Tex Mex is a term that comes from the words Texan and Mexican and is a blend of Mexican, American, and Spanish cuisine. Many people, however, confuse Tex Mex with traditional Mexican food due to the former’s popularity within American popular culture.
Most well-known restaurants that claim to offer Mexican cuisine actually serve mainly Tex Mex dishes. It’s not because they want to cut corners, but mainly for two reasons. The first is that the distinctions between the two aren’t widely known, and the second is that the cheese-covered, meat-heavy creations of Tex Mex are tasty and well-loved by many.
The fusion of Tex Mex is hundreds of years old and first came about when settlers began moving into Texas and discovered a rich Mexican culture. As more and more Americans came to live in the area, Mexican food became more popular, and people began to add their own twists, such as using ground beef.
The phrase Tex Mex however, wasn’t clearly distinguished from traditional Mexican cuisine until a cookbook author Diana Kennedy explored the differences in her 1972 book titled ‘The Cuisine of Mexico.’ Kennedy’s definition was frowned upon by some chefs and eaters of Tex Mex, as they felt she was downgrading the authenticity of this cuisine. In reality, she was simply making an important distinction and finally pointing out the differences between the two.
Authentic Mexican cuisine, however, has been around for thousands of years, dating way back to the time of the Mayans, who many people believe were the traditional originators of Mexican cuisine. It’s important to understand, though, that the traditional Mexican food we had today is mixed with influences from Africa, Asia, and Europe, especially the Spanish after they invaded Mexico in the 1500s. They introduced different ingredients, such as herbs and spices, as well as livestock, including pigs, cows, and sheep.
Probably the biggest difference between Mexican and Tex Mex food is the ingredients used. One of the most noticeable and defining aspects of Tex Mex is that the recipes usually use yellow cheese. In Mexico, white cheese is used in traditional dishes, if at all. If you come across some cheddar or American cheese in your dish, it’s probably Tex Mex you’re about to devour!
Another major distinction is the spices used to flavour the dishes. Cumin is used a lot in Tex Mex, but it’s not as common in traditional Mexican foods. These more traditional recipes use oregano, chili peppers, epazote, cacao. and cilantro instead.
You’re likely to get different variations of a dish, as different regions use different cooking methods and sometimes ingredients in their preparation. All of these cuisines are still part of traditional Mexican culture, though.
The northern Mexican region is more known for its meats, while other places, such as Veracruz and Oaxaca, make better use of seafood. Every region has unique flavours within its varying dishes. Some of the most classic Mexican dishes are mole, which is a sauce made with chilis and cacao; tamales, which is dough or masa steamed in a corn husk with meat, as well as cochinita pibil, which is slow-roasted pork.
Tex Mex, however, doesn’t have many variations but is more of a blend of cultures. Many of its dishes are now best-sellers in restaurants, such as chili con carne, fajitas, and chimichangas.
There’s some crossover between the two but, even with these dishes that share similarities, there’s usually still a distinct ingredient variation. For example, traditional enchiladas are made with green or red chili and topped with crema and queso fresco. Tex Mex enchiladas are usually made with ground beef, chili con carne, and topped off with yellow cheese.
Another difference can be found in the much-loved taco. Tex Mex tacos are usually made with ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes, and yellow cheese in a hard corn shell or a flour tortilla. Mexican tacos, however, are always served in a corn tortilla and are filled with meats such as cochinita pibil or carne asada and come topped with onion, cilantro, or lime.
If you’re still unsure about whether you’re eating traditional Mexican food or a Tex Mex dish, here are seven main differentiations with ingredients:
No one denies the tastiness of Tex Mex. The variations are simply important factors in understanding the difference between the American take on Mexican cuisine and traditional Mexican cuisine.
The biggest takeaway from all this is that traditional Mexican cuisine is made with an unmatched freshness you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. This comes down to the ingredients that have been used for not only hundreds but thousands of years.
If you do want to know if the cuisine served at your favourite Mexican restaurant is really traditional Mexican or Tex Mex, all you have to do is look at the ingredients being used to make an educated guess as to which cuisine you’re about to eat.