about the culture and history of a nation. Mexican cuisine is not different in this respect, and understanding its origins can help us appreciate better the cultural aspects involved.
The origins of Mexican cuisine can be traced back to 7,000 B.C., when elementary forms of agriculture began in North America. From this moment on, corn became the major staple food in the region. To this day, Mexican cuisine makes use of root vegetables like sweet potatoes and squash, as well as of beans and locally grown fruits and vegetables (mainly avocados, tomatoes, and mangoes).
It is interesting to note that in the early days, Mexican food was notorious for its absence of meat. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the indigenous peoples of Mexico consumed insects as their main source of protein, a tradition that has been preserved to this day.
The nopal cactus has also been an important source of ingredients for Mexican cuisine during thousands of years. Virtually every part of this plant is used in local cuisine: the flowers are eaten as fresh fruit (called tunas), while the actual leaves (nopales) are boiled or grilled and used as a filling for tacos or as a meal on their own, when they are deep-fried in batter and topped with melted cheese, or stuffed with ham and vegetables. It is possible to find tinned nopales at some Mexican grocery stores in London.
One cannot forget that 300 years of Spanish rule left their imprint on Mexican cuisine. The country also became a major port of call for ships that plied the trade routes between Europe and Asia, so after the 16th century Mexican food began to incorporate elements from other cuisines. This is most evident in the use of rice (previously unknown in the area) and spices like oregano, black pepper, cinnamon, and cilantro, all of which feature strongly in modern Mexican cuisine.
This guide to Mexican cuisine in the UK is proudly supported by Driving Schools – Showing you the road to driving.
Beyond tacos and nachos
Without a doubt, the most popular examples of Mexican cuisine are tacos, nachos, and fajitas. However, it would be unfair to limit our experience of Mexican gastronomy to what is in fact "tex-mex" food. In fact, many people who have been introduced to Mexican food in the UK and later travel to Mexico are surprised to find out that dishes like nachos or chile con carne are nowhere to be seen in local Mexican restaurants. So what does real Mexican cuisine consist of, and can it be found in the UK?
The origins of Mexican cuisine are still very evident in modern Mexican dishes. The majority of Mexican food contains or is accompanied by corn tortillas and beans, whether whole or mashed, as in the case of frijoles refritos (refried beans) and enchiladas (corn tortillas with a filling of meat or beans and topped with sour cream, shredded lettuce, and grated cheese).
Tacos are ubiquitous in Mexican restaurants throughout the UK, however, they are considered fast-food by Mexicans. Other quick meals that can be found at Mexican restaurants in the UK include botanas, such as tostadas (deep-fried corn tortillas topped with fresh shredded meat,seafood, and/or vegetables), quesadillas, prawn skewers, and ceviche (a raw fish dish).
The top Mexican restaurants in the UK also serve traditional main courses like pozole (a hearty corn and meat stew), frijoles charros (a bean stew with pork and spices), tinga de pollo (a shredded chicken and chipotle chili stew), tamales (similar to dumplings but wrapped in corn husks), and mole (a flavourful sauce served over meat that contains up to 30 different ingredients).
Where to sample the most authentic dishes
London's Soho has a number of restaurants that serve authentic Mexican fare, including delicacies like huitlacoche (a rare corn fungus). Restaurants like Bodega Negra, El Camion, Mestizo, and Cantina Laredo get consistently good reviews. Mexican restaurants can also be found in Bristol, Manchester, Cardiff, Leeds, and the major English and Scottish cities.
There are also a number of specialist food stores in London that carry both processed Mexican food and the ingredients needed to prepare some traditional recipes. Those interested in experimenting at home can look up Casa Mexico, located in Bethnal Green, and The Cool Chile Company, which can be found inside the Taqueria Mexican restaurant in Westbourne Grove. The Lupe Pintos deli shop serves Mexican food enthusiasts in Scotland, with its two locations in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Lastly, there are several cultural events held throughout the year where Mexican cuisine can be sampled. This is the case of the National Independence Day, which is held on the 15th September. The Latinos in London Association organises a celebration in London to commemorate this date. During the first week of November, students groups at the major British universities organise a celebration of Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead), where traditional Mexican drinks and desserts are on offer.
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